Cinema: So that's why they called him Kermit Kline

FRANK OZ began his career with his hand up Fozzie Bear. Now he's turned to directing, although his irresistibly fluffy new comedy In and Out (12) has more than a touch of muppetry about it. Kevin Kline and Joan Cusack play the Kermit and Miss Piggy roles of Howard Brackett and Emily Montgomery, two small-town high-school teachers on the eve of a much-delayed wedding. Their plans are disrupted when a former pupil, movie star Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), receives a Best Actor Academy Award for playing a gay soldier, and uses his moment on the platform to out Mr Brackett as a homosexual. If that scenario sounds familiar, cast your mind back to what Tom Hanks said as he picked up his award for Philadelphia. Yup, In and Out is the first film to be based on an Oscar acceptance speech.

Brackett's attempts to deny his homosexuality to himself, his fiancee, his mother (a powdered, goggle-eyed Debbie Reynolds), his boss (a magnificently seedy Bob Newhart) and the media (reporter Tom Selleck) prove a neat excuse for a shamelessly funny comedy that pokes fun at both gay and straight masculine sensibilities. Can a man be heterosexual if he punches someone for suggesting that Barbra Streisand was too old to play Yentl? Or if he can't help himself dancing to Diana Ross? The jokes are predictable, but Kline and Cusack give them smart, classy treatment. The presence of Selleck - himself recently subjected to an "outing" - also increases the luxury of the product.

However, in the odd moments when I wasn't laughing like a drain, I did find myself peering through the holes in the plot. For instance, how does Drake know that his teacher is gay when no one - not even Mr Brackett - suspected it before? Oz clearly thinks that you needn't bother with narrative coherence when you can have your entire cast dancing to the Village People's "Macho Man", and maybe he's right. It may not make much sense, but his film is as cosily hilarious as a warm muppet.

Whenever I see someone in a fetish mask attaching lead weights to his testicles, I wonder what his mother would say if she could see him. Well, Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (no cert) answers the question: Mr and Mrs Flanagan are quite cool about the fact that their late son nailed his penis to a plank for kicks. Bob Flanagan was a masochistic performance artist who used his delight in consensual torture to manage the unsolicited pain of cystic fibrosis. The condition usually kills its victims in young adulthood but, somehow, Flanagan's arsenal of butt- plugs, bullwhips and bravado helped him to survive to the age of 47. Kirby Dick's tender, witty biopic focuses on Bob's relationship with dominatrix Sheree Rose. "I was immediately struck by this woman," Bob says, without a hint of irony. Laid out on an operating table, he submits as Sheree snaps on her Marigolds and inserts a ball-bearing the size of a satsuma into his rectum, offering handy tips as if she's sharing a marmalade recipe. But there comes a point when Bob's attempts to fight pain with pain stop working. It's almost impossible to watch Dick's footage of Sheree badgering her partner for violent sex when he's clearly on the point of dying. The nail-in-the- knob trick, Dick saves for the finale. And yes, you actually see Bob bash it home.

Masochists may also enjoy The Blackout (18), a grisly cut of disingenuous morality starring Matthew Modine as a coke-raddled movie star. Like an Edwardian temperance play remade as a Madonna video, Abel Ferrara's movie offers melodramatic binges spiced with faintly embarrassing soft- core sex. But the supporting cast are interesting. Beatrice Dalle proves that a disdain for orthodontics can't undermine her sleazy charisma, Dennis Hopper provides a whirlwind of pantomime psychosis, and supermodel Claudia Schiffer isn't as bad as you'd expect.

Mary McGuckian's This Is the Sea (15) is an agreeably unusual love story set during the 1994 Northern Ireland ceasefire. Malachy (Ross McDade) is a Catholic boy who falls in love with Hazel (the weirdly sexy Samantha Morton), a girl from a strict Plymouth Brethren community. The story is a small one, told with quiet efficiency, but I was unconvinced by the details of Hazel's background. I once worked on a tree nursery owned by a Plymouth Brethren family, and they were a lot less liberal than this lot. Hazel breaks two important tenets of the sect as I understand them by going bareheaded and by staying overnight in someone else's home. Still, as the Brethren aren't allowed to go to the cinema either, there'll be no complaints about inaccuracy.

Unlike Bram Stoker's Dracula, Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent (15) merits the attribution: adaptor-director Christopher Hampton has followed his source text with fundamentalist zeal, if without much flair. Conversely, Robin Williams has decided that the credits don't deserve his name. He appears as the arch-anarchist Professor under the pseudonym George Spelvin, an allusion to the 1970s porn star Georgina Spelvin - which suggests that he thinks the film sucks. Which it doesn't. As it's based on the greatest British political novel of the century, it can't help but have some cracking dialogue. But the heavyweight cast led by Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu and Jim Broadbent, give disappointingly thin performances.

Bharat Nalluri's Downtime (15) is the first of this week's Paul McGann double bill, and is a peculiar experiment that attempts to fuse British social realism with the Hollywood action thriller. An ex-police psychologist (McGann, full of the twinkly intellectualism he brought to his brief incarnation as Doctor Who) and a single mum (Susan Lynch) are trapped in the lift shaft of a run-down tower block. It's a textbook suspense scenario, and one that Nalluri exploits for a respectable quota of terrors. But his characters' real ordeals come as they negotiate dialogue overwritten to the point of unintentional hilarity. Lynch has to find her way through an absurd shaggy-dog story about cornflakes, and McGann gets a dilapidated speech about circumcision rituals in Madagascar which should have been condemned as unfit for human recitation.

McGann survives to act again in Charles Sturridge's Fairy Tale: A True Story (U), this time playing the father of a girl who finds an Edwardian X-File at the bottom of the garden. These fairies are more corporeal and locust-like than the satanic Barbie dolls that fluttered about in Photographing Fairies, and they're supported by a colourful cast that includes a delightfully incongruous Harvey Keitel as Houdini, Peter O'Toole as Arthur Conan Doyle, and Tim McInnery, exceptional as an odious reporter from the Bradford Argus.

If you have trouble believing in fairies, then try this on for a plot: an Icelandic exile in Sydney dies in suspicious circumstances, and his dog attempts to locate his hidden fortune. Fortunately, said animal is an electronics expert who uses a PC to synthesise himself a voice. "I've always wanted to sound like Billy Connolly," he says, clicking on an icon of a Scotsman. And, suddenly, he does. Karl Zwicky's Paws (U) is so bonkers that I'm prepared to overlook its crass handling of human relationships, its terrible performances and its dog's breakfast of a narrative. It's certainly streets ahead of its competition, Good Burger (U), a 100 per cent mechanically-recovered comedy about two teenagers battling to save a fast food joint from closure. The performances and dialogue are the cinematic equivalents of the gruesome off-cuts that go into your average hamburger. McTerrible. So bad, in fact, that nobody from the company who made it turned up to the press screening.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11.

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