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1991's 'A Rage in Harlem' and other films at the Black Harvest Film Fest

2014 Black Harvest Film Fest features 1991's overlooked crime caper 'A Rage in Harlem'

Hitting its 20th anniversary milestone this year, the Black Harvest Film Festival runs through the month of August at the Gene Siskel Film Center, spotlighting black cinema. The fest hasn't always been especially discerning about quality. I'm not sure that does anybody any favors. Quantity seems to be its primary goal, and my top pick of the remaining fest is a screening of "A Rage in Harlem," the 1991 heist comedy starring Robin Givens and Forest Whitaker. More on the film below.

"That Daughter's Crazy"

8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with a post-screening Q&A with Rain Pryor and the film's producers)

Even when she's recalling an alarming memory from her childhood, Rain Pryor finds a sardonic way to shape it. She was just 12 when her father, the comedian Richard Pryor, set himself on fire after a night of drinking and freebasing cocaine. Distraught, the family gathered at the hospital. "And as I was sitting there waiting, the doctor came out and said, 'Mrs. Pryor?' and eight women stood up."

Rain was born from her father's second marriage (there would be several more, as referenced above), and as a performer herself, she has the highest profile of his children. "That Daughter's Crazy" is, to an extent, the story of her life, with the film's title riffing on her father's Grammy-winning 1974 comedy album "That N-----'s Crazy". Smart, sensitive and funny, she has a knockout singing voice — and all of it is on display in scenes filmed during a performance of her one-woman show in New York.

But the doc itself, from director Elzbieta Szoka, has a strange sort of patina to it, as if it were made as a piece of promotional material. Szoka's curiosity is limited to a single talking-head interview with her subject, peppered with brief observations from Rain's mother and grandmother. No one from her father's side of the family appears, nor do any of her siblings. Nor does anyone who knew her during her childhood in Beverly Hills, a period she describes as a series of surreal highs and lows, growing up in the '70s the bi-racial child of a black father and Jewish mother.

Szoka declines to dig up more than a smattering of old photos; old snapshots are a documentary trope but a reliable one for a reason. Context is everything, and it's not so much that Rain is an unreliable narrator but that the film is missing any kind of outside perspective. Visually, the camera rarely strays anywhere beyond the inside of the theater where Rain performs and a few glimpses on her on the beach with child. It all feels so contained. Too contained.

As a performer, Rain is perhaps most dazzling when imitating her father. The shadow cast by a celebrity parent is a long one, and it's not clear how exactly she feels about this skill she possess. But there's so much joy in it! I forgot how much I miss Richard Pryor's piercing outlook, his jangled rhythms and delivery. For a brief moment, she is able to bring that energy back to life.

"Grand Gesture"

6:15 p.m. Aug. 22 & 8:15 p.m. Aug. 23

I wanted to like this film. I really did. The main titles alone — animated with sharp, angular Midcentury graphics — speak to a filmmaker (Dana Verde) with a sense of style.

"This is a guerrilla film made on a production budget of $10,000 USD and shot in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas," a title card announces at the outset. That figure isn't unusual for microbudget indies, but I've never seen film declare its budget and under-the-radar methods before it even begins. Transparency has its place, but it can also come across as a pre-emptive justification for the film's flaws.

A young woman flies to Vegas for a bachelorette party before her impending marriage when an ex-boyfriend shows up at her swanky hotel suite and tries to win her back. It's a clever set-up for a director on a budget: Book a hotel room and contain the bulk of the action therein. That's the extent of my admiration for this romantic comedy, alas. The writing is stilted, the performances mannered. The film just isn't at the level it needs to be; the terrible sound mixing is a major issue — and it is always the biggest giveaway that a filmmaker hasn't yet figured out a creative work-around when shooting with limited funds.

"A Rage in Harlem"

5:15 p.m. Aug. 24 (with a post-screening Q&A via Skype with director Bill Duke)

I hadn't seen this 1991 heist comedy until last week, and although it is not a lost masterwork, the film has its charms (notably a terrific score and deep bench of acting talent). It's one of those movies that may not fully hang together, but it works in select moments.

Not to be confused with the disposable 1989 Eddie Murphy vanity project "Harlem Nights," the movie is adapted from the Chester Himes crime novel of the same name. Its pulpy 1950s setting straddles the line between comedy and hard-boiled — though not always successfully. Tonally, there's something a little confused about the film. Producer Stephen Woolley described tensions behind the camera a few years ago in an interview for BBC Radio:

"About halfway through we (he and director Bill Duke) were looking at a scene, and I turned to Bill and said 'You know, that wasn't quite as funny as it was in the script. And I don't know why.' And he said to me, 'We're not making no g--damn comedy.' I'd raised the entire money for this film on the basis that it was a comedy. It was Chester Himes, it was supposed to be funny. And a shiver went down my spine and I hoped that Bill was joking. But I realized he thought we were making 'Porgy and Bess' and from there on in, I had to be on that film, on that set all the time."

Robin Givens plays a gangster's moll who escapes to New York, where she tries to offload a trunkful of stolen gold ore. Hoping to lay low, she shacks up with a dweeby innocent played by Forest Whitaker, an undertaker whose knucklehead colleagues include Wendell Pierce ("The Wire," "Treme") and T.K. Carter (an actor with an extensive TV resume as well, but who I always remember as Goldie Hawn's driver in 1980's "Seems Like Old Times").

Things get sticky when Givens' old gang from Mississippi track her down (one of the henchmen is played by Chicagoan John Toles-Bey, who also wrote the screenplay). Gregory Hines plays Whitaker's brother, a con artist with no patience for squares who eventually comes through when the stakes require it.

The story isn't much. The plot goes exactly where you think it will. So what works? The smaller moments. Beatrice Winde (also Chicago born and raised) has a brief but terrific cameo as a clerk in a cheap hotel that rents rooms by the hour. Her scene with Givens is brief, but she is such an enigma sitting behind that front desk, both friendly and menacing: Welcome to New York, kid.

Givens herself looks smashing in the period wardrobe. Her range isn't much, but she's got star wattage. As Whitaker escorts this knockout up to his room, his landlady appears on the landing, shakes her head and says to nobody in particular: "If Christ knew what kind of Christians he had here in Harlem, he'd climb right back up on that cross and start over."

And then there's the music. Something about the score under the main titles sounded familiar, with its caper-esque momentum of horns and propulsion and "relax, this isn't a gritty drama" assurance. It's the music you'd want for a Bill Murray-Harold Ramis flick, and as it happens, my ear wasn't playing tricks. The composer is Elmer Bernstein, the Oscar-winner who wrote the music for everything from "Stripes" to "Ghostbusters" to "Meatballs."

Bernstein's career spanned decades (it's a remarkable list of credits and you can see the full range and scope by checking out his filmography on elmerbernstein.com) but by the '90s he was mostly scoring dramas. "A Rage in Harlem" is the rare exception. The film doesn't quite deliver on those big brazen horns, but it gets there in fits and starts. It's a worth a look.

The Black Harvest Film Festival continues through the end of the month. For a full schedule of films and events go to siskelfilmcenter.org/blackharvest_2014.

The men behind He-Man

If you grew up in the '80s, there may have been a few Masters of the Universe figures strewn around the house. The Mattel-branded toy line — primarily comprising beasts and men with bulging, laughably steroidal muscles — are the subject of a new documentary called "Toy Masters," which comes to Chicago this weekend, with the filmmakers in attendance. Per the synopsis: "He-Man's biggest struggles took place behind the scenes … (when) over the last 30 years, several former Mattel employees, namely preliminary designer Roger Sweet, visual designer Mark Taylor and marketing executive Paul Cleveland all claim to be responsible for creating these beloved characters and product line." Plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, courtesy of the Chicago Cinema Society. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.

Summer Music Film Festival

The Music Box Theatre and WBEZ's "Sound Opinions" present a lineup of music films this week, including "Purple Rain," "A Hard Day's Night," and "Stop Making Sense," the latter of which "Sound Opinions" hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis will introduce. Of special note: "The 78 Project Movie" (a documentary wherein well-known musicians from today perform early American songs exactly as they were originally captured on 78 rpm recordings) and "Rubber Soul" (which reconstructs interviews of John Lennon and Yoko Ono). Through Aug. 19. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.

Indie to film in Chicago

The young actress Joey King (Channing Tatum's daughter in "White House Down" and more recently Colin Hanks' daughter on the FX series "Fargo") is lined up to shoot the indie "Oriole Park" in Chicago this fall. The film, which also stars Wilmette native Joel Murray, Tom Arnold and "Chicago Fire" co-star Christian Stolte, will focus on King's character, who struggles with "the death of her mother and her father's descent into alcoholism in 1978, just as the Chicago neighborhood she lives in is rocked by a string of disappearances leading up to the arrest of serial killer John Wayne Gacy." Kevin Slack directs a script by Chicagoans Amelia Dellos and Eric Anderson, which was inspired by true events from Dellos' own childhood.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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