Spike Lee is back!  He premiered his latest joint, Red Hook Summer this week at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival to a sold out crowd of 1300, and it has become one of the most talked about films of the festival.  In a return to form (and Brooklyn), Lee brings back the colorful visual and storytelling style (and even a few characters!), that made him famous with Do The Right Thing.  As usual, he doesn’t pull any punches, and left audiences with a lot to discuss.  Check out the rest of the review after the jump…

The Players

  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Screenwriters: Spike Lee, James McBride
  • Starring: Clarke Peters, Jules Brown, Toni Lysaith, Nate Parker, James Ransone, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Spike Lee

Synopsis:

Flick (Brown), a 12 year old boy from Atlanta, is made to spend the summer with his Grandfather Enoch (Peters), a Baptist Bishop in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  Removed from his cushy, suburban trappings for the first time, Flick gets a strong dose of urban life, and an even stronger dose of his Grandfather’s spirituality.  As he acclimates to his new surroundings, Flick learns about friendship, young love, and his mysterious family history.

The Good:

  • Welcome Back, Spike - This film feels much closer to Lee’s earlier works, like, She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, and Crooklyn.  In fact, he even brings back Mookie, the pizza delivery man he played in Do The Right Thing for a couple of key moments.  But the film’s richly colored look (Shot digitally on the Sony F-3 as well as an iPad 2), quick editing (by an NYU grad-student of Lee’s), and large cast of diverse characters, makes for an engaging story.  Lee insisted, though, that this film is not a sequel to Do The Right Thing, but just a chapter in his “Brooklyn Chronicles.”  Somehow, it’s nice to know that all these stories take place in the same universe.
  • Clarke Peters - Peters might be the most soulful actor working today.  Between HBO’s The Wire and Treme, as well as his numerous supporting roles, Peters has a winning track record as far as solemn, sincere performances go.  His gravitas and authority allow him to dominate the film whenever he is featured on screen.  His sermon scenes are energetic and powerful, and the struggle that is rife within him is clear and dynamic.  Though the story is told through the children’s eyes, the film belongs entirely to him.
  • More Wire Actors – Though they’re only briefly featured, Red Hook Summer also features James Ransone, who played Ziggy Sabotka in the 2nd season of The Wire, as well as Isiah Whitlock Jr., who played Clay Davis on the show.  Ransone gives a particularly charming performance, in the brief scenes in which he’s featured, and Whitlock gets to deliver his trademarked line: “Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiit.”  This is of no real consequence to the film…I’m just a giant fan.

The Bad:

  • The Kids – Now, this is not to say that the kids are bad performers, but it is to say that they’re handed a little more than they can manage.  Both children have a few meaty monologues that are written so distinctly in other peoples voices, that it is clear they’re struggling to achieve their speeches’ true meanings.  In fact…
  • The Voices – I certainly can’t fault Spike Lee for having a distinct and unique voice among other filmmakers.  However, at a certain point, it sounds like almost every character is speaking as him.  If he wanted to postulate in his own timbre, he could have simply left it up to his self portrayed character, Mookie (which he does, more than a couple of times).  The characters all have separate traits & characteristics, but verbally, are almost indistinguishable.
  • Twisty 3rd Act – Now this is something that I don’t actually consider to be bad, but it seems to be the most divisive aspect of the film among audiences here at Sundance.  Without divulging too much, the movie takes a hard left turn towards the end that changes the tone of the film entirely.  Others seemed to find it inconsistent with the rest of the story, and that difference seems to have driven a lot of the controversy surrounding this film.  But for the record, I actually enjoyed it, and don’t count it as a negative when tallying up my final score for this film.

Overall:

Spike Lee has always been an unflinching filmmaker, who makes exactly the film he wants to make.  If this story were in the hands of anyone but his, it would have turned out to be a chore.  However, Red Hook Summer has a strong energy and enjoyable characters that keep the story clipping along from beginning to end.  As a unique coming of age story, ultimately Red Hook Summer turns out to be a film that will provoke the discussion of whether or not religion is a force that compels people to be decent to each other, or enables them to hide from their own truths.

Rating: 8/10