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Overall Rating

Awesome: 23.88%
Worth A Look30.6%
Average: 16.42%
Pretty Bad: 17.16%
Total Crap: 11.94%

11 reviews, 68 user ratings

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Summer of Sam
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Spike flails around; frustrating experience."
2 stars

Can a high-powered director triumph over a weak script? It's possible, I suppose, but most often improbable.

In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee exhausts his bag of tricks, trying to keep the energy level up, and parts of the movie are affecting or exciting. But after a while you grow weary of being pelted with the director's pyrotechnics. It's like watching a stunningly edited and photographed video tour of one's own basement. The form is fine; it's the content that's missing. By the end, Lee seems to be blaring "Won't Get Fooled Again" just to keep himself, and us, awake.

The film begins on a corny note, with Jimmy Breslin addressing the camera and setting the scene: In the steamy summer of 1977, David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, lurked around New York City shooting lovers in their parked cars. The movie proper, after the prologue, starts compellingly enough to get one's hopes up. One hot dark night, with ABBA's cheerful "Fernando" playing on the radio, two attractive young women sit in their car chatting. They notice a hulking shape outside; seconds later, their brains are on the windshield. Spike Lee is great at the mood of dread and menace — the killer approaching from the shadows, the abrupt flash of violence, the sense that something ugly and unstoppable is out there in the dark, somewhere. New York in the summer of 1977 is a seething playground of sex and drugs and disco; suddenly a monster is loose in the playground, as if summoned by a wrathful god to keep sinners locked up in their homes.

Unfortunately, the film moves from there into a kaleidoscopic look at the people in the neighborhood and how the murders affect them; problem is, there are no people, just types. Spike Lee had originally intended to executive-produce the script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio; when he decided to direct it, he tweaked the script. He should've kept tweaking. The main characters, in terms of screen time, appear to be an unhappy married couple, Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino), and a punk-rocker, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), Vinny's old friend, who has been away from the neighborhood for a year and has now returned with spiky hair and a Johnny Rotten accent. Right away, the locals suspect Ritchie of being Son of Sam, even though the M.O. of any serial killer is to blend in, to walk among us unnoticed; the gaudy Ritchie does neither.

We spend entirely too much time with Vinny and Dionna, a bland pair with sexual hang-ups; he's cheating on her because he doesn't know how to ask her for the erotic favors he craves. Improbably, they find themselves at an orgy at Plato's Retreat, after which their relationship predictably goes south, in a naturalistic, Cassavetes-like series of arguments that seem to assume we take these two limited squabblers seriously. Meanwhile, Ritchie hooks up with the neighborhood pump Ruby (the underused Jennifer Esposito) and forms a punk-rock band, setting Berkowitz's psycho-poetry (as published in the New York Post) to grinding "music." During all this, a group of oafish Italians roam around making a list of suspects, and even the mob determines to catch the killer, as in Fritz Lang's M. There is more sex, more drugs, much fighting and posturing and paranoid finger-pointing. We don't really know why we're watching all of this.

As always, Lee works with a talented cast — he's one of those directors with the prestige and clout to lure top actors into reading from the phone book for peanuts — yet the fragmented structure works against them, and in any case, they're given very little to play except hysteria. Patti LuPone shows she's a good sport by letting herself fall out of her dress; Bebe Neuwirth grinds her body against Leguizamo's groin. The women are highly sexualized, the men hapless and borderline impotent (Vinny is popular with the ladies despite being a very quick come). Almost by default, the movie focuses on Vinny's struggles with Dionna and his conflicted feelings about his old friend Ritchie. Vinny swallows ludes and flails about, and I expected the script to take him to the edge of ultimate paranoia: thinking that he himself could be Son of Sam and not even realize it. The movie doesn't seem to think of that, and poor Leguizamo, chalky and pouring sweat, turns into a dinner-theater version of Ray Liotta near the end of GoodFellas. Leguizamo can be a loose, funny actor, but here he's straining too much for effects — much like his director.

Working with editor Barry Alexander Brown (who has cut many other Spike Lee joints) and cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon, 4 Little Girls), Lee puts together an engaging pastiche of images. You never question that you're in the hands of a moviemaker who thinks with his eyes. Yet Lee can't seem to decide whether he's making a neighborhood portrait or a tabloid-flashy bit of exploitation — there are too many overdone scenes of Berkowitz (Michael Badolucco) freaking out in his ratty apartment like the villain of some squalid slasher flick, and Lee piles on the K-Tel oldies, often so loudly that we can't hear what the characters are saying.

Not that it makes much difference most of the time. Summer of Sam is the perfect New York companion piece to the L.A.-set Boogie Nights — it scampers around, never pausing long enough to allow any one character to gain purchase in our hearts. It's also overlong: at two hours and twenty-two minutes, this melodrama with its paper-thin characters and predetermined outcome puts considerable stress on our patience.

A great movie could be made about a blistering New York summer that brings neighborhood tensions to a boil of violence. Spike Lee can make that movie; in fact, he already did, ten years ago. 'Summer of Sam' suffers in every conceivable way in comparison to 'Do the Right Thing,' and contrasting the two films proves what Spike Lee can do when he has his heart in the material and fire in his belly, and what he can't do when he doesn't.

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originally posted: 02/03/07 06:34:11
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User Comments

5/04/19 GLR Spite Wee's usual truth-mangling Black racist propaganda "film" 1 stars
9/16/17 morris campbell interesting but undone by sleaze & overlength 3 stars
7/22/11 Dave Smith On a ten star scale, a 1/4 star away from a MASTERPIECE. It's about the NEIGHBORHOOD. 5 stars
3/03/11 chris c Somewhat of a spiritual counterpart to Do the right thing despite a lot of vulgarity & sex 4 stars
6/02/09 MP Bartley Sweats and flails to little thick-headed effect. Some good moments survive. 3 stars
7/02/08 jointz on second thought, I can see what Scott's saying, the movie has no straight narrative 4 stars
5/19/08 jointz Weinberg obviously has a stick up his ass! How could you NOT love the Talking Dog? 5 stars
1/28/07 action movie fan funny, tough and super realistic-the best film of 1999 5 stars
6/11/06 Jeff Anderson Some of Lee's strongest, best work to date. Sorvino's sexy & great performance STANDS OUT!! 5 stars
8/20/05 ES Save your money, this has about five minutes of time dedicated to the killer 1 stars
5/21/05 Zelemont Are you SERIOUS? Long, pointless, straying waste of talented actors! BORING! DONT BOTHER!! 1 stars
12/22/04 Landshark visceral characters in that NYC '77 scene, Lee gets it 5 stars
8/14/04 Oliver Fantastic. 5 stars
1/22/04 Sugarfoot Spike Lee sucks, plain and simple. And so do most of his movies. (Girl 6 for one.) 1 stars
1/17/04 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) Definitely one of my top 3 favorite films of all time! It's fucking perfect!!!!! 5 stars
12/19/03 ROY L. CAIN,JR. The first Spike Lee joint to not feature too many black characters. Still a groovy pic. 5 stars
10/19/03 Agent Sands (previously Mr. Hat) I don't know how Spike does it. Direction is brilliant. Surely among the best of his best. 5 stars
5/12/03 Jack Bourbon Eh. Don't care for it. 2 stars
3/19/03 Jack Sommersby Maddeningly uninvolving and unfocused. This talented cast deserves much better. 2 stars
10/24/02 Charles Tatum Spike can be as racist as the evil white man 1 stars
10/09/02 Kitfo anybody who calls spike lee self indulgent or pretentious should stick to hollywood drivel 5 stars
9/26/02 snowconehead Too much Leguizamo, not enough Sorvino 4 stars
7/18/02 Cris Abisale He Got Game is much better.Too much sex in this movie.Spike=Disappointment 2 stars
3/05/02 Alan Smithee Typical overrated Spike Lee bullshit. 1 stars
1/01/02 Andrew Carden Pretty Realistic Movie...I Didn't Like John Though. 4 stars
9/09/01 Butterbean A very underrated movie. It captured the effect of city-wide panic brilliantly 4 stars
7/29/01 Artist Freak Great performances, really pegs the 70s. Wide array of sex for a non-porn movie. 4 stars
6/29/01 See me Fly!!!! fuck this movie it's fucking hard to fucking understand, they say fuck every fucking second 2 stars
4/19/01 Socutejd This was an insult to serial killers 1 stars
4/17/01 Spetters Spike´s best film yet!! Everything and everyone is great in this explosive film. 5 stars
3/12/01 RACHEL this movie was amazing, very well made, great images 5 stars
2/23/01 italian mobster i liked the music but i cant stand the fact that a fuckin nigger directed an italian film 2 stars
1/18/01 romayne charles John Lequizamos brilliant looks and acting made this film . 4 stars
12/06/00 AtlantaBill What the fuck? There is a talking dog in this movie! Spike Lee, you suck faggots. 1 stars
6/28/00 Bender Entertaining, if overlong. Plus the most use of the F word in a movie I've ever seen. 4 stars
6/24/00 Aaron White Best talking animal scene in film history. Sex scenes restored my will to live. 4 stars
3/10/00 Kyle Broflovski Blergh. I punctuated every scene with a hella yawn. BORING!!! 1 stars
3/09/00 Richard Wright Every noun is preceded by an F word and everyone is either a moron or a slut.Dig it,man.NOT 1 stars
1/21/00 node I found this to be very thought provoking. 4 stars
1/02/00 KK Should be renamed Summer of Idiots. Lee can't direct/act/write his way out of a paper bag. 1 stars
1/01/00 Tyson Stewart It's hot and bloody. Such a great story! 4 stars
11/29/99 Mic Not as good as Do The Right Thing, good nevertheless. "Sam" should've had less screen time. 4 stars
11/25/99 Frank Curigliano Riveting, disturbing, funny and painful. The best film of the year thus far. 5 stars
11/18/99 Matthew Smith Lee's best film since Do The Right Thing, Ambitious, bold and confronting. 5 stars
11/01/99 JonnyAngel this slut of a movie sucks and swallows 1 stars
9/11/99 Jason Kinsey a whirlwind of colorful images, thumps, & sounds-great 4 stars
8/10/99 Alisa Spike Lee shows no class in this film. he didn't even research this movie for truth. 1 stars
8/04/99 Tanya I'm being generous with the rating. Spike Lee making white people look ignorant again. 2 stars
8/03/99 Lola Jones Well put together. However, there were too many sex scenes.:) 4 stars
8/02/99 david napier best film of the summer, and love that leguizamo and lee was funny as the reporter 4 stars
8/01/99 Obi Wan This movie didn't do shit to me or for me...except waste my time! 2 stars
7/22/99 PhilmPhreak Annoying movie about annoying people - and what the fuck was Spike Lee's character? 2 stars
7/16/99 Jo Jo, The Idiot Circus Boy Horror? Movie? Where is the movie? 1 stars
7/12/99 ken heine the punk scene was cool. 2 stars
7/12/99 Ah Dooey Shoddy movie I ever saw. The movie had no substance and not any dialog. 3 stars
7/11/99 evil buffy intrigued by the cinematography; look and sound made up for plot weaknesses. good acting 4 stars
7/10/99 M. Donnelly Quite well done. I really was able to get pissed off at some of the characters. 5 stars
7/09/99 P.S.O.K It wasn't as good as thought it was gonna be 3 stars
7/09/99 bridgette adrien brody-good; everyone else-ok; editing-HORRIBLE. can we say porn? 2 stars
7/07/99 Brian M honest characterizations, bizarro editing and fab music 4 stars
7/07/99 Daddy Rich Spike Lee; what more can you say? 5 stars
7/07/99 Mr showbiz Spike Lee's latest is a triumph of style... and little else. 2 stars
7/06/99 sydney awesome! 5 stars
7/06/99 Malbert Worst piece of crap I've ever seen 1 stars
7/05/99 jvt Overlong, pretentious crap with stereotypical "characters" 1 stars
7/05/99 johntidal a demented bad ass flick with great act that intensifies the terrrror 5 stars
7/04/99 ALiaS WOW!!! Spike Lee has proven that he is diverse enough to do a dark movie!!!! Kudos brother! 5 stars
6/16/99 David A subtle masterpiece; ambitious tale of ordinary lives affected by social paranoia. Great!! 5 stars
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Directed by
  Spike Lee

Written by
  Spike Lee

  John Leguizamo
  Adrien Brody
  Anthony LaPaglia
  Jennifer Esposito
  John Savage
  Bebe Neuwirth

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