Review: Red Hook Summer (Sundance 2012)
PLOT: Thirteen-year-old Flik (Jules Brown) is forced to spend the summer away from his comfortable Atlanta home, with his mother dropping him off at his estranged Grandfather Enoch's (Clarke Peters) cramped apartment in the Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn. Enoch, a fiery Christian Pastor, is determined to make Flik accept Jesus Christ as his Savior, but Flik is more interested in causing a little mischief with a local girl, Chazz (Toni Lysaith).
REVIEW: RED HOOK SUMMER has been the talk of the Sundance Film Festival over the last few days, but not in a good way. Given that it's a Spike Lee joint, there was a whole lot of interest in this going in, especially with his returning him to his Brooklyn roots, and even, in a few short scenes, allowing to to reprise his role of Mookie from DO THE RIGHT THING (Mook's still delivering pizzas for Sal).
Sadly, RED HOOK SUMMER ain't no DO THE RIGHT THING. Heck, I'd even go so far as to say it's no SHE HATE ME, which up to now has been the Lee film I've hated the most. For me, Lee's a guy whose craft is undeniable. At his best, there are few better (MALCOLM X, THE 25TH HOUR, DO THE RIGHT THING). But, he also has a self indulgent streak that in full effect here.
Running a lengthy 130 minutes (it feels twice as long), I'm not exaggerating when I say at least an hour of the running time is devoted to Enoch's lengthy sermons at his Little Piece of Heaven church. If you thought the sermon in RED STATE was long, you ain't seen nothing yet. These scenes allow Lee to comment on everything from socialized medicine, to the recession, to Barack Obama, but while interesting (to a degree), I wasn't in the mood to be preached at, which is what a lot of RED HOOK SUMMER feels like.
But then- in the last thirty minutes, Lee throws us a massive curveball, and all of a sudden it becomes a lot more interesting. It has to do with a revelation involving Enoch, and from there, the film actually becomes quite good, even if at this point it's too little too late. Too much of the film is a mess for it to be redeemable towards the end, although if Lee were to shorten the film by a good forty minutes, and erase some of the omnipresent score (by Bruce Hornsby, which is good- but constant), it might help things a bit.
Still, one thing that can't be improved by editing are the two lead performances by youngsters Lysaith and Brown. I hate criticizing performances by kids, but it's obvious these two don't really know how to act on screen. Sure, in a high school play, they might have been really good, but some of the line readings here are atrocious, and Lee really needed to get better actors for the roles.
However, the one guy you can't criticize is THE WIRE's Clarke Peters, who's nothing short of incredible as Enoch. Sermonizing, Peters is on fire, even if the sequences themselves are way too long and tedious. In the last section of the film, Peters pulls off a number of very difficult scenes, and I really think he gives an awards-worthy performance even if the film lets him down.
I'm tempted to say RED HOOK SUMMER is worth seeing just for Peters and the last part of the film, but I dunno, for over 100 minutes, it's an ordeal. Perhaps in a shorter cut it might work a bit better, but in it's present form it's a mess, and one of the real misfires of the festival.