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Nashville Scene White Heat

Terror grips the Big Apple in electrifying "Summer of Sam"

By Jim Ridley

JULY 5, 1999:  The first reviewer who says how different Spike Lee's Summer of Sam is from his other movies deserves a conk upside the head. OK, his cast is primarily white, not black; his setting is the Bronx, not Brooklyn; and he works in a dynamic style that's bold-faced and all caps, even for him. Thematically, though, Lee's snapshot of the summer of 1977 is the soulmate to his indelible portrait of the summer of '89, Do the Right Thing. Lee may have shifted from Public Enemy to punk, but he retains his focus on the ways that provincialism, prejudice, and, above all, heat bring a city's underlying conflicts and character to a boil.

If Do the Right Thing had the urgency of breaking news, Summer of Sam is history written in tabloid thunder. Appropriately, the movie is introduced by Jimmy Breslin, the Daily News columnist whose sparring with the serial killer dubbed "Son of Sam" gripped New York in '77. "There are 8 million stories in the naked city," intones Breslin, "and this is one of them." The quote connects Summer of Sam to the gritty, location-shot Mark Hellinger melodramas of the late 1940s, which helped fuse New York and crime in the public imagination.

Lee aims for that kind of pulpy immediacy in Summer of Sam, which recreates the sweltering summer that punk, disco, Reggie Jackson, riots, mass murder, mass media, and temperatures in the 100s converged to ignite the city's tensions. Shot in tints as hot and livid as lipstick by Ellen Kuras, Summer of Sam focuses on a single Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx, where the killer's threat has turned brunettes blond and turned anyone offbeat into a suspect. To the fellas who hang out with Joey T. (Michael Rispoli) by the Dead End sign, Suspect No. 1 is Ritchie, a punk who dares to wear spiked hair and dog collars.

Ritchie's buddy Vinny (John Leguizamo) starts out sticking up for him, but he's got problems of his own--he's convinced his womanizing ways have made him Son of Sam's next target, and his trusting disco-dolly wife Dionna (an astonishing Mira Sorvino) is wising up. As the heat, the hostility, and the body count rise, so does the vigilante fervor in the neighborhood--and with it the pressure on Vinny to side against his friend with the freaky 'do.

Lee's movies have been accused of a narrow, provincial worldview. But his films have a lot of sympathy for misfits who long to escape peer pressure, ingrained racism, and a world the size of a city block--even if they often take a beating for their curiosity. It's no accident here that his villain, gunman David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), is a shut-in who stews in his room until he pops--while the hero, Ritchie, played with scruffy gallantry by Adrien Brody, is the character most willing to explore life outside the 'hood.

Ritchie, like Do the Right Thing's Radio Raheem, is also a scary-looking outsider who turns out to be a lot less threatening than the normal folks around him--normal folks like the thuggish Joey T. and bland, doughy Berkowitz. To Lee, there's nothing more dangerous than always being normal; he repeatedly forces his neighborhood boys into situations where they get to be "the other" for a change, whether ogled by Bowery punks or snubbed by disco patrons.

Working with a brilliant cast and a juicy, sprawling script cowritten with actors Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, Lee creates a tapestry of city life in which mobsters share meals with cops, drug dealers appoint themselves crime fighters, and overheated restaurant workers take turns in a meat freezer. From greasy spoons to glittery Studio 54, the movie's portrait of New York 1977 is as double-edged and multifaceted as its characters, who worry about the warring sides of their personalities and assume different identities with wigs and accents.

The movie's worst scenes, oddly enough, involve Berkowitz: They're shot in a hammy green-tinted horror-movie style that ranges from tasteless to ludicrous. I don't buy the contention that making the movie is an automatic affront to the victims' families, but there's no denying the shootings are photographed for grisly frissons: When one victim holds a book in front of her face, you just know Lee can't resist showing the bullet blasting through the cover. When he stoops to dubbing the words "Help me!" over a fly in Berkowitz's apartment, maybe it's time for Lee to start making movies instead of "joints."

However, if Lee handles the killer and the killings with gratuitous ugliness, he treats Mira Sorvino's wronged wife and Jennifer Esposito's promiscuous punk-in-training with a tenderness and empathy all but unseen in his female characters. And if the wall-to-wall score of '70s tunes resorts sometimes to cheap irony, it also conveys the vortex of passions and events swirling around the movie's many characters.

Despite its violence, the film's affection for the city remains intact. Lee's visual rock 'n' roll culminates in two electrifying montages of mayhem set to Who classics; even so, the closing sweep of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" seems anything but ambiguous. In Summer of Sam, as in Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee shows his love for the urban melting pot, even when it turns into a pressure cooker.

A Mamet for all seasons

In 1908, the front pages of the London newspapers were filled with stories about a 13-year-old boy's petty theft. A young cadet at a naval officer's training school had been expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order, forging the owner's name, and cashing it. His father, however, believed the boy's protestations of innocence and took the case all the way to the crown. England's political business was all but suspended while the country awaited the outcome.

Terence Rattigan dramatized the incident in his 1946 play The Winslow Boy, and now Rattigan's play has been adapted for the screen by American playwright/filmmaker David Mamet. Forgoing once again the hypermasculine, profane style that won him acclaim in films like House of Games, writer-director Mamet follows his playful, PG-rated The Spanish Prisoner with this courteous, restrained (and G-rated) British drama. Given Mamet's smarts, one tends to assume that any pattern to be discerned in his work must have meaning. The question is: What interests him in Rattigan's play? And does his fascination translate into new insight for the filmgoer?

Some clues to Mamet's method may be found in the subtle changes he makes in the received text. Rattigan moved the action from 1908 to the very eve of World War I; Mamet retreats to a happy medium, 1910, when rumors of European troubles were just reaching British shores. Nigel Hawthorne plays Arthur Winslow, the father, as a down-to-earth businessman, a bank manager with a decent living to pass along to his children. He's bemused by the younger generation; when his son Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon) defends necking with his girlfriend in the parlor by saying they were practicing a dance called the Bunny Hug, the father replies dryly, "Is that what they're calling it these days?" Yet he barely hesitates before initiating a campaign in the press and the House of Commons to erase the stain against his younger son Ronnie's good name; he is convinced that honor and right are not among the cultural casualties since his own youth.

"Right"--the word is repeated incessantly in Rattigan's text and in Mamet's adaptation. The former gives Ronnie's older sister Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) a suffragette's placard, but Mamet suggests that Catherine's fight for women's rights and Arthur Winslow's fight for his son are fundamentally different. Catherine pursues her cause through a bureaucratic organization to which she gives a few hours a week. To her, the vote is a symbol of equality, not a vital crusade. But "right" is not symbolic to her father; it is the object of a personal quest undertaken regardless of the consequences.

The key to The Winslow Boy lies not in what Mamet dramatizes, but in what he doesn't. Rather than supplement Rattigan's staging with images of the uproar in the press or the crowds outside the Winslow home, the filmmaker merely indicates that the case has become a wider phenomenon by showing a few newspaper cartoons. He does not take us into the courtroom, but has a servant deliver the verdict. The public remains offscreen.

To the director, The Winslow Boy is about the private decision to pursue a public remedy--a decision that could have been revoked many times, and nearly is. Tempers do not flare, voices are barely raised, emotions remain under rigorous control throughout. Everything that interests Mamet takes place in the ultimate privacy zone--in the minds of the characters. Much of it is never brought to speech.

And so The Winslow Boy becomes an exercise for Mamet: how to put on a play about something that's not found in the dialogue on the page. The Edwardian reserve of Rattigan's characters is the perfect treadmill for his workout. It's an entertaining exercise, to be sure, full of wonderful details like Rebecca Pidgeon's mannered performance, which Mamet turns into gentle sexual satire. For most moviegoers, it will be a diverting piece of Victoriana. But for David Mamet's fans, it will be another piece set into the incomplete jigsaw puzzle of this fascinating man's obsessions.

--Donna Bowman

Violin behavior

A craftsman may only be as good as his tools, but an artist is supposed to be an artist, regardless of what devices he employs. Yet the act of creation is a mysterious one, and strange stimuli often act in subtle collaboration. The Red Violin is director Francois Girard's second consecutive film to deal with the esoterica that surrounds the creation of art, specifically music. His previous film, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, took an impressionistic approach to the famed Canadian pianist, picking around the edges of his life and gift. The Red Violin consists of five interlocking vignettes about the passage of an amazing object from hand to hand and country to country, where it inspires passion in music lovers of varying ages and abilities.

Framed by a present-day bidding war at a Canadian auction house, the narrative begins in 17th-century Italy, as master violin-maker Nicolo Bussotti crafts the perfect instrument for his unborn son. The violin spends 100 years in the possession of an Austrian monastery and orphanage, until it is passed to a 6-year-old prodigy being trained by a French maestro. From there, the instrument travels with gypsies and is bartered to Frederick Pope, a 19th-century British virtuoso whose passionate music is stirred by the violin. By the 20th century, however, the red violin is in China, where a Communist Party official struggles to keep the decadent object hidden from her comrades.

The Red Violin suffers from the weaknesses that afflict almost all anthology films. The episodic structure and necessary passage from one segment to the next means that the audience doesn't get to spend enough time with the characters, or to understand the full relevance of the individual stories in the larger piece. The only performances that really stand out are from Georges Poussin as the French maestro; Don McKellar, who also cowrote this film and Glenn Gould with Girard, as a nervous auction assistant; and Samuel L. Jackson, whose portrayal of a prickly, covetous expert is his best and most nuanced work since he became a leading man.

Otherwise, the film seems to move inexorably from signpost to signpost, accompanied by mostly one-dimensional characters whose situations are either groaningly obvious or fairly obscure. Even the linking scenes at the auction, where descendants from each vignette battle for possession, fail to pay off. (For one thing, how did all these people learn the violin's history, when no one at any previous point in the film seems to know anything about it?)

But an anthology film has its advantages as well--mainly that it leads an audience to play each segment against the other, and to see reflections and motifs that may or may not be there. Girard and McKellar are not dilettantes: They make films that are attractive and spiked with multiple meanings. The simplistic way to tell this story would have been to focus on the violin's beauty, the power of music, and art for art's sake (especially in Red China). Girard and McKellar instead use the presence of the Bussotti to examine the myriad ways that art is inspired, rather than how art itself inspires.

The Red Violin may not make a suitably grand statement that connects all the players and their play, but it pinpoints the small moments quite effectively. The filmmakers explore love and mourning, fear and loneliness, lust and arrogance, panic and defiance, longing and betrayal--emotions that bleed out in the pull of a bow across strings on a magnificent red wooden frame.

--Noel Murray

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