Written on 20th Sep 2012.

Dame Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley and Colin Firth are among the British stars of a new collection of short movies entitled “Stars In Shorts”, opening in limited release in Los Angeles on September 28th.

The seven shorts – which range from eight to 25 minutes in length – are a presentation of ShortsTV, a cable channel whose programming is categorized into one-hour and half-hour themed blocks that cover a variety of genres, including comedies, musicals, documentaries, thrillers, dramas and animation. The shorts in question here range markedly in genre and quality, but there are no real duds.

The pick of the bunch is probably The Procession, starring Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as mother and son who get lost on their way to a burial in this Los Angeles-based comedy. 12 minutes long and directed by Robert Festinger.

Judi Dench impresses in Friend Request Pending, a gentle comedy of internet dating among Britain’s mature generation. The twelve-minute tale follows Mary (Dench) and Linda (Penny Ryder) who spend an afternoon discussing the pleasures, pitfalls and problems with using Facebook to try and woo the local choirmaster Trevor (Philip Jackson). Directed by Chris Foggin, this is a short, slight piece which benefits from the cozy, one-room setting and the impeccable homey authenticity of Dench, who is watchable in just about anything. The best moment comes when she allows a slighly saucy smile to crease her benign English features as he refers to her prey as ‘a real fox’.

Slightly less successful is Steve, a 16-minute comic drama starring Keira Knightley as the shrewish Scottish wife of a procrastinating writer (Tom Mison) who over the course of three days is interrrupted by her whiny neighbor, Steve (Colin Firth). First Steve complains about a non-existent water leak, then a non-existent loud party with rap music playing till 3am, and finally about their feckless postman. Knightley’s character is no shrinking violet but even she is cowed by Steve’s raging demands on the third day, to be offered a cup of tea, a plate of biscuits and some conversation. There’s plenty going on here about classic aspects of British life including the ritual of tea, getting on with the neighbors and passive-aggressive relationships but it never really comes together and ends far too abruptly. Written and directed by Rupert Friend.

Prodigal is the longest of the offerings here and centers on the atttempts of a creepy Kenneth Branagh, representing some shadowy US government agency, to take control of a young girl with telekinetic powers. In an extended sequence in a café where he first charms and then bullies the child’s father, Branagh moves from deferential to menacing in short order, and though he’s never convincing as a heavy, he does finally get to make dramatic use of those annoyingly thin lips of his. He also comes to a sticky end thanks to the young girl’s powers, unleashed with some very b-movie special effects. Also starring Jennifer Morrison (of House fame), and directed by Benjamin Grayson.

The two other most interesting pieces here are both by Neil LaBute, who proves he can be as provocative and unsettling in the short form as the long. Sexting is an eight minute, near-monologue by Julia Styles as a married man’s young mistress, confronting her lover’s wife, and After School Special, an even creepier effort starring Wes Bentley and Sarah Paulson as a man and a woman who have an awkward encounter at an indoor playground.
Jason Alexander fans will find some comic relief seeing the Seinfeld alum star in Not Your Time, as an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter at the end of his rope in this musical comedy.
25 minutes, directed by Jay Kamen.

Stars in Shorts’ theatrical release on September 28th will be followed by release on iTunes and on cable and satellite pay-per-view on Oct. 9.

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