Stars in Shorts (***)

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Stars in Shorts is a film/television special (courtesy of Shorts HD) featuring a collection of seven shorts that famous (or should be famous) stars…well, you know…star in. If I haven’t reiterated that four-letter word enough yet, I hope you’ll catch my drift by the end of the review. The good news about the inconsistent, if at times alarming wonderful, Stars in Shorts is that nearly every actor diverges from the roles one might normally see them play on the big or small screen, especially those of Hollywood British Royalty. I reckon that the people who are interested in watching this special will be more invested in the performances from big-name celebrities — who ironically are given the chance to show more range as an actor in a far shorter space of time — than the actual short stories they are meant to uphold. Film director/screenwriter/playwright Neil Labute pens three of the shorts, and proves that when he is not exclusively sitting in the director’s chair, he could be a major writing force in Hollywood. His writing style strikes a unique chord by never really defining its tone: there are elements of drama and black comedy in his works, and I find this purgatorial realm he’s living in utterly fascinating. Neil Labute is the true star in this slice of celebrity potpourri.

The Procession (***1/2)

Comedians Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson star in this hilarious short written and directed by Robert Festinger. The writing is so very much in line with Larry David’s “let’s find the funny in common situations” shtick that he’s made a trademark out of in both Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Considering Robert Festinger was an Academy Award™ nominee for the very un-funny In the Bedroom, I’m pleasantly surprised he’s able to deliver so many laughs in this short, which had me barking mad with laughter far more than I care to admit. Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson may seem typecast in their respective roles, but the more you watch them foolishly interact with one another, the more you appreciate their panache as off-the-cuff comedians. The short centers around a mother and son who are dragged to their daughter’s/sister’s friend’s sister’s funeral. Have I lost you yet? Neither really care to be there since they have no clue who this recently deceased person even is, but show up anyways for support. After the funeral service, Lily Tomlin’s character (simply referred to as “Mom”) begs and pleads with her son, Jason, to ditch the burial and go back to their daily lives. Although deep down Jason agrees with his mother about the burial being a complete waste of time, he feels morally obligated to go through with the entire service. Lily Tomlin persists, but is immediately shot down when a placard that’s designated “FUNERAL” is placed on their dashboard. If that’s not bad enough, something even crazier occurs which causes the lineup of cars behind them — who also have no idea where the cemetery for the burial is located at — to follow suit like one giant caravan. This unfortunate event results in even crazier roads traveled on their way to the burial. The character of the boy with the limp didn’t really work for me, and the ending was a little too neatly wrapped-up, but the chemistry between Ferguson and Tomlin, not to mention Festinger’s riotous script, makes this short film one of the best of the entire special. (Country: USA. Running Time: 12 min., 26 sec.)

Steve (**)

This short film focuses on one couple’s home under constant bombardment by their neighbor, Steve (Colin Firth). Keira Knightley and Tom Mison play the vexed duo, but neither really do much more than stand by in complete awe of Steve’s intrusive, insane, and — let’s face it — unacceptable antics. He constantly finds excuses to speak with them; clearly he’s a recluse who has recently suffered a hermit’s mid-life crises and wants to suddenly be surrounded by people, at any given time. The premise is unique, but compacted into such a small time, Steve lacks the impact it wishes to create by introducing a character so utterly unbelievable. In fact, it feels like the entire purpose of this persona Rupert Friend (writer and director) created was to show off Colin Firth’s dark, demonic and unstable side…as if we didn’t know he had it in him? Knightley is surprisingly bland in this role, and while some may love her restraint and subtlety, it’s almost a disservice to Knightley given how dynamic she can be when inhabiting the right character. Like he was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Mison’s talents go to waste, and he’s pushed aside into the background while the two Academy Award nominees (in Firth’s case, Oscar winner) duke it out with words of rationality that soon turn into insulting barbs. Colin Firth, as much as I find him to be a brilliant actor, steps far over the line in this film, “over-acting” as a means of projecting a character whose insanity is more irksome than fascinating. (Country: UK. Running Time: 16 minutes)

Not Your Time (**)

This short should be retitled “Not Worth Your Time,” because it simply wastes its well-choreographed dance sequences (obviously inspired by Cabaret) and refreshing industry insight due to pacing issues and an overall lack of cohesion. I was singing Neil Labute’s praises earlier, but as a director he fumbles with this tale of a Hollywood bit-screenwriter who’s constantly given the run-around by several different studio heads (the cameos of several studio bigwigs is a small highlight). Sid Rosenthal, who once held big dreams of becoming a great Broadway star, now works a censor editor for films. Trying to find the unintentional expletives in movies (a spin on Disney’s accidental Easter eggs, perhaps?) is enough for anyone to go crazy, but when one of Sid’s scripts is loved by Disney but ultimately passed on due to unfounded reasons (something about interfering with a Toy Story sequel, yada yada), Sid Rosenthal considers suicide. How Rosenthal deals with his new path of direction, and how Hollywood reacts to this news, may seem funny to some but ultimately the jokes never yield anything more than mild discomfort. It’s one thing to poke fun at yourself as an industry, but if you go too far out into the bleak and self-damning realm of comedy, people might get the wrong idea. Jason Alexander is good enough in a role that already seemed written for him, but at least he gets to show off some chutzpah before his story arc descends into the dregs of banality. (Country: USA. Running Time: 25 minutes).

Sexting (***)

The vastly underrated Julia Stiles stars in another Neil Labute short, this time one that boldly takes cinematic risks that often pay off in dividends. Black-and-white photography is always beautiful to me, mostly because it sharpens the subject matter. With black-and-white, an audience focuses more on the fundamentals of the story and the performance by the actor, unable to become distracted by colors that shift our attention away from the film’s focal point. Julia Stiles plays a woman whose boyfriend had just sent an explicit, sexually suggestive text to the wife he supposedly separated from, and Stiles now plans to confront the wife face-to-face at an outdoor restaurant. Thanks to Labute, Stiles is provided the space to stamp herself as one of the finest monologue orators in cinema. Her character’s emotions, even the smallest behavioral idiosyncrasies, are expressed so genuinely by Stiles during the confrontation. The small film is simultaneously charming, socially relevant, and comical. Ultimately, it’s Julia Stiles who is the major benefactor of Labute’s witty script and confident direction in Sexting, much to our satisfaction. (Country: USA. Running Time: 8 minutes.)

Prodigal (**1/2)

The plot of Prodigal may not be as inventive as it looks. At its most basic, Prodigal is another “X-Men” and “Heroes” narrative that deals with individuals who have superhuman powers, and whom the government wants either destroyed, experimented on, or contained. Benjamin Grayson’s short film does, however, make great use of Kenneth Branagh. I personally could not stand Branagh’s portrayal of Laurence Olivier in last year’s My Week With Marilyn, but Prodigal is an entirely different animal. Branagh is able to be equal parts menacing and sympathetic, subtle with his delivery of dialogue but chilling all the same. Branagh plays a scientist who is experimenting on a little girl with these aforementioned supernatural powers, but has to constantly fend off her parents who want no part in the unspeakable trials performed on their daughter. Jennifer Morrison plays an agent with ulterior motives, silent but eyes hinting at her maleficent purpose. If not for the odd and totally random British accent, I might have championed Morrison’s eery performance, but I couldn’t take her seriously in her pivotal scenes. The movie goes to heights — literally — that are unexplained, and therefore uninteresting to those with no base of reference. Things happen, the special effects team gets to show off their work on the film, and a Twilight Zone ending is conveniently tacked on at the end. Some elements of Prodigal may be appealing to sci-fi fans, but besides Branagh’s terrific turn here, the film’s incapacity to illustrate its narrative intentions make all that stream before us seem both arbitrary and fickle. (Country: USA. Running Time: 25 minutes).

After School Special (****)

If there’s only one short film that makes the time spent with Stars in Shorts worth anything, it’s Neil Labute’s masterful After School Special. My colleagues — and I’m sure now, many of our readers — know how much I adore and champion Sarah Paulson whenever I get the opportunity. She’s easily one of the most gifted and diverse actresses on the planet, and it’s a shame not enough people realize this. Along with the equally underrated Wes Bentley (I swear, Labute must have created this short film just for me given how big a fan I am of this acting pair), Sarah Paulson completely transfixes our attention on the deeper secrets that lie beneath the guarded facade of adulthood. Sarah Paulson portrays a caretaker to a child, watching from a distance as he plays inside an obstacle ball pit. Wes Bentley, a father of another kid in the play area, awkwardly fumbles over his pick-up lines when he tries to ask Paulson’s character out on a date. Instead, he comes across unintentionally judgmental and overly righteous, and yet Bentley’s goofy charm and likability make him completely sympathetic to both Paulson and the audience. The chemistry between the pair is fantastic, aided greatly by Director Jacob Chase’s terrific usage of the two-shot. Both actors — who are probably the most unknown celebrities in the entire short collection — radiate the type of enigmatic complexity that one normally doesn’t find in a Hollywood feature. What’s left unsaid is truly where the drama lies, and Paulson’s stoicism beneath her soft voice and sprightly eyes masks a greater horror than anyone could possibly imagine. I reckon many viewers will be offended by this short and its twist of an ending, but the way it collapses the innocence of American traditionalism is both brave and revolutionary on Neil Labute’s part. After School Special showcases two undervalued actors who deliver award-worthy performances, especially Paulson, in a film that says so much about our own societal blindness than any movie I’ve ever seen, short or full-length. After School Special deserves an Oscar for “Best Live Action Short Film,” but it’s far too controversial to even get a respectful mention. That’s alright, Neil Labute — I, at least, know you’ve created your career masterpiece. (Country: USA. Running Time: 9 minutes)

Friend Request Pending (***1/2)

I hate to gripe on the elderly, but their total ignorance of technology can often times be more head-scratching than adorable. Hopefully, they’ll watch this short and see how delightful and meaningful the internet (not to mention FaceBook and all of its multifunctional software) can be, especially for an age that finds itself becoming more and more acquainted with the indoors. Dame Judi Dench plays an elderly woman who is slowly starting to embrace the internet, FaceBook, and that amazing piece of technology known as “instant-messaging.” Following too many mojitos, Dench’s Mary wants to ask out one of her drinking buddies she met at a choir after-party a night or two before. However, she’s coy about jumping back into the dating world at her age, but thankfully she has her technologically savvy pal, Linda (Penny Ryder), by her side to brush up on her internet lingo and appropriate online behavior. When Mary sees her crush on FaceBook, 60-year old Trevor (Philip Jackson), Linda dares her to “FaceBook Chat” with him, and so she does with both caution and excitement. When Trevor responds, Dench squeals like a schoolgirl, and that’s when I found myself completely enthralled by this short film. Friend Request Pending may an obvious marketing ploy to get the elderly enthusiastic about the benefits of digital technology, but between Dench’s surprisingly dynamic performance (she’ll get as many laughs as “awws”) and the film’s rejuvenation of the youthful spirit that’s hidden underneath the wrinkles of the elderly, I couldn’t help but be bowled over by its delectable charm. Seeing Dame Judi Dench acting cheeky while including the famed acronym “LOL” in a FaceBook message is definitely up there in my top movie moments of 2012. (Country: UK. Running Time: 12 minutes)

In all, Stars in Shorts is a mixed bag when it comes to quality produced, but there’s easily more good to be found in the film collection, especially Neil Labute’s extraordinary After School Special. I highly recommend watching Stars in Shorts as soon as it becomes available to you. Stars in Shorts releases today, Sept. 28th, at Los Angeles’ NuArt Theatre. Following the theatrical release, Stars in Shorts will be released on iTunes and Pay Per View beginning October 9th.