CRUMB (1995). Can art literally save a life? That's the question posed — and answered — in Terry Zwigoff's fascinating documentary about Robert Crumb, the famous (or should that be infamous?) cartoonist who gave the world such counterculture touchstones as Fritz the Cat and the "Keep On Truckin'" images. More than just a character study, however, this picture contrasts the peculiar, controversial artist with his two even more dysfunctional brothers (one of whom, Charles, committed suicide between the making of the film and its release) and shows with amazing clarity how the channeling of Robert's talents into a productive career perennially kept madness on the outside looking in. Along with the previous year's Hoop Dreams and a couple of others, this was one of the films most responsible for the eventual overhauling of the Academy rules governing the selection of the Best Documentary nominees: After pulling off the incredibly rare feat of winning Best Documentary from all four major critics' groups (along with the top prize at Sundance), this failed to earn an Oscar nomination, followed by the scandalous revelation that the (mostly) old fogies on the Academy documentary committee didn't even bother to finish watching it.
DVD extras in Criterion's new edition include audio commentary by Zwigoff; a separate audio commentary by Zwigoff and Roger Ebert; and close to an hour of unused footage.
DEATH AT A FUNERAL (2010). A remake of a film that was released a mere three years ago (wow, that was quick; what's coming out next week, a remake of this past March's Hot Tub Time Machine?), director Neil LaBute and writer Dean Craig scuttle the British setting of 2007's Death at a Funeral in order to stamp this with a "Made In USA" label. The result is a perfectly pleasant piffle, a comedy that fails to produce many big laughs but knows how to parcel out its small ones at an acceptable clip. Still, this isn't half as uproarious as LaBute's ill-fated remake of The Wicker Man, a bomb whose unintentional laughs continue to delight viewers via well-spliced YouTube compilations. But I digress. Death at a Funeral focuses on the events surrounding the laying to rest of a well-respected man who leaves behind a wide assortment of friends and family members. Among the ranks of the bereaved is his oldest son Aaron (Chris Rock), who's forced to shoulder the entire cost of the funeral since he can't count on his successful yet irresponsible brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence). But Aaron's issues with Ryan take a back seat when a stranger (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original) arrives at the funeral home hoping to blackmail the siblings over their father's extracurricular activities. A true ensemble piece, this suffers when humor takes a back seat to drama — for example, the plotline involving a slick businessman's (Luke Wilson) attempts to win back the deceased's niece (Avatar's Zoe Saldana) adds nothing. But the picture is breezy enough to always get back on track fairly quick, and there are some nice comic moments from Danny Glover as a cantankerous uncle, Tracy Morgan as a perpetually nervous acquaintance, and James Marsden as Saldana's boyfriend, whose accidental ingestion of hallucinogens leads to some madcap mishaps.
DVD extras include audio commentary by LaBute and Rock; a 20-minute making-of featurette; seven deleted scenes; and a 3-minute gag reel.
ERROL FLYNN COLLECTION (1942-1945). The fourth Errol Flynn box set from Warner Bros. — following two Signature Collections and the Westerns Collection — could have been more specifically named Errol Flynn War Collection, since all five titles find the dashing actor doing his part to take down the Axis threat during World War II.
Desperate Journey (1942) gets the collection off to a rousing start, as the members of a bomber squad find themselves trapped behind enemy lines after their plane is shot down over Germany. Flynn headlines as the leader of the group, Ronald Reagan (a better actor than president, and take that as you will) adds spirited support as his right-hand man, and Raymond Massey plays the Nazi heavy. The picture's airborne sequences earned it an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects.
Edge of Darkness (1943) — not to be confused with this year's failed attempt to resurrect Mel Gibson's destroyed career — proves in many ways to be an atypical WWII film, unfolding as methodically as a good book as it recounts the efforts of Norwegian villagers to strike back against the Nazis following the invasion of their country. A brave fisherman (Flynn) fronts the underground movement; joining him is his girlfriend (Ann Sheridan), whose father (Walter Huston) is reluctant to aid the cause, whose mother (Ruth Gordon) is clueless about what's going on, and whose brother (John Beal) has already betrayed his countrymen once and therefore can't be trusted.
Northern Pursuit (1943) moves the battle to Canada, with Flynn playing a Mountie of German lineage. Despite his credentials and competence, his superiors worry that his loyalties might be torn once he comes into contact with a Nazi officer (Helmut Dantine, also in Edge of Darkness) who's arrived in Canada on a secret mission. Colorful characters and plenty of snowbound action easily overshadow the implausibility of it all.
Uncertain Glory (1944) is the weakest movie in the set, though it's not without entertainment value. Flynn stars as Jean Picard, a murderer and thief who, after getting captured by his adversary Inspector Bonet (Paul Lukas), makes a pitch to the pensive detective: Since he's facing execution anyway, he'll pretend to be the saboteur the Germans seek so that they'll release the 100 French villagers that they're planning to kill. Even accepting this whopper of a premise won't prepare viewers for the unlikely ending.
Objective, Burma! (1945) is the closest thing this collection has to a genuine classic — perhaps its stature will continue to grow as more time passes. A three-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Story, Best Film Editing and Best Music Score, this has more in common with the modern war flicks of Spielberg and Eastwood than with many of the jingoistic titles of yesteryear, as propaganda is kept to a minimum in exchange for more time spent on the grueling horrors of war. Flynn plays the officer in charge of a group of paratroopers who carry out a mission deep in the jungles of Burma, only to find it near-impossible to leave the area as the occupying Japanese forces bear down on them. A hit stateside, this was banned in England for seven years, as the Brits were outraged that the movie ignored their contributions in Burma and made it seem as if the Americans were the only heroes in that particular campaign.
Each disc includes the beloved "Warner Night at the Movies" package: newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and trailers can be found before each feature film. Objective, Burma! also includes audio commentary by a trio of film historians.
Desperate Journey: ***
Edge of Darkness: ***1/2
Northern Pursuit: ***
Uncertain Glory: **1/2
Objective, Burma!: ***1/2