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The release of Shortbus in public theatres may be the first ever instance of generation-skipping screen liberalisation. In one leap, vaulting an entire epoch of expected emancipation in the heterosexual department of carnality, Britain and other western countries have followed the example of the Cannes Film Festival (where it premiered) and allowed John Cameron Mitchell’s gay/lesbian/polysexual comedy to romp unhindered. Sodom is now an official point on the moviegoer’s map. Precious souls putting off the unimaginable, or trying to, can no longer say: “Gomorrah is another day.”
This one-bound theory of permissiveness will, of course, be disputed. Didn’t Destricted lower the bar? Didn’t Brokeback Mountain put the cat among the popcorners by showing two manly men, in that manliest of genres, the western, “stemming the rose”? Yes. But the candour of Shortbus, its graphic depiction of unorthodox couplings, triplings and solos, makes short work of both films. It will make even shorter work of Aunt Edna: she will need a lifetime’s supply of smelling salts in the space of 100 minutes.
First, the handsome young man (Paul Dawson) who has been mildly arousing himself in the bath gets out, bends himself into an upside down question mark and sets about DIY oral sex. Then in another New York apartment house, as Mitchell’s roving God’s-eye-view camera samples a city’s pleasure points, a dominatrix’s climaxing client hits a Jackson Pollock painting with an action dollop. And did we mention the orgasm-seeking relationship counsellor (Sook Yin Lee) who stows a vibrating egg inside her at a party, which her boyfriend activates at will by pressing the remote; or the anything-goes orgy at the same, titular “Shortbus” nightclub, whose drag-queen owner looks on with droll wisdom saying: “It’s like the ’60s, but with less hope.”
Since every bruised heart in the film is healed by its owner’s confrontation with his fears or inhibitions, and since every loner has a surprise lover waiting in the story’s wings, the feelgood tray ends up visiting all areas of the party. This cine-Satyricon, this in-your-face flesh-feast, is finally revealed as a traditional heartwarmer with a full suite of happy endings. Perhaps that is why it evaded the censors’ scissors. But we are grateful it did. In the depiction and treatment of sex, that shyest of movie subjects, comprehensiveness may be the first, trepidatious step to comprehension.
Was Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit the last cry for big-screen plasticine? In Flushed Away, Aardman/DreamWorks go digital. Nick Park’s name is suspiciously absent from the credits – was he protesting from afar? – as the full-dress CGI mice run amok in the London sewers, boating, frolicking, romancing and fighting the evil Toad (Ian McKellen) and his hench-rats.
More frenzied than funny, with symptoms of runaway Americanisation in a plot crossing Home Alone with The African Queen, the film had an all-ages public preview audience near-silent when I saw it; not, I think, with wonder. The hero (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is a pet mouse from a Kensington gilded cage who is whooshed into the netherworld by a rotter rodent (Shane Richie), only to find that, talking turds apart, it is like a Lord Mayor’s holiday down there, with no congestion charge for wacky water vessels.
A cockney Kate Winslet voices the water-rat captain of the Jammy Dodger (cue inter-species romance). A Clouseauesque frog detective (Jean Reno) commands a team of identically trenchcoated French batrachians. And McKellen tries Sydney Greenstreet with a dash of Frankie Howerd. The soundtrack is a costermongers’ ball; the visuals are slick, plasticky and headlong. What ever happened to the slow-burn charm and cottage-industry hilarity that Aardman, once upon a time, used to be about? Time for a Hollywood divorce and a company’s repatriation.
Live-action cinema too has its crises and doldrums. Just when you thought the last postmodernist bus had vanished from screen service, withdrawn for lack of sturdiness and reality access, Stranger than Fiction tootles its horn right behind you. It’s enough to make you jump in despair. Metafiction, proclaims this film’s klaxon, is stranger than fiction, and a lot more annoying.
Uptight bachelor and Internal Revenue employee Will Ferrell keeps hearing a narrator’s voice – the purling Emma Thompson tones that we too hear – and fears he is becoming a character in someone’s novel. So he consults literature professor Dustin Hoffman (who has barely shaken the po-mo dust from his brogues after I Heart Huckabees). He falls in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal, a Bohemian biscuit-maker. And he meets Thompson, who is indeed a distinguished novelist trying to kill off her new hero.
Sadly, the writer Zach Helm is no Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). Nor is Marc Monster’s Ball Forster a fleet hand at fantasy. You need zesty madness or penetrative poetry to make this through-the-looking-glass stuff work. These people just walk into the mirror and bang their noses.
To anyone of a certain age in Britain the title London to Brighton will suggest vintage four-wheelers bumbling down the A23 to music from Genevieve. First-time filmmaker Paul Andrew Williams’s thriller is none of that: more an effing and blinding, and rather good, piece of UK crime verismo. The ageing moll (Lorraine Stanley) of a small-time hoodlum (Johnny Harris) becomes a surrogate mum-on-the-run to the 12-year-old girl (Georgia Groome) she has just farmed out to the dad of the hoodlum’s boss. There were bloody results for Dad – what did he expect when trying to administer sex and S&M to the underaged? – and there are potentially fatal consequences for the two fugitives.
The film is nervy, pacy and full of side-turns into spaces where, in a second or two, character is allowed to develop. We almost forget that Joanne, the runaway kid, is a pre-teener until she gets a quick minute in Brighton on a money-in-the-slot mechanical claw machine. “I’m on a roll,” she exultantly protests as Kelly, her mentor, tries to hustle her on to the next station of flight before the girl can hoist a second cuddly toy.
Humour is sharpened by danger, danger by humour. The lugubrious Harris, toting a shotgun under his raincoat as embarrassedly as if it were an erection, could have come from one of Shane Meadows’s mournful gangland comedies. And there is witty resource in the rhymed characteristics of the gangster father and son, dead ringers physically (although the actors Sam Spruell and Alexander Morton are unrelated) and with the same veneer of cold-fish mannerliness. The film falters only at the end, when it makes an unexpected dash for the happy ending marquee after barely breasting the tape on its 10 laps of bleak-and-uncompromising.
It shows up Big Nothing, even so, for the suicidally titled crime caper it is. A big zero in all departments, Jean-Baptiste Andrea’s Oregon black comedy teams David Schwimmer with Brits Simon Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Alice Eve – each with an off-the-peg American accent – in a tale of blackmail, murder and mistaken corpse identity. Posted early for Christmas, it should be posted right back with the envelope marked “Return to Santa”.