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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Blu-ray Review
The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 2: Summer of Sam/Miracle at St. Anna  (1999/2008)
Reviewed by Dustin Putman

The Film
 Summer of Sam
4 Stars
(Release Date: June 10, 2014) – Arguably remaining the most accomplished work of a filmmaker whose clear voice has often been undercut by a tendency to highlight, underline and bold the messages he is trying to impart, Spike Lee's 1999 period opus "Summer of Sam" marked a major turning point in the auteur's career. Moving away from stories specific to the African-American experience, Lee's historically potent portrait of New York ne'er-do-wells struggling to survive bracingly evoked a particular time and place—and not just because it is set against the backdrop of serial killer David Berkowitz's reign of terror during the sweltering summer months of 1977.

During the hottest season on record in Manhattan, the .44-caliber killer—later nicknamed the "Son of Sam" from a letter Berkowitz sent to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin—went on a rampage, murdering primarily women with shoulder-length brown hair. The movie may be named after the Son of Sam, but he, as well as his grisly acts, pose as supporting characters. Instead, the film is, as the title suggests, about the fateful summer itself, NYC ablaze in hysteria as residents not only must contend with a killer on the loose, but also a ceaseless heat wave, a city-wide blackout, and mass looting. Amidst all of this are the central characters, Bronx locals Vinny (John Leguizamo), an unfaithful hairdresser, and his sweet wife, waitress Dionna (Mira Sorvino). When the killer strikes within moments of him leaving an area where he was having a quickie with Dionna's cousin, Vinny believes that he is next on the psychopath's hit list, taking it as a sign to change his philandering ways and become a better husband. Indeed, this vow proves more difficult than he anticipates. Meanwhile, Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), has recently returned to his old neighborhood with dreams of hitting it big with his amateur punk band Late Term Abortion. In a town where everything costs money, the struggling Ritchie finds himself sacrificing his dignity and selling his body at seedy XXX theaters, putting himself and his new relationship with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) in potential harm's way. When two police investigators approach mob boss Luigi (Ben Gazzara) about helping them search for the mysterious Son of Sam, he passes up the offer, opting instead to rally a group of his own friends to narrow down a list of suspects.

"Summer of Sam," like some of the very best films (Robert Altman's incomparable 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville," comes quickly to mind), is a wildly ambitious motion picture overflowing with characters and interwoven plot threads, all of them participants in a microcosmic scheme to vividly and accurately portray a certain moment in our not-so-distant history. Aided by Spike Lee's fresh, assured direction, the picture is super-charged and electric, moving at a dizzying pace as the film drops the viewer right in the middle of the horrifying chaos. The alternate desperation and fear that the protagonists are feeling, not only due to the Son of Sam but also from their own troublesome relationships, is consistently palpable, succeeding as seldom period pieces do.

While most movies set somewhere in the past usually remind of a bunch of actors playing dress-up within manufactured settings, "Summer of Sam" feels as if Lee has literally gone back in time and shot the film in 1977. To acquire this, a great deal of work and research has gone into its subjective and technical design, from the set decoration, art direction and costume design, to the incorporation of several different film stocks to give the picture a gritty, "in-the-moment" aesthetic contrast. The cinematography by Ellen Kuras is strikingly distinct and moody, while the edgily astounding music score by Terence Blanchard permeates with an air of dreaminess and fantasy amidst a real-life nightmare. Complementing the score are the perfectly chosen '70s songs, one of the strongest soundtrack compilations in memory. The uses of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are enough to send a chill of cinematic ecstasy down one's spine, while Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," ABBA's "Fernando" and "Dancing Queen," Heatwave's "Boogie Nights," Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," and Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" play an invaluable part in the creation of textural and emotional atmosphere in the narrative.

For an actor who had, until 1999, been best-known for more comedic roles, John Leguizamo is something of a revelation. His character of Vinny has his virtues—he is caring if reckless, a symbol of normalcy around his off-beat, foul-mouthed friends who hang out at a "Dead End" street corner—but more often than not is destined to screw up everything right in his life. When Dionna finds out he has been having affairs behind her back, Vinny foolishly believes that she will forgive him for what he's put her through. This betrayal, though, may be more than their relationship can bear. Mira Sorvino (at the time coming off of an Oscar win for 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite" and the success of 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion") is stunning as Dionna, a strong, loyal young woman who experiences shame and regret over a marriage she might not be able to salvage. Because she is so firm in her beliefs yet wants to save her relationship, she finds herself violating her own morals in heartbreaking scenes that send her and Vinny on an out-of-control downward spiral. Through it all, Sorvino does not strike one false note, remaining deeply sympathetic even as she must make her own mistakes, and learn from them.

Adrien Brody is exceptional as the misunderstood Ritchie, possibly the most virtuous character in view even as he becomes the one most suspiciously looked-upon due to his quick-changing alternative lifestyle, while all other performances are also top-notch, from Ben Gazarra, as Luigi, to Jennifer Esposito, who brings a fetching naturalism to her relatively underwritten role as Ruby, to Patti LuPone, as Ritchie's loving but constantly overruled mother. Also of note, Spike Lee briefly appears as an inadequate news reporter who pops up every now and again to deliver a commentary on the goings-on in the Big Apple, adding a much-needed light dose of humor to the dark material.

Controversy surrounded the making of "Summer of Sam" when Spike Lee chose to film the picture in the exact NYC neighborhoods where David Berkowitz once prowled the streets. The awareness of this fact gives the film an added eerie quality, but the director avoids cheap exploitation, neither centering nor dwelling on the gruesome slayings. Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is intermittently glimpsed as a severely unstable man stricken with schizophrenia and extreme hallucinatory bouts (in one scene, a black Labrador Retriever tells him to kill). When he sets out to take the lives of his victims, the murders are graphic but blunt, as stark as such moments of pure, unadulterated horror must be. An open-ended tapestry of lost souls caught in a storm of fear and uncertainty, "Summer of Sam" opens and closes with bookends featuring famed journalist Jimmy Breslin. "There are eight million stories in the Naked City," he says, "and this is one of them." It is, indeed, and a truly spellbinding and powerful one at that.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

The 2-disc "The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 2" also includes the filmmaker's 2008 film, "Miracle at St. Anna," starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound
Summer of Sam: A/A

Fans of "Summer of Sam," brace yourselves. This is what you've all been waiting for. Released as a despicable non-anamorphic DVD in 1999, the film finally appears in all its anamorphic, high-definition, 1.85:1 glory, and the results are astounding. The visual properties are purposefully stark and gritty, all the better to uncannily emulate a motion picture that is not only set in 1977, but filmed in 1977, too. Not to worry, though; it is nonetheless a sparklingly clean transfer, one with beautifully rich colors, inky blacks, and pleasing depth. Lovely! The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is every bit as excellent. The montage coming midway through scored to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" is nothing less than stunning, enough to give the viewer chills, while the other disco-laden soundtrack selections are presented in all their lossless glory. This is an immersive track that impresses throughout.

Miracle at St. Anna: A-/A-

The 1080p presentation of "Miracle at St. Anna" is also stylistically disparate, with the flashback segment that makes up the two-hour middle section exuding consistent, high-contrast, well-resolved grain that is accurate to source. The beach-set last scene, meanwhile, is immaculate and crisply detailed, popping with hot, emblazoned colors, while the wraparound story hinges upon a more subtle, realistic style. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is solid all around, sound effects and music coming through powerfully and dialogue properly treated in the lossless mix.

Blu-ray Features
Summer of Sam: NEW Audio Commentary with Director Spike Lee and Actor John Leguizamo

Miracle at St. Anna: NEW Audio Commentary with Director Spike Lee and Screenwriter James McBride; "Deeds Not Words" Featurette (17:07, HD); "The Buffalo Soldier Experience" Featurette (21:55, HD); Deleted Scenes (18:42, HD)

Bottom Line
Disney/Buena Vista's "The Spike Lee Collection, Vol. 2" is not some thrown-together Blu-ray double pack, despite how it may appear. While "Summer of Sam" and "Miracle at St. Anna" are an odd pair to place together—why couldn't the studio have done separate releases of these titles?—they look every bit as good as they did when they were released in theaters and come with outstanding brand-new audio commentary tracks to sweeten the deal. In fact, the distinctively epic "Summer of Sam" (my personal favorite Spike Lee Joint) is worth the price of a purchase all by itself. This is a must-own release.

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© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman