Editors' pick

Stars in Shorts

Stars in Shorts movie poster
Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: NR
Big stars act in a series of short films, most of them worth watching.
Starring: Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Lily Tomlin, Jason Alexander, Kenneth Branagh, Julia Stiles, Keira Knightley, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Morrison, Sarah Paulson
Director: Various
Release: Opened Sep 28, 2012
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Editorial Review

Small gems on the big screen
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 28, 2012

Unlike a feature film, which has the leeway -- and the leisure -- to explore a single story deeply and from different angles, the movie short must get in and get out quickly, like a thief. In “Stars in Shorts” -- an anthology of seven films ranging in length from eight to 25 minutes and featuring performances by such big names as Kenneth Branagh and Keira Knightley -- the payoff varies widely.

Sometimes it’s a gem, as with “The Procession,” a delightfully dark 13-minute comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a bickering mother and son who are stuck in an automotive funeral cortege for a person they don’t even know. Other times it’s a worthless dud, as with “Prodigal,” a cheesy sci-fi thriller about a girl (Jade Pettyjohn) with telekinesis. The only real star in that 25-minute exercise in predictability is Branagh, whose cameo as a glib but unscrupulous operative hoping to harness the child’s powers does little to elevate the overly formulaic story.

All told, however, there are more hits than misses.

Neil LaBute contributes two offerings, both displaying his trademark fascination with human misbehavior. “Sexting,” which he wrote and directed, is essentially an eight-minute monologue starring Julia Stiles as the bitter girlfriend of a married man. Delivered to the guy’s speechless wife (Marin Ireland), her screed is quite well acted, but the twist at the end -- really more of a silly joke -- falls flat.

That’s decidedly not the case with “After-School Special.” Directed by Jacob Chase from a script by LaBute, the nine-minute film is set in what looks like a food court and concerns the awkward encounter between a woman and a man (Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley), each of whom is watching over a child in a nearby indoor playground.

As the slightly creepy divorced dad hitting on a woman he thinks is single, Bentley makes the most impact. But it’s the film’s breathtaking kicker -- which in true LaBute fashion packs a sickening punch -- that will stay with you.

The rest of the films are also pretty darn good. In “Not Your Time” (25 minutes), Jason Alexander plays a Hollywood editor who dreams of directing a lavish movie musical. It’s a sharp satire of Tinseltown, featuring cameos by several real-life producers and directors, such as Joe Roth and Amy Heckerling.

Knightley is delightful as always in “Steve” (15 minutes). But she’s upstaged by co-star Colin Firth, playing a daffy-to-the-point-of-unhinged neighbor who’s desperate for companionship.

Finally, “Friend Request Pending” is a pure delight. Starring Judi Dench and Philip Jackson as senior citizens trying to adapt their flirting game to such social-networking tools as Facebook’s instant-messaging service, this little window into modern love is a breath of fresh air. It packs as much insight into its scant 12 minutes as most full-length rom-coms.

Contains obscenity, some blood and violence, sexual dialogue and disturbing thematic material.