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New on DVD: “Madea’s Big Happy Family” and “If a Tree Falls…” — August 30, 2011

Chaos in the family and anarchy in the northwest woods; Tyler Perry’s heroine slaps some sense into her relatives in Madea’s Big Happy Family, while in If a Tree Falls… environmental activists test how far their ideals will take them; these and other films that qualify as full-on failures (Prom, In a Better World) or must-see classic (Miller’s Crossing, If…) come this week to Blu-ray and DVD.

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Shirley (Loretta Devine) is dying of cancer and wants to bring her family together to tell them. But is that collection of selfish and thoughtless relatives going to make it easy for her? Nope. So it’s up to Aunt Madea (writer/director Tyler Perry) to roll up and start cracking heads. Our critic called this easily “the best film of Tyler Perry’s career,” serving up a “clever combination of humor and heart.”

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The Earth Liberation Front was founded in the Pacific Northwest by activists who thought that peaceful protests weren’t doing enough to stop environmental destruction. Several extremely well-planned arsons later, the government branded the ELF domestic terrorists and started hunting them down. Our writer called this story of “how a muscular anti-logging campaign devolved into sectarian turmoil that shot off radicalized cells like burning cinders” both “fascinating” and “rewarding.”

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In this taut, award-winning Spanish prison thriller, a new prison guard is shocked when he wakes up in an empty prison cell while a riot takes place outside — his only way to survive is to convince the prisoners that he’s one of them. According to our critic, writer/director Daniel Monzon “lays out a basic, albeit terrifying, premise and molds it into an intelligent story of man’s potential inhumanity.”

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A man (Adrien Brody) wakes up in a smashed car at the bottom of a ravine, with his leg trapped inside the front seat, a dead body in the back, and no idea of how he got there. In this inventive Canadian indie that mixes up the man-against-the-elements theme of 127 Hours with the fractured memory of Memento, Brody’s character must slowly and methodically figure out not only how to escape but how to survive in the world afterward. Our critic termed Wrecked “a decent little experiment” that succeeds due to some “smart directing choices, a tight script, and a sensational tour de force performance” by Brody.

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This Romanian curiosity from writer/director Corneliu Porumboiu is
ostensibly a police procedural about a cop investigating a drug ring,
but in truth it’s an absurdist joke in which next to nothing happens.
Our critic wasn’t impressed with the result: “Congratulations,
Porumboiu, you got what you wanted: You made a film so mundane, so
accurate to real life, that no one would be interested in watching it.”

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In this wistful, semi-autobiographical nostalgia piece set, a slacker 19-year-old is spending his summer working at the roller rink in his small Texas town, circa the early-1980s. There are numerous comparisons that could be made between this piece and other looking-backward stories about the hazy days of youth. But our critic writes that, unlike Dazed and Confused and Adventureland, Skateland “can’t compare to the efforts it is mimicking,” because it’s “as uninvolving as paging through a sloppy, poorly kept scrapbook.”

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The proposition put forth by this issue documentary is a simple one
that’s quite easy to believe: If we all ate nothing but fruits and
vegetables, we would likely be much healthier and happier. Our writer
was disgruntled, however, by the film’s “messianic zeal,” which he
thought reduced a perfectly good argument to “grinding and insulting

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Susanne Bier’s ambitious drama straddles two stories: one in which a
Danish boy moves to London and goes too far when he exacts revenge on a
bully, and a second in which a Danish doctor in Kenya has to make a
moral decision when a brutal warlord comes asking for medical care.
“Socially, politically, and psychologically, these are deep waters for
any director to be swimming in,” our critic wrote, concluding that the
result was “unimaginative, dour, and just a bit dull.”

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David Hyde Pierce plays a blithe and well-spoken man who happily invites in for dinner a stranger who shows up saying they have a friend in common. Then Pierce drugs the man and the macabre absurdity begins. Our critic enjoyed Pierce’s performance but couldn’t find much to say about this “toneless” comedy with “a long lead-up and no punch-line” that reminded him of Clue, “but stripped entirely of comic and theatrical self-recognition.”

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“A neutered, happy-face mess.” “Patched together with very little rhyme
or reason.” “Peddles the standard Disney Princess model of sincere
wallflower-meets-rough-hewn hero and falls in doe-eyed love.” “Ode to
cutesy tween pseudo-angst.” These weren’t even the worst things our writer said about this
latest Disney pre-adolescent offering.

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Malcolm McDowell plays a twist on his A Clockwork Orange sociopath in this
surrealistic 1968 British antihero classic about a devilish rebel at a
stiff-necked boarding school who tries to see how far he can bend the
rules. By the time the machine guns come out, it’s apparent they’re
pretty flexible. Our writer said that “To call If…. audacious would be
one of cinema’s biggest understatements.” Now available on Blu-ray
from the Criterion Collection.

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Released in 1990, the Coen brothers’ third film is a half-satiric,
half-existential riff on the gangster film, evoking everything from
broad farce to The Godfather to philosophical exercises on the meaning
of language. Gabriel Byrne stars in his finest role as a conflicted
lieutenant to a Prohibition-era Irish mob boss who goes to war with the
local Italian mob for no good reason. Our writer called it “one of the
soaring, inexplicable peaks of modern American filmmaking.” Now
available on Blu-ray. Check it out.

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