"I could do this for hours, just...running off at the mouth," Julia Stiles says in a monologue-heavy napkin doodle of a film called "Sexting" by Neil LaBute, included in this collection of short films presented by ShortsHD. Positioning Stiles, playing a fed-up mistress who takes it upon herself to have a cup of coffee with her boyfriend's wife, on the left side of the frame, LaBute lets his lead actress chew up a good six minutes of the screen, her eyes squinting cattily into the lens, to the point where she and the movie are one and the same. It's an abrasive stroke, which would actually be pretty bold if tried in a mainstream movie; for a short, it gawkily points back to the inherent shortcomings of the dialogue. It's as if LaBute was (or felt) contractually obligated to keep Stiles on screen as long as possible without the narrative collapsing. The effect is used in service of a punchline, but it arrives so weary and predictable that "Sexting," whose script makes no actual mention of the practice, would've been easily passed over for exhibition without its big names. (The credits give special thanks to August Strindberg.)
Generally, these shorts do little to advance their own arguments, but then again, they don't need to; if the short film is the arena of students, amateurs, and small-timers, then these are overdogs from frame one, coming off every bit as expensive and banal as their makers allow them to be. "Prodigal" sees Kenneth Branagh, game as ever, as an evil child psychologist who wants to kidnap a telepathic 10-year-old from her just-trying-to-do-the-right-thing parents. If hearing Branagh utter "supply...and demand" with pounding guitar strums on the soundtrack doesn't tip you off to 30 minutes of misery, there's at least a hot undercover FBI agent in a sports bra.
Oftentimes it's hard to tell if the shorts are intended as dress rehearsals for features, or "slices of life" calibrated for max audience oomph. "Friend Request Pending" is about an elderly woman taking a chance, as they say, on love—only through social media instead of real life. That's certainly a germ of an idea for a story, and it's not hard to imagine what drew Judi Dench to the material, but hopefully it was more than the aesthetic vision of director Chris Foggin, who mistakenly believes 12 minutes on Facebook will be more interesting if spent with a Dame in medium close-up (plus Apple logo), in full-on Christmastime-commercial voiceover mode.
Rupert Friend directs former girlfriend Keria Knightley and Colin Firth in "Steve," the story of a young couple (Knightley and Tom Mison) whose kooky upstairs neighbor (Firth) first seems like a harmless crank, but is actually a deeply disturbed analog-living loner on a mission to challenge the current moment's fixation on distraction, narcissism, and digital technology. From the opening credits, where Knightley's name is awkwardly paired with a coffee mug with the word "woman" digitally emblazoned on it, it smacks of condescension.
Again, proximity to power ends up defining everything. Jay Kamen's "Not Your Time" is about a film editor (Jason Alexander) who dreams of bright lights and classic musicals, but ends up editing swear words out of prestige pictures. Driven to the brink of madness after a failed pitch, he calls up everybody he knows in Hollywood—among them the real-life Joe Roth, Sid Ganis, and Amy Pascal—to announce he's going to commit suicide. Infallibly, each office assumes he's making some kind of gonzo pitch, and it ends up being the talk of the town, simultaneously a funny joke, a concession of failure, and a wink-wink salute to the accidental genius of an industry whose myopia and cowardice has probably inspired at least one actual suicide somewhere down the line.