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View from the Couch



COLUMBO: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON (1975-1976). Peter Falk earned his third Emmy Award in five seasons for playing the brilliant Lieutenant Columbo, and the actor has long been so identified with the role that it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Yet Falk wasn't the producers' first choice: That honor fell to Bing Crosby(!), who reportedly turned it down because he wanted to spend more time on the golf course. The producers' loss was NBC's gain, since Columbo remained the most popular of the various rotating shows featured on The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie. (The other constants were McCloud and McMillan and Wife; this season also saw the addition of McCoy, starring Tony Curtis, but it lasted a mere four episodes.) As with the previous season's box set, there are only six episodes, though this go-around finds some slight tinkering with the tried-and-true formula: One episode ends without an arrest, while another waits until the very end (rather than at the beginning, as was the norm) to reveal the killer's identity. This season's guest list includes Janet Leigh, Ricardo Montalban and Robert Vaughn (the latter having appeared the previous season in a different role). The three-disc set also includes a bonus episode from the short-lived 1979 spin-off, Kate Columbo (with Kate Mulgrew as the missus who solves her own mysteries on the side); beyond that, there are no other extras in the collection.

Season: ***

Extras: *1/2

THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM (1945). Gregory Peck made his film debut in 1944's Days of Glory, yet it only took one more movie for him to emerge as a Hollywood star. Twentieth Century Fox took a chance by casting the lanky unknown in this big-budget adaptation of A.J. Cronin's novel, but it was a gamble that paid off: The film proved to be a box office hit and Peck earned the first of his five Best Actor Oscar nominations for his moving performance. He plays Francis Chisholm, a devout (if slightly radical) priest who doesn't find his calling until he's asked to move to a remote area in China to run the local mission. It's a struggle from the start -- and that's even before a civil war places the mission and its inhabitants in danger -- but over the decades, Chisholm perseveres and ends up earning the respect of the locals. With its portrayal of a sincere man of the cloth who believes that good deeds count as much as faith (his best friend is a compassionate atheist played by Thomas Mitchell) and that it's better for people to discover God at their own pace rather than have some zealot attempt to bully them into believing, The Keys of the Kingdom ranks as one of the most truly spiritual movies about Christianity I've ever seen. It's difficult to believe that religious hypocrites like Pat Robertson and George W. Bush would be moved by its examples of Christian charity and benevolence -- more likely, they'd relate to the pompous windbag of a bishop played by Vincent Price -- but I defy anyone else not to be moved by the scene in which a bitter, going-through-the-motions Reverend Mother (Rosa Stradner) finally breaks down in the face of Chisholm's unflappable goodness. DVD extras include audio commentary by film scholar Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz, the son of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who co-wrote and produced the film), and a Gregory Peck trailer gallery.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **

THE OMEN (1976). In a delicious bit of justice, Gus Van Sant's grotesque remake of Psycho earned less in 1998 dollars than Alfred Hitchcock's original made during its 1960 run. That seems to be the same fate awaiting the needless remake of The Omen that's currently slowing down in theaters. The 1976 original earned just over $60 million at the US box office, which 30 years ago qualified it as a blockbuster. The new version looks to end up just shy of that figure, which in 2006 dollars merely qualifies it as a summer also-ran. It's a justifiable end result, since a revisit of the original film on this new two-disc Collector's Edition reveals that it far outpaces the ho-hum update. Here, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick play the American couple (he's a diplomat stationed first in Italy and then in Great Britain) whose adopted son (Harvey Stephens) turns out to be the Antichrist; initially skeptical, they become convinced of his evil nature once those around them become the victims of a series of gruesome deaths. The late, great film composer Jerry Goldsmith earned the only Oscar of his lengthy career (out of 18 nominations) for his atmospheric score -- a key example of music helping to sell the story -- while the exceptionally strong cast lends gravitas to the supernatural proceedings, most memorably David Warner as an inquisitive photographer and Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock, the nanny from hell (literally). Extra features, many held over from the previous one-disc incarnation of the film, include audio commentary by director Richard Donner and editor Stuart Baird, a separate commentary track by Donner and Brian Helgeland (co-scripter of L.A. Confidential, for which Goldsmith provided the score), a discussion with Goldsmith about the film's music, two lengthy documentaries titled 666: The Omen Revealed and The Omen Legacy, the featurette Curse or Coincidence (about the spooky events that occurred during the making of the film), and a deleted scene.

Movie: ***

Extras: ***1/2

YI YI (A ONE AND A TWO ...) (2000). Winner of numerous international awards (including Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics and Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), this Taiwanese import registers as barely a whisper of a film, a soft, muted drama spent in the company of an ordinary family working through their problems in modern-day Taipei. Writer-director Edward Yang had stated that Yi Yi (his seventh film, but the first to have received commercial stateside distribution) is "simply about life," certainly the best way to describe a motion picture that embraces its own humanity at every junction. The family at the core of the story is headed by NJ Jian (a lovely performance by Wu Nienjen), a 45-year-old businessman whose problems at work (he's a partner at a computer company that may soon be facing bankruptcy) pale next to the hardships at home. His mother-in-law suffers a stroke; his harried wife unexpectedly finds religion and takes off on a retreat; his brother-in-law, caught in a sticky situation between his new wife and his ex-girlfriend, has a breakdown; and the first love of his life reemerges on the scene after a 20-year hiatus. Yi Yi runs nearly three hours, and while that may sound like a long stretch for what's basically a talky drama, it's actually the right length for a stirring, sentimental film that needs time to take root and flourish. DVD extras include audio commentary by Yang and Asian-cinema critic Tony Rayns, an interview with Rayns about the New Taiwan Cinema movement, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***1/2

Extras: **1/2

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