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Get your freak on
Loves: An interesting story, ensemble films, visual style
Likes: Ungratuitious nudity, gratuitous nudity
Dislikes: Feeling uncomfortable
In the first two minutes, you'll have an idea whether Shortbus is your cup of tea. After 6:17, you'll know for sure, as there are several scenes of hardcore sex, complete with penetration and visible happy endings, as the main characters are introduced via their carnality. It might be the most graphically sexual the film gets, but there's plenty more coupling to come, so you know where you're headed right off the bat. It's up to you if you want to take that trip.
If you do, you'll get to know Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a couples counselor who's never had an orgasm, and her husband Rob; James and Jamie, a gay couple who are clients of Sofia; and Mistress Severin, a dominatrix suffering from some job dissatisfaction. Their lives (and many others) intersect at Shortbus, a salon for the "gifted and talented," presided over by Justin Bond, a transvestite raconteur, the Willy Wonka of sex.
Of course, intercourse is a big part of the story, and if there's a way for one, two or three people to have it, you'll find it at Shortbus. You'll also find some stimulating conversation and some very lonely people. The film may celebrate sexuality, but it's not pretending that it's a panacea for the problems people have. In fact, it seems that sex is Sofia's main problem, and it's certainly not helping James or Mistress Severin achieve happiness. But that's easy to forget when you watch people who are obviously enjoying each other's company.
The main storylines are the easiest to fall for, as each character is likeable, with a healthy sense of humor and faults you can identify with. You'll have to save some of your empathy though, as there are plenty of side stories that will grab your attention throughout, like a former mayor guilt-ridden over his reaction to AIDS while in the closet, or a young man obsessed with the relationship between James and Jamie. Incredibly, the film manages to take these little tangents into philosophy and sex, only to make them strands in the larger web of a story.
That's the kind of skill that writer/director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) has displayed once again, creating a fantasy world that's achingly real, with gorgeous style, witty dialogue (like a quick line about whether you should smile when being photographed at Ground Zero) and well-defined characters (as well as a gorgeously creative, animated New York that is surprisingly not a model, but a digital rendering.) It's a peek inside of a world of sexual freedom that few people ever experience, and an inviting one at that, if you've got a grip on the whole explicit sexuality thing. Bond might describe the film best when he watches his patrons fornicate, and says "It's just like the '60s...with less hope." Less hope, yes, but more truthfulness and a lot more heart than anyone could ever expect for a movie most know for it sexual content.
A one-disc release, this film is packed in a standard keepcase, and features an animated anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the film, adjust languages, select scenes, check out the special features and see a list of the film's supporters, known as the "Shortbusriders." Language selections include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks, French and Spanish subtitles and closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks OK in terms of the color and detail, and there's no noticeable dirt or damage, but it's hardly the sharpest image, and there's excessive grain throughout (with the exceptions of some intentionally grainy home-video moments. Only the animated segments look clean and crisp, which makes me think it was either a style choice or a budget issue in regards to the quality of the rest of the film.
The 5.1 soundtrack only really kicks in to enhance the music, which gets a nice strong presentation. Otherwise, it's a straightforward dialogue track that's clear and crisp, and distortion-free, which is all this film really needed.
Mitchell, Justin Bond, Sook-Yin Lee, PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson all gather for an audio commentary that's just right for this film. Insight into the creative and production processes, stories from the set and some friendly reminiscing make for a fun and interesting listen.
Considering what a unique film this is, and the interesting way it was crafted, the half-hour "Gifted and Challenged: The Making of Shortbus" is an excellent inclusion, as it follows the film from auditions through the shoot, revealing a great deal about the movie and how it was made. It's refreshingly free of the fluff that's in most making-of featurettes, coming off as almost journalistic in nature.
The 8:16 featurette "How to Shoot Sex: A Docu-Primer" wasn't what it sounded like, in other words, a how-to. Instead, it's more like an on-set look at the big orgy scene, simply observing how everything (and everyone) came together, with only the natural sound of the scene presented. Helpfully, the optional commentary from Mitchell and friends sheds some light on the on-screen action.
There are eight deleted or extended scenes found on the disc, 30 minutes in all, which can be viewed individually or with a play-all option, with or without commentary by Mitchell and actors involved in the scene. There are some pretty interesting moments in here, especially the personal assistant subplot that was cut from the film, but the true value here is in the commentaries, which give a lot of good background on the film. Oddly, it seems you can only get the commentary if you use the play-all option.
There are a bunch of trailers that fill out the disc, including the theatrical trailer, the internet trailer, a teaser and a bunch of ThinkFilm promos.
The Bottom Line
I never thought I'd see a film with a solid story and touching characters that I could care about, plus full penetration sex, but Mitchell's Shortbus managed to be just that film. The DVD looks and sounds great, and supplements the film with quite a few interesting, deep and entertaining extras. An entertaining and thought-provoking look at how sex connects and separates people, Shortbus rewards mature viewers who approach with an open mind.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.