I didn't plan the all-gay-themed installment of DVD reviews but it turned out that way with an AIDS documentary, a lesbian coming of age story, and a drama about a corrupt cop with a lesbian daughter (okay, that's a secondary theme in the last one). Let's start with...
Rampart - After the spectacular job writer/director Oren Moverman did with his debut film The Messenger, expectations were very high for Rampart, his sophomore effort. It may have fallen just a hair short of its predecessor, but it is a highly respectable effort filled with the kind of ensemble cast you rarely see outside of Woody Allen or Wes Anderson films (Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, and Ned Beatty).
Each of the above mentioned players adds something essential to the quality acting stew that is Rampart. The film belongs, however, to Woody Harrelson as Dave "Date Rape" Brown, a thoroughly detestable example of both a police officer and man. Harrelson is one of those actors who continues to grow in ability as the years roll by. In his hands Brown is hyper-intelligent but crass, lonely, sad, and agonizingly human. You would never describe the character as sympathetic, but you have sympathy for him anyway.
While the story of Rampart does not seem quite as cohesive or complete as The Messenger's was, it is one of the most compelling and well rounded portraits of a dirty cop that I've ever come across. It is also an extremely well acted movie (especially by Harrelson) that should be well worth your time if it sounds at all your cup of tea. Available on DVD. 4 of 5*
Pariah - This film tells the story of a teenage lesbian girl coming out in modern America, and it tells it beautifully. It's all in there: the relatives who buy her frilly clothes to try and get her out of this Tom Boy phase, the parents who push new, "more appropriate" friends at her, the ostracizing at school, the name calling, the straight girl who breaks her heart because she "just wanted to try", and the person she loves dearly who will communicate with her now only to say that she'll "be praying for" her. Taken all together, it is no surprise that our heroine feels like the outcast or outsider that the title of the film implies.
The credit for the quality of this story, and how emotionally and intellectually engaging it is for the audience, must be equally attributed to first time narrative feature film writer/director Dee Rees and her star Adapero Oduye, a relative newbie herself. I've already praised the storyline of the movie, but Ms. Rees also excels as a director, pulling the absolute best out of a magnificent ensemble cast, led by Oduye. This young lady is a powerhouse as Alike (or Lee). She manages to mold a character who is neither victim nor untouchable superhuman in a story that could easily have led a lesser actress toward either choice. Hers is a fully organic performance, with no detectable artifice.
One of the interesting narrative flourishes of Pariah lies with Alike's poetry, as she is an aspiring writer. As the film progresses, you see her work evolve and mature along with her. We have all seen this device in a coming of age story before, but rarely with such lovely verse that actually illustrates the growth of the character writing it. In the final poem of the film, Alike says "I am broken. I am open. I am broken open." It is the perfect epilogue for this girl's story, but it also opens the story up to include us all. Most of us can relate to the idea of a time in life that shattered us in the moment, but freed us to the possibilities to come. If you haven't, then you have a lot of living to do. Available on DVD. 4 1/2 of 5*.
We Were Here - This documentary of San Francisco in the days of the AIDS epidemic is told primarily through the words of five interviewees who lived through it. You have the man who rose to prominence within the community, the lady who worked as an early researcher, the relative outsider who found his place through activism, and the local floral vendor who donated flowers for many, many funerals. Most affecting of all, however, is the story of the long term survivor who was one of the first people officially diagnosed. We watch as he loses two partners and most of his friends, and gets sick and better over and over with a death sentence over his head until he finally, improbably, lives to the age of HIV as a chronic, rather than terminal, diagnoses.
The movie paints a vivid portrait of a difficult time. It is informative, scary, touching, and heartbreaking. Few documentaries engage the viewer emotionally to this extent, and it is a little hard to watch in places, especially if you have ever lost someone that you love to the disease.
This is the sophomore effort for filmmaker David Weissman (The Cockettes), who so far has only made documentaries with themes that relate directly to the gay community. With We Were Here, however, he has made a film that transcends that pigeon-hole. Ultimately it is a film about how a community in crisis is able to come together with compassion. It is a moving portrait about how the worst of circumstances brings out the best in people. That is something that the world can always use more of, and that we sometimes need to be reminded is possible. Available on DVD. 5 of 5*