One movie is set in Brooklyn, N.Y., the other in Manchester, England. Both are neighborhood dramas with a comic edge, about families struggling to make ends meet while the man of the house is unemployed. And both films come from controversial directors known for bringing a political agenda to the screen: black American firebrand Spike Lee and British provocateur Ken Loach. But with Crooklyn, Lee takes a break from the incendiary spirit that fuelled Malcolm X (1992) to create a softhearted, and softheaded, family reminiscence. In Raining Stones, meanwhile, Loach keeps his anger simmering on the back burner while infusing his caustic working-class realism with uncharacteristic optimism and warmth.
By turns witty, moving and harrowing, Raining Stones is a wonderful movie, a street-level drama endowed with the kind of authenticity that Crooklyn so clearly lacks—despite its autobiographical underpinnings.
Set in the early 1970s, Crooklyn tells the story of a black, middle-class family loosely based on the director’s own. Lee co-wrote the script with two of his four siblings, Joie and Cinqué. And like their own family, the one in the movie consists of a mother who works as a teacher, a jazz-musician father, four sons, one daughter and a Citroen station wagon. Most of the action takes place in and around the family’s brownstone apartment in Brooklyn.
After one of Lee’s typically graceful opening-title sequences, the movie plunges into a raucous, almost unwatchable melee of screaming and squabbling as the mother, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard), tries to control her kids and motivate her husband, Woody (Delroy Lindo). The mayhem, which swamps the first half hour of the movie, aims for cheap laughs, with one boy urinating on the floor and another throwing up in a plate of blackeyed peas. Woodard, a fine actress and a radiant screen presence, somehow maintains her dignity, and as the sitcom madness settles down, the movie gradually gets better. Tenyear-old Troy (Zelda Harris), the sister surrounded by four brothers, emerges as the central character. Through her eyes, the movie begins to acquire some focus.
Like any Spike Lee movie, Crooklyn contains some masterful scenes—there is a priceless sequence of Troy watching an Amazonian drag queen put the moves on a squat Puerto Rican in the cereal section of a supermarket. The movie also has a great soundtrack, but musical montage becomes a lazy substitute for script. The story is shapeless. It unfolds as a garrulous elegy to an age of innocence, when black children were happy watching The Partridge Family and Soul Train and the only drug lord on the block was a glue-sniffer (played by Lee in an Afro.)
As a director, Lee is not known for his light
touch. And in a movie without a political mission, his megaphone style is merely obnoxious. When Troy goes to stay with her grotesquely suburban relatives in the South, Lee warps the images with an optical effect that makes everyone look long and narrow. After 20 minutes, like Carolyn confronting her brats, you just want to yell, “Cut it out!”
Loach does not resort to any attention-getting artifice in Raining Stones. His seamless naturalism makes it easy to forget that any acting or directing went into it. Bob (Bruce Jones), an unemployed worker on the dole, is trying to raise some extra cash to buy his daughter a dress for her first communion. In a series of comic misadventures, he rustles a sheep with his cynical pal Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) and later peddles the meat in a local pub. He also tries stealing sod, cleaning drains and working as a bouncer. “I’m duckin’ and weavin’, just tryin’ to keep my head above water,” says Bob. And as he gets out of his depth with the local loan shark, the story takes a dark turn.
Like Riff Raff (1990), Loach’s grim story of construction workers, Raining Stones is directed with a documentary-like spontaneity. The director allows improvisation among his talented actors, who speak in a thick regional dialect that can be a challenge to decipher. Surprisingly, Raining Stones turns out to be much more than a coarsegrained slice of working-class life. In the end, the movie gears up into a heart-pounding thriller. And ironically, Bob finds some solace in the Roman Catholic Church—the source of his financial dilemma.
While Loach makes it clear that Bob’s willingness to sacrifice himself for a communion dress is tragically misguided, the director does not patronize him or ridicule his faith. He does not turn the Church into the enemy. In fact, in an intriguing twist, the family’s priest (Tom Hickey) becomes a kind of secular savior, the one person capable of instilling in Bob a sense of pragmatism.
Lurking behind the tragi-comedy of Raining Stones is a keen political intelligence. But instead of spelling out his solutions, Loach teases the audience. When Bob visits a tenants association, among all the little notices pinned on a bulletin board the camera keeps discreetly catching a large poster with the red-lettered headline, “Is there a socialist alternative?” Unlike Lee, Loach seems to understand that one tough question is worth more than a lot of easy answers.
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