Monday, January 24, 2000

Summer of Sam / ***1/2 (1999)

New York's hot and humid summer of 1977 is one of the more unsettling time periods of modern American culture, and Spike Lee's eerie "Summer Of Sam" volunteers a solid, unorthodox portrayal of the dread that overshadowed massive bloodshed in a remote Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. This was, of course, the year that the infamous .44 caliber killer David Berkowitz was on the loose; more important, though, is how the society within his killing ground responded to the sporadic massacres. Hordes of filmmakers have tried to adapt this type of factual material, but they often get lost by focusing much of the time on the actual murderer (it's impossible to guess what a serial killer recollects in this situation because, alas, he really exists, and no one knows what he thinks). But Spike Lee is intent on other worries for his depiction of the summer of Sam; his story is not about killers or killings, but about paranoia and the need to single out someone as a suspect. In the sweltering summer of 1977, in which these events took place, there were more than a few hundred stories going on in the city; here was one in which those affected were not celebrities, but real, average people.

The movie is well-established from the very first scene. Opened by journalist Jimmy Breslin, we hear a brief introduction of the events, established by disco music, rising temperatures and ads in newspapers that read ".44 caliber killer strikes again"; suddenly, the camera visits a green-tinted apartment room, in which a half-naked man screams in fear at the distant bark of a dog, and letter blocks spell out "Summer of Sam" on a nearby table. Shortly thereafter, two ladies behind the wheel of a car are approached by a shadowy figure--it pulls out a gun and shoots them before their screams last long enough for nearby residents to hear. From the radio then comes the disco hit "Fernando." Suddenly we forget our whereabouts and are transported into this paralyzed world.

We follow two couples soon after. Vinny, played by John Leguizamo, is a promiscuous hairdresser, married to Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Vinny loves her wife and she does the same to him; unfortunately, their sex life is on the rocks. Dionna feels like she cannot satisfy her husband, who sneaks around with other women and engages in sexual acts that he feels "uncomfortable" in performing with his own wife. When Vinny parks his car on the side of the road, and he later returns to find that two people have been murdered by the Son of Sam, he takes it as a sign from God. In this neighborhood, every coincidence and mishap is perceived as some sort of personal religious message.

The killings continue. Vinny's group of friends, a troupe of gossiping young men, carefully investigate their neighborhood for any possible suspects. Determined to point out the biggest standout of their crowd, the group looks towards a man named Ritchie, who has traded in his Italian style for a British accent and spiked haircut. Such an appearance obviously warrants a little suspicion from his peers, but they take their investigation a bit too far towards the end. Once the group learns that Berkowitz has been captured, they are confronted with an agonizing realization--the only reason they suspected Ritchie was because he was different.

In the eyes of those who study serial killers, it is said that the murder rate rises with the temperature. The existence of any scientific evidence verifying this notion is unknown to me; but if there is any, this would certainly explain why most Hollywood slashers are so unbelievable. The average movie serial killer rushes in from off the camera at top speed, chasing large-chested women upstairs who, from close inspection, are so cold that you can see more than just their breath. The details of the intense heat help heighten the realism of "Summer Of Sam," which in turn forgets about the killer for much of the movie, and gives us characters who are not afraid to say what they feel, and attempt to continue living life despite the growing fear of those in the city.

I'm not one of the many admirers of Spike Lee's work, but his emphasis on small details and the depiction of a tensely-approached summer is obvious evidence of his growth as a movie director. Past efforts certainly do not support that testament; in fact, this is actually the first film under his name that I'm willing to recommend. Granted, the picture is not perfect (there is a little too much sexual imagery incorporated, taking away from the bright characterizations), but compared to the rest of his work, it's a real kick. Be glad he didn't return to the likes of "He Got Game."

Written by DAVID KEYES

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 142 Minutes

John Leguizamo: Vinny
Adrien Brody: Ritchie
Mira Sorvino: Dionna
Jennifer Esposito: Ruby
Michael Rispoli: Joe T

Produced by Jeri Carroll-Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, Jon Kilik and Spike Lee; Directed by Spike Lee; Screenwritten by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Spike Lee

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