A good short film works completely differently than a feature. After all, it's hard enough to flesh out a plot and fully formed characters in 90 minutes; it's almost impossible to do it in just 10, which is why many short films rely on cleverness, or one very good idea.
Another disadvantage most shorts have is that it's tough to get a big-name star to appear in them. And why should they? Feature roles are often far more complex and pay better, and it's almost impossible to get short films in front of them. That changes on Friday, Sept. 28, however, when "Stars in Shorts" takes over the Ken Cinema.
"Stars in Shorts" is pretty much what it sounds like—short films starring bona-fide movie stars. The seven-film package is put together by ShortsHD, the same outfit that assembles the Oscar-nominated short-films program each year.
Of the seven, Friend Request Pending was the most pleasing for me. Essentially, it's about two girls sitting in front of a computer while one of them IMs with a boy she likes. The twist, if you want to call it that, is that all three people are in their 60s or older. Judi Dench plays Mary; she and her friend (Penny Ryder) have embraced technology and social networking, allowing them to act like schoolgirls. There's an innocence to them that's quite sweet—they're both clued in and a little clueless at the same time. Chris Foggin's film had the most heart, because it's an interesting idea that doesn't bank on a twisted ending.
Neil LaBute's short Sex-ting—which is basically a monologue for Julia Stiles, whose character is confronting the wife of the married man she's seeing—does have one of those trick endings, and so does the creepy After-School Special, which LaBute also wrote. The latter is far nastier, as a divorced dad (Wes Bentley) hits on a woman (Sarah Paulson) who teaches at his daughter's school. In both cases, you can pick up on what the ending is going to be, yet these are still short (but not sweet) enough that you won't mind getting there.
In The Procession, Jesse Tyler Ferguson does pretty much the same thing he does on Modern Family, as his character and his mother (Lily Tomlin) accidentally find themselves on the wrong end of a funeral procession. Like the Judi Dench film, it's based more on a nice idea than a clever twist. I wasn't sure, however, what to make of Steve, despite the star power of Colin Firth and Keira Knightley. He plays her unhinged downstairs neighbor, who keeps showing up and just won't leave. It's the sort of short that doesn't really let you know how it ends, and though that sometimes works, you wonder in this case if the filmmaker was forced to compress an envisioned feature into just 15 minutes.
It's an interesting collection. Each has its own tenor and style, and when you encounter one you don't care for, you don't have to wait long for it to end and something else to start up.
It's worth noting, though, that when the Oscar-nominated short films come to town, they have one thing in common—they've all been deemed Oscar-worthy. The pattern of "Stars in Shorts" is that each film has a famous person or two in it, which doesn't necessarily mean that these are all great films. Nothing here is terrible, and it's often quite enjoyable to watch these folks dip their toes into something brief and challenging, but like many short films themselves, the idea of pulling together this collection feels a little like a gimmick, rather than inspired art.