Pan & Scan Welcome to PAN & SCAN where you will find film reviews of some of Hollywood's latest productions.

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Summer of Sam   Director: Spike Lee

  Genre: Drama/Crime

  Running Time: 141 Minutes

  Rating: R for strong graphic violence/sexuality,
     strong language and drug use.

  Video Release: 28 December 1999

  Tagline: "S.O.S."

New York City, 1977. The summer of a record heat wave, citywide blackout, riots, looting, and a Yankee pennant drive that shared the headlines -- with a madman. Sounds like a logline for some Hollywood movie? Well, it is. But for those who lived in the Big Apple during this time, myself included, it was hardly a slice of movie magic -- it was a reality.

Spike Lee is known for making movies with a statement. His social commentary is loud and clear and he doesn’t deviate from this formula in Summer of Sam. Framed in a striking fashion, the film begins with NY Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin by telling us this film is about events that took place in the "bad old days."

The film’s premise though doesn’t revolve around Berkowitz or his victims. What it does entail is how his 13-month killing spree added to the frenzy of the summer of ‘77. Lee excludes from the onset any effort to interpret the circumstances of Berkowitz' life. The audience learns nothing about his background or his emotional difficulties. His sole purpose is to generate fear and increase the anxiety that leads to a mob mentality as the city erupts into mass hysteria and mayhem.

While the genre of the movie shifts between drama, comedy, and horror (sometimes in a jarring fashion with various camera and editing techniques), the main focus of the story gets somewhat lost in all that’s occurring. Then again, if this was Lee’s attempt to show how confusing the times were perhaps, as a filmmaker, he has succeeded.

The acting is superb, although most of the film's characters disappear for long stretches of time. And a longggggg film it is coming in under 141 minutes. The cast featured is a broad and diverse group of talent including: John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Patti LuPone, Anthony LaPaglia, John Savage, Ben Gazarra, Bebe Neuwirth, and Spike Lee (as the late WABC news reporter John Johnson). Summer of Sam touches on varying subjects from homosexuality, disco fever, sex clubs, drug use, pornography and includes a bunch of good ol’ Paisano’s who love that ‘F’ word. (Definitely not a flick for the kiddies.) Though it received an R rating, it was borderline NC-17 with it’s extremely graphic violence.

There are many subplots working in Summer of Sam. Leguizamo’s extramarital affairs and his shaky relation with his wife, Sorvino. Brody's embracing of a non-conforming lifestyle which ostracizes him from the guys he grew up with. The mounting suspicion that anyone can be this "Son of Sam" to the point (in typical neo-Nazi tradition) a "list" is created of potential suspects -- which includes the local priest! It is these subplots which add depth to the overall film but due to it's near 2 1/2 hour length creates a bit of boredom.

Indeed, there’s much one can say about this film; especially those who lived through it. As a kid in the Bronx, I remember my friends and I stalking suspected characters whom we thought could be this .44 caliber killer. One of the murders actually occurred not too far from where my older brother was living at the time. You throw in a 100 plus degree heat wave, that crazy blackout and it was a summer which many would not forget.

This insane time still haunts the surviving families of the victims especially. Some of them have spoken out against Summer of Sam. I have even read that Berkowitz himself (who is serving a 365 year sentence) has joined the opposition. Considered a financial flop, the film’s budget was $22 million though it didn’t break the $20 million mark in box office receipts. Perhaps the film for many wasn’t a pleasant diversion but just too painful of a nightmare to live through again.

Great closing credit sequence, by the way, in which the credits are in the form of newspaper headlines. All in all, I’ll have to give this one a "3." For many, it will be just another (long) serial killer story and not be of much interest. But for others, it will be like taking a trip back in time a very hot and deadly summer.

© Terrence J. Brady

The ratings for "Pan & Scan" are broken down into a simple 1-5 scale as follows: 5 = "Forget renting it - BUY IT!"; 4 = "Definite Must Rent"; 3 = "Coin Toss" (Rent it OR wait for cable); 2 = "Wait For Cable"; 1 = "Ignore It!" (Even when it's on network TV).