The Walking Dead: Blaze of Glory

After much applause, Rick and Carl finally return to the stage for their encore.

Well, holy crap, that was a real barnburner!

The Walking Dead ended it’s strong Season 2 homestretch run with a brilliant finale that not only set the farm storyline ablaze but also redefined the dynamic of the group of survivors as they head towards an ominous new setting in Season 3.

First, “Behind the Dying Fire” picks up with Rick and Carl returning to the house after their double-barreled take down of Shane in last week’s episode. But they soon realize they’re not alone as thousands of zombies now approach not far behind. (They are tipped off by the rumble from the zombies’ footsteps!) They quickly retreat to the barn and hatch a scheme to lure the zombies into a fire trap. At the same time, the rest of the gang (at the house) have taken to their vehicles to play zombie shoot-’em-up before eventually realizing their only option is fleeing the farm for good. The entire opening sequence is a splendid torrent of horrifying panic, desperate action, and nail-biting suspense, easily ranking as one of the best moments in the show’s brief history.

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Bruce Springsteen Takes a Wrecking Ball to America

Bruce Springsteen is pissed off.

Wrecking Ball finds The Boss reacting to America’s current financial crisis, cutting straight past the bullshit volley of party politics and Cable news-inspired biases, and to the heart of the matter. Springsteen very much sounds like a man who’s heard this country’s political parties take their half-hearted stabs at fixing America for too long without resolution and wants to make his point loud anc clear. (I am very familiar with this man.)

The Boss is no stronger to singing about social issues and the state of the union. He’s been singing about it since the 1970s with full-album punctuation marks along the way (Nebraska, We Shall Overcome). Some people still yearn for the days of Thunder Road, but Bruce isn’t that twentysomething troubadour anymore and while he still has an occasional knack for an inspiring anthem or visceral love song, his greatest strength is his empathy for the working class hero. But he’s rarely been this enraged before.

The lead track and first single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” was a good appetizer for the album, balancing the fairly benign musical arrangement with double-take lyrics that question the promise of the stars and stripes. But from there, the music and lyrics only get infinitely better. Bruce is much fiercer on “Death to My Hometown,” a Celtic march where the enemies wield no cannon balls, rifles or bombs, but financial ruin. “The greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found/Whose crimes have gone unpunished now/Who walk the streets as free men now,” sings Bruce of robber barons in business suits, a vicious faceless enemy.

On Wrecking Ball, Springsteen deftly mixes traditional rock with folk rock, gospel and soul, a blend of his best moments on recent E Street Band records as well as the vitality and verve of the Seeger Sessions. The latter has a greater influence on this new record (which is by no means an E Street Band album) and the album is better for it. America simply doesn’t need Bruce Springsteen singing “Queen of the Supermarket” right now. It needs the ferocious stomp of songs like “Shackled and Drawn,” which sounds like a forgotten outtake from Pete Seeger, and “Easy Money,” a rollicking Wall Street condemnation with an Irish folk arrangement. The Boss brings out the Irish influence again on “American Land,” a song developed during the Seeger Sessions but that has been an Encore staple for recent E Street tours as well. It retains it’s the dynamic energy of its live interpretations and is as vigorous a song as Bruce has written in decades.

The album slows things down some with “This Depression,” “We Are Alive” and “Jack of All Trades,” though the message suffers little for it. Punctuated with wailing guitar solos by kindred spirit Tom Morello and a moving vocal performance by The Boss himself, “This Depression” pleads for human connection in dark and desperate times. “We Are Alive” takes its cue from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, setting up around a campfire and building to a mariachi crescendo. It’s a brilliant musical finale to an album that dabbles in everything and a lyrical testament to the endurance of our spirit beyond our time on Earth. After a somber tale of devotion and resilience in troubled times, “Jack of All Trades” brings its desperate hero to a startling revelation by song’s end,

But don’t let the subject matter fool you into thinking this is a desperate and dark record along the lines of Nebraska. Even in its darkest moments, the music intends to inspire and many songs are meant to lift the downtrodden and reward their faith through the turmoil. “Wrecking Ball” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams” stand tall with the best of Springsteen’s songs of the last 25 years, brilliant anthems that face down evil and take the high road to a hopeful future. Appropriately, they both feature the late Clarence Clemons on saxophone, The Big Man’s only contributions to the record. Springsteen debuted “Wrecking Ball” in 2009 as a tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium. At the time it felt like a fun throwaway song that only locals would get. But Springsteen has managed to turn it into a rallying cry of strength and willpower against a system intent on destruction. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” dates back even farther (it was played live starting in 1999) and here is tinged with larger shades of gospel. He sings, “Dreams will not be thwarted…Faith will be rewarded.” As furious and confrontational he is about an America that has betrayed its working class and a corrupt system that needs its own wrecking ball, Bruce Springsteen still believes in the good of man, the promise of one’s dreams and the hope the future might bring if we could just persevere and sing loud enough that we can no longer be ignored. That’s a Boss we could all use to listen to.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Awake: The Other Side of the Pillow

“Of course I’m awake. I’m awake with my wife, I close my eyes, and I’m awake with my son.”

The above quote is spoken by Detective Mike Britten (Jason Isaacs) to one of his psychiatrists but is also a sly elevator pitch to the audience about what to expect when watching Awake. Sometimes the most interesting concepts are the ones that at their core are the easiest to explain. With Awake, NBC attempts to avoid the pitfalls of so many other high-concept series by avoiding the weight of a dense mystery that so frequently alienates new viewers and at the cost of quality storytelling and acting. Needless to say, they achieved that quite admirably.

Awake wisely plummets right into the reality (or realities) of the show, eschewing the stereotypical origin story. Britten, wife Hannah (Laura Allen) and son Rex (Dylan Minnette) are in a car accident. In one reality Hannah dies from the accident, in the other Rex has perished. The show picks up some time after this accident, with the survivors of each reality already past the initial grief of their loss and trying to move on with their lives. Except for Britten, who awakens each day to the different reality.

Jason Isaacs IS Awake

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From Paris to Hawaii: Ranking The 2011 Best Picture Nominees

The Vinyl Recliner ranks the nine Best Picture nominees from 2011, ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast. From Paris to Hawaii, and the 1920s to the Present Day, the Oscar nominees told tales both extremely loud and incredibly silent. The nominees included stirring personal dramas of horse and men (and women), the national pastime, and grand homages to old Hollywood, all painted with strokes of everything from stark realism to hopeful whimsy.

Not even close.

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The (Sleep) Walking Dead?

Why don't you tell me I'm boring to my face, punk?

Early in season 2 of The Walking Dead, the wandering band of survivors came across a farm that offered a dramatic change of scenery. After a harrowing journey from the outskirts of Atlanta then through the city and then out through a highway, the survivors seemingly found some respite from the constant torrent of zombies, though still struggled with their own internal conflicts, loss, a missing child, and a now tenuous dynamic with the farm’s occupants (starting with the accidental shooting of Carl).  That idyllic farm seemed to exist inside a bubble free from the zombie plague, replacing the urban dehumanized zones and frightful forests with sprawling plains and cozy pastoral quarters.

A lot of critics and fans have complained about the slow pacing that has followed thereafter, seemingly wishing the survivors were more immersed in the apocalyptic world off of the farm and on the run. This is despite the fact that various endeavors into town (and eventually on the farm) have brought them into confrontation with the very hordes of zombies they thought they were safe from.

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Comic Book Men: Podcast is Prologue

Some of the negative reviews circulating about Comic Book Men (which debuted tonight on AMC) have implied that the show does nothing to dispel the myth about comic book store geekdom. However, if you dig beneath the surface, you will find that they are both embodying its best virtues and satirizing its extreme flaws, while showcasing the very fact that “geekdom” has grown to such broad levels that there’s no longer a valid stereotype to exploit.

In its first episode, Comic Book Men provides very cursory background information for the Men in question, all under the employ of Kevin Smith, as it is quick to jump into the meat of the show. Walt runs Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, NJ, Mike is his lieutenant, Ming is one of Smith’s web employees who crosses over, and Bryan is, well, that’s complicated. Bryan and Walt are longtime friends of Kevin’s and, as has been well documented, inspirations for his Randall and Brodie characters, respectively. The two, along with Brian Quinn, have some renown as the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave podcast (a must-listen for those with ear buds and spare time). While Bry doesn’t work at the Stash, as you see in this episode, he’s certainly essential to wit of the show. [Read more...]

An Awful Kind of Truth

I have never doubted the skill and capable hands of Edward Van Halen so I never felt that A Different Kind of Truth would somehow need to prove that he still had it. The man has dealt with some personal issues over the years which have led to a void in creativity that is finally being filled again. But Eddie hasn’t lost his touch. (Nor for that matter has brother Alex, on the drums.)

There’s just not a whole lot of melody to be found on the album. Or good singing. Or lyrics.

Admittedly, I lean more towards the Sammy Hagar-led incarnation of Van Halen. However, there isn’t anything here that even reminds us of the genius of Roth-era songs like “Dance the Night Away,” “Runnin’ With the Devil” or “Jamie’s Crying.” There’s barely a breather in what is essentially a collection of fast rockers. I know that macho fans will claim this is all they ever wanted, but it doesn’t make for quality album sequencing and isn’t exactly true to the band’s roots. [Read more...]

Counting Crows Dive Into Underwater Sunshine

Counting Crows have officially announced the release date, cover art and track listing for their latest project, Underwater Sunshine (or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation), a collection of cover songs that mostly skews towards obscure with a few familiar tunes. Recorded in 2011, the album not only marks the return of the band to recording for the first time since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, but also its first independent venture since splitting from longtime label Geffen Records. As indicated in that departure, the band is utilizing grassroots ideology in promoting the new album via social networking and free album streaming. They’ll also take to the road for the first time in a few years, which has always been their most successful and viable forum, and where many of these songs first took root.

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Super 8: Favorite Films of 2011

A year that started off with such promise for Hollywood ultimately fizzled before the first fireworks of Fourth of July were lit. Hollywood continued to stumble through sequels, remakes and adaptations that earned their fair share of bank but an equal amount of tepid critical response and word of mouth. The year was mostly devoid of crossover successes that we’ve seen in recent years (like Inception and True Grit) and even the Oscar outlook at the end of the year wasn’t entirely promising.

However, all was not lost as a pair of superheroes and some old furry friends re-entered the mainstream to much critical acclaim, and at the end of the day, a boy wizard (and Alan Rickman) once again ruled over all.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

The last installment of the Harry Potter franchise validated the decision to split the 7th book into two movies with a whizbang torrent of death-defying action and dramatic climaxes, and a majestic depiction of The Prince’s Tale (wherein we finally see the thread of Severus Snape’s complex history unraveled before our eager eyes). The film also validated the first part’s long journeys towards this climax, underlining the desperation and angst of Harry, Ron and Hermoine’s quest, bringing them and their friends and allies to this epic climax inside a war-zone-turned Hogwarts. By far, one of the most satisfying conclusions in modern fiction was given an equally effective and exciting adaptation to screen.

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Primetime 8: Favorite Television Shows of 2011

In 2011, Television once again proved why it’s the definitive medium for long-form epic storytelling as premium cable channels continued their reign over both  network television AND film. A few new shows became huge critical darlings (and rightfully so) while some recent favorites continue to build on their initial success. And of all my lists for 2011, television was by far the hardest to whittle down to eight.

(Of note, I’m actually still getting caught up in the worlds of Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy and were not able to view their 2011 efforts live so don’t view their absences on this list as an indictment of their quality. I fully expect to be caught up on both by this time next year.)

1. Homeland

In a strong year for television, a debut series about terrorism on the home front was the most intelligent, compelling hour of drama. Bolstered by outstanding acting performances by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin, Homeland was possibly one of the best-reviewed series on television this year and was well worth the buzz. Oftentimes I would describe the show to non-viewers as “24, but not preposterous.” It was the best way to describe the suspenseful, twisting, terrorism-themed show while emphasizing that it’s a very concentrated, serious story. (Without all of 24’s layered insanity.) And where most television shows would’ve gone down the heroic path, Homeland turned heroism on its head and explored the gray area between good and bad to utmost perfection.

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