Joanne Nail in Switchblade Sisters (Photo: Arrow)

(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

(Photo: IndiePix)

AMBUSHED (1988). The IndiePix Films label has just introduced a new DVD line titled Retro Afrika, and the initial three offerings should prove irresistible to film fans always on the hunt for something obscure. How obscure? IMDb, the place to look up any and all movies, only has one of the three movies listed on its site; there’s nary a mention anywhere of the other two films, to say nothing of their directors and cast members. These films all hail from South Africa and were created during the apartheid era by black filmmakers seeking to offer entertainment to audiences that were largely being ignored. Ambushed, that lone IMDb entry, is a good example of the type of DIY action flicks that were being produced, with a game ranger on the trail of a group of army deserters who have kidnapped his wife and son. Ambushed is lacking in the niceties usually found in more polished pictures, but it’s a fascinating peek at another facet of international cinema. As for the other two titles (both released in 1985), Faceless Man focuses on an innocent guy who helps a corrupt cop with a murder investigation, while Run for Your Life finds two friends trying to outwit a notorious drug lord.

All three films (each sold separately) are in Zulu with English subtitles. There are no extras on the DVDs.

Movie: ★★½

Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 (Photo: Warner Archive)

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 (1940). The success of 1929’s The Broadway Melody — it was the year’s biggest moneymaker and nabbed the Oscar for Best Picture — led to three more Broadway Melody movies, of which this was the fourth and final one. It was a fine way for the franchise to end, as it marked the only screen teaming of dancing sensations Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. Astaire plays Johnny Brett, trapped in a dead-end musical act with his friend King Shaw (George Murphy, later the U.S. Senator from California). Good fortune strikes when Johnny is tapped to tap dance in a lavish Broadway production opposite stage star Clare Bennett (Powell), but, wouldn’t you know it, a mix-up leads to King landing the gig instead. Rather than straighten out the matter, Johnny nobly allows his pal to remain in the job and reap the benefits, but he can’t help it when he begins to fall for the show’s leading lady. Cole Porter contributes a handful of tunes, with the showstopper being the climactic presentation of “Begin the Beguine” — sung and staged not once but twice. The first interpretation is fine, but it’s the second performance, with Astaire and Powell tapping their hearts out, that qualifies as movie magic.

Blu-ray extras include the featurette Cole Porter in Hollywood (hosted by Ann Miller, it actually covers Porter and Powell and Astaire and this film’s production); the 1940 Our Gang short The Big Premiere; and the Oscar-winning 1940 cartoon The Milky Way.

Movie: ★★★

Dave Chappelle in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Photo: Mill Creek)

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (2006).​ It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary, a music concert, and a stand-up act all rolled into one. Dave Chappelle, who amusingly states that he’s mediocre at both comedy and music yet able to make a fortune nonetheless, elects to head to his Dayton, Ohio, hometown; there, he hands out golden tickets (similar to those given out by “wee Willy Wonka,” as he calls him) to attend his block party in Brooklyn. Chappelle invites everyone from young black dudes to elderly white women to attend his shindig, which turns out to be a celebration of hip-hop music; among those taking part in the musical mirth are Mos Def, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Common, Kanye West, and the reunited The Fugees. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, not so much directed as observed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), salutes African-American culture and unity while at the same time exhibiting an exalted openness that makes it clear everyone’s invited to take part in the merriment. The ego-free camaraderie between the featured performers is nice to witness, bringing to mind the rapport between the heavyweight musicians in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 concert film The Last Waltz. The comic material is spotty — some cracks work better than others — but the sizzling concert performances are the primary attraction anyway.

There are no Blu-ray extras.

Movie: ★★★

Doctor X (Photo: Warner Archive)

DOCTOR X (1932). A pre-Code sensibility combined with the eerie look of early two-strip Technicolor add up to a rather grisly chiller in which the police frantically search for a madman who has been terrorizing New York City. This psychopath not only engages in murder but also cannibalism, but the cops catch a break when they are able to trace him back to the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). Is Doctor X the killer, or is it one of the other four doctors who conduct their research at the institute? Stylishly directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Doctor X showcases a visual scheme that hints at German expressionism through the remarkable sets by Anton Grot and the startling makeup design by Max Factor (“Synthetic flesh!”). The film was so successful at the box office that Warner quickly reunited Curtiz, Atwill and co-star Fay Wray (cast as Dr. Xavier’s daughter) for 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (reviewed here), which opened a mere six months after Doctor X.

The Blu-ray edition from the Warner Archive Collection contains both the two-strip Technicolor version as well as the black-and-white version that was filmed for smaller U.S. cities and international markets (as they often did not have Technicolor screening capabilities). Extras include film historian audio commentary; the featurette The Horror Films of Michael Curtiz; and a before and after restoration reel.

Movie: ★★★

Robbie Lee in Switchblade Sisters (Photo: Arrow)

SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1975). It didn’t last long, but Rolling Thunder Pictures was the distribution arm Harvey Weinstein gifted to Quentin Tarantino after the latter’s Pulp Fiction made millions for Miramax Films. Before it folded, Tarantino used the branch to release a half-dozen recommended films from various eras; these included 1977’s Mighty Peking Man (reviewed here), 1994’s Chungking Express (reviewed here), and this drive-in fodder from the mid-1970s. Directed by Jack Hill (Spider Baby, reviewed here), Switchblade Sisters is low-rent fun, featuring such exploitation staples as feuding street gangs, a spunky blond heroine with a Farrah Fawcett ‘do (Joanne Nail), a radical black outfit with army surplus at its disposal, and, of course, the hefty lesbian warden (Kate Murtagh) who wants to be “good friends” with the stridently heterosexual inmates. This is largely amateur hour in terms of the acting, although Robbie Lee, as the leader of the pack, has an infectious personality to compensate for her dismal line readings. One would be tempted to state that this ain’t Shakespeare, except it kinda is — with a treacherous second-in-command (Monica Gayle) causing trouble between Nail’s Maggie and Lee’s Lace, it’s no wonder Hill has stated in interviews that Othello served as one of his inspirations.

Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; an archival making-of piece; and a 2007 interview with Hill and Nail.

Movie: ★★½

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s