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For, Friday, June 12, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The always interesting boutique video label Kino Lorber has picked up five Spike Lee films for Blu-ray upgrades, four of which I reviewed during my tenure as movie critic at the Deseret News from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. Those reviews will appear on this page over the next few weeks, beginning today with my assessment of ‘Crooklyn,’ initially published in the Deseret News on May 17, 1994.

"Crooklyn" is the latest from Spike Lee, who directed, produced and has a small role. He also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother (Cinque Lee) and sister (Joie Susannah Lee, who also has a supporting role), and there are autobiographical resonances throughout the story of a family with five children living in Brooklyn during the 1970s.

The father (Delroy Lindo) is an aspiring musician who can't seem to concentrate on his music and who consequently isn't contributing to the household budget.

The mother (Alfre Woodard) earns the family's modest living as a schoolteacher, and she strives mightily to keep her brood in line in their rundown tenement building. It doesn't help that she has to scream at the kids to clean up and stop fighting, while he simply brings home ice cream and makes light of their problems.


     Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, 'Crooklyn' (1994)

But the focus here is on the children, in particular the lone daughter in the bunch — 10-year-old Troy, perfectly played by newcomer Zelda Harris — through whose eyes we see the film. Unfortunately, except for Troy, the children aren't nearly as well drawn as the adults.

The film is episodic, with no specific plot to drive things along until the final quarter, when tragedy strikes. There are some other affecting sequences, however, and Lee and his siblings obviously have a love for the period, which is captured with a combination of irreverence and nostalgia.

As a director, however, Lee's standard bag of gimmicks reaches a most unpleasant zenith here. There is the usual constant music, which occasionally drowns out dialogue, and the screaming matches that make his films seem entirely too loud.


    Spike Lee directs a scene for 'Crooklyn' (1994)

But this time he has outdone himself with an obnoxious 15-minute sequence shot entirely through an anamorphic lens, giving the effect of squeezing people and objects into skinny distortions. And my guess is that whole audiences will think the film is suddenly being projected through the wrong lens.

The idea is to help the audience feel Troy's distress when she is forced to stay for a time with well-to-do relatives in the South, causing her to feel the life being squeezed out of her. But it's a self-indulgent device and does not serve the film well.

Still, there is much to enjoy here if you can get past the artificial elements, and though the final quarter takes an unexpected twist that could have used a bit more foundation, it is quite heartfelt and genuine — and owes much to Woodard's wonderful screen presence.

"Crooklyn" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, vulgarity and drugs.