ALL IN THE FAMILY: THE COMPLETE NINTH SEASON (1978-1979). The eighth season of TV's all-time greatest sitcom concluded with Archie and Edith Bunker (Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton) tearfully saying goodbye to daughter Gloria and son-in-law Mike (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner), who were moving from New York to California. Given the dynamic and irreplaceable chemistry between the four leads, that would have been the perfect spot to end the series' acclaimed run, but the folks at CBS brought it back for one more year, wherein it served as a bridge to the more standard sitcom Archie Bunker's Place. This ninth season was, like all the others, a ratings success (#9 in the Nielsens), but most of the magic was gone, replaced by too much of a focus on secondary characters and slight variations on familiar plots. One of the highlights is the episode in which Archie and Edith visit Mike and Gloria out west, but the biggest format change was adding Danielle Brisebois to the cast: She plays Stephanie, the Bunkers' nine-year-old niece who's "adopted" by the couple after her deadbeat dad skips out on her. Brisebois is an appealing young actress, and her scenes with O'Connor bring out his character's soft side and offer surprising poignancy. Indeed, what makes this final season worth the purchase price is that it remains a treat to watch O'Connor and Stapleton, who are perpetually wonderful even when the scripts let them down.
There are no extras in the collection.
BIUTIFUL (2010). A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor, the Mexican import Biutiful has much in common with writer-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's previous film. Like Babel, it takes some interesting ideas and belabors them for well over two fidgety hours. In a typically compelling performance, Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a Barcelona resident who decides to put his affairs in order once he learns that he's dying of cancer. A conscientious man who nevertheless provides Chinese sweatshop owners with illegal workers, Uxbal has to deal with his unstable, adulterous and alcoholic wife (Maricel Alvarez), their two young kids, and — shades of Hereafter — the ability to communicate with the dearly departed. That's more than enough fodder to fill a screenplay, and I don't begrudge Inarritu his burning desire to consistently make cynical movies that wallow in the mire (he also directed 21 Grams and Amores Perros, both better than either Babel or Biutiful). But he and co-scripters Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone pile on the grim incidents by also following the (mis)fortunes of several supporting characters who detract from Uxbal's ordeal. It doesn't make the movie far-reaching or well-rounded; it just makes it bloated.
Blu-ray extras include 22 minutes of Inarritu's personal video and audio notes; a 3-minute interview with Bardem; and a 4-minute shout-out to the film's crew.
DIABOLIQUE (1955). "Before Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Repulsion, there was Diabolique," reads the back-cover DVD copy for this French classic, and modern audiences had best heed those words if they want to derive maximum enjoyment from this delirious thriller. With over a half-century of cinema having passed since its release, many of this twisty tale's innovations have been endlessly aped, and, truth be told, it's not too difficult to figure out the climactic plot pirouette that presumably left audiences gasping back in the day. But this nevertheless remains the real deal, a meticulously constructed chiller whose director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, has long been referred to as "The French Hitchcock" (it's no surprise that The Master himself fervently tried to snatch up the rights to the novel on which this was based). Set at a boys' boarding school, this casts Paul Meurisse as Michel Delasalle, a cruel headmaster who comes to be equally despised by his tough mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) and his frail wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). The women devise a plot to drown him in a bathtub and then dump the body into the school's murky swimming pool, but what seems like fait accompli soon results in hints that everything is not what it seems. Charles Vanel provides some humor as a retired police inspector who — shades of Peter Falk's Columbo — possesses a keen mind under his sloppy, rambling exterior. Incidentally, this was remade (badly) in 1996 with Sharon Stone, Isabelle Adjani and Chazz Palminteri in the central roles.
DVD extras include selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway; a 15-minute introduction to the movie by film historian Serge Bromberg; and a 16-minute discussion about the picture with film critic Kim Newman.
ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERIES (1975-1976). Like Norman Lear (All in the Family, Sanford and Son) on the comedy side, Richard Levinson and William Link were identified with quality crime shows, serving as creators, producers and/or writers on such classics as Columbo, Murder, She Wrote and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Ellery Queen proved to be a rare flop for the team, lasting only one paltry season. That's a shame, because this ranks as one of the top detective shows of the 1970s, with Jim Hutton (Timothy's dad) a delight as the absent-minded mystery writer who solved the murders that his father, Inspector Richard Queen (David Wayne), was unable to figure out. Unlike Columbo, in which the identity of the killer was revealed right away, this series filled each episode with a who's-who of suspects (played by name actors like Ray Milland, Joan Collins, Vincent Price, Larry Hagman and Betty White) and offered clues throughout the hour so that viewers could have a shot at I.D.ing the murderer themselves (before the final scene, Ellery Queen would in fact address the TV audience directly, asking them if they solved the mystery before he would then reveal all). The Ellery Queen Mysteries box set, released last fall by Entertainment One, contains all 23 episodes (including the feature-length pilot) for the suggested retail price of $59.98 (as of this writing, Amazon has it on sale for $30.99). For those into value pricing, Entertainment One has now released Ellery Queen Mysteries: The Disappearing Dagger — which contains four of those 23 episodes — for $9.98. My advice? Go ahead and splurge on the whole collection, as four episodes will only whet the appetite for more.
The only extra is an 18-minute interview with co-creator William Link, although the set does come with a handy booklet that includes episode summaries and credits.
PLATOON (1986). Writer-director Oliver Stone's Platoon may not be the best Vietnam war film ever made — I still prefer both Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket by a healthy margin — but I wouldn't care to argue with any veteran who states that it's the most honest depiction of that insane skirmish. Stone, himself a decorated vet, channeled his experiences into the character of Chris (Charlie Sheen), an idealist who drops out of college and volunteers for combat duty in Nam. The tour of duty is arduous, exhausting and terrifying, yet the real battle Chris confronts is the one between the two sergeants vying for his loyalty: the hardened, hate-filled Barnes (Tom Berenger, imaginatively cast against type) and the heroic, humanistic Elias (Willem Dafoe, ditto). Stone's dialogue often falls heavy on the ears — Chris' voiceover narration particularly contains some genuine clunkers — but his ability to place us thick in the hostile jungle environment is extraordinary. The impressive cast contains a handful of rising stars, most notably Forest Whitaker and a 23-year-old Johnny Depp. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Supporting Actor bids for both Berenger and Dafoe), this won four: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
Most of the extras on the 25th Anniversary Blu-ray are carried over from the 20th Anniversary DVD, although inexplicably not making the transfer is the hour-long 2001 documentary Tour of the Inferno. Extras include audio commentary by Stone; separate audio commentary by military advisor Dale Dye; 12 minutes of deleted and extended scenes; and various featurettes about the film and the war, totaling 90 minutes.