Review: Seven Shorts Showcase Rare Performances from Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Jason Alexander, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh

Review: Seven Shorts Showcase Rare Performances from Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Jason Alexander, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh
Review: Seven Shorts Showcase Rare Performances from Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Jason Alexander, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh

This fall, ShortsHD will present a collection of several brief films unambiguously titled “Stars in Shorts.”  Each of these otherwise unconnected seven films features big name talent such as Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Tom Hiddleston, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Lily Tomlin, and Jason Alexander.  The seven films, reviewed below, will premiere in theaters on September 28th, followed by an iTunes/Pay Per View release on October 9.

“Stars in Shorts” comes on the heels of a perceived audience demand for a showcase of bite-size movies, spurred by success of the Oscar-nominated short films program, which grew audience attendance in theaters by 800% from its launch in 2006.

Like novellas or short stories, brevity is the soul of these short films. Their length ranges from 8 to 25 minutes.  In some, the economy of the film allows for a satisfying bow to tie-up the plot; in others, the short timeframe permits a lingering sense of wonder or shock to continue after the audience has a chance to digest.  Most of the seven meet a pretty high standard in short filmmaking — and a few even dazzle with inventive imagery and punchy dialogue.  

The Procession, 2012
Director: Robert Festinger
Actors: Lily Tomlin and Jessie Tyler Ferguson
Mood: Hysteric and hysterical gallows humor

The premise of “The Procession” is dark comic gold: a mother and son attend a funeral of a woman they don’t know, but accidentally stop at a red light during the procession from funeral to burial, blindly leading half of the mourners to a randomly selected graveyard.  Tomlin plays a preposterously hilarious, self-involved snoot, who is primarily concerned about the possibility of prosciutto at the reception.  With convincing joy, Tomlin and Ferguson depict a mother-son duo to perfection, acting simultaneously annoyed with each other while effortlessly mirroring the other’s body language.  The pair find themselves navigating between exasperation, fits of laughter, and then horror as they remember the consequences of leading carloads of loved ones away from the burial. Festinger maintains the dark humor through the 12 minute short, from the tearful beginning to the darkly glorious “Thelma and Louise” denouement.  

Prodigal, 2011
Director: Benjamin Grayson
Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Jennifer Morrison, Travis Crim, Jade Pettyjohn
Mood: Dreamlike JJ Abrams-inspired suspense

Benjamin Grayson’s 25-minute short “Prodigal” comes across like a promising pilot to a breakout sci-fi series: a gifted child’s parents must protect her from two different manipulative and mysterious agencies attempting to harness their daughter’s strange gift.  Branagh shows restrained power as one of the masterminds attempting to exploit the young child separate from her parents.  A spooky, hesitant score and intriguing suspense underly the outstanding imagery and special effects in this short.  The overall heart of the story is simply tragic: a tale of parents hopelessly trying to protect their fragile child.  

Steve, 2010
Director: Rupert Friend
Actors:  Kiera Knightley, Colin Firth, and Tom Mison
Mood: British sensibilities boiled over

Rupert Friend begins his short film, “Steve,” with a striking shot of a tea bag releasing its inky flavor into water.  The sensitive image sets the mood for this perplexing short: the mysterious ways that calm can be invaded.  It begins with a young couple arguing, a heated moment bubbling over as a tea kettle screams in the background.  It’s a heavy-handed metaphor, but portrayed with lovely execution.  At the height of the chaos, a neighbor named Steve (Firth) rings the bell, inviting himself in.  His derangement begins to seep through as he demands more than a cuppa from his upstairs neighbors.  Friend expertly controls the tension in his glowering fifteen minute short.  

Friend Request Pending, 2011
Director: Chris Foggin
Actors: Judi Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Penny Ryder, Philip Johnson
Mood: Delightfully sweet and snarky

This short film is a delight throughout, as two elderly women fuss about with the myriad of technological options available to contact a recent crush.  Mary (Dench) and her friend Linda (Ryder) are quite tech-savvy; they understand the subtle differences between poking, private messaging, posting, and chatting.  Dench is as charming as you would expect.  When she slams the laptop shut after Trevor signs online, running away from the laptop, she absolutely glows; it’s a “You’ve Got Mail” gag in the right hands to revive the moment.  Dench also delivers the hilarious one liners with fresh sweetness: “Maybe I should say ‘Hello,’ ‘Hi’ is a bit mid-90s, isn’t it?”

Not Your Time, 2010
Director: Jay Kamen
Actors: Jason Alexander
Mood: Dark Hollywood satire

Like “The Procession,” Jay Kamen’s “Not Your Time” has a pitch perfect grasp of dark humor.  This short musical surveys the life of Sid Rosenthal (played by Jason Alexander), who dreamed of creating musicals but now censors expletives from movies before they show on airplanes.  After his latest Hollywood disappointment, in which a studio executive refuses to produce his movie, claiming that they liked it too much and feared it would conflict with the release of “Toy Story 12,”  Rosenthal decides to kill himself — unless someone talks him out of it.  In an attempt to find someone who suggests that he keep breathing, he calls everyone he’s worked with announcing his impending suicide, and finds himself in an absurd situation only Hollywood could produce.  The film is packed with a series of executives, directors, and producers all played by themselves including Amy Pascal, Sid Ganis, Joe Roth, Stuart Cornfeld, Jack Rapke, Lawrence Mark, Amy Heckerling, Neal Israel, and Chris Buck.

After School Special, 2011
Director: Jacob Chase
Actors: Sarah Paulson, Wes Bentley, and Sam Cohen
Mood: Uneven, awkward

The setting of “After School Special” is the most interesting aspect of this short film from Jacob Chase: a cheesy and cheery indoor playpen at a fast food restaurant.  It provides a bright and simple contrast to the uncomfortable awkwardness of the social scenarios playing out next to the jungle gym.  Written by Neil LaBute, the dialogue is intentionally stilted as an edgy divorced father (Wes Bentley) tries to woo his daughter’s standoffish teacher (Sarah Paulson), while her eyes are clearly more focused on her young student (Sam Cohen).  

Sexting, 2010
Director: Neil LaBute
Actor: Julia Stiles
Mood: Catty and confessional

This well-executed eight minute short is essentially a monologue, as Julia Stiles plays a mistress confronting her boyfriend’s wife.  In a overwhelming bout of nerves and catty one-upmanship, she brags about her lover’s affection for her and then whimpers about his deceptive lies.  She prods, probes, instigates, pleads, whines, and breaks down.  She confesses she knows this woman’s gym schedules, asks about her Pilates class, and then proceeds to inquire on the possibility of her lover’s impending divorce. Stiles shines, as she impressively makes her way through a six-minute shot of her rant, ending in a well-timed twist.

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