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Stars in Shorts

FORWARD THINKING: Keira Knightley and Tom Mison stare down the camera in 'Steve.'

Projected in a pixel-flickering digital transfer that makes it look like a movie viewed through a screen door, Stars on Shorts is a woeful array of seven lost dogs. Sarah McLachlan ought to be keening on the soundtrack: "Why was I made?" "What's my point?" "Will my producers ever get their money back?" The actors, however tough, can't save the weak concepts.

Lily Tomlin, impressively theatrical, dominates the first short film, "The Procession," about a stranger's funeral; she needs more villainess roles. Neil LaBute scripted two blackouts. In "Sexting," a pissed-off mistress (Julie Stiles) harangues a barely seen wife at an outdoor cafe. Stiles, in black and white, goes full throttle and full face for several minutes. Stiles is a contradiction: less than a household name and more than a merely interesting actress, with too much force here for today's timid directors.

The equally woolly "After-School Special" by LaBute is more contrived, with the ever-rising Wes Bentley as a simmering pick-up artist pushing himself on a woman (Sarah Paulson). LaBute's problem is that when he sets out to shock an audience, he gets shocked first. A few words about "Steve," in which a pesky neighbor (Colin Firth) demands friendship from a London couple (one of whom is a Lancashire-accented Keira Knightley). Those few words: imitation LaBute.

The severe and icily gorgeous Valarie Pettiford, collaborating in "Not My Time" with choreographer Jane Lanier, started out with Bob Fosse. She carries on Fosse's style faithfully, which is not an unfair thing to say about a dancer costumed like Sally Bowles and billed as the "Angel of Death" (as per All That Jazz). Pettiford's moves bracket the short by longtime sound-editor Jay Kamen in which a would-be scriptwriter (Jason Alexander) finds attention on the brink of suicide.

Prodigal was another X-Men knockoff, but Kenneth Branagh, looking more physically fit than he'd been in his latest films, took the evil Professor Xavier role and made it juicy, compelling and eerie. Gallantry forbears mentioning the final episode with Judi Dench vacillating between sexy senior citizen and self-described "boring OAP" (old-age pensioner). This too-sweet anecdote about girlish flirting at an advanced age can't rob Dench of her dignity. Lord knows it tries.

Stars in Shorts

NR; 113 min.


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