Judge Adam Riske took in one robust joint and one that's less potent.
A mixed bag from one of America's most divisive filmmakers.
Some people live to tell the story.
Facts of the Case
Summer of Sam is Spike Lee's take on New York City in the summer of 1977 when the city was terrorized by the madman known as "Son of Sam." Lee follows the events from the perspective of a close-knit Italian neighborhood that slips into fear and distrust of one another as they suspect the killer is someone close to them.
Miracle at St. Anna, based on the novel by screenwriter James McBride, tells the story of four members of the U.S. Army's all-black 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers, who get trapped behind enemy lines in a Tuscan village during WWII.
1999 was a fantastic year at the movies. It is the year that brought us The Matrix, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, and Fight Club to name just a few. One of the other great movies from that year, but one that has never found as much acclaim as the aforementioned releases, was Spike Lee's drama Summer of Sam.
At the time Summer of Sam was a change of pace for Lee, it was noted this was his first film featuring a mostly white cast (a ridiculous statement if you think about it since we don't call out other filmmakers for making movies with casts of a color not their own) and one of his first forays into pulpier, more genre-ish filmmaking. The film is still uniquely Spike Lee in that it focuses on a tight knit neighborhood charged by prejudice, similar to some of his previous films like Do the Right Thing. Summer of Sam can be seen as a transition movie for Lee from his seminal works detailing the black experience in America to his genre work (Inside Man, Oldboy) and other features based on existing source material, such as 25th Hour.
Summer of Sam is an example of a sweeping and ambitious epic about panic and mob mentality from a filmmaker in full confidence of his abilities. I think everything in this movie works, particularly the performances. John Leguizamo gives a career best performance in this film, which also features strong work from Adrien Brody and Mira Sorvino, who has never been sexier in a movie. Also worth noting is the film's soundtrack featuring dozens of great disco tracks and pop music of the mid-to-late 1970s, which sound terrific and are perfectly implemented into the film.
The movie also works great as a character study of Leguizamo's Vinny, a serial cheater and liar who steps out on his wife (Sorvino) habitually with the customers at the hair salon where he works. The scenes between Leguizamo and Sorvino in a cemetery, and their final scene shared in their apartment, are some of the most well-acted sequences of any film from 1999 and will just break your heart. Summer of Sam is a film of big emotions, big performance and big everything. It's a home run cut which Spike Lee knocks out of the park.
This is one of Lee's most overlooked and powerful movies. The film approximates the type of gritty 1970s neighborhood picture that Martin Scorsese would have made, and a filmmaker as talented as Lee finds a way of bringing out the best of that technique while still adding his own unique spin. Summer of Sam is a great movie that deserves more acclaim than it has received.
Miracle at St. Anna, on the other hand, is a complete 180 degree turn. As a film, it's quite sloppy, poorly acted, and uninvolving. This comes as a shock since the source material is quite interesting (as evidenced in the bonus featurettes which are better than the movie itself).
Spike Lee is a director I admire a great deal so I want to be diplomatic in my pan of Miracle at St. Anna. It's just one that seems to have gotten away from him. The movie is overlong and indecisive with an inconsistent tone, when it has any tone at all. Miracle at St. Anna is shapeless and that's the major reason it is such a drag to get through. It required me to watch it in multiple sittings.
What I find most fascinating about Miracle at St. Anna is the movie came off of Lee's biggest financial success, Inside Man, and it's evident he cashed in that goodwill on making a personal project that somehow feels completely impersonal. This is a movie that has no directorial stamp. If you showed me it and didn't tell me it was directed by Spike Lee, I would have never guessed this one of his films. It's like an alien made it or a first-time director at best. What a huge disappointment.
Summer of Sam comes in a 1.85:1 HD transfer with a strong emphasis on Lee's stylistic choice to use multiple film stocks, at times giving the film a gritty and grimy look. Details are vivid and crisp especially compared to the original DVD release. Miracle at St. Anna comes in a terrific 2.35:1 1080p HD transfer with strong image clarity and sharp detail. Colors are at times desaturated purposely to fit the film's WWII aesthetic.
Summer of Sam's DTS HD 5.1 soundtrack is especially powerful particularly in the sound effects during the shooting sequences and the scenes that feature the robust 1970s pop music soundtrack. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack on Miracle at St. Anna is especially strong making full use of Terrance Blanchard's propulsive score and the war film's sound design which sounded great on my home system. Dialogue is clear and audible.
The sole extra on the Summer of Sam (Blu-ray) is a brand new audio commentary track from director Spike Lee and actor John Leguizamo. The track is engaging for a while but Lee has a tendency to state the obvious and simply give props to his cast and crew. Leguizamo doesn't add much, often just following Lee's lead. The most engaging aspect of this extra is when the two discuss the neighborhoods in which the film is set and how they have changed from 1977 to present day. The commentary track for Miracle at St. Anna is better, although possibly not worth the long running time. Screenwriter James McBride is an interesting individual to listen to, especially when he details his philosophy for writing scripts which he describes as providing the muscle for which the director adds the rest of the skeleton. The Miracle at St. Anna disc also includes nine deleted scenes, some of which are extended versions of scenes in the film and two featurettes, an interesting roundtable discussion called "Deeds Not Words" and a stimulating discussion of the history of Black American soldiers in a featurette entitled "The Buffalo Soldier Experience."
Summer of Sam's first ever release on Blu-ray automatically justifies
The Spike Lee Joint Collection: Volume 2 (Blu-ray) as a purchase.
Miracle at St. Anna is lucky to be in the same conversation.
Not Guilty by half.
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