A Christmas Too Many
And you thought the last season of Dancing with the Stars had more uncelebrated celebrities than ever gathered under one roof — that is, under one that wasn't serving free holiday turkey and soup! Writer-director Stephen Wallis marches right past those folks and says, "No, give me the more forgotten! The more misbegotten!" So he digs out Ruta Lee (whose name recognition peaked when Mayberry was a permanent TV destination), Andrew Keegan (in showbiz hell since 7th Heaven was 86'd), Marla Maples (who lost untold millions by violating the terms of her prenup with Donald Trump a few months too early) and, of course, Gary Coleman (who plays an annoying pizza delivery guy and endures mean-spirited lines from the cast that seemed directed at his real life, like "It must suck to be you," and "I've got a soft spot for losers."
To comment in any great detail of the juvenile plot, which makes Married ... with Children seem like a Merchant Ivory film, would be like calling a press conference to bring attention to an unsightly boil. But hey, that boil is red and green so: An out-of-work actress (Lee) invites her intellectually deficient family over for the holidays while trying to convince a film producer to cast her in one of his movies by acting like she's auditioning for the corpse part in Weekend at Bernie's. Hilarity ensues, but mostly of the "I can't believe I'm still watching this crap" variety, especially when Maples, believing Lee is dead, begins shoving broccoli stalks up her nose. You hope that the half mil it cost to make this holiday turd went to Mickey Rooney (what's he doing here?), whose slow burn still catches fire. Even as an old senile guy who probably poops his drawers, his quiet dignity towers over this assemblage of half-written character sketches and shows us why he was once the No. 1 star ... in the world. You hear me? Bang! In the wooorld! —Serene Dominic
Che Guevara: Where You'd Never Imagine Him
First Run Features
Cuban filmmaker Manuel Pérez Paredes doesn't exactly set out to rewrite the Che legend with this documentary. The man does have to live in Cuba, after all, where it's hard to imagine that criticism of Guevara would be tolerated much. However, by presenting rather intimate details of the revolutionary's early life, Paredes manages to humanize the larger-than-life mythology that's developed. From amazing home movies of baby Ernesto playing in his Argentinean home and vintage footage of his father wondering if an early case of near-fatal pneumonia wasn't what led to his later asthma, the material Paredes has gathered paints a picture of Guevara's early years that's stunning indeed. By the time the viewer gets to better-documented periods (like the legendary motorcycle voyage through South and Central America and Che's introduction to Fidel Castro in the mid-'50s), the archival visuals wear thin, as does the (understandably) hagiographic tone. Still, throughout the film, it's easy to see how the shockingly charismatic Che was able to convince people of his righteousness. This DVD is of reasonable-enough quality, considering the general crappiness of the footage contained. It's also worth noting that the "bonus" footage here totals almost twice the length of the main feature; a barely relevant short about North Vietnam is the worst of the lot, while two 1988 discussions with some of Che's guerrilla fighters are riveting. —Jason Ferguson
Ahh, Christmas, that time of year where people like to have a quiet moment to themselves so they can fluff up holiday pillows, rest their weary heads on oven doors and set the gas on "game over." Every lonesome Christmas you can imagine and wouldn't want to wind up having is on display here, including a lonely old woman with no family (but plenty of pills), an alcoholic bordering on the mentally retarded who's lost custody of his kids, a convenience store owner with nothing better to do on Christmas Eve but sell cranberries in a can, and a family whose daddy is brain-dead from a car accident last Christmas Eve. If Irwin Allen were directing the action, they'd probably all meet in a head-on collision on Interstate 13. But since this is a faith-based initiative starring born-again Steven Baldwin (former real-life drunk playing the aforementioned Thunderbird imbiber), there's got to be a feel-good payoff before too many teardrops have fallen on the snowless ground and people switch off to catch the end of It's a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time. And there is. These characters are as desperate in their own little hells as George Bailey was in Bedford Falls — but in subtle and less fantastical ways they somehow crisscross and wind up being each other's guardian angels. And they're not even half the sermonizers Clarence was. —Serene Dominic
Warner Home Video
Director John Cromwell and writer Virginia Kellogg had no idea their film Caged would foreshadow nearly all women-in-prison films (or WIP) that'd follow. Sadistic matrons, innocent newbies, helpless wardens and victimized inmates are but a few of the devices here that'd become de rigueur in every wondrous '70s WIP.
But this ain't some Roger Corman exploitationer. At its 1950 release, Caged was an eye-opener about myriad problems in the American prison system. Eleanor Parker earned an Oscar nod for her pitch-perfect portrayal of Marie Allen, a naive girl who gets 1-to-10 for being an accessory to a robbery. It's clear that Marie is too doe-eyed and innocent to be party to a crime her boyfriend committed. Now she's pregnant and lost in a system that hardens more than reforms. Marie watches her hopes of parole fizzle, and she slowly succumbs to the survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The earnest warden, played by Agnes Moorhead (Endora on Bewitched), finds her hands tied by the bureaucracy and indifference from those in charge. Best Supporting Actress nominee Hope Emerson is the tyrannical floor matron; her performance set the benchmark for all evil WIP prison guards and blazed the trail Louise Fletcher later followed to nab an Oscar for her turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This DVD cover declares it a "Cult Camp Classic," which sells it short. Caged is a loss-of-innocence tale and is the queen bee-otch of women in prison flicks. —Paul Knoll
Senator Obama Goes to Africa
First Run Features
Barack Obama was recently called out by Hillary Clinton's campaign for being disingenuous about how long he's held presidential aspirations. While Clinton's people took the ridiculous (and marginally insane) step of dredging up a piece of paper from Obama's kindergarten class that found him saying he wanted to be president, they needed only to look at the senator's well-documented trip to Africa in the summer of 2006, some six months before his campaign kicked off. Followed around by both news cameras and a documentary team headed up by director Bob Hercules (Forgiving Dr. Mengele), Obama's trip to the land of his father was as politically expedient as it was heartfelt, and its timing was anything but accidental. Hercules manages to capture the effect of Obama's inspirational forthrightness in this brief, 60-minute doc, but he also unwittingly paints a picture of a savvy and calculating politician. The booming directness of Obama chastising a corrupt Kenyan government — while in Kenya— is striking, as is his wonk-ish advocacy of a microlending project. However, when talk turns to him "leveraging visibility" and very publicly taking himself and his wife to get AIDS-tested in a notoriously test-shy part of the world, it's clear that saving the world isn't the only thing on his mind. Hercules' narrative-free reportage allows Obama, his entourage and those with whom they come into contact plenty of room to shape the story, and the self-awareness that's evident in such statements as "leveraging visibility" becomes a refreshing admission of the game that is being played. Only in Obama's case, it's being played for all the right reasons. —Jason Ferguson