Monday, September 24, 2012

Stars in Shorts: Branagh, Firth, Knightley, and Company

Following his epic adaptation of Henry V, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s third Academy Award nomination came for a short film—a treatment of Chekhov’s Swan Song.  Although he has now reinvented himself as a tent-pole director, with the new Jack Ryan thriller on the way, Branagh periodically returns to shorter forms of filmmaking.  That is indeed Branagh appearing as the villain in Benjamin Grayson’s Prodigal, which screens as part of Shorts International’s Stars in Shorts program (trailer here), opening this Friday at the IFC Center.

While Branagh is a delight as Mark Snow, the head of a shadowy research group (and namesake of the X-Files composer), Prodigal (trailer here) largely recycles a number of the themes and motifs familiar from Chris Carter’s television series.  David O’Neill regrets entrusting Samantha, his young daughter with powerful telekinetic abilities, to the Prodigal institution.  He enlists the help of a secretive branch of the federal government, but in retrospect, this is probably a further mistake.  Aside from Branagh, the cast is a bit colorless, but Prodigal certainly looks like a polished production.  Fans of Winter Ave Zoli (from Sons of Anarchy) will be also interested to see her as David’s wife Angela.

Probably the funniest short of the block is Robert Festinger’s The Procession, starring Lily Tomlin and the sort of starrish Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the shallowest, most self-centered mother-and-son tandem you would never want to be trapped in a car with during a funeral procession.  It basically plays like an unproduced episode of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it works.

One of the standouts of the program, Rupert Friend’s Steve also starts out in a somewhat comedic vibe, but takes a decidedly dark turn.  A couple’s bickering is interrupted by a neighbor’s seemingly reasonable inquiry about a leak.  However, the title character will be back, with weirder complaints.  He will also expect tea.  Colin Firth is memorably off as Steve, while the glammed down Keira Knightley is convincingly harried as his reluctant host.  It is a nice short acting showcase, fittingly helmed by Friend, recognizable as the protag-journalist in Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War, among other big screen roles.

Film and sound editor Jay Kamen’s Not Your Time is pretty amusing as well.  Featuring Jason Alexander as Sid Rosenthal, an editor who always wanted to helm a Busby Berkley musical, it mines Player style laughs by featuring a cast of Hollywood insiders as themselves.  Music students will also appreciate Kamen’s send-up of atonal avant-garde classical composition.  While the humor is distinctly dark, Alexander’s shticky persona best fits brief running times, like NYT’s twenty five minutes.

Neil LaBute continues to seek redemption for his The Wicker Man remake with two characteristically cutting contributions.  Jacob Chase’s After School Special, written by LaBute, is an ironic twist kind of short, with its name “star,” Wes Bentley, not really factoring in the business end of the film.  Nonetheless, the closing scene definitely stings.  Sexting, both penned and helmed by the playwright, builds to a more obvious punchline, but Julia Stiles is deliciously catty as the other woman, burying herself in a mountain of LaButian dialogue.  It is smart gig for Stiles, who was terrif in Shakespeare in the Park’s Twelfth Night years ago, but seems to get the dumbest parts offered to her.

Perhaps the slightest constituent film is also the one with the greatest built in audience anticipation.  In Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending Dame Judi Dench and her crony engage in a bit of social networking and cyber flirtation, presumably before they nip off to India’s greener retirement pastures.  One of the floating heads on the program poster, Tim Hiddleston also eventually appears in a jokey cameo during Pending’s closing seconds.  A harmless reunion of My Week With Marilyn assistant director Foggin and co-stars Dench and Penny Ryder, it will probably endear itself to the Marigold Hotel set.

Though shorts programs are often inconsistent by their aggregated nature, there is no out and out clunker in StarsSteve might be the high point, but it notably represents a good way to see Branagh, Stiles, and LaBute doing their thing.  Recommended for fans of short films and LaBute, Stars in Shorts opens this Friday (9/28) in New York at the IFC Center.