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On the Edge

Three short films, all debut directing efforts by well-known actresses, comprise this Showtime anthology with a sci-fi bent. Not surprisingly, the collection is uneven and the work a bit rough, particularly so when the actors also write their own scripts, as in the case of Mary Stuart Masterson and Anne Heche.

With:
"Happy Birthday": The Dean - John Goodman Hannah - Sidney Tamiia Poitier Bag Lady - Beverly D'Angelo Attorney Bum - Christopher Lloyd Barney - David Hyde Pierce Monica - Caroline Rhea Walking Warden - Taylor Negron "The Other Side": Jackson Bierly - Bruce Davison Maas/Biobot - Anthony LaPaglia Dr. Richardson - Karen Sillas "Reaching Normal": Lisa Waverly - Andie MacDowell Dr. Kenneth Grearly - Paul Rudd Sarah - Joey Lauren Adams Frank Waverly - Alan Rosenberg Dr. Mensley - Joel Grey Waraparound sequence: Wagner's Wife - Jolene Blaylock Wagner - Scott Lowell Barrow - Stephen Tobolowsky Lucy - Kathleen Wilhoite

Three short films, all debut directing efforts by well-known actresses, comprise this Showtime anthology with a sci-fi bent. Not surprisingly, the collection is uneven and the work a bit rough, particularly so when the actors also write their own scripts, as in the case of Mary Stuart Masterson and Anne Heche. But the pieces are all exceptionally well-cast — credit producer Jana Sue Memel and casting directors Mary Margiotta and Karen Margiotta — and none outstays its welcome, which is the great advantage of short films.

Helen Mirren (“Prime Suspect”) delivers the most amusing of the trilogy, entitled “Happy Birthday,” an episodic, futuristic piece about a woman (Sidney Tamiia Poitier) who finds herself caught in a bureaucratic web when the “central computer” classifies her as being expendable. In attempting to correct the error, she meets a series of oddball characters — fun cameos for the talented likes of John Goodman, Beverly D’Angelo, Christopher Lloyd, David Hyde Pierce and Caroline Rhea, most of whom encourage her to get an “adjustment,” a lobotomy-like procedure that will make her happy to be a functionary, a “work-worm.”

One of the interesting elements of watching the directing work of actors is to see how they absorb the qualities of the people who have directed them. In Mirren’s case, the influence of Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”) becomes apparent as Mirren, working effectively with d.p. Michael Barrett, production designer Mark Worthington and composer Guy Dagul, creates a series of unique environments with individualized colors and sounds. The piece is just a bit plodding, though, and Poitier a touch too passive in the role, partially a fault of Crispin Whittell’s mostly smart teleplay.

Whittell’s script is the most accomplished of the lot. The other two films — all three are based on short stories — tend to take the fundamental idea and visualize it successfully to a degree, but they feel slight in the writing department. Masterson and Heche both create a strong feel for their films, though, even if they feel incomplete.

Masterson’s piece, “The Other Side,” stars Anthony LaPaglia as a dying scientist who is working on a robotic duplicate of himself in an effort to achieve a form of immortality. He reluctantly gets help from a former lover (Karen Sillas), also a scientist, in implanting the emotional components of his life into the “biobot,” which ultimately causes him to question the endeavor.

The final short, “Reaching Normal,” was directed by Heche, who since has gone on to direct a segment for HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk II,” which aired last year. In this earlier effort, she directs Andie MacDowell and Paul Rudd as characters relatively happily married to other people who discover they have a strange psychic connection that enables each to read the other’s mind. Heche sets up the emotional situation well, and editor Gabriel Wrye assists ably with successful cross-cuts between the lives of the two leads. But once the premise is launched, it never really deepens.

On the Edge

Showtime; Fri. June 29; 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Chanticleer Films in association with Paramount Network Television. Producer, Jana Sue Memel; casting, Mary Margiotta, Karen Margiotta. 90 MIN.
"Happy Birthday": Director, Helen Mirren; writer, Crispin Whittell, based on the short story "The Placement Test" by Keith Laumer; camera, Michael Barrett; editor, Gabriel Wrye; production design, Mark Worthington; music, Guy Dagul.
"The Other Side": Director-writer, Mary Stuart Masterson, based on the short story "Lifeboat on a Burning Sea" by Bruce Holland Rogers; camera, James Whitaker; editor, James Fletcher; production design, Linda Burton; music, James Frederick.
"Reaching Normal": Director-writer, Anne Heche, based on the short story "Command Performance" by Walter M. Miller Jr.; camera, Nancy Schreiber; editor, Melissa Kent; production design, Mark Worthington; music, David Renik, Jim Goodwin.
Waraparound sequence: Director, Jana Sue Memel; writer, John W. Herrera; camera, Jeff Levy; editor, James Fletcher; production designer, Will Alovis; music, Jason Frederick.

Cast: "Happy Birthday": The Dean - John Goodman Hannah - Sidney Tamiia Poitier Bag Lady - Beverly D'Angelo Attorney Bum - Christopher Lloyd Barney - David Hyde Pierce Monica - Caroline Rhea Walking Warden - Taylor Negron "The Other Side": Jackson Bierly - Bruce Davison Maas/Biobot - Anthony LaPaglia Dr. Richardson - Karen Sillas "Reaching Normal": Lisa Waverly - Andie MacDowell Dr. Kenneth Grearly - Paul Rudd Sarah - Joey Lauren Adams Frank Waverly - Alan Rosenberg Dr. Mensley - Joel Grey Waraparound sequence: Wagner's Wife - Jolene Blaylock Wagner - Scott Lowell Barrow - Stephen Tobolowsky Lucy - Kathleen Wilhoite"Happy Birthday":
With: Jenica Bergere, Ken Campbell, Roman Danylo, Kimiko Gelman, Jean Kasem, Travis Wester, Dondre T. Whitfield, Marissa Jaret Winokur.

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