Movie Reviews 230 – Summer of Sam (1999)

Summer of SamI remember the Summer of Sam very well. I wasn’t living in New York city, or even in the same country, but regardless of where you were in 1977, you knew that New York was being terrorized by a crazed gunman killing innocent citizens. You could not avoid hearing about it the news, and as the killings piled up, so did the rhetoric, carnival like speculation and fear.

New York city itself wasn’t anything like it is today. Having just scraped by declaring bankruptcy two years earlier, it was in dire straits. Seedy, grimy, and already crime ridden before this latest murder spree, it seemed the perennial murder capital of the world averaging two thousand homicides a year. The birth of grindhouse exploitation (and blacksploitation) movies can be traced to NYC roots and later movies like Maniac used the squalid city as a backdrop. Cop shows reigned on TV, often set in similar decaying metropolises and even situation comedies like Good Times focused on tenement housing and poverty.

But at the same time, New York was still The Big Apple and the center of the world. Times Square was still the place to be on New Years Eve, Saturday Night Live was just gearing up (and arguably at it’s satirical best) and much to the chagrin of hard rockers everywhere, the city’s discotheques, notably Studio 54, was popularizing the disco glitter while at the same time raunchier clubs were quickly adapting to English punk rock.

Given the title Summer of Sam, I thought that this Spike Lee movie was a straight up drama about David Berkowitz’s assault on the city. But while this is a movie about the murders, it is as much a time capsule of the seventies. Lensed from the view point of young and troubled couple Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino), the city embarks on a manhunt where every suspicious character is suspect. Vinny’s old friend Richie (Adrian Brody) becomes the focus of that microscope as he adopts the punk lifestyle, among other secretive indulgences. The drama, both related to the crimes and the troubled relationships, are interesting enough, but what I enjoyed most was the trip to the past as the essence of the seventies is captured here better than in some movies actually made in the seventies.

Just like the era itself, it can be a bit hard to swallow. But if you lived the times it’ll bring back those memories of all that was good, bad, and yes ugly.

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