Great things can come in small packages -- and so can humdrum things.
"Stars in Shorts" is a program of seven films in the 10-to-25-minute range, the best of which are gems. They showcase not just the acting chops of Colin Firth, Lily Tomlin, Julia Stiles and others, but some fresh writing-directing talents, too.
In Robert Festinger's "The Procession," Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson are a loving but squabbling mother and son, grudgingly attending the funeral of someone they don't know. (Tomlin to Ferguson on why he's lost his way to the cemetery: "You're not stupid -- you're just bad with patterns.") These two are such a perfect comic match, let's hope we see them together again soon.
Rupert Friend's writing-directing debut, "Steve," is a small tour de force for ever-surprising Oscar-winner Firth ("The King's Speech"). Here, he's the bumbling neighbor of bickering couple Keira Knightley and Tom Mison. Watching his eccentricities intensify into something more sinister and coercive is like hearing a quirky melody build up toward something explosive.
In Jay Kamen's "Not Your Time," Jason Alexander is a musicals-smitten screenwriter who, after years of failure in Hollywood, announces his intention to commit suicide -- only to have his threat taken as a pitch for a new project. Alexander is sad-sack fun. But it's Valarie Pettiford who's a total knockout as Sid's Angel of Death in the Bob Fosse-esque musical of his dreams.
"Stars in Shorts" also features two Neil LaBute items -- one as writer, another as writer-director - that prove the filmmaker behind "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "In the Company of Men" has lost none of his power to deliver caustic, unexpected story twists.
Two disappointments are the surprisingly lame "Friend Request Pending" (Judi Dench grappling with the world of online dating) and "Prodigal," which feels less like a self-contained film than a bid to make a sci-fi TV series (its special effects are impressive, though).