By Chaz Lipp
If ever there was a movie in dire need of re-evaluation, it’s Spike Lee’s overlooked 1999 gem Summer of Sam (which makes its Blu-ray debut on the recently released The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2). The first thing to understand is that, despite any impression that might’ve been given by the original marketing campaign, Sam is not really a movie about serial killer David Berkowitz. Quick historical sketch for anyone unfamiliar with Son of Sam: between July, 1976 and July, 1977, Berkowitz murdered six individuals and wounded an additional 7 in New York City. It was his neighbor’s dog that told him to commit these acts, according to Berkowitz himself. He’s currently in the midst of serving six consecutive life sentences, one for each life he claimed.
But Berkowitz (played by Michael Badalucco) serves only a peripheral role in Sam. The real story is the paranoia gripping a group of friends during an intense NYC heat wave in the summer of ’77. Amongst the bickering and finger-pointing, the focus falls upon a very dysfunctional couple, Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Vinny is a compulsive cheater, compelled to fool around behind Dionna’s back because his religious beliefs make it difficult to see his wife as a sex object. Dionna is no babe in the woods, though – she tolerates him messing around, even as she struggles to figure out new ways to try to satisfy him. In a remarkable display of desperation, she even goes so far as to consult one of her husband’s exes for tips (“You can’t be his wife” is her curt evaluation).
Meanwhile, Vinny’s punk rocker friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody) becomes the target of suspicion as his behavior is perceived as increasingly strange. Vinny’s friends have become convinced, as stupid as it is, that Son of Sam must be someone within their social group. The unpredictability of Berkowitz’s attacks serves as the backdrop as the relationships between Vinny, Dionna, Ritchie, Ritchie’s girlfriend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), and a plethora of characters that include Mafioso Luigi (Ben Gazzara). Lee displays the visual influence of Scorsese, enhance by the organized crime element (Luigi and his goons are tapped by the NYPD for assistance in uncovering the murderer), but he never devolves into outright style-aping (the way David O. Russell did with the incomprehensibly-praised American Hustle).
The other feature in the two-disc set is the similarly-overlooked 2008 WWII epic Miracle at St. Anna. Lee’s imprint is less discernible in this unfocused attempt to adapt James McBride’s fictional novel of the same name. What starts off intriguingly as a murder mystery (a WWII vet working as a post office clerk shoots and kills a customer point blank) abruptly becomes a jumble involving the Buffalo Soldier of the 92nd Infantry Division. These were real-life soldiers, the only black troops to see ground combat during the war. There are probably great, fact-based stories to be told about the real men, but for some reason Lee settled on McBride’s mash-up that mixes a love triangle, racial tensions within the Army, graphic battle sequences, and a Life is Beautiful-type fable – all framed by a police procedural.
For fans of Spike Lee, St. Anna is worth watching. There are several captivating sequences, including the aforementioned battle scenes. But the central murder mystery itself is unsatisfactorily (and unrealistically) resolved. The most touching moments occur between Pvt. Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) and an injured young boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Train nurses Angelo back to health, becoming a father figure to the youngster (who innocently nicknames him “the chocolate giant”) and trying to shield him from the ugliness of war. Maybe a more experienced screenwriter could’ve carved something great out of McBride’s book, but the author himself was entrusted by Lee with doing the job all alone. The result is something of an overlong mess.
While St. Anna was previously available on Blu-ray, this edition includes a new commentary track by Lee and McBride. There’s also a new commentary on Sam by Lee and Leguizamo. Though Lee seems intent on avoiding any critical examination of his own works, his enthusiasm makes these tracks excellent new additions. In the case of Sam there are no other features, while St. Anna carries over the featurettes previously found on the earlier Blu-ray edition.
Summer of Sam easily deserved its own standalone release and is a mismatched here with this double feature. Get The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2 for Sam and consider St. Anna a very generous bonus inclusion.