This week’s big new Blu-ray release is Batman v Superman, so holy Jesus let’s see what else is available: no less than five stellar catalog releases from the likes of King Hu, Alain Resnais, Carl Reiner, Richard Lester, and Danny DeVito, plus the Netflix debut of one of the young year’s most gripping pictures.
The Invitation: A group of friends reunite at a posh home, way up in the Hollywood hills. Tensions are high; there was a messy divorce among them, and the death of a child, and no one quite seems to know what they’re there for, until their hosts start talking about their new way of life. Would you like to hear about it? Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) helms this ruthlessly efficient psychological thriller, which, by adopting the perspective of a single guest (Logan Mashall-Green’s Will), keeps slipping out of your grasp – everything can be read either as either sinister or innocuous, so you’re never quite sure if he’s wise or paranoid. That unsteadiness and dread underlines every scene, right up to its white-knuckle ending.
A Touch of Zen: Taiwanese writer/director King Hu’s 1971 masterpiece (newly added to the Criterion Collection) is a combination ghost story, character study, human comedy, and, most of all, wuxia epic. In fact, the first action sequence doesn’t come until nearly an hour in – but it’s a doozy, and Hu’s fiercely energetic set pieces keep topping themselves, somehow both rough-edged and magnificently choreographed. Balletic in movement and ingenious in execution, the action beats are both inventive and influential, but never solely at the service of themselves; Hu fills the scenes between them with lyrical notes of guilt, regret, and salvation. Stunning, intelligent, and sumptuous. (Includes new interviews, documentary, and trailer.)
Night and Fog: Not many short films are given the stand-alone Criterion treatment, but then again, not many short films are as staggering this 1955 Holocaust contemplation from director Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad). Taking his color cameras to the remains of concentration camps, he considers these sites as found objects and architectural artifacts as well as destinations of death; he adopts a deceptively simple approach, describing the logistics of these operations in such a way that the smallest details prove the most chilling. Thanks to his thoughtful narration and haunting images, Night and Fog is compact, often poetic, and altogether horrifying. (Includes new and archival interviews and full-length documentary.)
Where’s Poppa?: Carl Reiner’s 1970 black comedy is so gleefully nasty, so unapologetically offensive, it recalls his pal Mel Brooks’s defense of The Producers’ vulgarity: “My film rises below vulgarity.” George Segal is the embodiment of ‘70s white collar New York id – horny, bitter, and bloodthirsty – who wants nothing more than for his nutso senile mother (Ruth Gordon, terrific) to die so he can live a normal life, instead of a domestic nightmare wherein he introduces her to a new romantic prospect with the instructions, “If you mess this one up, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out.” (Second most memorable line: “Get away from that door or I’m gonna choke your child.”) Reiner and screenwriter Robert Klane (Weekend at Bernie’s) occasionally go too far, and end up with moments that, to put it mildly, haven’t aged so well. But it’s an edgy, mean, and frequently uproarious piece of work, and the audacity of that closing long shot is still a hoot. (Includes alternate ending, teasers, and trailer.)
Cuba: Richard Lester’s mostly forgotten 1979 historical drama is set on the eve of – and later during – the fall of Havana that concluded the Cuban Revolution. Lester’s direction is richly atmospheric if a little languid early on, but for good reason. He creates a leisurely tempo, to mirror the lackadaisical way of life among the island’s rich and powerful; when the bursts of violence break out, they jolt, and when the revolutionaries arrive, it feels like they’re taking the movie over too. Sean Connery is aces, moving through this world, sizing things up, and ruffling the occasional feather, though his centerpiece romance with Brooke Adams is a bit of a dud (and she’s one of several characters to engage in some rather embarrassing brownface acting). But as a Godfather II-esque snapshot of this moment of chaos – and all the desperation, anarchy, and opportunism that comes with it – it’s tip-top. (No special features.)
The Ratings Game: Danny DeVito made his feature directorial debut with this 1984 made-for-Showtime movie about a New Jersey trucker (DeVito) and his unlikely transition to Hollywood power player. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what was still, basically, a three-network operation; DeVito absolutely nails the style of the cheery promos and terrible, hooting, high-concept shows that filled their airwaves. But its satire of the silliness of the sample-family ratings system has, sadly, barely aged at all, and its central premise of wiseguys manipulating that system is still delicious. Real-life love Rhea Perlman is terrific as his romantic interest; their real affection is palpable, and gives the picture an unexpected lift. It’s a tad overlong and a few elements (particularly Vincent Schiavelli’s swishy interior decorator) are pretty cringe-y, but there’s an awful lot to like here. (Includes four early DeVito shorts, deleted scenes, a featurette, and original TV promo spot.)