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Reviews Written by
Erik North (San Gabriel, CA USA)

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Ein Heldenleben / Metamorphosen
Ein Heldenleben / Metamorphosen
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5.0 out of 5 stars Blomstedt, San Francisco, And Strauss, July 17 2004
Under Herbert Blomstedt's 1985-1995 tenure as its music director, the San Francisco Symphony attained the same kind of world-class status that its bigger neighbor to the south, the L.A. Philharmonic, already had. One composer that the orchestra and its conductor were especially successful at was Richard Strauss. They made three recordings of Strauss' symphonic tone poems, of which this 1992 pairing of the gigantic (and brazenly autobiographical) "Ein Heldenleben" and the hugely mournful "Metamorphosen" is one.
Taking his experience of having conducted Strauss while principal conductor of Strauss' favorite orchestra, the Dresden State Orchestra, Blomstedt leads the San Francisco Symphony in an immensely entertaining, dramatic, and blazing account of "Ein Heldenleben" that is almost certainly one of the best ever made by a non-European ensemble. The feeling one gets is not only making himself into a hero (given that this piece uses Beethoven's "Eroica" key of E Flat Major very prominently), but also arming himself against the critics that he often had to deal with after the work's premiere in 1898.
The final work, "Metamorphosen", a study for 23 solo string players composed in 1945, is the work of a Strauss who was not only nearly half a century older than when he composed "Ein Heldenleben", but had also seen all the opera and orchestral stages he loved demolished in World War II. His anguish is made crystal-clear in this haunting piece, given great life by the S.F.S.O.'s string section.
All in all, both a hugely entertaining (for "Ein Heldenleben") and emotionally moving (for "Metamorphosen") recording to look out for.

V.3: American Series; Symphony
V.3: American Series; Symphony
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars African-American Composers In The Spotlight, July 17 2004
Two great African-American composers of the 20th century--William Grant Still (1895-1978) and the legendary "Sir" Duke Ellington (1899-1974)--have one work each spotlighted on this fine Chandos recording.
Still's "Afro-American" symphony--the Symphony No. 1--has the distinction of being perhaps the first symphony by an African-American ever to be performed by a major symphony orchestra (composer and conductor Howard Hanson led the work's world premiere in 1931 with the Rochester Philharmonic). It is a work that is very much a part of the composer's background, with its roots in jazz and the blues, and is every bit as American as the great works of Copland and Gershwin, though its symphonic structure is also very much along the lines of Brahms and Beethoven.
Duke Ellington, meanwhile, gets onto this recording via his 1970 ballet music for "The River", which was commissioned by Alvin Ailey's dance company. Though known as one of the premiere American jazz geniuses of all times, Ellington could also compose for symphonic orchestra (his total number of works is at least 2,000); and this work, which depicts the natural course of a river, is a wonderful and energetic piece.
Both Still's and Ellington's works are not all that well known, but are given first rate performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi. As they had done with the music of French composers under Paul Paray in the 1950s/early 1960s, and with 20th century music from composers like Copland and Richard Strauss under Antal Dorati in the late 70s/early 80s, the orchestra during Jarvi's tenure has been a strong advocate of African-American composers and their works, and this is a prime example of that. Well worth looking for and listening to.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Allison At The Top Of Her Game, May 21 2004
This review is from: Duel (Audio CD)
Having received virtually no joy from country radio to date, Allison Moorer not only took leave of the big labels for the rootsier confines of Sugar Hill Records, but she also took a harder approach to her music with her new release THE DUEL. A huge rock influence pervades this entire album, as does a new sophistication to her songwriting, albeit an arguably cynical and dark tone.
Allison hasn't completely forsaken her country roots as can be demonstrated on the steel-laden "One On The House", though even here the feel of the song is closer to James Taylor's "Bartender's Blues" than to any of today's standard-issue Nashville drinking songs. It helps that Allison's smoky R&B-influenced voice is as good as it is. Probably as gutsy a song as she could have ever written is the sardonic "All Aboard", which takes an underhanded swipe at the rampant far right-wing post-9/11 jingoism, even utilizing some of the right's own language ("and if you don't love it, you can leave") only to throw it back on them. Doubtless that this means Allison will get even less airplay at country radio now than the minuscule airplay she's gotten in the past, but it seems like she's gone past the point of caring there.
Those two cuts go along with nine other fine examples of Allison's merging of alternative country with R&B-influenced classic rock and show conclusively that there's a lot more to her than being Kid Rock's first sidekick on "Picture" or the kid sister to Shelby Lynne. THE DUEL is an album that demands to be taken seriously, as does Allison herself.

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5.0 out of 5 stars The Master's Last Psychological Thriller, April 27 2004
This review is from: Frenzy (VHS Tape)
For the first time in twenty-plus years, Alfred Hitchcock returned to his native England to make what turned out to be his final psychological thriller FRENZY. Despite a series of only modestly successful films since his 1963 triumph with THE BIRDS, Hitchcock had not lost his touch when he was handed Anthony Shaffer's fine screenplay (based on the Arthur LaBern book "Goodbye Picadilly, Farewell Leicester Square"). And although his approach to sex and violence is more explicit here (thanks to the ease in censorship restrictions that happened only a few years before), Hitchcock still delivers a film quite typical of his work--suspenseful, chilling, and often quite funny in a blackly humorous way.
The film revolves around a series of grisly strangulations of women occurring around London that have the police totally baffled. The killer's choice is a necktie, which pretty much leaves the door wide-open, since almost every man there wears a necktie. We are then introduced to Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) an ex-RAF officer and divorcee who has this tendency to drink too often and get a little bit too rough with people, including his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). The only real solace he gets is from his friend Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), a fruits-and-vegetables salesman in Covent Garden. What Finch doesn't realize, however, is that Foster is, in fact, the necktie strangler. And when Leigh-Hunt is found strangled in her office, the police, having interviewed her secretary, who had heard Finch arguing with her violently only half an hour before she was killed, immediately suspect and later arrest Finch, while Foster gets away. But an alert detective (Alec McCowen) suspects that there is something to Finch's story that could prove him innocent of the crimes.
Although it was only a moderate hit here in America, owing to an all-British cast (all of whom are extremely good), and also quite controversial because of the grisly nature of Foster's strangulation of Leigh-Hunt, FRENZY is nevertheless a brilliant movie, far more concise and better plotted than many of today's serial-killer films of this day. Foster's performance is extremely complex; instead of the typical mad-dog killer, he is a suave businessman with a thing for women--for seducing and then strangling them. Finch's performance is, by necessity, less sympathetic so as to keep the audience off-balance, thinking that he is indeed the killer.
And unlike too many pseudo-Hitchcock films of our time, FRENZY has moments of dry British wit and morbid dark comedy. One involves two policemen chatting in a bar about the killings, where one remarks, "We haven't had a good murder since (Agatha) Christie", and that such a spree "is always good for tourism." Another involves Foster having to get an incriminating piece of evidence off of the corpse of one of his female victims in a potato truck--and he has to actually break off her fingers to do it. Hitchcock later said, "The remarkable thing about that scene is how it improved the taste of the potatoes." Still another is McCowen enduring the "gourmet cooking" of his dotty wife (Vivien Merchant).
A superior piece from one of the all-time great directors, a man who was an influence on everyone from DePalma to Spielberg and beyond, FRENZY is a disturbing but always intriguing horror opus well worth re-discovering.

The Sugarland Express
The Sugarland Express

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On The Road To SUGARLAND, March 19 2004
This review is from: The Sugarland Express (VHS Tape)
It was thirty years ago this very month that Steven Spielberg made his official big-screen directing debut (his 1971 film DUEL being an excellent made-for-TV offering) with THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS. Even at this early stage in his career, Spielberg's directoral instincts were extremely sharp, and his concentration on the characters is masterful. It's amazing how people sell Spielberg short in this area simply because so many of his films seem to be all about special effects and gee-whiz heroics.
Loosely based on events that occurred in Texas in the spring of 1969, the film stars Goldie Hawn as an ex-con mother who springs her reluctant husband (William Atherton) from a prison farm so they can get their infant son back from a foster family that has refused to return custody to Hawn. But when they hijack a Texas state trooper (Michael Sachs) and force him to driver them to the town of Sugarland, they attract far more attention than they bargained for: mass media, hundreds of onlookers, and nearly half of the total number of law enforcement officers in Texas. Veteran character actor Ben Johnson is the lead lawman in this relatively slow-speed chase, occasionally punctuated by redneck sniper gunfire, who sympathizes with Hawn's and Atherton's plight but who also must still perform his duties. It all comes to a climax at Sugarland with a jarring result.
Although made for relatively little money (just three million, as opposed to the tens of millions Spielberg would spend on his films in ensuing decades), THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS was still only a modest box office hit. Part of that could be attributed to audiences' expectations of seeing Hawn in a frothy comedy following her turn on TV's "Laugh-In" and instead getting a real live actress with intensity. And part of it could also be attributed to the fact that this film's ending isn't exactly sweetness and light. Still, Hawn's performance here is arguably the best she ever gave on the big screen, and Atherton and Sachs do good turns. Equally reliable is Johnson, remembered for his Oscar-winning turn in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 classic THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, but also as a familiar presence in the westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah.
Filmed completely on location in Texas, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS features great cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, taut editing from Verna Fields, and an excellent Americana score by John Williams (his first for Spielberg). It is a film that can be enjoyed many times over, as is the case for almost everything Spielberg has ever done.

Sin City Very Best Of The
Sin City Very Best Of The
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4.0 out of 5 stars Sin City Special, March 12 2004
Formed by ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman in 1968, the Flying Burrito Brothers helped to bridge the gap between country and rock audiences at a time when youth felt that country music was hayseed and the rednecks looked upon the hippies as Communists. Onstage, thanks to the copious amounts of drugs they took, they could be wildly erratic--sometimes superb, sometimes downright atrocious. But the two albums they made with Gram--the 1969 masterpiece THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN, and the lesser-known 1970 album BURRITO DELUXE--have now been combined on this 78 minute-long compilation album, along with three tracks that didn't appear on those albums originally.
The band never had anything close to what might be called a hit (GILDED PALACE, though now acknowledged as a classic, could only manage a miserable #164 on the album chart), but they came up with songs and a style that has endured over four decades. The erratic sound quality of the original LPs has been improved upon in the remastering here, and we get to hear much more clearly the acid fuzz-tone steel of "Wheels" and the Everlys-like harmonies of Parsons and Hillman on the immortal "Sin City", to name just two. The collection also includes a cover of the 1963 Dave Dudley anthem "Six Days On The Road", which the band did at the infamous Altamont Speedway debacle of December 1969. From BURRITO DELUXE, we get the twangy Stones cover "Wild Horses" and the Cajun-influenced "Man In The Fog", co-written by future Eagle Bernie Leadon, among others.
The Burritos were wildly ahead of their time, not merely in the way their style predated Poco and the Eagles, but also the alternative country movement of later decades. This, combined with their original erratic performances, is what kept them from being recognized for their achievements on record until only recently. This compilation album shows quite well just what the world of the late 60s and early 70s overlooked that first time around.

Carrie [Import]
Carrie [Import]
2 used & new from CDN$ 59.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Problematic Remake Of A 1976 Horror Masterpiece, Feb. 13 2004
This review is from: Carrie [Import] (VHS Tape)
Like a good number of remakes of classic movies, especially in the horror genre, the 2002 NBC-TV remaking of CARRIE is a problematic film. The basic allure of Stephen King's first novel, which touches on religious fanaticism, high school fascism, and telekinesis, is as relevant now as it was in 1976, when Brian DePalma's film was released. Even a good premise, however, can be derailed by mediocre execution, as was the case in the TV remake of THE SHINING or in the 1999 "sequel" THE RAGE: CARRIE 2.
Angela Bettis does a good enough job as the tormented Carrie White. Given that she has some pretty big shoes to fill, namely those of Sissy Spacek who had received an Oscar nod for the role in 1976, I think Bettis does better than most. Patricia Clarkson is fair as the unglued Margaret White, although her low-key insanity still might make one pine for Piper Laurie's extremist performance in the first film.
But for me, what undid this film were not only the many politically correct cosmetic changes to the identities of her torturing classmates (the Sue Snell character is African-American here), but the fact that the bucket of blood scene is poorly done. When it's poured on Bettis, it just looks like what it is--red syrup. In the original, when the blood hits Spacek, it slams into her like a tidal wave (thanks to DePalma's slow motion), creating such an emotional impact that caused that film to transcend the mere boundaries of horror.
The CARRIE remake is thus forever in the shadow of the original, even as Bettis' performance stands on its own. It is an okay film, even for TV; but for a true combination of horror and drama, the 1976 original is still the one to watch.

Thousand Heroes [Import]
Thousand Heroes [Import]

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Miracle In Sioux City, Feb. 8 2004
The 1992 TV film A THOUSAND HEROES (which first aired as CRASH LANDING: THE RESCUE OF FLIGHT 232) recounts the events of July 19, 1989, when United Airlines Flight 232, enroute from Denver to Chicago, suffered a catastrophic engine explosion in mid-flight, which totally disabled its ability to stay airborne. Captain Al Haynes was forced to bring United 232 in for a very hard landing at Sioux City Airport in Iowa. The plane blew up and came apart on impact. But in one of the most miraculous outcomes ever, of the 289 passengers and crew onboard, more than 180 managed to survive the horrific ordeal.
With the exceptions of some slight dramatizations, A THOUSAND HEROES remains true to the essence of the story. Both veteran director Lamont Johnson and screenwriter Harve Bennett (STAR TREK III) are aided by a solid enough cast. Charlton Heston is quite good as the heroic Al Haynes (even if his being cast here seems a bit predictable). James Coburn scores as the tough-as-nails Sioux City airport emergency official who manages to get his team on the tarmac in time; and Richard Thomas, though he doesn't completely escape his "John Boy" image from "The Waltons", also does good work as the green rookie of Coburn's team.
A story as true as this with a miracle finish would seem tailor-made for the movies, and A THOUSAND HEROES works in that fashion. But we also see how Haynes and his crew managed to handle their in-flight emergency like the professionals they were, and how the Sioux City ground crew prepared for the kind of emergency that no airport, however big or small, would ever want to have on their hands. It is a movie well worth seeing for the cast and, most importantly, for this miraculous true story of survival.

Star Chamber [Import]
Star Chamber [Import]
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Judges, Jurors, And Executioners, Feb. 8 2004
This review is from: Star Chamber [Import] (VHS Tape)
Michael Douglas portrays an idealistic L.A. County superior court judge who finds himself in a cabal of judges known as THE STAR CHAMBER, in this 1983 film of the same name directed and co-written by Peter Hyams (OUTLAND; CAPRICORN ONE; 2010). His character is frustrated about letting criminals go scot-free on charges ranging from kidnapping to murder because of technicalities; even though the evidence would clearly put these thugs on ice, improper procedures by the police force Douglas to obey the letter of the law and dismiss them.
But he gets a look into this Star Chamber cabal from his mentor (Hal Holbrook, good as ever), where he and seven other judges, plus Douglas now, pass judgment on and later find and execute the criminals. In essence, this Star Chamber consists of judges so fed up with the System that they resort to vigilantism. Douglas, however, doesn't see this particular cabal as the answer, and he has to struggle with this dichotomy.
In a twisted sort of way, this seems like the 1973 Dirty Harry film MAGNUM FORCE as reimagined by John Grisham (though this was years before Grisham was ever widely known). But I think the film, though imperfect in places, makes it clear that a private cabal of judges deciding on the violent punishment of criminals who slip through on technicalities is no better (and realistically far worse) than a flawed prosecution in a real court of law. We may think the justice system is slanted so heavily in favor of the criminals, but that's only because that one day, through some weird twists of fate, we too may find ourselves in the position of the criminals.
Douglas and Holbrook are well-matched here, and Hyams' direction, aided by his co-screenwriter Roderick Taylor, brings out some good points in a somewhat flawed but otherwise well-done courtroom drama that is in need of a revival.

GP / Grievous Angel
GP / Grievous Angel
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4.0 out of 5 stars Cosmic Americana, Jan. 30 2004
This review is from: GP / Grievous Angel (Audio CD)
He preferred to call what he did "Cosmic American Music." But as a short-lived member of the Byrds, founder of the groundbreaking Flying Burrito Brothers, and the doomed Hank Williams of the hippie generation, the late Gram Parsons was really the Godfather of what we now call the Americana movement. Dismissing the "country-rock" name-tag placed on his projects, he sought to bring his love for traditional country and soul music together with his taste for rock and roll. And now, both of his solo albums--1973's GP, and 1974's GRIEVOUS ANGEL--are finally on one single CD, exposing Gram for the obvious, if tragically flawed, genius that he was.
Both albums served not only to spotlight his imperfect but emotional voice, but they also shone the spotlight on a young Birmingham, Alabama native by the name of Emmylou Harris, who proved to be the perfect foil for Gram's approach. Among his own original songs (such as "Still Feeling Blue", "How Much I've Lied", and the immortal "Hickory Wind"), we get juicy covers of the J. Geils Band's "Cry One More Time", Tom T. Hall's "I Can't Dance", the Louvin Brothers standard "Cash On The Barrelhead", and "Love Hurts" (originally recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960).
Besides Emmylou, Gram assembled a cadre of musicians to help him, including many (Glen Hardin; James Burton; Ronnie Tutt) that also served as Elvis' sidemen and who would later serve as part of Emmylou's Hot Band. Country-rock veterans Alan Munde, Bernie Leadon (formerly of the Burritos, and at that time a member of the Eagles) and Al Perkins also lent their instrumental virtuosity. And on the final track, the prescient "In My Hour Of Darkness", Gram paired Emmylou on harmonies with Linda Ronstadt, thus setting in motion a friendship between the two songstresses that continues to this very day.
Gram was unfortunately done in by booze and drugs; and the aftermath of his untimely passing is now the stuff of macabre legend. But his genius is ably displayed on this recording, which should be considered essential by anyone with a taste for the unconventional, which Gram Parsons most assuredly was.

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