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FILM REVIEW HHH

Urbania

An Innovative Approach to a Tired Genre

By Jed Horne

Directed by Jon Shear

Screenplay by Jon Shear

Based on the play Urban Folks Tales by Daniel Reitz

Starring Dan Futterman, Matt Keeslar, Samuel Ball and Alan Cumming

A Lions Gate release

Rated R for graphic violence and sexual situations

Urbania, actor-turned-director Jon Shear’s two-year-long project and first theatrical release, is a surreal, often darkly funny look at the psychology of loss and the intricacies of the human experience. Based on Daniel Reitz’s play, Urban Folk Tales, Urbania tells the story of Charlie (Dan Futterman, The Birdcage), a man introduced as having suffered a tragic loss and intent on regaining normalcy in his life. Charlie stumbles through the hyper-reality of New York City, voyeuristically obsessed with “urban legends” -- peculiar vignettes which, the film argues, help us cope with reality’s often caustic capriciousness. These tales become a metaphor for Charlie’s own experience and provide a backdrop for his hallucinatory self-revelation and neurotic obsession with an ex-lover.

It is not until twenty minutes into the film that the audience discovers Charlie’s sexuality. A chance encounter with Brett (Alan Cumming, Eyes Wide Shut), an old friend dying of AIDS, provides an introduction to the film’s most controversial element: Charlie’s past relationship with boy-on-a-pedestal Chris (Matt Keeslar). The key to Charlie’s healing seems to be an apparently innocuous crush on the homophobic Dean (Samuel Ball). Without giving away too much about the film, Charlie’s pursuit of Dean slowly exposes the nightmarish reality of Charlie’s loss and the karmic choice he must make at the end of the film.

Shear’s movie is as thought provoking as it is visually interesting. Urbania is, however, not without flaws. The actors involved in the movie are almost as unremarkable as their resumes. The performances, while competent, rarely shine with the requisite intensity for a film of this much ambition. One exception is Samuel Ball, whose portrayal of Dean is convincingly tragicomic and menacing. The screenplay, while occasionally biting, is intentionally unfocused and takes a little while to pick up steam. The urban legend theme, potentially an interesting subject, loses a little of its luster through no fault of the movie’s other than bad timing (Urban Legends: Final Cut is also opening this week). And, like many ambitious independent films, it occasionally borders on pretentiousness and a desire to universalize a sentiment not held by the unenlightened masses (read: homosexuality).

Despite the grimaces and turned heads of a few audience members, however, sexuality -- homo or otherwise -- is not really at the heart of the story. Even Charlie and Chris’s relationship appears a little too straight and curiously devoid of the usual homosexual stereotypes, as if a gay relationship would be difficult for an audience to empathize with. Like the equally insightful The Opposite of Sex, however, Urbania succeeds by treating a gay relationship with as much weight and seriousness as a straight one. Charlie could just as easily have been in a heterosexual relationship as in a homosexual one, which is why Urbania is more than a “gay” movie.

Besides its ambitious subject matter, what makes Urbania interesting is a cleverly designed plot structure, and a film style well suited for a world that is both very real and unreal at the same time. Using a zoom lens designed for a video camera, cinematographer Shane Kelly deserves credit for effectively texturing an urban environment based on Shear’s own experiences in Cambridge (his theatrical career began while studying at Harvard).

Notable also is the innovative production technique: the entire film was shot on Super 16 film, which produces an interesting combination of saturated colors and grainy images, accentuating the film’s curious mix between myth and reality. In order to retain that effect, the film had to be transferred to a digital recording and then back to thirty-five millimeter -- a first-of-its-kind process in independent cinema. Another notable technical achievement is the use of sound for effect on top of an impressive soundtrack: the audio-level is varied to enhance scenes of particular intensity and to accentuate Charlie’s unstable mental state.

Not for the easily offended or the squeamish, and despite its shortcomings, Urbania is a substantively original work that deserves credit for its audacity. It is particularly impressive that the entire film was shot within a four-month period and for a budget of less than three hundred thousand dollars. If only Shear had counted on an audience response that was a little more, well, urbane.