All words: Ross Bonaime
The great film short is almost like a lost art. With rarely any distribution methods, short films have fallen by the wayside. Pixar and the release of Oscar winning shorts in theaters, however, has revived some of the excitement of short-form film. It’s much easier to have a two-hour story that has character growth and abundant in story, than to have a similar amount of impact in less than a half an hour. Stars in Shorts attempts this shorter form of filmmaking with the benefit of some brilliant actors and up-and-coming filmmakers. Unfortunately, most of the films in Stars in Shorts are unsuccessful in making compelling short films.
Let’s break these seven shorts down one by one:
Written by Neil LaBute, After-School Special is an unusual short that goes for a twist ending that only halfway works. A young teacher, played by Sarah Paulson, takes one of her more troubled students to a Chuck E. Cheese style-establishment for dinner. While the boy is in the playground area, Paulson’s character is hit on single father Tom Collins, an awkward Wes Bentley. When Paulson turns him down, she is seeing someone, Bentley continues the conversation, yet is oddly invasive. When he leaves and the boy returns to the table, After-School Special tries out a shocker of an ending. The new information given at the end puts a new light on the short, but doesn’t necessarily make the stiff dialogue any better, nor does it feel like it is put there for any other reason than to surprise. It’s an ambitious short, but one that doesn’t seem to have much of a goal in its execution.
Friend Request Pending
Director Chris Foggin gathers Dame Judi Dench, Penny Rider and Philip Jackson, all of whom he worked with on My Week With Marilyn for one of the more compelling shorts of the series. Friend Request Pending focuses on an older generation dealing with dating in a world filled with social media. Dench is usually stoic and unshakable in many of her roles, but here as Mary, she acts almost like a teenager, freaking out about asking out Jackson’s Trevor, worried if he will accept her friend request on Facebook and reading over his hilarious tweets. She has started cyber stalking Trevor and even spends way too long deciding whether or not she should have used ‘LOL’ in one of their conversations. It’s the sweetest of any of the shorts, even if at times it can be somewhat cheesy with their attempts at text speak, but Friend Request Pending never talks down to this age group, instead focusing on moments that we’ve all had in a world filled with social media and the uncertainty of relationships built around them.
Not Your Time
Not Your Time is the semi-autobiographical story of director Jay Kamen. In real life, Kamen worked in the sound department of such 90’s staples as Clueless, The Hunt for the Red October and Independence Day. Jason Alexander plays his surrogate, Sid Rosenthal, who had lofty expectations of becoming a dancer as a child. When that didn’t work he
tried music and eventually film. Now he’s stuck editing films for cursing, while trying to sell his screenplay “Babes in Toys ‘R Us.” After loving the idea, Disney decides not to purchase it, since it’s too similar to the upcoming Toy Story 12. Sid then decides to call every film contact he knows to announce his upcoming suicide. The short has an odd structure, which keeps going back to a cabaret, starring the Angel of Death, and then parades many studio insiders playing themselves, such as Amy Pascal and Amy Heckerling, to react to Sid’s soon-to-be death. Not You Time tries to be a tragic black comedy, and it does come off with some laughs, especially when looking back at Sid’s life, but instead it comes off more self-indulgent than
With Prodigal, young father David, played by co-writer Travis Crim, is trying to save his gifted daughter from Mark Snow, portrayed by Kenneth Branagh. Mark has worked with David’s daughter Samantha for the past three months and feels like she may be an evolutionary glitch that could help out mankind, but so far has only led her to constant nosebleeds and seizures in the process. David has met Mark at a cafe to discuss his daughter’s future, all while two FBI agents, Taylor Kinney and Jennifer Morrison, listen in a van outside. The problem in Prodigal is Crim, who doesn’t have the acting chops against a heavy-hitter like Branagh. He even falters when acting with his Samantha, played by a wonderful young actress Jade Pettyjohn. Prodigal feels like it could have been a prequel for an X-Men character, and has another attempted twist that is heavily hinted at, but disappointingly Crim bogs down the whole thing with a lack of experience that shows.
Probably the least effective of the seven shorts is Neil LaBute’s second short he wrote in this series, Sexting. LaBute sets up another awkward meeting, wherein Julia Stiles plays a woman who has been sleeping with another man’s wife, and after getting fed up with him, decides to meet up with the other woman and come clean. LaBute focuses on Stiles’ monologue to the other wife for the majority of the short, which is an unrealistic speech that never comes off as truthful. It’s cringe-worthy, but not in the way LaBute intends, rather because it doesn’t feel like something that would actually ever happen. Once again, LaBute tries a twist, this time for comedic effect, but still doesn’t succeed, except this time it’s because at that point, it’s hard to still care.
Steve could probably be fascinating as a full-length film, but as a short film feels like a half-baked idea that ends just as it’s getting off the ground. Keira Knightley and Tom Mison are a couple that are constantly bickering over everything. Their fighting gets interrupted by their downstairs neighbor Steve, Colin Firth giving the best performance in the series, who finds new ways to come into their house and share tea with them. Over the course of three days, Steve’s attitude and excuses get more unusual, making the couple less interested with indulging this strange man. Steve becomes fascinating near the end, then abruptly ends. Firth’s depth in his performance is slightly humorous with a tinge of terror, and it’s definitely the highlight in terms of directing and cinematography, but Steve doesn’t have enough room to breath and to let the ideas flow before cutting off right when it’s getting good.
My personal favorite of the seven is easily The Procession, which places Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as mother and son, is a funeral procession for a funeral they don’t even want to attemd. Written and directed by Robert Festinger, co-writer of In the Bedroom, he puts these two great comedians in a comedy of errors that works brilliantly. The two have been asked to go to a funeral by their daughter/sister Susan, also played by the wonderful Lucy Punch, for one of her friends that they’ve never met. The duo tries to sneak off after to go eat, but instead get stuck in the middle of the funeral procession, then end up leading the procession. The back-and-forth between Tomlin and Ferguson is great and the scaling of their predicament keeps The Procession consistent throughout, to form the most successful of any of the shorts.
Stars in Shorts is basically what you get from a series of shorts like this: some hit, some miss. It doesn’t remain as solid as a series like Paris je t’aime or Tokyo! did, but at least it’s a great way to explore a style of filmmaking that is rare to come across nowadays.