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DVD Reviews March 6, 2006

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

A flawed documentary, a great assortment of Buster Keaton items and a visually arresting film are the offerings in this week's DVD column.

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization

This 1999 five hour documentary originally made for British television had the potential for being a fairly comprehensive look at a subject that rarely gets a sober treatment on television.

In this country if something to do with pornography turns up on a TV news program it will undoubtedly be as sensational as possible and also carry some sort of moral message to it.

The premise of the series is to show that what we now call "pornography" has been with us for centuries, although the social context has been radically different from culture to culture. The first segment dealing with the discovery of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and how Victorians in Great Britain reacted to what they found is among the best episodes.

The second episode, which dealt with how the printing press affected adult materials and the subsequent reaction from authorities, was also quite good.

However, the remaining four episodes had some major flaws. In the segment on the impact of photography and the rise of "men's magazines," the filmmakers never mentioned Hugh Hefner or Playboy, an inconceivable omission in a production such as this one.

In the episode on motion pictures, huge chunks of film history are left out. The result is a very misinformed look at that part of the story.

The last two episodes, which cover the advent of videotape and the Internet, seemed padded, with experts repeating variations of the same message: that technology pushes pornography to new boundaries.

What is missing is an explanation why people are drawn to adult entertainment; if it has positive or negative social effects; and how pornography is a lightening rod for controversy even in these times. I would also like to have seen a discussion whether or not the acceptance of pornography in our society had made other forms of entertainment more crude.

The program is fairly explicit the Brits don't mind sexual material as much as they do violence so be warned.

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Industrial Strength Keaton

Buster Keaton is one of my cinematic gods. I know that Charles Chaplin supposedly set the mark for silent comedy and that Harold Lloyd was probably more popular than Buster at the box office. Neither comic made films that seem to hold up as well as Keaton did in his prime.

And his prime was the 1920s. Losing his independence as a producer, a bad marriage and an addiction to alcohol all contributed to Keaton's fall from grace in the early 1930s.

He was able to sober up and return to films, although he was never able to reach the pinnacle he once had. He had a successful final act in his life in which he appeared on numerous television shows, made commercials and industrial films, performed in European circuses and saw his silent films embraced by a new generation of movie fans.

This collection is like a Keaton scrapbook collected by Keaton fans and scholars. If you want to see Buster at his best, find a copy of Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman or The Navigator, among others and then watch these two discs.

Two of Keaton's sound features are included in the collection, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath and An Old Spanish Custom. Neither is among his best sound outings, but they're interesting to watch. There are some silent rarities, as well, including a restored version of Keaton's great short The Playhouse.

The revelations are the commercials and industrial films in the collection. They are a treat.

No Keaton fans should be without this two-disc set.

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Comic book artist David McKean teamed up with his frequent collaborator writer Neil Gaimen on this kind-of, sort-of children's film that made its debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

The good news is McKean was able to translate his arresting visual style to the screen through the use of props, Muppets (the film was co-produced by the Jim Henson Company) and computer effects and animation.

The bad news is the film's story is pretty derivative and doesn't really involve the viewer.

The story revolves around a 15 year-old girl Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) whose parents run a small circus in Great Britain. She's a bit rebellious, but those feelings subside when her mother develops a life-threatening medical condition. Now the kid feels guilty and when she falls asleep she finds herself trapped in an alternative universe.

There she find she resembles the daughter of a dark queen (played by the same actress who plays her mother, Gina McKee) and discovers that if she wants to escape and return she must wake the Queen of Light (played once again by McKee) with the Mirrormask.

This movie falls into the same sub-genre as The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth and Spirited Away in which a teenage girl finds herself in a strange fantastical land and must master some task in order to go home.

While McKean's visual style contributes much to the film, the plot does not.

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