09 July 2009

Flashback at the movies: Urbania.

I’m going to challenge Nashville filmgoers with this one. One of my other jobs involves selling tickets at a local googolplex, so I know how you react when it comes time to spend your movie dollars. It seems that the only phrase that scares the typical Nashville moviegoer more than “it’s subtitled in English” is “it deals with gay issues.” So I’m faced with a dilemma when a film like Jon Shear’s Urbania drops into the picture.

It isn’t just that it happens to be the finest English language film I’ve seen all year, nor is it the fact that as a means of telling a story cinematically it is peerless in its use of editing (as shocking as it may seem to those who have been weaned on the frenetic and incomprehensible vidiot-montage tendencies of Michael Bay, editing should help tell the story), mood, and image. The dilemma I find with this film is this: how do I get people to experience this unique and moving example of fully realized cinema without pandering to the people who are left quaking in their boots by the thought of two men kissing onscreen?

Well, to be truthful, fuck ‘em. This film speaks to and analyzes the soul of the bereaved better than anything I’ve seen since Carl Franklin’s One True Thing and Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. As the protagonist Charlie, Dan Futterman (from Shooting Fish and The Birdcage) delivers a performance that ranks up there with Tom Hanks in Joe Vs. The Volcano or Joan Allen in Nixon or The Ice Storm or, for that matter, Holly Hunter in anything – quiet, unshowy work that merits inclusion among the truly great screen performances of our time.

What’s more, in opening up Daniel Reitz’ play Urban Folk Tales, director Shear (working with Reitz) presents us with a story that has to be told cinematically. As a play, there is no way that this experience could have had the same cumulative effect on the viewer as it does in its fully realized form as a film. Shear’s gifts as a director should lead to a very promising future for the former actor, as his realization of the script (with ace cinematographer Shane Kelly) is coupled with an understanding that continues to elude more-established filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis – that technology is a great boon when it is used in the creation of a good and unique story. Urbania’s press notes state that it is only the second motion picture to be finished completely in the digital realm. The first one: Star Wars, Episode I, natch. The gap between the two couldn’t be greater.

Deep down at its hardened but benevolent core, Urbania is a tale of frustration, desire, loss, redemption, lust, and peace. It manages to be powerful, sad, darkly funny, randy, laden with regret, and filled with every sort of palpable emotion. It dishes out a lot of sex (the good, transgressive kind) and violence (the horrifying kind, where you feel every punch and slap and cut), the latter being very important when hate-crimes legislation is being diddled with by much of the newly-elected phalanxes of the government, and as an emotional journey, the only comparison I can make is with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut or Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite.

The Dumont film is an interesting comparison piece, as it begins with the aftermath of a horrifying act of violence and expands outward, becoming an examination of humanity and guilt. Urbania begins with a similarly devastating aftermath and focuses inward, bearing down on Charlie’s soul with an unyielding gaze, and finding within it the film’s final frame, a simple image so satisfying and right that it stays with you for days.

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