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Premiered at last week’s Reel Affirmations festival, Urbania, Jon Shear’s extraordinary directorial debut, begins as a gay-oriented reworking of After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s 1985 sinister comedy-drama about a man’s dusk-’til-dawn odyssey through the bewildering maze of Greenwich Village. Slowly but inexorably, Shear’s film evolves into something more ambitious and profoundan emotionally shattering study of loss and redemption.
On the year’s longest night, the fall-back finale of daylight savings time, Charlie, a sardonic gay Manhattanite (resourcefully played by Dan Futterman, the straight son in The Birdcage), accosts friends and strangers with the question “Heard any good stories lately?” He’s rewarded with a collection of urban myths: the sexpot who drugs a man and steals his kidney, the rat in the street vendor’s frankfurter bun, the dog in the microwave, the infected needle in the pay-phone coin return. (Screenwriter Daniel Reitz, adapting his play Urban Folk Tales, somehow overlooks the alligators-in-the-sewers fable.) Troubled and embittered for reasons not fully disclosed until the film’s denouement, Charlie wends through an increasingly hallucinatory nocturnal underworld, drawn to a devastating epiphany.
Charlie’s restlessness initially appears to be merely an expression of metropolitan malaise. Gradually, a series of flashbacks indicate that he’s mourning the end of his relationship with a devoted lover, Chris (Matt Keeslar). As the night wears on, Charlie’s compassionhe assists a half-crazed homeless man (Lothaire Bluteau) and comforts a sick friend (Alan Cumming), an apparent AIDS suffereris overshadowed by his vindictiveness. He’s picked up by, and subsequently puts down, a narcissistic bisexual actor (Gabriel Olds) and excoriates his upstairs neighbors (William Sage and Barbara Sukowa), a fatuous yuppie couple. Throughout his wanderings, he’s haunted by the memory of a leather-clad, tattooed fag-basher (Samuel Ball), seemingly an object of his sexual desire. Charlie’s ultimate encounter with this enticing but menacing figure reveals the roots of his anguish and, unexpectedly, begins to exorcise his rage.
Unlike the vast majority of preaching-to-the-converted gay-themed movies that single-mindedly tub-thump for homosexuality or rail against homophobia, Urbania is a thematically rich, formally daring work of art. Shear’s dense, nonchronological layering of Charlie’s present-tense experiences with his memories and fantasies consistently challenges audiences. Many will require multiple viewings to comprehend how the pieces of the movie’s fractured narrative fit together. Composed of 1,500 shots, more than twice as many as in the average feature, Urbania’s intricate continuity required the services of two expert editors, Randolph K. Bricker and Ed Marx. Shane F. Kelly’s 16-mm cinematography also contributes significantly to the film’s artistic effectiveness. His oblique compositions and grainy, underlit images graphically manifest Charlie’s tortured psyche.
One of the most exasperating pitfalls of film reviewing is constantly being barraged with a question similar to the inquiry Charlie poses throughout Urbania”Seen any good movies lately?” This week, unlike most others, I’m able to provide a resoundingly affirmative answer.
If I were on TV, I’d be elevating my pollex twice, the second time to endorse Two Family House, a sunny, bracing antidote to Urbania’s caliginous melancholy. From its luminous opening-credit panoramas of Staten Island at daybreak, underscored by John Pizzarelli singing the oldie “I’m Confessin’” to its gratifying resolution, writer-director Raymond De Felitta’s comic drama will lift the spirits of all but the most hardened misanthropes.
Buddy Visalo (Michael Rispoli) lives with an unfulfilled dream: He wants to be a crooner. Broadcaster Arthur Godfrey (John McLaughlin) hears him entertaining fellow GIs in Korea and, impressed, invites Buddy to contact him after his military discharge. But, when Buddy comes home, his practical wife, Estelle (Katherine Narducci), pushes him into a series of disastrous business ventures, including house painting, pizza delivery, and a limousine service. (“Buddy is pregnant with failure,” she complains to her girlfriends.)
After three years of frustration, Buddy has a brainstorm. He borrows enough money to purchase a derelict two-family house, with the idea of converting the ground floor into a tavern where he can perform and residing upstairs with Estelle. His scheme is complicated by the presence of an Irish couplefoul-tempered, alcoholic Jim
O’Neary (Kevin Conway) and his young, pregnant wife, Mary (Kelly Macdonald)squatting in the second-story apartment. On the morning Buddy attempts to evict the pair, Mary goes into labor and Jim abandons her.
A decent man whose generosity transcends his neighborhood’s Italian-Irish animosities, Buddy, unbeknownst to Estelle, locates and subsidizes shelter for the impoverished Mary and her baby. What begins as an adversarial relationship evolves into a tender friendship. Mary’s steadfast refusal to give up her child fuels Buddy’s determination to defy the odds and reach for his dream, even in the face of Estelle’s pessimistic predictions that he’s embarked on yet another fiasco.
Having suffered through Cafe Society, De Felitta’s misbegotten 1995 first feature, about ’50s Manhattan mobsters, I hardly expected that he’d be allowed a second opportunity to direct. But in Two Family House, he’s returned to his rootsthe screenplay was inspired by the experiences of his own Uncle Buddyand found himself as an artist. Admittedly, his new film, an uplifting working-class love story in the tradition of 1955’s Oscar-winning Marty, isn’t notably venturesome, but De Felitta executes it gracefully, sidestepping mawkishness in favor of restrained optimism. He allows his accomplished cast ample time to develop their charactersa trust that pays off, especially in Rispoli and Narducci’s affecting climactic assessment of their marriage. Although De Felitta’s formal style is more conventional than we have come to expect from independent filmmakers, he’s capable of some refreshingly imaginative touches, such as the surprising identification of the movie’s hitherto anonymous narrator 30 minutes into the story, and a sequence presented twicefirst from an omniscient perspective and then from Mary’s infant’s point of view.
De Felitta’s sympathetic conception of his characterseven the least likeable have valid motives for their behaviorswins our affection for them without the heavy-handed manipulation of mainstream feel-good movies. He even makes some artful but pointed observations about intolerance and miscegenation on the way to Two Family House’s telegraphed but judiciously muted happy ending. CP