A Brush with Death
New Light Entertainment
Like most replayed soft porn, this bloody tale of pretty girls in peril plays on our simultaneous carnal attraction and intellectual revulsion for plucky protagonists. Here we have five buxom L.A. cheerleaders out for a weekend in the country who can't help themselves from saying inane things like, "This place is so cool, like one of those reality shows" and (to an unseen boyfriend on a cell) "You make me feel unattractive and I thought that was impossible to do." The collective brain damage is confirmed when, after being warned by a local boy that bad things have happened in that creepy abandoned farmhouse down the road where two campers were recently killed, one girl says, "I have an idea. How about we spend the night in that creepy house. It'll be a blast!" And everyone cheers as if Mom just wheeled in a case of Sunny D. Before you can say "Rah-rah, sis-boom-die," each of these deductive reasoning dropouts will be captured by the house's ghostly inhabitant and drained of all pep and hemoglobin, the latter for artistic reasons barely hinted at in the dull Barnaby Jones-y title. And while the numerous flashbacks of the Rue family explain their history of mental illness and murder, the girls don't get off that easily. Guess you can take the mall brats out to the country but you can't make the oxygen go to their brains. Blood Simple Life anyone? Serene Dominic
John and Mary
20th Century Fox
You've probably never heard of 1969's John and Mary, and neither had I. That such a masterful, self-reflexive character study has been neglected boggles the mind. Overshadowed by his own turn in the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy the same year, the film teams Dustin Hoffman with Mia Farrow for an intricately layered mosaic of shifting chronologies orbiting around a one-night stand and its aftermath. Hoffman's John and Farrow's Mary are both insecure, analyzing each minute gesture their new partner makes. They speak their lines, then we hear what they really mean in neurotic voice-over, beating Annie Hall to the punch by eight years. (Woody Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs, but it's the same idea.) We flash forward and backward, sometimes way backward, as these peculiar ciphers become fully formed people to each other and to the audience at an equal pace. It's a startling turn for filmmaker Peter Yates, who's known for having directed the more conventional entertainments Breaking Away and Bullitt. But here's a delectable New Wave–inspired dish for thoughtful viewers tired of the same old menu. John Thomason
Hart Sharp Video
If David Blaine made a movie it might look like The Circle. On a technical level it works like a good magic trick that leaves you wondering "How'd they do that?" Two flashbacks, transitions from interiors to exteriors and a short stint in a moving car are shot in one continuous unedited take. The effect is visually stunning and confounding. The rehearsal and planning had to be meticulous; but it can't elevate The Circle's cheap digital video appearance.
From the first scene you get the impression you could be watching a daytime soap. The script is similarly unrealistic. Angela Bettis is Jay, a woman desperate to stop a mob hit on her alcoholic shit-heel of a husband. Bettis a fearless actress whose specialty is wounded female characters (May, Carrie) is onscreen for the entire film (sans the first five minutes) and runs through an emotional obstacle course thrown at her with intensity and conviction. It's a shame the plot rings hollow with no loftier ambition than to hurtle its emotionally damaged heroine through a harshly lit underworld begging for her husband's life. Who'll enjoy this? Misogynist film geeks with a hard-on for Houdini? If you fit this description, be forewarned, The Circle contains no bonus material and therefore no insight into the film's planning and execution. Like David Blaine, it never reveals its secrets. Paul Knoll
Revenge of the Nerds: Atomic Wedgie Collection
Fox Home Entertainment
The Superfluous Sequels Club has plenty of inductees in the crass comedy department alone Slap Shot, Caddyshack, Porky's, Major League, Meatballs and, the most flagrant offender, Police Academy. A lesser-known but equally dubious candidate is the Revenge of the Nerds quadrilogy, primarily because the final two entries were made for television and about 17 people saw them. Fox has been generous enough to package all four in its new Atomic Wedgie Collection. That the sequels are nigh unwatchable is hardly news; that the original continues to endure is a bit of a surprise.
When I saw Revenge of the Nerds in my early teens (Julia Montgomery's sorority-girl frame may have provided my first onscreen breast, not to mention rib cage), I was too young to appreciate the genuinely witty send-up of college stereotypes. At its best, the film illuminates a cultural and Darwinian power struggle between the dominant jocks' aptly named "Alpha Beta" fraternity (led by Ted McGinley, the future Jefferson D'Arcy) and the meek geeks' just as apropos "Lambda Lambda Lambda" frat. Anthony Edwards and Robert Carradine are more than competent as leading men, and Jeff Kanew's direction brings humanism to a brazen script (even the pranks seem real-world feasible, unlike the ones in the sequels).
The rest of the movies are the kind of bargain-basement stinkers you'd find on Comedy Central at three in the morning, only effective when resorting to Revenge of the Nerds 1 hand-me-downs. The second installment, 1987's Nerds in Paradise, is marred by needlessly exorbitant production values and a ludicrous script that finds the Nerds breaking up a faux-Indian sacrifice and stumbling upon a cache of Bay of Pigs weaponry hidden in an island off the Florida coast. It's followed by The Next Generation, which rehashes the college culture war with a new crop of nerd freshman, while previous campus titan Carradine is now a nerd-repressing, gourmet-cooking douche bag with a Steven Seagal ponytail. McGinley is trotted out once again as the villain, and new characters like John Pinette's portly Brit and a South Korean Elvis impersonator (who also happens to edit the school paper!) add little freshness to the exhausted debacle.
Any edge vicariously remaining from the first film has completely evaporated by the laugh-free fourth Revenge, Nerds in Love. Slovenly Booger (Curtis Armstrong) is getting married, and Carradine's Lewis is about to become a father. The sentimentality is at its most putrid here; like the third one, it ends with a speech full of South Park moralizing, just as phony but without the audience wink.
All the sequels arrive bare-bones who in these productions could possibly be proud enough to talk about them? but the original includes a funny and informative documentary about the film's making and legacy, filled with self-deprecating remembrances. It also contains the nadir of the entire collection: the pilot for the aborted Revenge of the Nerds sitcom, which rewrites the jokes from the movie so people with the IQ of a 3-year-old can understand them. John Thomason
Magnolia Home Entertainment
How far do you have to time travel into the future to forget that Joseph Lawrence used to be "Joey," an insufferable teen fixture on every nauseating NBC sitcom with a lesson to be learned and a catchphrase to be uttered? Far enough into the future that "Phoenix is one of the last remaining dome cities, the air is filtered and we've run out of raw materials and fresh water." Woah. So what are we talking, about five, six years from now? In the role of DeeCee the droid who likes humans all too much and is about to be reprogrammed Lawrence brings all the stiffness of his first week on Dancing with the Stars. Scott Bairstow plays the gruff human handcuffed to DeeCee as the friendly droid is transported. The pitch for this film was probably "The Defiant Ones meets I Robot," but often it seems we're watching a futuristic regional touring company of The Odd Couple. The special effects (Lawrence's G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip movements notwithstanding) are better than average for a SciFi Channel movie and the villains are creepy in an aging-drag-queen sort of way. But one nagging question remains: If robots will scan the desert looking for oil in our future, then why is everyone cruising the dunes in gas-guzzling Jeep Wranglers? Serene Dominic
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