Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999: SUMMER OF SAM and ARLINGTON ROAD

Reviewing Movies Like it’s 1999: SUMMER OF SAM and ARLINGTON ROAD

While researching whether or not to go through with this Reviewing Movies Like is 1999 column, one of the deciding factors came when I went through the July ’99 release schedule and realized that doing it meant I could revisit both Summer of Sam (released July 2nd) and Arlington Road (released July 9).   These films didn’t

While researching whether or not to go through with this Reviewing Movies Like is 1999 column, one of the deciding factors came when I went through the July ’99 release schedule and realized that doing it meant I could revisit both Summer of Sam (released July 2nd) and Arlington Road (released July 9).  

These films didn’t do well at the time and were all but buried during their summer release dates and one wonders if they had come out earlier or later in the year if they would have made more of an impact.  On one hand, both are flawed and not without issues, but on the other, both have a lot going on underneath the surface.  I’d go as far to say that they might be the two most underrated films from the “Best Year in Movies” and have been mostly forgotten or relegated to “also ran” status when put up against the likes of Matrix, Fight Club, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, etc.

First up, Summer of Sam is the Spike Lee joint concerning a hot ass summer in ’77 where drugs, sex, and disco were on tap.  The series of random killings committed by the .44 Caliber Killer aka The Son of Sam is the backdrop for the tumult of massive societal change forced upon a kaleidoscope of the various characters in the Bronx neighborhood where the murders occur with the primary focus on two couples who each react differently to the changes around them.  John Leguizamo (the always committed MVP of any movie- just ask Spawn) plays the philandering husband to Mira Sorvino.  Leguizamo’s character’s paranoia, insecurity, and serious Catholic driven issues with sexuality cause him (fueled by a serious diet of drugs) to self-destruct, blowing up his entire life and the loved one’s around him. Sorvino as his wife tries to save their marriage, but ultimately ends up having to break free from his emotional abuse.  The changes in society tear their marriage apart and compromise their very sanity. 

Leguizamo’s character’s best friend, played by Adrien Brody, is an early punk rock adopter and sexually fluid guy trying to rise above the oppression of the neighborhood.  He links up with the “neighborhood slut” played by Jennifer Esposito and, by recognizing their humanity, fall in love and start to break free from the “old ways”.  This couple is seemingly affected positively by these societal changes.  But it all catches up with them as “Sam” drives the various knuckleheads in the neighborhood to hunt down and suppress/ beat up all the “weirdos.” Which really ends up being anyone who is different thus being deemed suspect as they are not conforming to their traditional roles/ identities.

One of the aspects that might throw people off the film, is that Summer of Sam isn’t really about the Son of Sam murders or the investigation. In that regard, I actually think it would pair well with Zodiac which granted, is a little more about “finding the killer”, but what both movies have in common is that the serial killers and the events surrounding them are metaphors for the whole 60s/ 70s counterculture decadence, both in its freedom and what turned out to be its rotten core. 

Among the criticisms I’ve seen for the film, is that it’s “Lee imitating Scorsese”.  Or coming a couple years after Boogie Nights, it seems to be relishing in the 70s nostalgia and the era’s amoral “rise and fall”.  But like many Lee films, it might be that… but it’s also so much more.  I would argue the movie is almost trying to do and say too much. Forcing all its messaging through at the expense of tonal and plot cohesion.  Lee puts a shotgun blast to the varied themes that crop up throughout the film including homophobia, racism, misogyny/ toxic masculinity, Catholic guilt and religious oppression, the “sexual revolution” (and how it was different for men and women) and serves as both a love/ hate letter to the Big Apple…  while trying also to be a “true crime” serial killer drama.  

Objectively the movie is kind of a mess, but I end up really enjoying and appreciating it as a “flawed” epic.  Perhaps there is a better movie to be found in here with a more focused story, tighter/ less indulgent editing, and maybe Lee could pick a couple themes and stick to them. Then again, I would rather see a movie take a big swing and try to be about something even if it’s trying to be about everything.  And as the case with a lot of Spike Lee movies, he opts to “go for broke” and makes big/ bold choices at every turn- and you got to respect that.  Sure, this “all or nothing” method can be criticized. Then again- it’s art. So maybe Lee is right and doesn’t need to follow the rules. 

Summer of Sam effectively invokes feelings, passion, and emotions from both its characters and its audience.  I get the impression the first cut for this movie had to have been five hours long and they kept having to “kill their darlings” and chisel all these varied ideas down, but they couldn’t let a lot of these moments go so what we have left is a “greatest hits” of those ideas.  Which might be why it clips along even with its bloated two and half hour run time. Summer Of Sam has perhaps too much to contain in one movie and it feels overstuffed and overstylized at times, but it’s also fascinating and gives viewers a lot to digest and unpack.  

Arlington Road is what is referred to as a Hitchcockian Thriller, a movie seeped in paranoia, deception, double crosses, plot twists, and an unwitting “wrongfully accused” man uncovering a greater conspiracy.  In this case, Jeff Bridges plays a widowed professor obsessed with various acts of homegrown terrorism inspired by events involving right wing militia/ terrorists… think the Oklahoma City Bombing, Waco Siege, Ruby Ridge, etc.  He becomes convinced that his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are domestic, anti- government terrorists plotting a future attack and he gets involved in more ways than he could ever imagine.

The movie was inspired by the aforementioned domestic terrorist attacks/ armed clashes/ tragedies of the 90s, but it also seemed to predict the “easy answer scapegoating” mentality that would play out after the 9/11 attacks a couple years later.  And today, with things like the Capitol Attack on January 6, it feels like the threats of domestic, right-wing terrorism are even more of a concern that they were pre- 9/11 and with this film.  Arlington Road dabbles with these deeper layers and questions and doesn’t give an easy answer or comforting ending. Even if it is all a bit heavy handed.

Arlington Road is an exhausting viewing experience. It feels like your emotions are being assaulted at times. It is like a traditional Hitchcockian thriller, but turned up to 11 and about as subtle as a hammer to the forehead.  The performances start out big (especially Bridges’) and become Kabuki-like in their broadness.  The narrative seems to defy credibility almost in real time as the plot twists and contrivances keep piling up to the big reveal at the end.  And stepping back, very little of it probably makes sense or conforms to something resembling reality or how a normal person would react.  But as long as the ride is fun and engrossing- then who cares?  

Arlington Road has a lot of style and always propels forward with momentum like a freight train.  If one were to be a “Monday Night quarterback” to director Mark Pellington and his artistic choices, it might have been better if everything was executed with a little more subtlety.  Maybe the narrative and mystery could have slowly unravelled instead of Bridges jumping to conclusions almost from the start. Or maybe the acting performances could have been grounded a bit more, but despite these perceived flaws I think the movie is pretty memorable and nails the goal of both rattling and exciting the audience.  And by striving to be more than a mere popcorn thriller, perhaps it would get people to consider and confront these important issues a bit more rather than blindly accepting the “truth they’re told”.  

It may be because of their boldness that Summer of Sam and Arlington Road didn’t quite reach the coveted great/ classic status.  But its also because of that, they became worthy films to discover, rewatch, or re-evaluate.  To describe these kinds of movies, I like to paraphrase the classic “movie about movies” Bad and the Beautiful, where at one point a director argues that a great film is a pearl necklace that is held together by a strong string and if one were to make every moment and scene its own beautiful pearl, they will lose sight of the string that holds them all together- making it not a great film.  But I would also argue that a movie with a lot of pearls is still something to admire and even study (more so than a “perfect” movie) because there is expert craft on display.  After all, someone had to strive and stumble first. And by taking chances, these films pushed the dial of what movies can become, leaving others to ingest and create their own “great movies”.

That’s another column down- there are a lot of movies in July but I think I’m going to talk about Blair Witch Project or Eyes Wide Shut next time…  maybe both!  Stay tuned to find out….

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