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Lee's 'Summer of Sam' a sizzling look at '70s N.Y.

CANNES, France -- Spike Lee's "Summer Of Sam" has the right title. It isn't a film about David Berkowitz, the serial killer who named himself Son of Sam - but about the summer of 1977, when his bloody string of murders coincided with a heat wave and skirmishes in the ongoing American cultural war.

Lee's film, which premiered here Thursday in the Directors' Fortnight, is the most exciting I've seen at Cannes so far this year. It comes billed as his first film not about an African-American subject, but it might better be described as his first without any major black characters - because the subject is scapegoating, something black Americans know a lot about.

As Son of Sam's body count grows, and the city is paralyzed, a group of young Bronx men begin to look for suspects to fit the killer's profile - and center on such misfits as a cab driver (works nights), a priest (drinks, has strange ideas), a homosexual and a kid from the neighborhood who has adopted a punk lifestyle and wears his hair in weird spikes. Just as a long, hot summer day brought underlying prejudice to a boil in Lee's masterpiece, "Do the Right Thing," so does Sam-inspired paranoia generate violence during the "Summer of Sam."

The movie is electric, driven, feverish. Lee includes perhaps a dozen major characters. His leads, played by John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino, are Vinny and Dionne, a guilt-ridden, sexually insecure hairdresser and his wife, a waitress so worried about their marriage that she even asks one of his former girlfriends what turns him on. Their social life centers on discos, until Bronx nightlife shuts down under the Sam-inspired curfew of fear.

Other characters: a gangster (Ben Gazzara), asked by the cops to use his people to find the killer. The punk, who affects a British accent and switches in mid-movie from spiked hair to a yellow Mohawk. Cops. A man with a barking dog. Sexually adventurous wives. TV reporters. Vinny's friends. And columnist Jimmy Breslin and slugger Reggie Jackson, who in their own ways reflected the city's texture that summer.

Lee shows an instinctive grasp for the rhythms of New York neighborhood life. The crowded booths in pizza restaurants. Bars, clubs, living rooms. Hanging out where the street ends and the river begins. Going to Times Square looking for action. Drugs. A soundtrack from the hits of that summer.

What goes around, comes around, they said during the summer of Sam. In the late '70s, I was at Cannes for the premieres of films by Francis Coppola ("Apocalypse Now") and John Huston ("Under the Volcano"). Now I am here for the premieres of films by their daughters, Sofia Coppola ("The Virgin Suicides") and Anjelica Huston ("Agnes Browne").

The Coppola film tells the story of the suburban Lisbon family: science teacher dad and housewife mom (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) and their five beautiful daughters, all of whom commit suicide in the same tragic year.

The Huston film is about an Irish woman (played by Huston) who runs her own market stall. Her husband dies, she buries him, she continues to raise her brood, and she cements her bond with her best friend, another woman who works in the market. A man comes along - a nice man - and she has to decide if she wants to go through the whole man thing again.

"The Virgin Suicides," with its sense of puzzlement and mystery about deaths that cannot be explained, reminded me of a quite different film, "Picnic at Hanging Rock," which also was about an inexplicable disappearance. "The Virgin Suicides" received strongly favorable reviews and is said to be a favorite for the Camera d'Or award, given to the best first film.

"Agnes Browne" is another of the new wave of Irish films in which particular characters are seen so closely that you want to laugh and cry at the same time. It might seem a reach for Huston to direct and star in a film about an Irish working woman, but recall that she was born and raised in Ireland (where her father, to be sure, lived in his own castle). Her Agnes is convincing, involving and (this is important) very thoughtful but not too bright.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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