‘Urbania’ Embarks on a Harsh Sexual Odyssey

By KEVIN THOMAS, Times Staff Writer (LA Times)

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Jon Shear’s “Urbania” is such a powerful experience that it is equally effective whether you have figured out from the start where it is headed or whether its denouement comes as a complete surprise.

Actor-turned-director Shear has reworked Daniel Reitz’s play “Urban Folk Tales” into a daring and unnerving evocation of contemporary big-city life where sex and violence seem so frequently interlinked. It’s a reminder of how illusory self-control over our destinies can be and also how transitory and fragile happiness and life itself are. These are of course timeless truisms, but Shear expresses them with such jolting freshness we find ourselves rediscovering them all over again. “Urbania” represents a formidable directorial debut for Shear, who starred in the original stage production of “Angels in America” and appeared on Broadway in “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Shear chose Dan Futterman, who replaced him in “Angels,’ to star as Charlie, a clearly successful young New Yorker. When we meet him he has undergone some kind of experience that has left him seriously traumatized yet determined to regain control of his life. His dislocated state of mind has left him with a heightened awareness of people absorbed in slaking desires for sex and romance but also existing in a constant state of danger in pursuit of them.

Shear plunges us into Charlie’s fragmented and often terrified imagination. We soon sense that for whatever reason, someone Charlie cares for deeply is no longer in his life as he proceeds on a series of experiences over a short period of time that quickly take on the shape of a quest. Some 15 minutes into the film we discover that Charlie is gay, but by then we realize that his ordeal, in another context, could happen to anyone.

Suddenly, Charlie’s eye is caught by a leather-jacketed type, the kind of guy who struts about, often accompanied by pals. He could be rough trade or just a sexy macho guy who knows his impact and flaunts it. One way or another, however, Dean (Samuel Ball) would seem to spell trouble for Charlie, determined as he is to chase him.

As Charlie’s pursuit of Dean gets underway, “Urbania” draws from Reitz’s other urban tales to round out Charlie’s dicey sense of the universe. A kindly bartender (Josh Hamilton) relates to Charlie his story of his encounter with a formidable older woman (a sultry Barbara Sukowa), which leads to astonishing good fortune; a visit to a friend, Brett (Alan Cummings), afflicted with AIDS and whose friendship with Charlie seems as edgy as it affectionate; a showdown with his upstairs neighbor (Bill Stage) and his dimwit girlfriend (Megan Dodds) to whom it never occurred that flaunted heterosexuality could ever be carried to an offensive degree; and a less-than-thrilling tryst with a soap opera star (Gabriel Olds) with a lot of attitude and rules for Charlie to demolish.

There are glimpses of the man (Matt Keeslar) Charlie has loved and other asides: a homeless man (Lothaire Bluteau), who has a story about how he came to be mentally handicapped and a glimpse of a woman who decides to stick her beloved little dog, damp from rain, into a microwave to dry him. All these developments add to Charlie’s heightened perception of the darkly bizarre.

In his own mind Charlie is turning himself into a Rambo until he arrives at a moment of truth that is boldly staged by Shear to incorporate a touching, redemptive sequence. Shear and cinematographer Shane Kelly have done a superlative job of discovering myriad ways of expressing visually all that Charlie is going through in his struggle to regain his equanimity.

Futterman, who has a starring role in the TV series “Judging Amy,” in turn, registers all the changes and emotions Charlie is experiencing with conviction and empathy. Cummings lives up to the stir he first created as the emcee in the recent revival of “Cabaret.” They make strong impressions as does Keeslar and, for that matter, everyone else in the film. “Urbania” manages to be quite candid–even blunt–about sex and desire and violence in the modern world, without being exploitative. Be warned, however, “Urbania” is strong stuff.

MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and sexual content, including related dialogue, and for language and some drug use. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations, with strong sexual candor and violence.

Dan Futterman: Charlie
Alan Cummings: Brett
Matt Keeslar: Chris
Samuel Ball: Dean

A Lions Gate Films presentation of a Commotion Pictures/Daly-Harris production. Director-producer-co-writer Jon Shear. Producers Stephanie Golden, J. Todd Harris. Co-screenwriter Daniel Reitz; adapted from his play “Urban Folk Tales.” Cinematographer Shane Kelly. Editors Randolph K. Bricker, Ed Marx. Music Marc Anthony Thompson. Costumes David Matwijkow. Production designer Karyl Newman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

New Times LA – David Ehrenstein – “… Matthew Shepard’s murder has put a face on all the overlooked lynchings of gays that came before. Consequently, the gay/straight divide today seems more a sidewalk crack than a sinkhole of Grand Canyon proportions, and all of this is reflected in Jon Shear’s brilliant new film Urbania”

LA Weekly – Ernest Hardy – ” The performance (Dan Futterman’s) is matched by the film