Guns ’n poses

The System Within
New Look/Urban Works

From the moment you hear a white guy say "Wassup, my brotha from anutha mutha?" with all the ease of Don Imus at a NAACP rally, you realize that half the roles in this urban drama went to people who won a "You Could be in a Movie!" contest. Actually, it was more of a paid lottery. Check the strange "Audition Winner Stars" credit at the end, where the newcomers are separated from the pros. And by pros, the only name you'd recognize is P. Diddy's girlfriend Kim Porter, who lends her "star power" for what amounts to one brief scene as "Girl No. 1." Let's hope she got to keep the leather blouse she wears that covers about as much skin as a goatee.

First-time star, screenwriter, producer and music director Tariq Alexander created a production company which gives novices a shot in pictures (and which they are eligible for after they purchase a $75 credit card with Tariq's face on it). So you get what they paid for. That's pedestrian acting and a script featuring such chestnuts as "Without me you're nothing, nobody" without the movie-cliché police making an arrest. —Serene Dominic


Fixed Bayonets!
20th Century Fox

A movie well deserving of its titular exclamation point, Fixed Bayonets! is an exciting and ingeniously structured classic Fox war film. Director Samuel Fuller, adapting from a novel by John Brophy, centers the story on a tenderfoot corporal, fourth in line to lead a rear-guard platoon in the icy mountains of Korea but unable to kill. The success of the group's mission will likely decide whether the entire regiment makes it out of the Korean War alive, and after the top commanders have been picked off one by one, the U.S. force's future lands on the meek corporal's shoulders. Fuller's bruising genre films are always about more than they seem; here he uses the war-film paradigm to explore the most inhumane aspects of the human condition, despite a patriotic hero's ending the studio surely demanded. This is minimalist intensity stretched to its breaking point. There are no extras worth mentioning here, but at least it's another Fuller title to arrive in a crisp transfer. Let's hope his other '50s war movies are next. —John Thomason


Monsieur N.
Empire Pictures/First Run Features

Unsure whether it wants to be a piece of revisionist history or a period-piece romance, Monsieur N. nonetheless poses an interesting question: What if Napoleon had escaped from his exile in St. Helena? Intrigue swirls furiously around Monsieur N., but the glassy glare of actor Philippe Torreton never takes it all in, leaving much of the tale-telling to the guard who is assigned to him. Naturally, said guard spins wild tales of possibility, but when his focus turns to his own romance, the film jumps way off track. With so much potential material to mine (as Alan Taylor did in 2001's The Emperor's New Clothes), it's disappointing that director Antoine de Caunes heaves the dramatic thrust of the film onto people outside Bonaparte's cell. The film's gorgeous set pieces and generally dark tone make for a compelling watch, sure, bit it doesn't live up to its potential. —Jason Ferguson


Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

There's no way in hell that Roman didn't come with high expectations. Lucky McKee wrote and directed arguably one of the best horror films in the last five years in May (2002), which featured a near-perfect performance by Angela Bettis as the title character. Working from a script by McKee, Roman sees the pair reverse roles — Bettis directs and McKee acts. Unfortunately, lightning doesn't strike twice with this story of a lanky, introverted welder named Roman.

His blue-collar work is tedious and dirty, but the practically mute Roman has no complaints. He comes home to the sparsest of bachelor pads, cracks open a beer and parks his ass in front of the living room window. His only diversion is the pretty neighbor who strolls by at 5:30 p.m. almost every day. She's his obsession. His attempts to make a connection go south and her lifeless body ends up on ice in his bathtub surrounded by stick-up air fresheners.

It may be divine intervention that another neighbor comes knocking a few weeks later. Eva (Nectar Rose) is dressed like a woodland fairy crossed with Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy and seems to have beamed down from another planet. She's a nut job who laments not being able to see Hedda Gabler shoot herself in the head during a play. An "artist" with a fixation on death and dying, Eva's attraction to Roman is fortuitous. Their relationship inspires Roman to, um, sever his first love, who's still taking space in his bathtub.

Anyone who can sit through all 92 listless minutes of Roman won't be surprised at its ending. Despite some moments of sharp dialogue, the flick's characters and plot are woefully underdeveloped. There's no explanation for Roman's social/emotional isolation and therefore no insight to why he goes from loner to murderer. McKee imbues him with sadness but it's not enough for viewers to empathize. The only bright spot is actress Nectar Rose who manages to overcome the wacky costuming and hairstyles to convey a lonely girl desperate to find someone to understand her. Roman's linear and pedestrian approach to its subject matter makes murder, dismemberment and mental illness dull and disappointing. —Paul Knoll


Criterion Collection

"A GI told me where to find sympathy: in the dictionary between 'shit' and 'syphilis.'" These words, spoken by a soldier in Stuart Cooper's Overlord, also serve as an apt mission statement for this uncompromising, bitterly realistic account of a young warrior's lead-up to D-Day. There's no room for Hollywood hero mythology and sympathetic glorification in this one-of-a-kind anti-war docudrama. That doesn't mean Overlord isn't stunning to look at. It's anchored by a feeling of poetic pessimism, showing us the horrific details of war in a beautifully evocative way. The story is a simple one: Tom (Brian Stirner) leaves his family and beloved cocker spaniel to enlist in the army, where he goes through rigorous training procedures before being foisted into the front lines of the Normandy invasion, all the while prophesizing his early death. A montage maestro, Cooper constructed a marvel of low-budget pastiche filmmaking, seamlessly intercutting his own narrative footage with archive shots borrowed from the Imperial War Museum in London. With much of the footage shot by war correspondents in the training camps and the heat of battle, this interweaving gives the dramatic portion of the film an unparalleled air of realism and provides the documentary footage with the suspense of a poignant story.

With the film clocking in at just less than 90 minutes, Criterion pads the disc with oodles of extras to contextualize it; this is a dream package for a World War II buff. In the featurette Mining the Archive, archivists from the Imperial War Museum detail the project's origin and provide background analysis of the footage Cooper used in Overlord. Cooper was inspired by texts he and his co-screenwriter read at the museum as well, and the disc includes audio excerpts from two D-Day soldiers as read by Stirner. The photo essay "Capa Influences Cooper" shows several of war photographer Robert Capa's legendary shots of the beach-storming, with some of his on-site notes dictated by Cooper. The only bland, albeit thematically appropriate, supplement is the 1943 newsreel Cameramen at War.

The most significant supplement is Cooper's experimental 1969 short A Test of Violence, a creative riff on the paintings of Spanish artist Juan Genoves. Using filmed footage, animation, colorization, iris shots, intertitles, superimpositions and audio trickery, he makes Genoves' work leap off the canvas and onto the screen, as perfect a cinematic translation as one can imagine. —John Thomason

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