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A Little Big Man Called Horse

Cinema Center Films classics arrive on DVD
Plus: Back to the Future DVD update and the Mail Bag

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Back catalog titles seem to be arriving on DVD each passing week by the dozen, and keeping up with them isn't an easy task. You know you've crossed a certain threshold when bombs like "Theodore Rex" with Whoopi Goldberg are primed to be re-issued on DVD -- a moment that five years ago you'd never imagine would come to pass (not that the thought would ever cross your mind, either, but--)

That's why there's reason to celebrate next week as Paramount rolls out a handful of deserving movies from the library of Cinema Center Films -- CBS' theatrical division, which released dozens of movies in the late '60s and early '70s. Among their more popular releases were the Albert Finney perennial "Scrooge," "Snoopy Come Home," and the four titles reviewed below.

This is a noteworthy event because none of the Cinema Center Films catalog has been exploited on DVD to date, and for many years wasn't active at all. CBS/Fox once distributed some of the CCF films on VHS and laserdisc, though many of the studios' finest productions -- like the Steve McQueen classic THE REIVERS -- were never given their proper due, not even on LD.

Out next week (4/29) are three Westerns from the Cinema Center back catalog -- LITTLE BIG MAN, BIG JAKE, and A MAN CALLED HORSE -- plus another McQueen favorite, LE MANS.

All four films were released between 1970 and 1971, and present an interesting contrast in styles and moods, especially the three sagas set in the Old West.

LITTLE BIG MAN (***, 139 mins., 1970, PG-13) is a cult favorite that fans have been clamoring to find on DVD for years. Once available as a so-so looking CBS/Fox widescreen laserdisc, the title has been tough to find for years, never mind in its original Panavision aspect ratio.

The good news is that Paramount's DVD is a marvel, presenting a fully remastered 2.35 transfer (enhanced for those of you with 16:9 televisions) that's often breathtaking. Harry Stradling, Jr.'s cinematography is one of the movie's chief assets, and the source material is in excellent condition given its age. The early stereo soundtrack has also been recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, doing justice on that end as well.

The movie itself is a fascinating mix of satire and comic adventure, building up stereotypes and then ripping them down. As scripted by Calder Willingham from Thomas Berger's novel, LITTLE BIG MAN stars Dustin Hoffman as the only living survivor of Custer's Last Stand, who -- at 121 years old -- narrates his living history to a scholar (William Hickey) anticipating everything to be in black-and-white. What follows thereafter is an often ribald and scathing examination of Hoffman's life, one that's lived between white settlers and Cheyenne Indians, who adopt him as a child and have an agenda of their own.

Directed by Arthur Penn, LITTLE BIG MAN is particularly interesting since it not only paints the whites in an often negative fashion (particularly Richard Mulligan's deranged Custer), but also the Indians as well. This is somewhat surprising, since one might have anticipated the movie to be filled with politically correct sensibilities -- an aspect the material would undoubtedly have had to adhere to today.

Hoffman is excellent, while Faye Dunaway appears as a fervent Christian early on (and later in a far more revealing guise), with Martin Balsam, Jeff Corey, and Chief Dan George lending able support. The movie has an extremely sparse soundtrack by John Hammond that rarely works in the film from a dramatic angle -- it's more like atmospheric source music than a traditional movie score.

After sitting through LITTLE BIG MAN on DVD, the movie felt more like a curiosity to me than a classic film, with radical shifts in tone and an episodic structure that makes for somewhat of a detached viewing experience. On the other hand, those elements are what its fans love about it, so interested viewers are urged to check out Paramount's disc, which presents the film flawlessly at last on DVD.

Somewhat more conventional -- though with some incredibly goofy '70s moments -- is A MAN CALLED HORSE (***, 114 mins., 1970, R), a more commercially successful vehicle that starred Richard Harris in the first of three films about an Englishman who comes to live with and respect the Sioux after being abducted by them.

Elliot Silverstein's film, written by Jack DeWitt, was intended to meticulously recreate the setting of the period and the Sioux way of life, going so far as to recruit National Geographic and other historical societies to ensure the film's authenticity. Harris' fine performance, the look of the picture, and Leonard Rosenman's interesting score make A MAN CALLED HORSE a rock-solid adventure picture, though things go a little -- well, psychedelic, frankly, once Harris is initiated into the tribe during the film's infamous "Sun Vow" sequence.

This gory, sadistic set piece -- which apparently isn't entirely accurate, according to certain historical accounts -- was violent enough to have this formerly PG-rated film re- rated "R" by today's standards. Not only that, but while Harris' Lord John Morgan is tortured to prove his manhood, he begins to hallucinate -- '60s style -- with eye-popping colors and trippy visuals. He's even able to talk to his Sioux bride-to-be (one-time Miss Universe Corinna Tsopei, who's quite easy on the eyes), even though he speaks not one word of their language. It all culminates in a standard action climax, where Harris' colonial training comes in handy during a raid on his tribe's village by a rival Indians.

While most buffs consider "Return of a Man Called Horse" to be a superior film (it was released on DVD last year), A MAN CALLED HORSE is certainly an excellent movie worthy of re-appraisal on DVD. Once again, Paramount's 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) transfer is exemplary, with strong colors and anamorphic framing doing full justice to the film's Panavision cinematography. The 5.1 soundtrack even has a few surround effects, and gives a little more oomph to Rosenman's score than the regular 2.0 soundtrack.

From the satirical edge of "Little Big Man" to the sometimes whacked-out visuals of "A Man Called Horse," we come to a western certainly more in line with the Golden Age: John Wayne's BIG JAKE (***, 109 mins., PG-13, 1971), which stars The Duke in one of his more watchable later vehicles.

Even here, though, the formula has been somewhat shifted to accommodate the needs of audiences in the early '70s: the Harry Julian Fink-R.M. Fink story is set at the tail end of the Old West, with Wayne essaying a rancher whose young grandson is kidnapped by a brutal killer (Richard Boone, in a typically entertaining performance). With his sons in tow, Wayne leaves his wife (a too-brief appearance by Maureen O'Hara) and home behind in an effort to track down Boone and pay off the ransom he's demanding -- and then exact a little revenge while he's at it.

The story and action are standard, but the trappings and engaging performances are what make BIG JAKE worthwhile. The Panavision cinematography is exceptional and the production design evocative of the period. Elmer Bernstein's score, meanwhile, is a gem, with a memorable, rousing main theme helping one overcome the movie's draggier spots. And, of course, there are the performances of Wayne, Boone, and O'Hara, among many familiar western vets who can be glimpsed in supporting roles.

Paramount's DVD is yet another first-class effort. The 2.35 transfer is great and the source material appears to be in pristine condition. Elmer's score is about the only element of the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack to pack a stereophonic presence, but that's only due to the limitations of the early stereo recording.

Finally, Paramount has also issued a great-looking presentation of Steve McQueen's cult fave LE MANS (***, 108 mins., 1971, G), a troubled production that nevertheless looks and sounds great on DVD.

McQueen's pet project, which he intended to make years earlier as "Day of the Champion," saw the star taking the role of a Grand Prix race car driver primarily so he could play around with the actual automobiles used in the event. This lead to squabbles over the movie's insurance, the film's budget spiraling out of control, and McQueen's partner, director John Sturges, walking out while shooting went on and on out (he was ultimately replaced by TV veteran Lee H. Katzin). Harry Kleiner's script, meanwhile, was never finished, and apparently was being re-written each day on set. According to an excellent article on the making of the film, none of Sturges' footage even ended up in the final film, with Katzin and McQueen re-shooting the entire movie from scratch.

Despite all the arguments, technical challenges, and overall hellish aspect of the production, LE MANS ended up being a thrilling pseudo-documentary on the race itself. McQueen and his crew had over a dozen Panavision cameras set up to capture every aspect of the event, which results in some dazzling racing sequences still unsurpassed on- film. Sure, while Sturges' repeated warnings to McQueen that the story wouldn't work turned out to be true (long stretches go by with no dialogue at all in the final cut), the movie actually benefits from the lack of emotional investment one has in the characters. It's all about the moment, Le Mans itself, and from that angle, the movie is one of the top sports films made for its authenticity alone.

Shot in Panavision, LE MANS looks grand -- no pun intended -- on DVD. The 2.35 transfer is crisp and clear, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is the best of this batch due to the utilization of the stereo format in the original recording. Cars veer from one channel to the next, with even a few surround effects employed among Michel Legrand's sparse but effective score.

While none of the Paramount discs include trailers, the overall presentation of the movies compensates for the lack of extras. Obviously the studio went to great care to remaster the films, which haven't been seen for quite some time in their proper aspect ratios.

The great news for movie buffs is that each film looks and sounds perfectly. Hopefully this will be the start of more films from the Cinema Center Films library to follow from the studio -- and by the way, have I mentioned THE REIVERS yet?

Back to the Future Update

Last week the Aisle Seat received the corrected, replacement DVDs for BACK TO THE FUTURE Parts II and III.

As previously reported, II and III were mangled on DVD, with both 1.85 transfers mis-framed with incorrect and/or cropped shots popping up throughout both movies. The framing was way off, and II apparently had an audio glitch to boot.

Universal chose not to recall the BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY DVD set, but did set up an 800 number and return policy for those who bought the release and wanted the corrected discs when they were pressed.

After several months of waiting, the new discs (which are marked by a "V2" designation next to the Universal copyright on the discs themselves) are now available and happily correct the irregularities on the first pressing.
For more information on exchanging your defective discs, click on the original column above.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Robert E. Bowd:

Hi Andy!
I agree with your comments regarding Mychael Danna. I am very fond of Ang Lee's work and his Asian reading of the human condition. Danna is a subtle composer. Recently, I watched ICE STORM, now available as a Fox budget DVD. Danna's Asian- inflected solo flute motif, in the film, captured perfectly the loneliness and alienation depicted in the film. In other words, he scored the inner world of the film's characters. I always felt Joe Harnell captured that element in the TV show, and I was hoping [and suspect, he will] that Lee would take the movie further along that road. Danna, with ICE STORM, has demonstrated a capacity to do subtle... and sparseness, in the spotting of a score. He is a 'less is more' composer.
My hunch is that Lee has made an unconventional, psychologically probing film and the studio execs, once they saw it, panicked that it wasn't enough of a (summer) comic book film - and hired composers, with a known track record, to create that kind of fog for the film. Just a theory, and I could be wrong. Of course, Elfman can do subtle -- Zimmer, less so. I guess we'll know, soon enough.
From Aldo in Italy:
Hi, I'd like to ask you a favour: when you say something negative concerning the works of Danny Elfman or your expectations about them please always use this periphrasis in bold characters, "IN MY HUMBLE OPINION". Don't let anyone believe that your personal thoughts about Mr. Elfman's artistry will be ever close to reality than you or I will be to Cameron Diaz' bedroom--
A word about Spider-man by the person who directed it:

"Calling Elfman's music for Spider-Man 'rousing and uplifting,' director Raimi said, 'I feel like he always waits for the film and the audience to create a feeling together, and I think what Danny does is he gently carries the audience to that next place, but he allows them to do the work. He has the unique ability to create a soul to his music. He's a genius, he really is -- that word can be thrown about, but when you listen to his music and the diversity of it and how successful it is with the images, I don't know if there's a better word to describe him.'"

Reading Sam Raimi's words and yours ("yet in this genre I believe he's exhausted his talent and said all he's needed to. Is Joe Harnell available?") about this argument for two times I asked myself this: does Mr.Raimi owe some money to Mr. Elfman, is he insane, under the effect of some strong drug or is he an idot?

Then I thought:"YES! He's all these things combined! Thank you Mr. Dursin! Thank you for giving me the LIGHT!!!"
Aldo, a fan who believes, "IN HIS HUMBLE OPINION", that Danny Elfman is the best choice for a film like The Hulk and that Danna is a master in low budget, low admissions, low expectations, low everything movies--

Aldo, I'm sorry that you have been under the assumption that The Aisle Seat is factual and not comprised of opinions. On the other hand, just because Sam Raimi gives us quotes about how much he loves Danny Elfman (which I don't for a second doubt that he does), doesn't mean necessarily that SPIDER-MAN is a great score. Nearly EVERY director is bound to say good things about the people he works with. I don't exactly believe he's an objective party on this front. And, in MY OPINION, I think your comments about Danna speak for themselves!

From Tor Y. Harbin:

I've read your "Aisle Seat" column for a long time now, and I've enjoyed it. However, I think that you were way off in reviewing "Futurama's" first season DVD. As a fan of the underappreciated show, I want to say that the characters are endearing and the scripts consistently funny. Are you just discovering the show on DVD, or have you been following it from the beginning, 'cause that might be a factor. Also, Chris Tyng's wonderful music merits a release.

Tor, I readily admit that, aside from an episode fragment here or there, the DVD was the first real time that I sat down and watched "Futurama." Certainly you are not alone in your enjoyment of the show--

From Robert Knaus:

I'm sorry, Andy, but you're severely underrating Matt Groening's wonderful FUTURAMA and grossly *overrating* Seth McFarland's ghastly FAMILY GUY. The former *did* have appealing and funny characters (Zoidberg! Bender! the lovely lady Leela! Zapp Brannigan!), lots of laughs, and beautiful animation, while the latter had gratuitous cruelty (what is funny about a baby who wants to murder his own mother?), lame, LAME pop culture references (oooh, Shatner is a bad actor! Kool-Aid Man! What is this, 1985?) and flat, charmless animation. Anyone who prefers FAMILY GUY to FUTURAMA can bite my shiny metal ass!

NEXT TIME: WALK, DON'T RUN for more catalog favorites, plus e-mail your comments to Excelsior!

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