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Enjoy a look at the future from the past

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By G. Michael Dobbs Managing Editor An obscurity that shouldn't be, a mainstream film that should be obscure and a painless history lesson for kids are all featured in this week's DVD review column. National Lampoon's Stoned Age Unrated Remember when the "National Lampoon" banner meant a movie might actually be funny? Well once again, the designation is no assurance of laughs as "Stoned Age Unrated" is devoid of even a chuckle. Director and writer Adam Rifkin stars in this tepid film that is constructed as a facsimile of Woody Allen's early comedies. Rifkin plays Isbo the tribal outcast who wonders about the meaning of life and invents things. He's in love with Fardart (Ali Larter) who is attracted to Isbo's virile but stupid brother. Will Isbo ever be the hero? Will he win the girl? Who cares? In his commentary, Rifkin admits he was inspired by the Woody Allen comedies. I wouldn't doubt that casting himself in the lead was part ego and part economy. Rifkin even wears glasses as part of his caveman portrayal, which further pushes the resemblance to Woody Allen. Not since a pair of imitators tried to fool fans of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in the equally terrible film "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" has one entertainer so blatantly ripped off the shtick of another. Rifkin's career as a director has been pretty spotty -- his "Dark Backward" left me cold, but is considered a cult hit -- and he has written two films I enjoyed a lot, director Joe Dante's "Small Soldiers" and the Nathan Lane vehicle "Mousehunt." "Stoned Age Unrated," though, is a complete failure. The premise is tired and derivative, the performances are lackluster and Rifkin doesn't make much of a lead actor. What makes this unrated are various gratuitous topless shots that were an apparent tie-in with "Penthouse" and "Maxim" magazines. In his commentary he reveals that the film's theatrical title, "Homo Erectus" -- a legitimate anthropological term for a primitive man -- was rejected by several national retailers because they thought it sounded like a gay sex film. I think that was the most interesting aspect to this sad production. Five Arch Oboler had made his mark in radio as a writer and producer of some groundbreaking horror shows when he started writing movie scripts in the 1940s. These assignments allowed him to enter directing and while his films are considered uneven -- they include the first 3-D feature "Bwana Devil" -- "Five" from 1951 is a solid film that should interest contemporary audiences. Oboler wrote, produced and directed this drama about the aftermath of a nuclear war and five survivors -- a mountain climber, two bank employees, a pregnant woman and a young philosopher -- who find shelter in a house in the country. This was the first film to present a post-apocalyptic vision of the world and it works well. The film has no stars in the cast, but rather mostly young actors at the beginning of their careers. What I like about the film particularly is the inclusion in the cast of Charles Limpkin, an African-American actor, in a dignified role rare for its time. Although elements of the story are a little silly -- picked-clean skeletons in clothing represent the bodies of the bomb's victims -- what rings true is the interactions between these five characters. Oboler likes moving his camera and using close-ups to punctuate the drama and the film is very visually interesting. This is a film worth discovering. Liberty's Kids Too many kids roll their eyes in despair when confronted with history lessons, but this animated series produced in 2002 might be the ticket for some elementary age children to find out about the founding of this nation in a relatively painless manner. The premise of the show is to follow three young teenagers who are reporters for Benjamin Franklin's newspaper as the events of the American Revolution unfolds around them. The 15-hour series is presented in a boxed set that comes with an illustrated episode guide and a map to show where key events of the Revolution took place. The series deals with immigration issues as well as slavery and the differences between the colonists who viewed America as their nation and the loyalists who still considered themselves part of Great Britain. The show is pretty involving and humanizes a lot of events that frequently make young eyes glaze over. The animation is acceptable as are the vocal performances with a lot of stunt casting that might impress more adults than kids. Walter Cronkite, though, cast in the key role of Franklin doesn't really cut it.

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