Spike Lee is a talented, polarizing director who sometimes lets politics get in the way of his filmmaking. His films of late have been disappointing, but this Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 2 includes two solid films in high definition: The sprawling serial killer drama Summer of Sam and the ambitious but flawed Miracle at St. Anna.
Summer of Sam - 1999 -142 minutes - Rated R
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Instead of creating his own Se7en about the Son of Sam killer, Lee does something far more interesting: He uses "The .44 Caliber Killer" and the hysteria surrounding the murders in the 1977 Bronx as the backbone of a personal narrative about John Leguizamo's Vinny, Adrien Brody's Richie, and other members of the Throggs Neck community. Shot in a period-appropriate haze of bellbottoms, knit shirts and neon-nightclub sparkle, Summer of Sam sees young women and their boyfriends brutally murdered at random by the deranged killer. Vinny almost meets his end at the killer's hands while cheating on his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and promises to make amends after the near-death experience. Vinny's longtime friend Richie is into the punk-rock scene, and comes around with a spiked mohawk, multiple piercings and skin-tight jeans. The community is on edge, looking for a sexually perverse or socially devious killer, and Richie soon has a target on his back. When the cops fail to name a suspect, they enlist the help of a local mobster (Ben Gazzara), who rallies the community into a witch-hunting frenzy.
The film is less about the Son of Sam killer than the community he terrorized, and Summer of Sam does an excellent job transplanting viewers amid the tight-knight neighborhoods of the Bronx. Lee really nails the atmosphere and mood, effectively spotlighting his characters' friendships, careers and nighttime liaisons with an unbiased eye. Leguizamo and Brody are particularly entertaining to watch, as both men swing for the rafters playing flawed, completely human characters. There are strong, liberated females in Sorvino's Dionna and Jennifer Espositio's Ruby, who dates Richie even after finding out he moonlights as an exotic dancer and gigolo. Martin Scorsese's influence is hardly hidden in the rapid-fire, colloquial dialogue, and Lee comfortably mixes a number of character arcs without allowing the overall story to get lost in the shuffle. The director also pops up as a newscaster caught amid the Sam-fueled mob in a couple of funny scenes. **** out of *****.
Miracle at St. Anna - 2008 - 160 minutes - Rated R
Lee's epic war drama suffers from an identity crisis, likely brought on by its ambitious director's inability to decide what story to tell. At its core, Miracle at St. Anna is about the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit of African-American soldiers, on a campaign in 1944 Italy during World War II. Depicting these "Buffalo Soldiers" on screen seems a perfect fit for Lee, but the director fumbles the ball. After a disastrous episode of friendly fire, several soldiers are caught behind German lines: Second Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke); Sergeant Bishop Cummings (Michael Ealy); Private First Class Sam Train (Omar Benson Miller); and Corporal Hector Negron (Laz Alonso). The men then bond with the people in a small Tuscan village while awaiting orders from command.
Miracle at St. Anna is a curiosity in that there is so much going on that none of it is especially compelling, leaving the film feeling lethargic and overstuffed. The initial troop movement, underscored by Nazi propaganda from the mouth of Axis Sally (Alexandra Maria Lara), is followed by an intense battle. The narrative then moves into several competing directions: Sam saves and becomes the father figure to a young Italian boy, Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi), and discovers the Head of the Primavera, which he lugs from town to town; several of the soldiers get romantically involved with a beautiful villager, Renata (Valentina Cervi); and an Italian betrays his own people to the Germans, resulting in a massacre. And then there are the bookend scenes, in which an elderly Negron shoots someone with a German Luger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt interviews him for the newspaper. Most of the acting is good, but Miracle at St. Anna feels like a rough cut; unpolished, unfocused and overlong. There are sparks of greatness here, but this one got away from its master. *** out of *****.
THE BLU-RAY COLLECTION:
Newly available on Blu-ray, Summer of Sam receives a solid 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on a dual-layer disc. Intentionally softer and grainy, this HD image likely replicates the intended theatrical appearance. Colors are warm but dialed back, and contrast in the summer sun is often boosted, resulting in tanned faces and blown-out highlights. The reds and blacks of the murder scenes are bold and nicely saturated, and blacks are inky and pure. There is some crush (likely intended) and a bit of edge enhancement here and there, but the grain structure appears mostly in check. The print is clean and without defects, and fine-object detail is often impressive. **** out of *****.
Although it's been available on Blu-ray for a few years, Miracle at St. Anna's 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer remains impressive. The bookend scenes are bright, with bold colors and beautiful, crystal-clear wide shots. The Italian scenes are darker and gritty, with a lot of grain and a green and black-heavy color scheme. Black levels are strong and shadow detail is good. Fine-object detail and texture are outstanding, from intimate facial features to the soldiers' uniforms to the bricks and walkways of the village. I noticed no issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction. ****1/2 out of *****.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix on Summer of Sam is quite immersive, with surround-heavy effects work and directional dialogue and ambient noise. Dialogue is crisp and clear, whether from the center channel or the surrounds, and city noise wafts through the rear speakers. Piercing action effects, like the shots from the killer's gun, slam through the surrounds and subwoofer, startling viewers and rocking the home theater. The score is weighty and nicely balanced. A Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital track and a French 2.0 Dolby Digital track are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. **** out of *****.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix on Miracle at St. Anna remains impressive. The early battle sequence is absolutely raucous, rocking the surrounds and subwoofer. Bullets whiz through the sound field and artillery rattles the room. Dialogue is crisp and well defined, and the score, from Terence Blanchard, is deep and resonant. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles. ****1/2 out of *****.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set is packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Each film gets its own disc and each disc has its own hub. There are extras specific to each film:
On disc one, for Summer of Sam, you get a newly recorded Commentary by Spike Lee and John Leguizamo; old friends and entertaining commentary hosts. Lee discusses his research into the Son of Sam case, casting and shooting in the Bronx, and Leguizamo adds some excellent anecdotes and production information. ** out of *****.
Miracle at St. Anna's extras are found on Disc Two and kick off with a new Commentary by Spike Lee and Author/Screenwriter James McBride, who wrote the source material. The commentary is frustrating in that it hints at a better film that did not make it to the screen. There is a lot of historical information and production discussion, but Lee doesn't really hit on the film's weaknesses, which is a missed opportunity to clear the air. The disc also includes nine Deleted Scenes (12:30 total/HD); Deeds Not Words (17:10/HD), a roundtable with Lee and several veterans; and The Buffalo Soldier Experience (22:00/HD), which provides an overview of the unit and its soldiers. *** out of *****.
The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Vol. 2 is a solid, affordably priced set. Summer of Sam is a sprawling, engaging drama set amid a terrorized 1977 Bronx, and Miracle at St. Anna is an ambitious swing-and-miss about World War II "Buffalo Soldiers." The discs are technically solid, and include a mix of old and new bonus features. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.