Unlike a feature film, which has the leeway — and the leisure — to explore a single story deeply and from different angles, the movie short must get in and get out quickly, like a thief. In “Stars in Shorts” — an anthology of seven films ranging in length from eight to 25 minutes and featuring performances by such big names as Kenneth Branagh and Keira Knightley — the payoff varies widely.
Sometimes it’s a gem, as with “The Procession,” a delightfully dark 13-minute comedy starring Lily Tomlin and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a bickering mother and son who are stuck in an automotive funeral cortege for a person they don’t even know. Other times it’s a worthless dud, as with “Prodigal,” a cheesy sci-fi thriller about a girl (Jade Pettyjohn) with telekinesis. The only real star in the exercise in predictability is Branagh, whose cameo as a glib but unscrupulous operative hoping to harness the child’s powers does little to elevate the formulaic story.
All told, however, there are more hits than misses.
Neil LaBute contributes two offerings, both displaying his trademark fascination with human misbehavior. “Sexting,” which he wrote and directed, is essentially an eight-minute monologue starring Julia Stiles as the bitter girlfriend of a married man. Delivered to the guy’s speechless wife (Marin Ireland), her screed is quite well-acted.
That’s decidedly not the case with “After-School Special.” Directed by Jacob Chase from a script by LaBute, the nine-minute film is set in what looks like a food court and concerns the awkward encounter between a woman and a man (Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley), each of whom is watching over a child in a nearby indoor playground.
As the slightly creepy divorced dad hitting on a woman he thinks is single, Bentley makes the most impact. But it’s the film’s breathtaking kicker — which in true LaBute fashion packs a sickening punch — that will stay with you.
The rest of the films are also pretty darn good. In “Not Your Time,” Jason Alexander plays a Hollywood editor who dreams of directing a lavish movie musical. It’s a sharp satire of Tinseltown, featuring cameos by several real-life producers and directors, such as Joe Roth and Amy Heckerling.
Knightley is delightful as always in “Steve.” But she’s upstaged by co-star Colin Firth, playing a daffy-to-the-point-of-unhinged neighbor who’s desperate for companionship.
Finally, “Friend Request Pending” is a pure delight. Starring Judi Dench and Philip Jackson as senior citizens trying to adapt their flirting game to social-networking tools such as Facebook, this little window into modern love is a breath of fresh air.
"Stars in Shorts" is unrated and showing at the State Theatre.