Saturday, November 3, 2012

Stars in Shorts (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Stars in Shorts
Whether you want to see Judi Dench as a lovesick cyber-flirt, Jason Alexander as an aspiring Broadway star or Colin Firth as a stalker, the gang's all here in  "Stars in Shorts": a collection of seven ambitious short films. While these films are not all equal in strength, every one of them is interesting and there is something for all in these visual appetizers.
In "The Procession", veteran actor Lily Tomlin is paired with Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family) as a selfish and petty mother and son team  who refuse to attend a funeral and unwittingly get caught it its web. While their sour-grapes dialogue wears a bit, the editing is so fast and furious with an oh-no-what-will-happen- now apprehension, that it becomes impossible to look away.
Next is "Steve" which stars Kiera Knightley and Tom Mison as two young and grouchy people. Mison is a harried journalist and Knightley is just plain miserable. The acting is fine but the couple fight so bitterly throughout that their toxicity becomes a shade monotonous and grim. The milquetoast hubby is such a wet noodle and I just don't know why Knightley's character hates him so much. Is the milk curdled?
You might think so.
Colin Firth as Steve enters abruptly and becomes more and more manic. While never boring, "Steve" doesn't make much sense and the twenty odd minutes are literally twenty odd minutes and everything gets noisy.
Then there is the darkly charming "Not Your Time" with Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) as a struggling screenwriter. Although the story is right out of Neil Simon about a chubby square kid wishing for the big time, I found its quirky nostalgia likable and easy on the eyes. Mr. Alexander, a comedy legend, is  entertaining and endlessly watchable and I enjoyed the cameos by actual Hollywood producers. Sure, it is very derivative of a Woody Allen story or rather ANY  story from Woody Allen, but watching a classic neurotic tale is still fun the third time over.
"Prodigal" stars Shakespearean heavyweight Kenneth Branagh as an ultra-controlling bureaucrat who wants to sink his fangs into a telekinetic young girl who echoes Drew Barrymore in "Firestarter" (1984). While the effects are masterfully rendered and Branagh is terrific as The Man You Love To Hate, the roles are tissue thin and the drama doesn't contain much climax after a promising build-up.
Thankfully though, "After School Special" is a hobby horse of a different color (in this case cadmium red). This film is an anxious, haunting and sneaky story that far exceeds its small scale. Written by Neil LaBute (Director, In The Company of Men) who seldom, if ever, holds back, the narrative concerns a perky teacher (Sarah Paulson), a nervous single dad (Wes Bentley) and a cute but shifty kid (Sam Cohen). I won't spoil the aha moment but every moment of this approximately twelve minute film will make you uncomfortable. It is quite punchy and never releases its hold. Its uncompromising shriek bears something of Albert Camus and Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even "Curb Your Enthusiasm".
There is also yet another Woody Allenish short which is actually directed by Neil LaBute. Shot in black & white, Julia Stiles stars as a put-upon girlfriend who is so enraged, she has a moment of mistaken identity. Although sharply written, this one comes up as a one joke wonder.
Lastly, Judy Dench appears in the lightly comic "Friend Request Pending", directed by Chris Foggin. Compared to the edgy and alarming "After School Special", this film dances on the eyes like a sunny dose of valerian root. This is a breezy character study featuring Dame Dench as a flirty, online feline hoping to score with an argentine Astaire. The star mention of Tom Hiddleston who is fantastic for playing carnivorous characters, is a big tease here: He is only featured for one second as a mere cameo.
On the whole, "Stars in Shorts", delights, pleases, and in one instance, refreshingly provokes. And, in an age of a Hollywood that is often prefabricated and audience-tested, the diversity found in these character-driven films, deserves to be applauded.
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