Penny Ryder and Judi Dench in “Friend Request Pending,” a delightful look at seniors discovering the challenges of online social networking
Penny Ryder and Judi Dench in “Friend Request Pending,” a delightful look at seniors discovering the challenges of online social networking

Ever wonder what Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench might look like in shorts? Wonder no longer: the two thespians appear together (but separately) in Stars In Shorts, a program of seven short subjects opening at Landmarks’ Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, September 28.

As you’ve probably guessed, Dench and Branagh aren’t alone — each of the program’s seven films includes at least one cinema big-shot within its cast. One might suspect such larger-than-life personalities would overwhelm the small-scale proceedings in which they’re involved, but thankfully that’s never the case.

Best of show is clearly Not Your Time, a very funny comedy headlined by former ‘Seinfeld’ star Jason Alexander. Alexander plays Sid Rosenthal, a film editor whose job it is to remove expletives from movies prior to their airline bookings. A frustrated musician with a thankless day job, Sid pitches a remake of Babes In Toyland entitled Babes in Toys R Us to some Hollywood bigwigs, who are immediately enamored with the gruesome concept.

This being Tinsel Town, however, the road from concept to greenlight is a long one, and Sid soon discovers that its sometimes just as frustrating to sell a script as not. Writer-director Jay Kamen clearly knows a thing or two about showbiz disappointment (he started his own career as a child entertainer in the Catskills), and Not Your Time provides an acerbic look at the machinations of the Hollywood sausage factory. If you’re a fan of Robert Altman’s The Player, you’ll get similar mileage from Kamen’s film.

Acerbic scribe Neil La Bute contributes his writing and directorial skills to Sexting, an eight-minute near-monologue in which Julia Stiles plays a woman who bares her soul to her lover’s wife, only to discover her confession is all for naught. La Bute also penned the slightly longer After-School Special, the story of a divorced dad (Wes Bentley) trying to pick up a single mother (Sarah Paulson) at the local playground; the film features a vicious sting in its tail which many viewers will find, to put it mildly, a little troubling.

The aforementioned Judi Dench is superb in Friend Request Pending, a delightful look at old age pensioners discovering the challenges of online social networking. Though the film drifts into comfy armchair territory, it’s still a pleasure to watch Dench and co-star Penny Ryder exchange catty remarks.

It’s a bit hard to determine precisely what’s wrong with director Rupert Friend’s Steve, but it’s clearly not Colin Firth. Superb as the title character, a high-strung Londoner who enjoys a chat and a cup of tea with anyone who’ll invite him in, Firth nails a stirring soliloquy during the film’s final scene. Keira Knightley co-stars as the woman whose kettle he chooses to latch on to, but the film is unfocussed and a bit flat. It’s not bad, just a slight disappointment.

Bringing up the rear are The Procession, in which Lily Tomlin plays a harridan driving her son round the bend on the way to a funeral, and Prodigal, featuring Kenneth Branagh as a research scientist conducting experiments involving a young girl and telekinesis. Certainly the most traditionally cinematic offering on tap, the film tries to say something profound but is overwrought, poorly acted, and utterly unbelievable. If by chance Prodigal brings up the rear in Stars In Shorts, save yourself 25 minutes and leave early.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...