A Spike Lee double feature to go with the simultaneously released Vol. 1, this one includes Summer of Sam (1999) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008). As with 25th Hour and He Got Game on the first volume, this isn’t a particularly well-matched pairing. And unlike that volume, only one of these is debuting on Blu-ray. Luckily that’s the one that’s worth the price of admission, as Summer of Sam is a mesmerizing period piece set in the midst of a paranoia-stricken New York City. It was the summer of 1977 and the serial killer known as the Son of Sam had yet to be apprehended.
Summer of Sam isn’t really about David Berkowitz, which is what threw me initially when it was first released. Revisiting it for the first time, 15 years later, it’s easier to appreciate the Berkowitz angle as a backdrop upon which to hang the agitated, angry relationships of a bunch of friends and couples. In fact, the whole serial killer aspect could be removed from the film without significantly altering the trajectory of the very loose plot. It may very well be Lee at his most Scorsese-influenced, in terms of its hyperkinetic visual style. Admittedly the life of Bronx hairdresser Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his crumbling marriage to beautiful but sexually unadventurous Dionna (Mira Sorvino) doesn’t present a tidy plot; more of a car crash from which you can’t turn away.
At 142 minutes it’s probable that Summer of Sam could’ve had a stronger impact had it been trimmed and tightened. But Lee keeps so much happening that boredom never sets in. Much of the action in Sam is incredibly lurid, even beyond the graphically-depicted murders committed by Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco). Among Vinny’s circle of friends, punk rocker Ritchie (Adrien Brody) becomes a prime suspect as they all try to deduce who the Son of Sam might be. Homophobia rears its ugly head among the very traditional-minded group as the truth about Ritchie’s side job as a stripper/prostitute emerge. Period details and a soundtrack of ‘70s classics (from rock to disco) help make this one a fascinating, if somewhat disjointed, lifestyle study.
On the second disc is Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II epic that has already been available on Blu-ray. It’s an overlong, though intermittently compelling, mess of a movie that finds Lee using a murder mystery (WWII vet, working as a postal clerk, shoots customer at point blank) to frame a story about the 92nd Infantry Division’s Buffalo Soldiers on the Italian battlefield. The segregated 92nd was the only unit in WWII that had black soldiers involved in combat. Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller) befriends and defends an injured young boy (Matteo Sciabordi). Pvt. Train and a small group of Buffalo Soldiers, including Staff Sgt. Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and Sgt. Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy) are holed up with a group of Italian Partisans after managing to survive a skirmish at the Serchio River.
Musician and writer James McBride adapted his own novel of the same name, which perhaps is part of why St. Anna never quite comes together. He might’ve benefited from a more experienced screenwriter’s ability to distill the characters and events into a more cohesive whole. As it stands, the film is well worth seeing for individual sequences, but doesn’t pack the emotional impact it was aiming for. A love triangle between Stamps, Cummings, and the beautiful Italian villager Renata (Valentina Cervi) doesn’t quite fit in. Surprisingly for a Spike Lee film, some of the performances are a bit awkward, hitting a number of false notes during what should’ve been key moments.
As for technical specs, Ellen Kuras heavily stylized, always gorgeous cinematography for Summer of Sam is never anything short of interesting to look at. This new Blu-ray transfer, however cleanly it presents the film, seems to have been struck from an older master as it doesn’t quite boast the level of clarity it should. Still, it’s not at all bad (plus it’s hard to say how much of the minor softness is inherent in the photography, especially with such experimental lighting in many sequences). Miracle at St. Anna looks terrific, as well it should given that it’s a relatively recent film that has been issued in high definition already. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is much more traditional and straightforward, resulting in a more consistent (though less interesting) transfer. Each film has a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that presents no problems. St. Anna’s battle sequences, in particular, make good use of the surround spectrum.
St. Anna ports over special features from its previous Blu-ray release, including the featurettes “Words Not Deeds,” “The Buffalo Soldier Experience,” and some 20 minutes of deleted scenes. But the real bait here for Lee fans (and it’s worth it) are the new commentary tracks. Lee sits with screenwriter McBride for an in-depth track that deals with most aspects of St. Anna without getting too introspective or critical about examining the film’s flaws. While it is possible Lee and McBride are entirely satisfied with the finished product, given the film’s critical reputation as a misfire it would’ve been interesting for Lee to take a closer look. The new commentary on Summer of Sam (the disc’s only feature) features Lee and actor John Leguizamo. As the film unfolds, Lee and Leguizamo get a bit too caught up simply watching it, but there are a lot of good stories here.
Though neither film ranks among Lee’s finest classics, The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2 offers a great value and is highly recommended for fans of Lee.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00J2VUJ6S,B00J2VUJ86]