DVD 2/10/09: W, Miracle at St. Anna, Soul Men, Blindness, Iowa, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection, Mystery Science Theater 3000 XIV, Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember, The Skulls Trilogy

W (PG-13, 2008, Lions Gate)
Seems like everybody who hasn’t seen “W” has a strong opinion about it anyway, so really, what’s the point of reviewing it? For the few who survived the last eight years and election cycle with their objectivity intact, here’s some news that might surprise you: Pretty much every assumption is wrong. Chiefly, “W” neither lavishes our now-former president with praise nor condemns him as a failure. Rather, it treats George W. Bush’s  story as what it is — a work in progress, with neither the ending nor the full implications of the story ready to be written. “W” rides two intertwining chronological tracks — one at the onset of his college days, the other in 2002 — and it arbitrarily picks and chooses which scenes are worth some in-depth exploration and which don’t bear even a glance. The choices it makes might surprise you, but it’s this very discretion that gives “W” both a level of humanity and style that far, far outstrips the pedestrian expectations most laid at its feet. Josh Brolin makes an uncanny turn as Bush, and Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Richard Dreyfuss, Toby Jones, Thandie Newton and Ellen Burstyn, among others, also star.
Extras: Director commentary, Bush feature, DVD-ROM content.

Miracle at St. Anna (R, 2008, Touchstone)
It’s easier than it should be to forget that wars between nations are fought by numerous small groups of soldiers squaring off in equally minute villages. But it’s that very intimacy — along with a level of creative license rarely seen in World War II films — that makes “Miracle at St. Anna” a compelling addition to a genre that’s seen most everything at this point. True to its genre, “Miracle” isn’t shy about visualizing the horrors of war. But the film’s democratic focus, which gives equal time to soldiers (Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Omar Benson Miller, Walton Goggins), civilians (Valentina Cervi, Pierfrancesco Favino, Sergio Albelli, Omero Antonutti), conflict and downtime, gives these small-scale conflicts their deserved significance. Rare is the war film that can employ a small boy (Matteo Sciabordi) and what most perceive to be his imaginary friend as its narrative lynchpin. “Miracle’s” meandering, 160-minute runtime is intimidating, but it’s not for nothing: The film’s exploration of everything from black soldiers fighting on behalf of a country that doesn’t accept them to Italy’s uncomfortable alliance with a burgeoning superpower is exhaustive without resorting to self-righteousness or abandoning the integrity of its characters. The battle scenes — and in particular, one cruel massacre — will supply the most resonant images, but it’s the way “Miracle” peels back the mystery of its surprising opening scenes (sorry, no spoilers) that leaves the most lasting impression. No extras.

Soul Men (R, 2008, Dimension)
Let’s not pretend it isn’t true that “Soul Men’s” primary claim to fame is that it features two performers, Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes, who passed away shortly before the film hit the screen. But that doesn’t mean the film itself — which tells the story of two estranged Motown has-beens (Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson) who reluctantly reunite for a tribute show in honor of the late former groupmate (John Legend) who ditched them en route to finding major success as a solo artist — deserves the short shrift. No, “Men” isn’t the best comedy to appear on DVD shelves this year, this month or even within the last seven days. But Jackson and Bernie Mac do as much as they can with a script that, while occasionally very funny, doesn’t always have the same commitment to entertainment. Their ability to wring every last drop out of their roles absolutely shows, and it’s hard not to enjoy watching two actors so blatantly having fun playing off and against each other. That spirit trickles down to the supporting cast (Sharon Leal, Adam Herschman, Affion Crockett and Sean Hayes, along with Hayes), and the crackle of continuous energy makes “Men” leagues better than the mere sum of its parts. The closing credits, which double as a wonderful tribute to Bernie Mac and Hayes, deserve major kudos as well.
Extras: Director/writers commentary, four behind-the-scenes features, tributes to Bernie Mac and Hayes, live footage of Bernie Mac at the Apollo Theater.

Blindness (R, 2008, Miramax)
The title, it does not lie. As “Blindness” begins, people everywhere — to the tune of 90 percent of the population — are finding themselves afflicted by a random, unexplainable virus that renders them instantly and completely blind. The government’s solution is a classic by virus movie standards: Contain them in quarantine until a cure is found, and leave them mostly to their own devices. The catch: One of the detainees (Julianne Moore), who is married to another detainee (Mark Ruffalo), actually can see. All this is laid out fairly early on, and from there, “Blindness” lets the social dominoes drop, exploring in ugly detail everything from the terror of instant blindness to what happens when a group of formerly-civilized adults find themselves treated (and sometimes acting) like a pack of blind rats. Some will love certain characters whom others hate, and group viewings almost certainly will lead to a debate over how satisfactory (or not) the ending is. But that’s the kind of stuff that happens when a great premise gets the exhaustive, arguably fearless treatment “Blindness” gives this premise. Reactions will run the gamut, but the film’s expert use of creativity and suspense ensures few will be bored along the way. Alice Braga, Danny Glover, Gael García Bernal, Yusuke Iseya, Yoshino Kimura, Don McKellar and Maury Chaykin, among others, also star.
Extras: Making-of documentary, deleted scenes.

Iowa (NR, 2005, Koch Vision)
Describing “Iowa” in any sort of meaningful detail presents a bit of a conundrum: How do you explain that it’s a completely messed-up message movie and discuss that message without somewhat spoiling where the story, about a young dead-ender (Matt Farnsworth) who come into an unexpected family inheritance, eventually leads? You can’t. So if you don’t wish to know anything more about “Iowa” but can satisfactorily be blindly intrigued by the notion of a film that completely, absolutely loses its mind but still quite resoundingly manages to make its point, you’re better off not reading any further. If you need more information or simply don’t care, here’s the scoop: “Iowa” does for methamphetamine what “Requiem for a Dream” does for heroin, and it throws in a bloody, nasty story of greed, love, familial betrayal and revenge for good measure. It isn’t pretty, not even close, and it probably won’t teach you anything you already didn’t know or at least assume. But if you like your entertainment dark to the point of well done, “Iowa’s” tastefully graphic storytelling methodology makes it awfully hard to look away. Diane Foster, Rosanna Arquette, John Savage, David Backus, Amanda Tepe and a completely unrecognizable Michael T. Weiss also star.
Extras: Two Farnsworth-produced documentaries about methamphetamine.

Worth a Mention
— “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” (PG, 2008, Dreamworks): The awkward Friday release date prevented a review copy from arriving before press time, but unless there’s some reason you completely avoided the first “Madagascar” film but have somehow developed an interest in the sequel, you probably already know what you’re getting here. Much like it did with “Kung Fu Panda,” Dreamworks is releasing “Escape 2 Africa” as part of a DVD two-pack, which also includes the new “The Penguins of Madagascar” animated mini-feature. The sum total of extras from both discs includes a handful of DVD games, music videos, outtakes, interactive activities and more.
— “Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection” (R, 1968-75): Four lesser-known Eastwood works — “The Eiger Sanction,” “Coogan’s Bluff,” “The Beguiled” and his directorial debut, “Play Misty for Me” — comprise this set. Extras include a “Misty” retrospective and a handful of behind-the-scenes features.
— “Mystery Science Theater 3000 XIV” (NR, 1998, Shout Factory): Collection No. 14 features four more movies you can’t unsee: “Mad Monster,” “Manhunt in Space,” “Soultaker” and “Final Justice.” Extras include new interviews, the “MST3K” cast on ESPN Classic, mini posters and the original “Monster” trailer.
— “Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember” (NR, 1980, Koch Lorber): He’s best remembered for his work on various British television series, but this set celebrates three of Dennis Potter’s lesser-known teleplays: “Blade on the Feather,” “Rain on the Roof” and “Cream in my Coffee.” Also included in the set is the final interview he taped before his death in 1994.
— “The Skulls Trilogy” (PG-13-R, 2000-03, Universal): Didn’t know there were three “Skulls” films? Don’t worry; you’re not alone. Extras include commentary on the first film, deleted scenes, production notes and a behind-the-scenes feature.