The centerpiece of Express Stops Only, a short film program playing at Tribeca, is Raving, from first-time writer/director Julia Stiles. Starring Zooey Deschanel and Bill Irwin, the film centers around two possibly dangerous Manhattan misfits who try to figure each other out and end up engaging in an uneasy friendship, of sorts. Zooey is a street scammer, hustling people for drinking money with a song and dance about how she got hooked up with bad people and was left behind all alone, in the big bad city. Irwin's character is a straight-laced man who shows up at an office every morning, swipes a card at a security station and acts outraged when it doesn't work. We never learn whether he worked there or if he's just a complete lunatic who likes to show up at office buildings and cause a scene. Stiles shows a sure hand for offbeat comedy her first time around, keeping us engaged in the interplay between the two weirdos without ever tipping her hand as to where this thing is going. There's a nice musical finale.
Say Can You See is a creepy animation short that imagines 9/11 and its aftermath through the eyes of the those high-powered binocular stations on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. With the eye-holes already in place, it's an easy transition to anthropomorphize them as sad, contemplative watchmen who have a clear line of sight to see what's going on downtown but can do nothing about it. This isn't a talky short or something aimed at children, but a music-laden art piece that transitions from rain and sadness to a milieu of rebirth as birds and sunshine begin to return to the area. I wonder if the timing is off, however -- this seems like exactly the kind of thing that could have played three or four years ago at Tribeca and been very powerful, but the intervening years drain it of some of its power to inspire emotions through such a simple presentation. Still, its an intriguing little piece that puts one in mind of why the Tribeca film festival was created in the first place.
Red Shoes, the weak link in the program, is a dour and straight-forward little melodrama about a Chinatown woman who decides to become a hooker in order to pay for her daughter some shoes, although its never made clear exactly why. According to the press notes, she finds "herself falling down the slippery slope of moral compromise," and the film's presentation is almost as obvious as that description. Also underwhelming is Happiness, a short in which an aging Russian immigrant who works in a condom factory -- hardy har -- buys a box with the word 'happiness' on the lid. I assume the box is supposed to represent happiness, and her reluctance to pursue it or purchase it or whatever, but the film doesn't really set up anything intriguing or memorable for us to grab onto, it just sort of happens. Both of these shorts falter by trying to set up little stories that they can't flesh out in just a few minutes, but there's another film in the program, A Nick in Time, which does this successfully.
Set in a black barbershop, A Nick in Time shows us a man sitting in the barber chair, getting a haircut from the chatty, elderly barber, when a third person suddenly enters the shop -- a shifty-looking hood who can't stop eyeballing them and casing the joint. As they talk, the barber and the customer realize that they are about to be robbed and possibly shot by this hood, but they don't dare say anything aloud. As they watch and wait, the barber begins to spin a story about something that happened to him ages ago, when he first started cutting hair; still green as a barber, he was asked to cut the hair of a very important man in town. The tension grows throughout the piece, as you brace yourself for what's coming and the barber continues to spin his story, apparently reaching a conclusion that will have some kind of relevance to the situation. A Nick in Time is a tense, taught little film with good acting and good directing that works nicely in the program.
Lock might be viewed as a 9/11 film, but otherwise it's hard to figure out. Short and simple, it focuses on a young woman who looks like Maggie Gyllenhaal, sitting and meditating on the roof of her apartment building. She left the roof entrance open, but eventually someone else comes up and lets it slam shut, so now they have to wait for someone else to come up so they can go back down. The young man -- a typical love interest type -- starts to engage the girl in some friendly banter, testing the waters. They trade some weak insults and laughs. Eventually a third person does come and help, and all is well, but when the boy makes an overture about continuing their little thing at a later date, like say, over dinner, she freezes over and simply rejects the offer. She wants to stay on the roof and he goes back down. The film plays very much like 'normal emotional life has been interrupted or retarded by this massively destructive event,' although that's only a guess on my part. Intriguing, though.
Boy meets girl. Boy admits to girl that he has an exceptionally rare brain defect that prevents him from distinguishing human faces from one another. Girl gets frustrated with boy and walks out on him. Boy must figure out a way to get girl back. In Vivid Detail, starring Piper Perabo and The Sopranos' John Ventimigilia, is the only film in the program besides Raving that might be considered 'high-profile,' thanks to the talent. It's a sweet little fifteen-minute romantic dramedy, if that's up your alley. Those looking for laughs might also find a lot to like in Super Powers, in which a man and his wife dress up as Batman and Wonder Woman in order to improve their love life and end up hiding, embarrassed, behind a bunch of moving boxes in their apartment as the realtor shows the place around. Out of all the shorts, this film got the biggest reaction from the crowd I saw Express Stops Only with. Overall, this is a pretty successful little program, with something for just about every Manhattanite.