Julia Stiles in “Sexting”

ShortsHD has helped repopularize the live-action short via its popular annual theatrical packages of Oscar nominees. But that cause won't be helped much by the distrib's "Stars in Shorts," which assembles seven brief pics with name thesps from the past two or three years.

ShortsHD has helped repopularize the live-action short via its popular annual theatrical packages of Oscar nominees. But that cause won’t be helped much by the distrib’s “Stars in Shorts,” which assembles seven brief pics with name thesps from the past two or three years. While that may sound diverting enough, this generally weak roundup is a mixture of vanity projects and the kind of slick, hollow micro-features made by below-the-line talent as directorial calling cards for commercial feature/TV assignments. Theatrical launch on Sept. 28 will be followed closely by each pic’s individual release in cable and online pay-per-view formats.

Oscar-nommed “In the Bedroom” co-scenarist Robert Festinger starts things off in mildly promising fashion with “The Procession,” in which Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson play an argumentative yet like-minded mother and son guilt-tripped into attending the funeral of someone they didn’t know. When they decide to sneak off for a meal, they inadvertently lead the cemetery-bound mourners astray. The performers have good comic chemistry, almost enough to float this thin vehicle by itself.

Alas, bad comic chemistry is plentiful in thesp Rupert Friend’s “Steve,” his second short directed and written for Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and Tom Mison. Firth plays a weird, pesky neighbor who barges in on Knightley and Mison’s yuppie couple with increasingly berserk demands. Yet Knightley (acting in her shrill “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” mode) is the most annoying party in this charmless piece, whose stressfully antic tone is exacerbated by hyperactive editing.

This is mercifully followed by the package’s best, as well as briefest, contribution, Neil LaBute’s black-and-white “Sexting.” It’s a tour de force for Julia Stiles as a monumentally crass and self-involved Los Angeleno who sits down with her lover’s wife, whom he might not leave for her after all. The final twist comes as no surprise, but Stiles is aces in what plays like a knockout audition piece.

Veteran sound editor Jay Kamen’s “Not Your Time” is a wheezy indulgence starring Jason Alexander in the “mostly true” story of … a veteran sound editor, who’s never fulfilled his childhood dream of making a big musical. His studio pitch for a dumb high-concept project (“Babes in Toys ‘R’ Us”) allows various bizzers like Sid Ganis and Amy Pascal to cameo as themselves, while vet thesps (Kathy Najimy, Sally Kirkland) play brief roles, and Valerie Pettiford sings and dances as the Angel of Death in a Fosse-esque production number.

Kamen obviously has friends in high places (and he name-drops numerous others not physically present here), but the pic is too aptly named: Its painfully broad, sad-sack Borscht Belt humor seems to have been phoned in from 1965. The whole enterprise feels like an expensive industry gold watch bestowed for years of dutiful service.

The likewise 25-minute “Prodigal,” by contrast, feels like a pitch for early career advancement by director Benjamin Grayson and his co-writer/star Travis Crim, who plays a father trying to rescue his telekinetically gifted 8-year-old daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) from the clutches of an evil scientific researcher (Kenneth Branagh). This glossy but generic thriller won’t displace anyone’s memories of “The Fury” or even “Firestarter.”

LaBute is back with “After-School Special,” though his script is directed here by Jacob Chase (“The Four-Faced Liar”). Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley intrigue as two strangers watching children at an indoor playground. But this time the parting twist is of a nasty, smirking variety that finds LaBute at his glibly sensationalistic worst.

Finally, pouring healing treacle on that acid aftertaste, there’s the collection’s second U.K. title, “Friend Request Pending.” Wholly dependent on the cuteness of old people using terms like “poke” (in the Facebook sense) and “LOL,” Chris Croucher’s short (scripted by Chris Foggin) has Judi Dench coyly instant-messaging flirtations to Philip Jackson, and is twee to the nth degree. It almost feels like corporate Internet-server marketing to seniors in a “Reach out and touch someone” mode.

Production values are fairly high throughout.

Stars in Shorts

U.S.-U.K.

Production

A ShortsHD presentation. Reviewed online, San Francisco, Sept. 24, 2012. Running time: 113 MIN.

Crew

The Procession
Produced by Tatiana Kelly, Roberta Munroe. Directed, written by Robert Festinger. Camera (color), Joel Deutsch; editor, Lucia Zucchetti; music, John Wygens; production designer, Michael Fitzgerald.
With: Lily Tomlin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Lucy Punch, John Fisher.

Steve
Produced by Jess Cole, Rachel Kennedy, Anthony Haas, Rupert Friend. Directed, written by Friend. Camera (color), George Richmond; editor, Tania Clarke; music, Sam Crowe; production designer, Katrina Dunn.
With: Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Tom Mison.

Sexting
Produced by Tim Harms. Directed, written by Neil LaBute. Camera (color), Bradley Stonesifer; editor, Harms.
With: Julia Stiles, Marin Ireland, Jamie Anderson.

Not Your Time
Produced by Jay Kamen, Dawn Bridgewater, Reggie Joseph, Marjorie Mann. Directed, written, edited by Kamen. Camera (color), Michael Nie; R.J. Kizer; music, Kamen, Larry Blank; production designer, Carlos Fernandez.
With: Jason Alexander, Valerie Pettiford, Kathy Najimy, Sally Kirkland, Jillian Armenate, James Avery, Jesse Burch, Sean Patrick Flaherty, Jameson Moss, Jack Rapke, Sid Ganis, Amy Pascal.

Prodigal
Produced by Trenton Waterson, Benjamin Grayson. Directed by Grayson. Screenplay, Grayson, Travis Crim. Camera (color), Haris Zambarloukos, Polly Morgan; editor, Rich Conkling; music, Ran Jackson; production designer, Brittany Bradford.
With: Kenneth Branagh, Winter Ave Zole, Jennifer Morrison, Travis Crim, Taylor Kinney, Jade Pettyjohn.

After-School Special
Produced by Andrew Carlsberg. Directed, edited by Jacob Chase. Screenplay, Neil LaBute. Camera (color), Danny Grunes.
With: Sarah Paulson, Wes Bentley, Sam Cohen.

Friend Request Pending
Produced by Chris Croucher. Directed by Chris Foggin. Screenplay, Croucher. Camera (color), Simon Tindall; editor, Christopher Ranson; music, Michael Ferguson; production designer, Lisa McDiarmid.
With: Judi Dench, Penny Ryder, Philip Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John MacMillan.

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