The Wandering Review: Stars in Shorts
By Laurie Baron
SAN DIEGO – Edgar Allan Poe once remarked, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” Short films adhere to the same rule. The acting, editing, plot, and soundtrack should all contribute to a vivid portrait of a character, the essence of a situation, or a plausible and often surprising ending. Unfortunately, shorts are no longer a routine part of the cinema experience as they were when I was young. The only ones that usually get seen are those that are nominated for Oscars, shown at film festivals, or broadcast on cable film channels like Filmfest. (On Demand, FreeZone, Free Movies, Channel 5 Cox Cable).
Shorts provide a way for novice filmmakers to demonstrate their potential to make feature films. Made on tight budgets, shorts rarely star famous actors and actresses. Thus, when I heard about Stars in Shorts which is opening September 28th at the Ken Cinema in Kensington, I requested to preview it. I figured how could I go wrong with an anthology consisting of shorts cast with luminaries like Kenneth Branagh Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, and Lily Tomlim? With the longest of these seven films running twenty-five minutes, I knew it would only take a modicum of Sitzfleisch to watch even the most boring of them. Moreover, I expected at least one of them would have some Jewish content, and Not Your Time, directed by Jay Kamen, with Jason Alexander met that requirement.
Anthologies have a tendency to be uneven, Stars in Shorts in no exception. Prodigal has a familiar sci-fi scenario. The parents of a daughter with telekinetic powers try to shield her from organizations that want to exploit her. While Kenneth imbues his character with a deceptively genteel wickedness, the film fails adequately develop its storyline and the motivations of other characters. After School Special about a divorced dad trying to pick up an attractive woman while both watch their children play in a Chuck E. Cheese-type establishment ends up being an exercise in bad taste. In Steve, Firth portrays a needy loner who invites himself to tea with the upstairs neighbors and unconvincingly evolves from a docile to a domineering intruder.
Although not as funny as its premise, Not Your Time held my attention for most of its 25 minutes. Jason Alexander plays Sid Rosenthal, a would-be composer and choreographer of Broadway musicals. His dream production number, which appears several times in the film, reminds one of the staging and singing of Cabaret and A Chorus Line. His ambitions dashed, he is reduced to editing expletives―real and imagined―out of the final versions of other people’s movies. But his aspiration of writing a hit musical persists and inspires to come up with a modern sequel to Babes in Toyland called Babes in Toys “R” Us. His proposal is so compelling that a studio declines to produce it out of fear that it will compete with the umpteenth sequel of Toy Story.
Crestfallen, Sid decides to kill himself and starts calling all his friends to say goodbye while intimating that he won’t go through with the plan if any of them tries to talk him out of it. Instead of taking his threat seriously, they think he is pitching a clever concept for a new film. What ensues is a satire of the insincerity of Hollywood producers who are all played by their real life counterparts, the majority of whom are Jewish. I surmise that Not Your Time will strike Hollywood insiders far funnier than it will people who aren’t in the motion picture industry.
There are three gems in Stars in Shorts. In The Procession Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson have great comedic chemistry and lines as a mother and son trapped in a funeral procession for someone they barely knew. In Sexting Julia Stiles delivers a clever monologue confronting her lover’s wife with the sordid truth of her husband’s dalliance. In the most delightful of the shorts, Friend Request Pending, Judi Dench is coached by her best friend (Penny Tyler) as she tries to navigate the dating etiquette of social media over whether she should be coy or forward in her on-line relationship with the choirmaster of her church. As someone who just lost his cyber-virginity by opening up a Facebook account, I completely empathized with her.
Lawrence Baron recently retired from being the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University. He is the author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield: 2005) and editor of The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press: 2011). He may be contacted at email@example.com
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