Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jason Alexander, Wes Bentley, Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Colin Firth, Tom Hiddleston, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Morrison, Sarah Paulson, Julia Stiles, Lily Tomlin
Written by: Travis Crim, Chris Croucher, Robert Festinger, Rupert Friend, Benjamin Grayson, Jay Kamen, Neil LaBute
Directed by: Jacob Chase, Robert Festinger, Chris Foggin, Rupert Friend, Benjamin Grayson, Jay Kamen, Neil LaBute
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 113
Date: 03/18/2013

Stars in Shorts (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Little Twists

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on the success of the recent programs of Oscar-nominated short films, here comes a random collection of seven new shorts, each featuring at least one known star. Their quality ranges from average to slightly above average. If you've seen a number of short films you become wary of the comical twist ending (done in the style of the great O. Henry short stories), as well as of the story that's too big for a short film. Many of these fall into those traps, but there are some wonderful surprises here too.

Starting from the least of the films, we have Benjamin Grayson's Prodigal, which begins with the meaningless flash-forward to more exciting events from two-thirds of the way through the story. This is done because the filmmakers don't have enough faith that their story will pull viewers in from its proper opening minutes. The story involves a telekinetic child and her worried parents. Apparently the child is being studied by sinister organization headed by Mark Snow (Kenneth Branagh). This organization is under investigation by a couple of equally sinister agents. Then, after all this, the movie tries for the typical "twist" ending. It's frankly too much story for 25 minutes and leaves open too many questions. For example, if Snow dies in a plane crash, what about the rest of his organization? Will it simply go away? Perhaps this would have been better fleshed out as a feature.

Next up is Jay Kamen's Not Your Time, a comical, but accusatory look at Hollywood. Jason Alexander stars as a screenwriter employed as an assistant editor. In a flashback to his childhood, we see that he dreams of making musicals, and when he almost gets his chance -- and it's lost in a sea of Hollywood logic -- he decides to kill himself. The movie has some amusing editing (is the movie biographical?), but it's never quite laugh-out-loud funny.

Rupert Friend's Steve has a highly promising setup, but doesn't quite deliver. Keira Knightley and Tom Mison play a couple whose relationship is past its prime. They spend most of their time bickering. Suddenly a downstairs neighbor (Colin Firth) shows up complaining of a leak. He's a bit odd, and when it turns out that there is no leak, his behavior becomes even stranger. The performances are fine, and the actors manage to generate a certain amount of dramatic tension. I suppose it could be a twist on British politeness, but the film's payoff is just rather flat.

It was all too easy to guess the twist ending of Neil LaBute 8-minute Sexting, but nonetheless, I enjoyed Julia Stiles' jittery performance as the girlfriend of a married man who decides to meet her lover's wife in a café. It's basically an audition tape, with Stiles sinking her teeth into some rude and emotionally hefty dialogue, and she nails it.

Neil LaBute also wrote After-School Special, directed by Jacob Chase, and on this one I did not see the ending coming; it totally blind-sided me, which I appreciated. Wes Bentley stars as a divorced dad who has taken his daughter to a bouncy-house. He spies a pretty woman (Sarah Paulson) sitting nearby and tries to speak to her. She's there with a boy who is perhaps too big for the playhouse... and so forth. I don't want to say any more, but Paulson's sweet, disarming performance is the key to this.

Judi Dench is an international treasure, as evidenced in Chris Foggin's Friend Request Pending. At age 77 she still has a pretty, pixie-ish face, and watching her navigate the pitfalls of dating on Facebook, which could have been wince-inducing in another actor's hands, is completely charming. This is a very old-fashioned little film, and relaxing and satisfying in many ways. Tom Hiddleston appears in one scene at the tail end as Dench's son.

Finally, Robert Festinger's The Procession stars Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as mother and son. Daughter/sister Lucy Punch weepily asks them to come to the funeral of her best friend, whom they barely knew. Accidentally, the hapless duo winds up in the funeral procession, unaware of where they're going, and simply trying to make a quick getaway. It's ostensibly one of those comedies of discomfort, but to Festinger's credit, the film gets laughs from little moments along the way, like Tomlin attempting to Google nearby cemeteries. It also benefits from not having a twist ending. I wish that this, the best of the seven, had been a masterpiece, but at least it's fun.

Overall, this is a decent little collection, and worth seeing for those seeking something different.

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