Summer of Sam/Miracle at St. Anna (US - BD)
Gabe revisits one Spike Lee movie that still works and one that never did...
Summer of Sam
During New York City’s infamous summer of 1977, friends in a small Italian neighborhood become convinced that the notorious .45 Caliber Killer (aka: The Son of Sam) is someone close to home. The madman’s reign of terror sparks a wave of distrust that tears relationships apart. (From Touchstone’s official synopsis)
It’s incredible that it took Hollywood 22 years for to make a movie about the notorious summer of 1977. One would assume that one of the era’s prime New York storytellers, like Martin Scorsese or Sidney Lumet, would’ve been compelled to tell the story more than a decade ago. It does feel appropriate, however, that one of the greatest students of ‘70s era filmmaking and NYC resident, Spike Lee, would be the guy to finally bring the incendiary and varied story to the big screen. Summer of Sam is a typically flashy movie, including all the mosaic editing, craning camera moves, and surreal touches we’ve come to expect from the director. His stylish amplifications fit the outrageous extremes of the mid-‘70s perfectly and are beautifully mixed with the gritty imagery that defined American movies during the era.
The film was originally noted for being the first Spike Lee film not centered around African American characters. This was considered ‘growth’ for Lee at the time, but, in retrospect, seems to have been a mistake. Not because Lee should limit himself to the African American experience, but because the summer of ’77 was a vital time for cultural growth in the black community. The early hip-hop scene was flourishing alongside the middle-class punk rock of CBGB and the upper-class disco of Studio 54. And, unlike those cliquey musical movements, hip-hop culture was blossoming in the streets. The lack of inclusion (aside from the ‘darker perspective’ offered during a brief television news segment) is, ultimately, a symptom of Summer of Sam’s messy ambitions. Lee and screenwriting collaborators Victor Colicchio & Michael Imperioli (both more well-known for their acting) are trapped by a feature-length runtime that doesn’t leave room to cover the complete scope of the cultural impact, yet they’re determined to spread the story over an ensemble of characters. It is too much and not enough at the same time. In a perfect world, they’d get a second chance with a television mini-series, where all the interlacing storylines could’ve been given room to breathe.
This 1080p, 1.85:1 release marks the first HD availability of Summer of Sam, which was previously only available on a non-anamorphic DVD in the states. As noted above, the film is made to look extremely gritty. Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras painstakingly make the 35mm film source look rough, gritty, and very warm. Details are much sharper than the DVD release, especially texturally-heavy close-ups, despite being limited by the constant stream of black film grain (during daylight scenes, you can see Leguizamo’s shoulder tattoo through the make-up). The poppy colours bleed a little during the softer wide-shots (blacks are compromised in darker scenes), but there aren’t any major issues with blocking effects. Flashback inserts and shots of Berkowitz’s private little hell are the most heavily stylized, including super thick grain and surrealistic colour qualities (these must’ve to have been shot on 16mm). The new, uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is most vital in relation to scenes that use period music. The music is mixed to change tone and placement depending on the audience’s point-of-view and moves beautifully through the stereo and surround channels. Other aural highlights include those nightmarish Berkowitz scenes. Terence Blanchard’s musical score is often entirely inappropriate and overstated (aside from the murder scenes, where he embraces jazzy influences), but is given the same warm, multi-channel punch as the pop/rock/disco entries. The only extra is a brand new commentary track featuring Lee and Leguizamo.
Miracle at St. Anna
The untold story of courage and brotherhood in this World War II epic is based on the celebrated novel of James McBride. Stationed in Italy, four members of the U.S. Army’s all-black, 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffalo Soldiers, are trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a traumatized young boy. (From Touchstone’s official synopsis)
Miracle at St. Anna probably should’ve been the biggest slam-dunk of Spike Lee’s career. He was fresh off his most financially successful film, Inside Man, and (arguably) his most significant work as a documentarian with the epic When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. His technical skills were at their peak and the story of the 92nd Infantry was perfectly attuned to his thematic sensibilities. All of the pieces were in place, but, somehow, Miracle at St. Anna would become one of the director’s most disappointing efforts. It wasn’t merely a misfire – it was a stylistically indiscernible mediocrity, brimming with heavy-handed morals and enough war genre clichés to make even John Wayne roll his eyes. Perhaps Lee and screenwriter James McBride are playing with WWII pulp conventions, but they’re doing it in such a tone-deaf way that they insult their audience. Every character is divided by the broadest archetypes and the cultural distinctions (German baddies, Italian victims, and heroic black American soldiers) are oddly vulgar. Lee ends up paying more homage to Steven Spielberg than I’m sure he intended, which, above badly constructed action scenes and an excessive runtime, is my biggest issue with the film. I’ve already seen Spielberg’s take on WWII – I came to Miracle at St. Anna to see what Spike Lee could bring to the table. Saving Private Ryan is a fantastic film, but its success has put a stifling stranglehold on the genre, something Lee’s patented character conflicts, moral ambiguities, and snappy editing could have – and should have – changed.
This release comes fitted with the exact same HD transfer as the 2009 Blu-ray. Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot Miracle at St. Anna on 35mm (with some 16mm inserts) and opted for the ‘Steven Spielberg WWII Universe’ look that all WWII productions (films and TV series) began using post- Saving Private Ryan. This includes consistently overcast skies, desaturated colours, high-contrast stock, and shutter speed change-ups. The important elements to this particular 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer are the clean browns and greens, the deep black levels, and the overall clarity, which is top notch, even during darker sequences. Details are crisp with only minor halo effects along the harshest edges and the subtler, sunny gradations are smooth without any banding effects. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack focuses more on dialogue and Terence Blanchard’s less than impressive score (sometimes to the detriment of sound effects editing). The orchestrations feature great depth, but overwhelm the sound effects, even during the otherwise bombastic action sequences.
- A new commentary track with Lee and screenwriter James McBride
- Deeds Not Words (17:10, HD) – A literal roundtable discussion with Spike Lee, James McBride, and six Buffalo Soldier veterans.
- The Buffalo Soldier Experience (22:00, HD) – Further discussion of the history of black American soldiers.
- Nine deleted scenes (HD)
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st January 1995
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Star Commentary (Summer of Sam), Director and Screenwriter Commentary (Miracle at St. Anna), Deeds Not Words, The Buffalo Soldier Experience, Deleted Scenes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Anthony LaPaglia, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso, Omar Benson Miller, Pierfrancesco Favino
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama, Thriller and War
Length: 302 minutes
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