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Review: Seven Shorts Showcase Rare Performances from Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Jason Alexander, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh

Thompson on Hollywood By Maggie Lange | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2012 at 7:24PM

This fall, ShortsHD will present a collection of several brief films unambiguously titled "Stars in Shorts." Each of these otherwise unconnected seven films features big name talent including Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Tom Hiddleston, Keira Knightly, Kenneth Branagh, Lily Tomlin, Jason Alexander, and others. The seven films, reviewed below, will premiere in theaters on September 28th, followed by an iTunes/Pay Per View release on October 9.
Keira Knightley and Tom Mison in 'Steve'
Keira Knightley and Tom Mison in 'Steve'

This fall, ShortsHD will present a collection of several brief films unambiguously titled "Stars in Shorts."  Each of these otherwise unconnected seven films features big name talent such as Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Tom Hiddleston, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Lily Tomlin, and Jason Alexander.  The seven films, reviewed below, will premiere in theaters on September 28th, followed by an iTunes/Pay Per View release on October 9.

"Stars in Shorts" comes on the heels of a perceived audience demand for a showcase of bite-size movies, spurred by success of the Oscar-nominated short films program, which grew audience attendance in theaters by 800% from its launch in 2006.

Like novellas or short stories, brevity is the soul of these short films. Their length ranges from 8 to 25 minutes.  In some, the economy of the film allows for a satisfying bow to tie-up the plot; in others, the short timeframe permits a lingering sense of wonder or shock to continue after the audience has a chance to digest.  Most of the seven meet a pretty high standard in short filmmaking -- and a few even dazzle with inventive imagery and punchy dialogue.  

The Procession, 2012
Director: Robert Festinger
Actors: Lily Tomlin and Jessie Tyler Ferguson
Mood: Hysteric and hysterical gallows humor

The premise of "The Procession" is dark comic gold: a mother and son attend a funeral of a woman they don't know, but accidentally stop at a red light during the procession from funeral to burial, blindly leading half of the mourners to a randomly selected graveyard.  Tomlin plays a preposterously hilarious, self-involved snoot, who is primarily concerned about the possibility of prosciutto at the reception.  With convincing joy, Tomlin and Ferguson depict a mother-son duo to perfection, acting simultaneously annoyed with each other while effortlessly mirroring the other's body language.  The pair find themselves navigating between exasperation, fits of laughter, and then horror as they remember the consequences of leading carloads of loved ones away from the burial. Festinger maintains the dark humor through the 12 minute short, from the tearful beginning to the darkly glorious "Thelma and Louise" denouement.  

Prodigal, 2011
Director: Benjamin Grayson
Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Jennifer Morrison, Travis Crim, Jade Pettyjohn
Mood: Dreamlike JJ Abrams-inspired suspense

Benjamin Grayson's 25-minute short "Prodigal" comes across like a promising pilot to a breakout sci-fi series: a gifted child's parents must protect her from two different manipulative and mysterious agencies attempting to harness their daughter's strange gift.  Branagh shows restrained power as one of the masterminds attempting to exploit the young child separate from her parents.  A spooky, hesitant score and intriguing suspense underly the outstanding imagery and special effects in this short.  The overall heart of the story is simply tragic: a tale of parents hopelessly trying to protect their fragile child.  

Steve, 2010
Director: Rupert Friend
Actors:  Kiera Knightley, Colin Firth, and Tom Mison
Mood: British sensibilities boiled over

Rupert Friend begins his short film, "Steve," with a striking shot of a tea bag releasing its inky flavor into water.  The sensitive image sets the mood for this perplexing short: the mysterious ways that calm can be invaded.  It begins with a young couple arguing, a heated moment bubbling over as a tea kettle screams in the background.  It's a heavy-handed metaphor, but portrayed with lovely execution.  At the height of the chaos, a neighbor named Steve (Firth) rings the bell, inviting himself in.  His derangement begins to seep through as he demands more than a cuppa from his upstairs neighbors.  Friend expertly controls the tension in his glowering fifteen minute short.  

Friend Request Pending, 2011
Director: Chris Foggin
Actors: Judi Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Penny Ryder, Philip Johnson
Mood: Delightfully sweet and snarky

This short film is a delight throughout, as two elderly women fuss about with the myriad of technological options available to contact a recent crush.  Mary (Dench) and her friend Linda (Ryder) are quite tech-savvy; they understand the subtle differences between poking, private messaging, posting, and chatting.  Dench is as charming as you would expect.  When she slams the laptop shut after Trevor signs online, running away from the laptop, she absolutely glows; it's a "You've Got Mail" gag in the right hands to revive the moment.  Dench also delivers the hilarious one liners with fresh sweetness: "Maybe I should say 'Hello,' 'Hi' is a bit mid-90s, isn't it?"

This article is related to: Shorts, Short Film, Reviews, Colin Firth, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Judi Dench, Tom Hiddleston, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Paulson, Kenneth Branagh

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.