Summer of Sam

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Disney, widescreen 1.85:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: none, single side-dual layer, 22 chapters, theatrical trailer, rated R, 142 min., $29.99, street date 12/21/99.

Studio Line

Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Saverio Guerra.

New York City's infamous summer of 1977 was the scene of disco divas and the culture clash between fashionable patrons of Studio 54 and the new wave of punk rockers who invaded Manhattan, It was also one of the hottest summers on record and produced the city's first serial killer, whom the tabloids, in a frenzy to boost their respective circulations, quickly dubbed, "Son of Sam." With the media playing an integral role in creating mass fear and paranoia, the whole city became a hotbed of trepidation and panic, captivating not only New York, but the entire world.

In director/writer Spike Lee's drama, Summer of Sam, this vicious murderer stalks his way through the Italian-American section of The Bronx, preying on innocent young women. As the temperatures and body count rise, the city becomes immersed in terror. In the desperate search for the 44-caliber killer, a Mafia boss offers a bounty for the Son of Sam. Motivated by greed and ignorance, Joey T., a 32-year-old thug and his gang of flunkies, become obsessed with the idea that Son of Sam is someone from 'the neighborhood.' Armed with twisted logic, the gang makes a list of everyone they think is a freak-o. The witch hunt is on, with Ritchie, an aspiring punk rocker becoming the focus of their suspicion and an easy scapegoat for their fears.

Picture/Sound/Extras (A-/A-/D-)

Remember back when Spike Lee was seen as one of the freshest and most important filmmakers in the business? Man, does that seem like a long time ago. Has it really only been a decade since Do the Right Thing stirred so many emotions? I don't think Lee's made a film that's had any sort of impact since 1992's Malcolm X, though Clockers was actually pretty good. He's kind of fallen off the face of the Earth as a filmmaker; maybe all those Oscar nominations he deserved but never got finally wore him down.

Lee's most recent movie, Summer of Sam, is something new for him: it's the first film he's ever made that focusses almost exclusively on white folks. That fact is no big deal - after all, it's worked the other way around for many years - but I thought it was an interesting footnote. Since he's on new ground, Lee appeared to seek inspiration from elsewhere. As such, SOS looks less like "a Spike Lee joint" than it does warmed-over Scorsese as filtered through Boogie Nights.

Speaking of the latter, I gotta give Lee some credit for having the guts to use both the song Boogie Nights from Heatwave, and the Emotions' "Best of My Love", which is the first disco song to appear in the film Boogie Nights. The subject matter would open SOS to enough comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson's hit movie, but the inclusion of these songs made it into almost a dare.

Or maybe it was just a lack of creative inspiration; Lee may have used those songs because he couldn't muster the energy to find anything else that would seem compatible. SOS feels like Lee on cruise control; many of the elements of his previous films are there - the wide variety of shooting techniques, some heavy-handed imagery like the occasional shots of the "Dead End" sign, and the graphic language and violence - but this package appears to be a pretty rote exploration of the subject; there's little spark behind the imagery.

Not that it's a bad film, though. I saw SOS during its theatrical run and found it to be an unfocussed and awkward film but it was nonetheless fairly entertaining and compelling. I suppose one of its biggest faults is the barely tangential way in which its titular subject - "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz - is connected to our main characters. Ostensibly, we see the negative effect his threatening presence has on our protagonists - and by extension, all of New York City - during the summer of 1977. However, for the most part, the connection seems virtually nil.

Actually, I suppose "nil" is a little extreme, but I think the link is pretty tenuous. Let's put it this way: there's little in the movie that happens to our main characters that could not have still occurred if the film took place at another time. The events that transpire have little to do with the actions of Berkowitz and could easily have been slightly altered to match another setting or period.

The Son of Sam subtext adds a lot of spice to the movie, admittedly, though not always the desired effect. Too much of it comes across as unintentionally (?) comic, from Michael Badalucco's over-the-top portrayal to the ridiculously ominous score from Terence Blanchard. Berkowitz would make a fascinating film subject, but that doesn't come across terribly well here. Still, his scenes at least made the movie more interesting; it otherwise might have seemed much too similar to a soap opera.

As bitchy as I sound here, I do want to emphasize that I still liked Summer of Sam to a decent degree. Even on an off-day, Lee remains an interesting filmmakers, and though his work here seems pretty derivative, he nonetheless makes SOS a moderately compelling and exciting piece of work. It's largely undistinguished and it's definitely too long, but it's usually watchable and semi-provocative.

Summer of Sam appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While that choice is unfortunate (though typical for DVDs from Disney and their subsidiaries), at least Touchstone give the film a generally strong visual presentation.

The picture of SOS looks crisp and sharp throughout the movie and I noticed no visual artifacts such as moire effects or jagged edges. The print used for the transfer shows some occasional speckles but otherwise seems clean and lacks any defects such as scratches or hairs. Colors look very bright and bold, with no signs of bleeding or oversaturation. Black levels are usually fine, though they can be slightly pale at times; shadow detail seems similarly good except for a few overly opaque scenes. Overall, SOS presents a very strong visual image on DVD.

The film offers a very good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The front soundstage seems very strong, with good differentiation between the channels and active use of all three speakers. The rear channels also seem well-utilized, though mainly music emanates from them; effects show up mostly during the bizarre shots of Berkowitz at home, and present some excellent split surround usage. Music dominates this mix and pops from the speakers nicely.

The audio quality seems generally very good. Dialogue seems a little flat at times, but usually appears clear and natural; it always was easily intelligible. Effects seem realistic and crisp, and the music appears very clean and smooth; the soundtrack did an especially good job with the score and the many then-contemporary songs, as they display excellent dynamic range and are well-defined. SOS isn't what you'd consider to be a demo DVD, but it's a very good soundtrack nonetheless.

As is the case with so many other Disney DVDs, the biggest failing of SOS comes from its supplements, or lack thereof. We get the movie's fairly-effective trailer, and that's it.

Summer of Sam defines the phrase "rental title." It's a moderately interesting and compelling film, and the DVD presents it with very good picture and sound, though it greatly skimps on extras. It's just not a DVD I can envision many people wanting to own. I think it deserves a rental and that's about it.

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