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Driftwood (2006)

Director: Tim Sullivan
Starring: Taviv Ullman, Dallas Page, Talan Torriero
Released by Image Entertainment

So you set out to make a serious dramatic film and the most remarkable thing about it is the performance of a former professional wrestler. So what do you do? If you are writer/director Tim Sullivan, you can either begin work on a horror/action/comedy starring vehicle for DDP, or you can try to follow one of the golden rules of low budget filmmaking: less is more.

The film begins at the Driftwood Reformatory, "Where Boys Become Men", and David Forrester (Taviv Ullman) is the newest pole on the block. He's a good kid and really doesn't belong at the hard-assed attitude adjustment camp - his well-meaning parents are concerned that David has become death-obsessed after the passing of his older brother. It's for his own good, they reason, and for 50 grand a year, Driftwood must be the best place for their troubled, but much loved son. After meeting his teacher, his fellow inmates, and the charismatic owner of Driftwood, Captain Kennedy ("Diamond" Dallas Page), David attempts to settle in. His situation becomes even more complicated when a strange apparition appears to David, which seems to be attempting to communicate with him. He discovers that one of the young inmates died under mysterious circumstances, something that Captain Kennedy has being working hard to keep secret. David begins poking around, and finds out that Driftwood is not what it appears to be.

The problem here is that Driftwood feels like three different movies welded into one. There is the almost campy style used early on which almost leads you to believe that the film is a tongue-in-cheek boy prison flick, there is the serious story of wayward kids being exploited by a greedy system, and then there is the supernatural story of the ghostly apparition seeking revenge. Unfortunately, the three elements don't blend well, and the film flips and flops from one aspect to another, never really managing to gel. Which is too bad, Driftwood could have worked very well as a dramatic film, sans the supernatural and comic aspects. Shockingly, it is former WCW superstar Dallas Page who manages to hold the film together. Conjuring up some sort of hybrid of Foghorn Leghorn and, well, "Diamond" Dallas Page, he manages to generate enough charisma and screen presence to keep your attention. At times his persona is at odds with the more straightforward dramatic elements, but still, his performance as the retired football player/reform school tyrant is weirdly compelling.

Driftwood works more often than not, but still suffers from a mild identity crisis which keeps the film from achieving what it sets out to do. This is also a barely R-rated picture, so fans expecting another gore-fest ala Sullivan's 2001 Maniacs will likely be disappointed. Worth a watch, so long as you adjust your expectations.

Smiley Face (2007)

Director:Gregg Araki
Starring: Anna Faris, Danny Masterson, John Krasinski, Adam Brody
Running time: 88 minutes
Released by First Look Pictures

Grating. If I had to condense "Smiley Face" down to a single word, that's the word I would choose. This half-baked (hehe..get it?) attempt at creating a stoner chick flick fails miserably and quickly becomes an irritating mess that no amount of drugs could render enjoyable.

The plot  revolves around the misadventures of Jane F. (Anna Faris), a part-time actress and full-time stoner, who mistakenly eats a batch of pot-laced cupcakes belonging to her creepy roomate (That 70's Show's Danny Masterson). Realizing the terrible mistake she has made, Faris vows to replace her roomies stash, even though the electric bill is due and she has an audition to be at. She comes up with a  poorly devised plan to deal with all of her troubles simultaneously, and in wacky comedy style, ends up in even deeper trouble than she was in originally. Before it's over, she tries to sell pot to an old lady, steals the original manuscript pf the Communist Manifesto, stows away on a sausage truck, sees Carrot Top, and ends up on a ferris wheel.

Faris operates on three modes in this film: panic attack, intense confusion, and wistful euphoria. She cycles between these states through the course of "Smiley Face", sometimes hitting all three within a minutes time or less. It's exhausting - and about as far from funny as you can get. You can't blame her, though. For some reason, director Gregg Araki decided that his lead actress should spend ninety minutes of screen time acting as if she had consumed a massive amount of PCP or some equally mind-ripping chemical, rather than the fairly innocuous tray of pot cupcakes the character gobbles up at the beginning of the film.

Araki, who is known for dark, gay-oriented melodramas where he tries too hard to shock, switches to lighthearted comedy, where he tries too hard to elicit laughter. Working from a script that is about as discombobulated and scattershot as you can possibly get, Araki proves that he he can play comedy in only one style: broad. That would be okay if the film had any gags that actually worked - for the most part "Smiley Face" relies on the performance of Anna Faris and a slew of cameos to distract the viewer away from the fact that most of the jokes aren't very funny. It's shrill, tedious, very annoying, and about forty-five minutes too long. Gregg Araki proves that no matter what genre he is working in, his sensibility is only tolerable in small doses.


P2 (2007)

Director: Franck Khalfoun Starring: Rachel Nichols, Wes Bentley Rated R Running time: 98 minutes Released by Summitt Entertainment

It's Christmas eve, and workoholic Heather is running late for a family get together. She waits until the last possible minute to leave her Park Avenue office building, and wouldn't you know it, her car will not start. She enlists the aid of the seemingly affable parking attendant, Thomas (Wes Bentley), to help her out of this predicament. Thomas seems to be a tad smitten with the busty Heather, and when she declines his dinner invitation, he reacts by turning into a Category 5 lunatic. Thomas seals the buildings exits and begins stalking the object of his affection. P2 didn't make much of a splash when it appeared in theaters, and I wouldn't have paid much mind to the film had it not been for the very eye-catching DVD cover art, depicting star Rachel Nichols brandishing some sort of weapon, bosom heaving furiously. I took the bait, which is a testament to power of advertising. As an added bonus, the film was masterminded by the folks who brought us Haute Tension, a film I liked in spite of an ending that felt like a massive blow-off. I was expecting a gory actioner that was simultaneously crowd pleasing and frustrating. And that is exactly what I got. Since the film sidesteps complex plotting, it relies on tension and inventive cat-and-mouse action to hold viewers interest. The problem is that aside from one well-executed scene involving an elevator and a firehose (which likely exists only as an excuse to get Rachel Nichols wet), the film doesn't strive to be particularly creative in regards to the predator and prey element, which is the meat of the film. Sure, there's one really gory murder to spice things up, and a very eye-pleasing heroine who always seems on the verge of spilling out of her dress, but it just isn't enough to keep the film from becoming tedious. That's a bad thing, because once the viewer gets bored he starts asking all of the questions the makers do not want him to ask: can stun guns really knock somebody out cold? why doesn't she pull the fire alarm? does that enormous building really only have one security guard? do her fingernails always come off that easily? Plausibilty goes out the window, and there isn't enough excitement to keep your disbelief in check. Speaking of disbelief, let's talk about the film's psycho, American Beauty's Wes Bentley. There are a lot of adjectives that come to mind when thinking of Bentley and scary, intimidating, and threatening aren't among them. Bentley is perfectly acceptable in the early stages of the film, even managing to convey a little awkward charm as the lovelorn parking lot attendant. When he goes into full-blown loony mode, it's another story altogether. He screams, he kills, he has a Rotteweiler as a companion and possesses the world's most powerful stungun - but I never once got the impression that he could not be stopped by simply finding his stash of Cure CD's and stomping then to pieces before his very eyes.