Writers often consider the short story the perfect art form because of its challenging limitations. But the same praise has, unfortunately, eluded the short film.
Often, short films are associated with young artists who have yet to gain the skills or attention necessary to produce a feature-length work. The restraints imposed by a shorter run time, though, often have interesting results, as is exemplified in the new collection Stars in Shorts.
Stars in Shorts, opening Friday at the Nuart Theatre in West Hollywood, is an anthology of unrelated short films with recognizable actors in lead roles. Though Shorts is a mixed bag, there are moments that shine. And fortunately, the star power helps these shorts gain attention that would otherwise elude them.
In The Procession, Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson star as a mother and a son reluctantly leading a funeral procession. The short is darkly comic and features great performances from its lead actors. Tomlin and Ferguson are guilt-tripped into attending the funeral of a friend of a friend whom they’ve never met. In the middle of making a decision to ditch the ceremony to go to a restaurant, the two find themselves leading the procession to the cemetery. While they meander through the streets, they comment, often hilariously, on the bonds of family and rituals of death.
Colin Firth stars as Steve, an unbalanced man who invents excuses to interact with his young, beautiful neighbor (Keira Knightley). Steve is dissatisfied with his life, as are Knightley’s character and her boyfriend — but at least the couple has each other. Steve serves as a commentary on the loneliness and isolation of modern urban existence, and, as a short film, it is immensely successful. Firth succeeds in his role, incorporating sympathetic, funny and unnerving emotions into his performance. Knightley is also wonderful despite an unexplained Scottish accent.
Not Your Time
Much of Not Your Time, the longest of the shorts at 25 minutes, feels extraneous. The musical stars Jason Alexander as a struggling writer-editor who plunges into misery when no one displays interest in making his passion project. The film seems to meander with little purpose, unable to find a coherent storyline amid the onscreen chaos. What’s worse: Most commentary on the publishing industry falls flat.
Julia Stiles stars as a mistress meeting her lover’s wife for the first time in Sexting. The Neil LaBute-penned short is strong if only for Stiles’ bravura performance. The actress shines as she makes a long-winded, stumbling and awkward attempt to explain her side of the story to the woman she has wronged. It’s unfortunate, then, that the dialogue and direction feels so insincere; and the decision to film the short in black and white only adds to its artificiality.
Arguably the worst of the set, Prodigal, presents a father attempting to protect his superhuman daughter from a sinister organization helmed by Kenneth Branagh. But even Branagh’s long-celebrated acting abilities cannot save the film. Prodigal gets points for ambition but is unable to contain or adequately explain the various sci-fi plot details in the allotted time. Additionally, the characters and situations are so shamelessly overwrought it becomes impossible to sympathize with any of them.
After School Special
Undoubtedly the most absurd, offensive and disturbing of the collection, After School Special features Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley engaging in uncomfortable conversation in an indoor playground. The whole film feels like a set-up for the unexpected, darkly comic closing. But the humor of the short, also penned by LaBute, is often too unpleasant and distasteful to be either entertaining or affecting.
Friend Request Pending
Friend Request Pending, a standout featuring Dame Judi Dench, ends Stars in Shorts on a high note. Dench plays an older woman who turns to Facebook in the hope of exacting a date from a man she just met. The results are funny and heartfelt, depicting the need for connection in an increasingly disconnected society in an original way. As Dench conveys her character’s confusions about technology and her heartbreaking need for connection, you can’t help but root for her.