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Friday, May 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Crooklyn' -- Spike Lee's Tale Of A '70S Family May Hold Little Crossover Appeal

------------------------------------------------------------------ Movie review

XX 1/2 "Crooklyn," with Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, Zelda Harris. Directed by Spike Lee, from a script by Lee, Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee. Alderwood, Crossroads, Factoria, Gateway, Kirkland Parkplace, Lewis & Clark, Newmark, Metro, Mountlake, Oak Tree. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised because of language. ------------------------------------------------------------------

At a local promotional screening last week for the all-black family drama, "The Inkwell," the nearly all-black audience received the movie with cheers, tears and soundtrack-obliterating laughter. Rarely have I witnessed such enthusiasm for a new movie.

Yet four white teenagers, clearly bored and indifferent to the adolescent angst of the movie's star, Larenz Tate, walked out midway through. Would they have stayed if Tate had shot a few people, as he did in last year's low-budget hit, "Menace II Society"?

Variety's critic, Leonard Klady, thinks so: "The unnerving irony is that hard-edged, violent black films have a crossover potential you don't find in more humanistic items from that community."

Box-office figures tend to bear him out. "Menace II Society" was one of last year's most profitable movies, drawing white as well as black audiences, and earning more than $25 million on an investment of $3.5 million.

"The Inkwell," which cost $5 million, had a huge opening

weekend, earning about $6,000 per theater, but business dropped off 40 per cent the second week. The film now seems unlikely to reach that crossover audience needed to keep it playing opposite the upcoming summer blockbusters.

Spike Lee's new picture, "Crooklyn," may face the same problem. Like "The Inkwell," it's set in the 1970s, it concentrates on a middle-class black family and it's loaded with cultural and fashion references that will either make you wince or inspire you to get out your bell bottoms and Jackson 5 records.

In Lee's words, it was "a time when young urban African-American children were motivated primarily by two things: television and sugar," and there's plenty of junk food and junk TV on view. Those who feel little nostalgia for "The Partridge Family" and "Soul Train" are forewarned.

The closest thing to crime here is shoplifting, while drugs are limited to glue-sniffing (Lee has a cameo role as the neighborhood's most obnoxious glue addict). For long stretches of the movie, it seems as if screaming matches with a neighbor and failure to pay the electric bill are the worst things that can happen.

In terms of drama, "Crooklyn" is even less eventful than "The Inkwell," which at least takes the form of a rites-of-passage story. What Spike Lee and his sibling screenwriters, Joie Susannah Lee and Cinque Lee, are attempting here is a kind of American variation on Fellini's "Amarcord" ("I Remember"): a dreamlike, semi-autobiographical vision of a somewhat idealized past.

Most scenes take place in and around a Brooklyn brownstone populated by the Carmichael family, made up of long-suffering mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), unemployed-musician father Woody (Delroy Lindo), their 10-year-old daughter Troy (Zelda Harris) and her four bullying brothers.

The movie is at its best when it's concentrating on the mother-daughter relationship, thanks in great part to Woodard, who has become a national treasure, and Harris, an irrepressible child who has appeared on "I'll Fly Away" and makes a knock-out big-screen debut. The males have less to do, although Lindo is quite good as a character patterned after Lee's musician father, Bill Lee.

"Crooklyn" is at its worst when the script meanders into sitcom-style anecdote-telling (even a funeral near the end has this quality) or the director tries to pump up the material with wild visual effects. Using an anamorphic (CinemaScope) lens to turn Troy's visit with a Southern aunt into a surreal experience, Lee succeeds only in giving the audience eyestrain. It's a cute idea, but it shouldn't go on for 15 headache-inducing minutes.

One of the director's favorite movies is "West Side Story," and you can feel its influence in several street scenes that fairly beg to be turned into full-blown dance numbers. There's a choreographed quality to the action in these episodes, and the abundant use of R&B 1970s classics on the soundtrack only heightens the effect.

While "Crooklyn" probably won't succeed as a crossover movie, it suggests a new direction for its director's career. Could Spike Lee be the man to revive the big-screen musical?

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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