''Urbania'' tips hat
to queer cinema
Urbania (Gay drama, color, no rating, 1:47)
By Emanuel Levy
PARK CITY, Utah (Variety) - One of the boldest and most provocative entries
in this year's Sundance competition, ``Urbania,'' Jon Shear's impressive
feature directorial debut, is a darkly intriguing drama that probes the very
nature of love and the lasting effects of loss.
Based on Daniel Reitz's play ``Urban Folk Tales,'' this densely layered,
deeply felt film dissects the meaning of sexual orientation for a small
group of individuals as they struggle to live a decent, fulfilling life in
metropolitan America. Though several of the major characters are gay, which
makes pic is a likely candidate for gay patrons and the global gay festival
circuit, film's scope and ambition are broad enough to appeal to any
contemporary urban dweller looking for challenging fare.
At a time when most movies about gays have gotten softer, adopting or simply
imitating established Hollywood formulas (particularly screwball and
romantic comedy), ``Urbania'' is an unabashedly political film that recalls
the cycle of queer cinema in the early 1990s (``Poison,'' ``The Living End''
''Swoon''). The goal of queer cinema is to bring established sexual and
gender categories to a crisis point by exposing their limitations;
``Urbania'' earns the label through its radical position on gender, desire
The lines separating past and present, fact and fiction, love and hate, and,
above all, gay and straight, are blurred in Shear's film. Its intricately
plotted narrative not only requires viewers' attention but forces them to
examine their sexual orientation and the way they live. Story unfolds as a
puzzle in which bits and pieces of info are slowly revealed, building to a
Charlie (Dan Futterman) is an attractive young man who has lost control over
his life. Restless, anxious and always on edge, he wanders around downtown
Manhattan like a ghost seeking action, entertainment and peace of mind.
Through flashbacks, it's revealed that Charlie has lost his longtime
companion, Chris (Matt Keeslar), in a violent incident that has had
traumatic effects on him.
Alone in his apartment, he listens to the lovemaking of his upstairs
neighbors (Bill Sage and Megan Dodds), which proves both irritating and
sexually stimulating. A later encounter with this straight couple in the
local bar, where many of pic's scenes are set, begins peacefully but ends
violently when the trio engage in a discussion of openly sexual public
Early on, Charlie notices a mysterious, tattooed stranger (Samuel Ball) at a
distance, and the two exchange looks. From then on, story assumes the
structure of a nightmarish journey, as Charlie travels the city in a
desperate effort to repeat his chance encounter. Pic's shape recalls
Scorsese's ``After Hours,'' with Charlie crossing paths with a dozen bizarre
characters, each trying to demonstrate a connection to him via eerie
Shear and Reitz enrich the story's central thread with a darkly humorous
layer exploring the nature of storytelling and with a more existential layer
that has to do with the universal need to regain control over one's life.
First layer is expressed in the recurrent line ``Hear any good stories
lately?'' In this vein, German actress Barbara Sukowa has a terrific cameo
in which she recounts a noirish tale about a bizarre sexual interlude in a
Over the course of an endless, painful night, Charlie encounters Brett (Alan
Cumming), a friend who has a crush on him; a stuttering homeless man
(Lothaire Bluteau); and a woman who seems to step directly out of
Hitchcock's ``Rear Window,'' overly anxious about her poodle getting sick in
the rain. Though each raconteur insists, ``I've got a story, and this one
really happened,'' we are never sure where fantasy ends and reality begins.
The drama's more philosophical dimensions, which take center stage in the
film's last reel -- and its most disturbing chapter -- depict Charlie's
efforts to regain power and execute justice through revenge against those
responsible for his misery. Incidents of gay-bashing and gay counterattacks
have appeared in several recent films, but never have these issues been so
well integrated into the narrative and so crucial to the characters'
Helmer Shear effectively varies the mood and makes absorbing transitions
from one locale to another. Shot in Super 16 by Shane Kelly, ``Urbania''
boasts the kind of color saturation and heightened grainy look that fit its
surreal nature. Editing (of more than 1,500 shots) and Marc Anthony
Thompson's score contribute immeasurably to the film's macabre atmosphere.
Ultimately, pic's impact depends on Futterman, whose strong performance
provides the necessary bridge among the disparate characters, and helps the
deliberately fractured narrative assumes coherence. Assisted by a terrific
ensemble, Futterman illustrates the frightening, transcendent and
hallucinatory aspects of the loss of love and control in a concrete,
powerful manner seldom seen onscreen.
Charlie ........ Dan Futterman
Brett .......... Alan Cumming
Chris .......... Matt Keeslar
Matt ........... Josh Hamilton
Bill ........... Lothaire Bluteau
Chuck .......... Bill Sage
Clara .......... Barbara Sukowa
Cassandra ...... Paige Turco
Deede .......... Megan Dodds
Ron ............ Gabriel Olds
Dean ........... Samuel Ball
A Shear/Golden/Harris production. Produced by Jon Shear, Stephanie Golden,
J. Todd Harris. Co-producers, Meta Puttkammer, Douglas Hunter.
Directed by Jon Shear. Screenplay, Shear, Daniel Reitz, based on the play
``Urban Folk Tales'' by Reitz. Camera (color, Super 16-to-35mm), Shane
Kelly; editors, Randolph K. Bricker, Ed Marx; music, Marc Anthony Thompson;
music supervisor, David Falzone; production designer, Karyl Newman; costume
designer, David Matwijkow; casting, Jordan Beswick. Reviewed at Sundance
Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2000.