Pirate Radio (R, 2009, Universal)
As tributes to bygone eras go, “Pirate Radio” is nothing if not loving: Its illustration of the days when radio jockeys literally took to the seas to broadcast rock ‘n’ roll over the objections of British government killjoys determined to censor them is deliriously, infectiously fun. Unfortunately, that’s just about all it is. As if a case of art imitating life, “Radio” arrived in America in vastly different shape than what debuted months earlier in Britain, and many of the scenes that were scrapped — now part of a 42-minute deleted scenes feature with a very necessary introduction by writer/director Richard Curtis — often are the ones where “Radio” does its most courageous and meaningful storytelling. What makes it into the main feature is nothing close to bad, and watching this enormously talented cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, Chris O’Dowd, Tom Sturridge and Kenneth Branagh, among others) go completely to town in character is, again, enormously fun. But many of those deleted scenes make it clear that fun wasn’t all that was on “Radio’s” original menu, and it’s too bad so much of what defined and drove these characters to such extremes in the name of free expression was on the floor.
Extras: The aforementioned deleted scenes, director/producer/Frost/O’Dowd commentary.
We Believe (NR, 2009, Virgil Films)
If all you knew about “We Believe” is that it’s a film about a Major League Baseball team, would you even need a second clue to guess which team it’s about? Of course you don’t need a second guess. But while numerous songs, films, plays and other often painfully bad love letters from Chicago Cubs fans have surfaced over the past 102 years, “Believe” actually has the good grace to present itself in a way that makes all the misery they endure actually make some — if only some — sense. Partly, that’s because “Believe,” which chronicles the 2008 season while simultaneously reaching back into the team’s once dominant and now darkly humorous past, doesn’t really take itself too seriously. A number of familiar faces — from Ernie Banks to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to Billy Corgan to Ryne Sandberg to several members of the 2008 team — chime in, and the sum total of their comments paints a picture of a fanbase and franchise that understands how maddening the whole thing must look to the rest of us. (Full disclosure: This review was written by a White Sox fan.) Simultaneously, when “Believe” tries touching nerves, it does so in funny and poignant ways any devoted fan of any team can understand and potentially appreciate. The takeaway from the whole thing is that Cub fans, weird though they may be, are just people, and baseball, despite all the agony it causes, is really just an excuse for people to share an experience no matter the outcome.
Extra: Deleted scenes.
Tenderness (R, 2009, Lions Gate)
“Tenderness” does itself little favor by calling itself an “edge-of-your seat thriller” on the front of the DVD case, because that cliched description says nothing about just what kind of tension waits inside. When “Tenderness” opens, an 18-year-old (Jon Foster as Eric) who killed his parents three years prior has been set free from an absurdly generous trip through the juvenile prison system, and the detective (Russell Crowe as Cristofuoro) who helped put him behind bars is devising ways to keep watch and prevent what he assumes is the inevitability of Eric killing again. Were “Tenderness” a typical edge-of-seat thriller, one could probably read this description and fill in the rest of the script’s blanks without setting one eye on the film. But “Tenderness” is a thriller only during the rare moments when it isn’t a completely brutal vivisection through the psyches of Eric, Cristofuoro and the girl (Sophie Traub) whose past intersects with Eric’s and whom Cristofuoro assumes needs rescuing. The vast, vast majority of the film is talk, but the talk adds up to a mental teardown that’s far more interesting than just another movie about stopping just another murderer. When “Tenderness” gets dangerous, any value that danger carries owes a thank-you card to the mountain of character development that paved its way.
Extra: Behind-the-scenes feature.
Tenure (R, 2009, Genius Entertainment)
It isn’t a bold statement to suggest the primary goal of a comedy is to make people laugh. So what happens if a comedy looks like a comedy, isn’t terribly hilariously funny, but is still somewhat good? That’s where we are with “Tenure,” in which a college professor (Luke Wilson as Charlie) who is popular with his students but misunderstood by superiors faces the prospect of receiving tenure or receiving his pink slip. Charlie isn’t a terribly moving character as comedy needles go — not terribly funny, nowhere near dark enough to pass for ironic. His tenure competition and adversary (Gretchen Mol as Elaine) isn’t much different. “Tenure” leaves most of the comedic to its supporting characters, and they sometimes make good on those opportunities. But Charlie and Elaine are just likable and easy to root for, and their mutual likability leads to scenes that have them doing respective soul-searching more than scheming. What ultimately emerges is definitely a comedy — a handful of hopelessly typical plot turns dissolve any confusion — but it isn’t so much a conduit for laughs as a lighthearted look at the stupid things educators sometimes have to do to be educators. You may not remember even seeing it a few months from now, and that certainly isn’t the kind of thing you say about great movies, but 89 minutes invested in “Tenure” are 89 feel-good minutes nonetheless.
Extras: Deleted scenes, outtakes.
Plunder: The Crime of Our Time (NR, 2010, Disinformation)
Filmmaker Danny Schechter was dismissed as an alarmist for his 2006 film, “In Debt We Trust,” which took creditors to task for practices that sent Americans deep into debt. But the financial meltdown validated some of his fears, and in case you don’t spot the thinly-veiled “I told you so” on the back of “Plunder’s” box, Schechter himself will remind you during the opening minutes. But that’s the problem with too much of “Plunder:” Not quite a cautionary tale like “Trust” partially was, it feels like rundown of events that should already ring familiar to anyone still engaged enough to seek this out in the first place. “Plunder” does a fine job of recapping, and it especially succeeds in exposing popular media’s reluctance to embrace the story until the story exploded and offered no alternative. But while “Plunder” calls out just about everyone who had a role in the subprime mortgage scam spectacular, it makes the same mistake “Trust” made and just glosses over the issue of accountability. Chastising victims for not being more knowledgeable about the loans that financially ruined them would take serious nerve on Schechter’s part and would likely alienate the audience he intends to accrue. But a film that honestly instructs people on how to watch their backs has far more utility than one that, ultimately, just tells people to get angry without telling them what to do about that anger.
Extras: Schechter interview, two additional segments.
Worth a Mention: Just for Kids Edition
— “The Madeline Movie: Lost in Paris” (NR, 1999, Shout Factory Kids): The charming children’s book series makes for an appropriately charming animated feature, which finds Madeline in a bit of a pickle when a man disguised as her uncle turns out to be someone else entirely after he takes her away from the boarding school she previously called home. There’s no way to lay out that plot and make it sound like anything but a great story for kids, but “Madeline’s” character design is about as classically harmless as cartoon heroes and villains
get, and everything else about the film — the rhyming narration, the songs, the art and animation style — is delightful in ways too many kids’ films don’t get. Jason Alexander, Christopher Plummer and Lauren Bacall, among others, lend their voices. No extras.
— “Jim Henson’s The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories” (NR, 1989, Lions Gate): Left-wing propaganda or cute stories about the planet that kids (and anyone who fancies Jim Henson’s work) will enjoy for what they are? Sorry, alarmists, but it’s the latter. In addition to the story in the title, “Stories” includes three additional features — “Fraggle Rock: River of Life,” “Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Owl & Frog” and “Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Kangaroo & Frog” — for 100 total minutes of first-rate puppet storytelling. No extras beyond the four stories.
— “Jim Henson’s Animal Show with Stinky and Jake: Lions, Tigers and Bears” (NR, 1994, Lions Gate): Stinky the skunk and Jake the polar bear share hosting duties on this talk show, which mocks the late-night talk show format while educating kids (and again, anyone who loves Henson’s work and legacy) about the animal kingdom. Guests in this five-episode set include a zebra, a tiger beetle, a chimpanzee and a hyena. No extras beyond the episodes.