Judge Clark Douglas wrote this review quickly on a small budget.
Spike Lee's latest return to Brooklyn.
"Are you free?"
Facts of the Case
Flik (Jules Brown) is a upper middle-class kid from Atlanta who's been sent to Brooklyn to visit his grandfather, Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters, Treme). Flik quickly grows irritated with his seemingly dull new surroundings and his grandfather's constant preaching, but things take a positive turn when he encounters the brash young Chazz (Tonya Lysaith). The two quickly become friends and begin to make memories together, but their bucolic summer is interrupted when a secret from Bishop Enoch's past comes back to haunt him.
Red Hook Summer is the damnedest movie Spike Lee has ever made. The man has always been an inconsistent filmmaker, but none of his other work is quite this astonishingly messy. There were numerous occasions when my jaw nearly hit the floor—sometimes because I was shocked at the film's sheer incompetence, sometimes because I was floored by a moment of startling power and sometimes because I simply couldn't believe what I was seeing.
For the first two-thirds of its running time, Red Hook Summer is primarily a breezy coming-of-age tale. Lee has indicated in interviews that he and co-writer James McBride wanted to give African-American viewers the equivalent of Stand By Me, and that film's influence is obvious early on. Unfortunately, the child actors are incapable of carrying this material, as the young newcomers are so stiff and unnatural that they appear to be reading from cue cards (the fact that they are saddled with clunky, awkward dialogue doesn't help). This material is further hampered by an overbearing soundtrack comprised of on-the-nose gospel numbers (including one that continually repeats the phrase, "Do the right thing!") and a seemingly-improvised piano score by Bruce Hornsby. Lee has always used music rather forcefully in his films, but the skill of his usual collaborator Terrence Blanchard tends to compensate for that. Hornsby's third-rate Vince Guaraldi impression almost never works, and the gospel tunes are even more aggressively grating. Honestly, there are quite a few moments in which the whole thing feels like a middling student film (which may be partially due to the fact that Lee shot the movie in three weeks on a miniscule budget—though that doesn't explain the weaknesses in the writing).
However, the film actually manages to work when it shifts away from its young protagonists and explores the grown-up world of Brooklyn. This is territory Lee explored successfully on multiple occasions earlier in his career, a fact he reminds of us by briefly stepping in front of the camera as Mookie, his character from Do the Right Thing. The movie really begins to click when it focuses on the performance of Clarke Peters, who transforms a handful of surprisingly lengthy on-screen sermons into hypnotizing set pieces. The church scenes feel authentic and vibrant, and Bishop Enoch functions as a mouthpiece for Lee's assorted social concerns as he rails against the injustices of the world. In one particularly fiery moment, the Bishop holds the Bible above his head and claims it as an effective substitute for all of the superficial things in life: "This is my gangster! This is my internet! This is my social network!" It's powerful stuff, and Peters once again demonstrates that he may be one of the most under-appreciated actors working today.
Then, as the film heads into its final act, it unleashes a dramatic development that permanently shakes up the nature of the film. The gentle coming-of-age story is gone, Flik and Chazz are practically forgotten about and we're thrown into some intensely serious territory. It's during this stretch of the movie that Lee delivers moments powerful enough to stand alongside some of his best work. There's a confrontation inside a church that is the dramatic equivalent of a knockout punch, partially because it's so well-presented and partially because you never would have guessed that this clunky Hallmark wannabe could possibly contain such effective intensity. It's harrowing stuff, growing more horrifying as it continues. Then Lee brings in actor Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. (best-known as corrupt politician Clay Davis on The Wire) to deliver the film's funniest, most inexplicable, ridiculous punchline. I was doubling over and shaking my head in dismay all at once.
That's the sort of thing Red Hook Summer does on a regular basis: upending expectations for both good and ill. For every moment of amateurish clunkiness, there's a reminder that Lee is a great filmmaker. For every remarkable moment of drama, there's a painfully misguided decision. It's messy, beautiful, terrible, juvenile, elegant, profound, overcooked, ugly, ridiculous, thoughtful, painful and goofy. I can't honestly call it a good movie, but I wouldn't think for a second of attempting to discourage you from seeing it. For all of its faults—and there are so many—this movie is undeniably, irrepressibly alive.
Red Hook Summer (Blu-ray) features a strong 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. Detail is strong throughout, allowing viewers to appreciate the many details of Lee's vivid portrait of modern-day Brooklyn. The color palette is bright and vibrant, and some of the imagery really pops. Depth is strong, too. There are some brief scenes shot on Super 8 which are intentionally soft and grainy. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is sound on a technical level, though I certainly question Lee's decision to let the music nearly overwhelm the dialogue on a regular basis. Sound design is excellent and there are quite a few moments which take advantage of the rear channels. Supplements include a low-key commentary with Lee, 27 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, a music video and a trailer.
In Red Hook Summer's closing shot, Lee himself appears onscreen and writes the film's title on a blackboard. This is his movie, baby, and there's not another man in the world who could have made it. It's often a disaster, but it's also one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of 2012. And that's the truth, Ruth.
Lord have mercy!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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