GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Trimark Home Video, 2000
Director: Jon Shear
Rated R, 105 minutes
A Walk On The Wild Side
"Heard any good stories lately?" a young man asks the audience. "I've got a good one. And this one really happened. Give me a second to figure out the ending." This is the set-up for Urbania, one of the most interesting films, gay or straight, that I have seen in a long time.
Urban folk tales come to life around Charlie, a gay man whose life is unraveling at the seams. Charlie has a story to tell us and what a tale it is; recounted through flashbacks, flash-forwards, urban legends and hallucinations. While searching for closure, he discovers that he is about to become an urban legend himself.
Urbania is a tale about lost love and revenge, and how bad things happen to good people just when they thought the universe was safe. From Charlie's first appearance, it is obvious that the man is distressed and perhaps even on the edge of an emotional collapse. The cause of his malady is at first uncertain, but subliminal flashes of street violence provide all the clues needed. Dazed, Charlie wanders the streets of New York City. A chance encounter sets the plot in motion when he spots a dangerous looking, but attractive, neighborhood thug leaving a bar.
Charlie is angry, frustrated and horny. He repeatedly calls his own answering machine to hear his former lover's voice, and begs him to pick up the phone. Back at his apartment, he stares at the empty side of his bed. Hearing the sounds of lovemaking in the apartment upstairs, he begins to masturbate but then stops when his other hand finds a recent scar on his chest. Going outside, he finds no peace in the night. Walking past a deserted street, a violent memory erupts when he sees two men stroll by, holding hands.
Returning to the tavern he spied earlier, Charlie meets a sympathetic bartender named Matt who "holds no objections to human needs." Matt tells him that the man in question usually comes by late at night. To pass the time, Matt tells his tale about an illicit sexual encounter with an older woman. Charlie leaves and his psychological journey deepens through a series of encounters both real and imagined. He visits a dying friend, (Alan Cumming), and idyllic memories concerning his former lover, Chris (Matt Keeslar) are triggered. His continuing adventures include an aborted tryst with another man, and a comic meeting with the straight couple who made love in the apartment above his bed earlier. Charlie then sees the same mysterious man again and follows him to the bar for a date with destiny.
Charlie is one of the most complicated characters ever presented in a gay film. His motivations aren't entirely clear from the onset as director Jon Shear deliberately misleads the audience on numerous occasions. Flashbacks suggest that Charlie was once deeply in love but now that man is gone. Is Dean, the mysterious man at the bar, connected in some way with Chris' disappearance? Is Charlie trying to pick Dean up or does he hold a different agenda? To reveal any more of the plot would be a disservice to my readers. This is a film whose riches are best discovered as the tale unfolds.
What could have been a simple tale is instead filled with layers of meaning. What makes Urbania so unique is the way in which many familiar urban folk tales (such as the man whose kidney is stolen, the boiled rat served by a hot dog vendor, or the woman who puts her wet dog into a microwave) weave in and out of the narrative. These urban legends all seem to be about people who find themselves in situations where they lose control, and Charlie is desperately trying to regain that control.
The people around Charlie are continually telling these tales and, at times, the tales literally come to life around him. Like Leopold Bloom's wanderings through Nighttown in James Joyce's Ulysses, (and, similarly, Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorcese's After Hours), Charlie drifts through the night streets and encounters one strange apparition after another. Charlie has fallen down a rabbit hole and he no longer knows what it is real and what is not. Reinforcing the Alice's Adventures Through The Looking Glass theme, the director repeatedly offers up images of Charlie's reflection in mirrors or close-ups of his eyes. The cinematography is grainy with saturated color to give the film itself the feel of an urban legend; a gritty documentary heightened by stylized reality.
Urbania is also very unique in that director and co-screenwriter Shear originally played the role of Charlie on stage in Daniel Reitz's play Urban Folk Tales. He was so enraptured by the part that he made his filmmaking debut by re-interpreting the drama in cinematic terms. (The title was changed so it wouldn't be confused with a series of vapid teen horror flicks.) Urbania is an amazing film and it is a film in every sense of the word. Many movies do not make artistic use of cinematic language and this is one that does with cutting edge style. Our hero's mental state is externalized through stylized camera angles, flash cuts, and off-screen noises. Reality and fantasy often blend within a single shot. Many scenes play out using long takes to retain the intimacy of the characters and then the audience is jolted with jarring jump cuts. Time frames overlap and reality is skewed. Unconventionally structured, this is not a film for those who demand a defined beginning, middle and end. It is, however, a film where interested viewers can discover something new on each repeated viewing.
Dan Futterman is superb as Charlie. Gay viewers may remember him as Robin Williams' son in The Birdcage. The intensity of his acting in Urbania came as a great surprise. The supporting cast is also top-notch, especially Alan Cumming as his dying friend, Brett. Josh Hamilton is also quite lovable as the bartender, and Lothaire Bluteau (Bent) is unforgettably pathetic as a homeless man whom Charlie befriends. Samuel Ball is chilling as Dean, the homophobic closet case that Charlie finds himself drawn to.
Urbania is a very heavy and intense film, broken up by ample doses of dark humor and Charlie's (probably) idealized memories of his lost relationship with Chris. The flashbacks between Charlie and Chris (Matt Keeslar) are among the sexiest and most romantic love scenes between two men ever filmed and help ease Urbania's almost-unbearable tension. Urbania can be rented at video stores everywhere. DVD collectors will be interested to know that the disc includes a very enlightening director and cast commentary, along with deleted scenes. The director also discusses, in a featurette, how he filmed Urbania in Super 16mm and then edited it on a digital computer and it is quite instructional for budding filmmakers.
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