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New on Disc: An Action-Packed Double Feature and more …

7 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Butch & Sundance: The Early Days/Death Hunt (Double Feature)

Shout! Factory/Vivendi, Action, $14.93 DVD, NR.
Stars Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Tom Berenger, William Katt.
This harmless pairing is just another night at the drive-in — the kind of time-passers that might have made you want to build a drive-in just to show them, as long as you didn’t spend too much money on it.
Butch & Sundance: The Early Days (1979) is one of the first movies I can recall for which the dreadful term “prequel” was used and even utilized as a sales tool — a full 10 years (minus just a few months) after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which at the time seemed like a foolhardy time span. That it remains a respectable undertaking and certainly no disgrace isn’t quite the same as saying that this was a movie that needed to be made, but it did give some work to the great Richard Lester when his eccentric sensibilities were starting to make a him less of an obvious candidate for the kind of films that were then getting made.
Death Hunt (1981) features Lee Marvin as a Royal Mountie out in the Yukon, called to duty after Charles Bronson begins shooting at marauding thugs from inside his log cabin. From the beginning, we’re on Bronson’s side after he opens the film by rescuing a canine from a Michael Vick kind of dog fight. Marvin is only fulfilling his job description by chasing Bronson, and the two develop a wary bond.
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American Experience: Panama Canal — Gateway to the American Century

Street 2/8
PBS, Documentary, $24.99 DVD, NR.
The raw figures after the Panama Canal was completed were $350 million (the largest federal expenditure up to that time) and 5,000 human deaths, plus the fatalities of who knows how many mosquitoes and their larvae. The last was an attempt to eradicate the yellow fever that was the most serious obstruction to a project that had already licked the French. A lot of “American Experience” presentations run an hour, but some of them go to 90 minutes or even two hours. This expert telling is in the 90-minute range, which is mandatory — if only to give a sense of time of a project that spanned 1904 to 1914. This rendering uses illustrations, photos and, from the final stages, even early moving pictures to tell this incredible story. Side (but hardly tangential) issues touched upon are: railroad construction that made it possible to haul away all the dug-up dirt, the building of a necessary dam to lick the flooding issue, the racism involved in the treatment of the project’s massive West Indies work pool, and the brainstorm of the “locks” system that made success possible — an amazing engineering feat in and of itself.
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The Reluctant Debutante

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Warner, Comedy, $19.95 DVD, NR.
Stars Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, Angela Lansbury.
Though it’s one of those upper-crust comedies where the characters say “darling” and “divine” a lot, the second of Vincente Minnelli’s three movies in what turned out to be a banner year has more than a little in common with the director’s perennially popular Father of the Bride. The great casting coup here is one of the things that probably limited Debutante’s commercial chances in the United States: the brilliant pairing of then real-life marrieds Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall as a British lawyer and second wife dealing with banker Harrison’s American (and American-ized) teen daughter in that then-dying Brit milieu of debutante coming-out “season.” The two are perfect — and their performances are perfectly in synch. The other performance it’s easy to take for granted is Angela Lansbury’s as a motor-mouthed friend. For Minnelli, this comedy was sandwiched between two triumphs that did much better at the box office: Gigi (which went on to win the Oscar) and Some Came Running.
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