“The Strain” Keeps on Straining


Strain 2 goop

#2: “The Box”

When last we left our intrepid CDC experts, they had the gears of New York City working in support of a quarantine. Now, a millionaire vampire who wants the plague free has just convinced the government the 200 dead bodies found in a passenger jet just yesterday are due to an airplane malfunction. This means the four highly contagious survivors are now roaming New York City. Time to get your game on, New York CDC chief Eph Goodweather (you don’t ever use your middle name, do you?)

Any other problems? An Air Transport Control officer’s head brutally bashed in? Cordon it off! Only Eph (Corey Stoll) is allowed! NTSB is taking over the investigation unless Eph can prove this is a plague? What about that box of little wormy things you shoved in everyone’s face last episode? That could freak a couple NTSB folks out. Where did they go? Of course, you could show the National Transportation Safety Board those 200 dead bodies, too, couldn’t you? They’re all the evidence you need to show there’s a pathogen, and the city ME’s office has had eight or so hours to work with them by now. Maybe let’s put the Medical Examiner on with the NTSB, clear this whole mess up.

Or none of those things. None of those things is good too, Eph. We could go track down the surviving pilot, who’s alone at a bar instead of…say, if this were really an NTSB issue…surrounded by 80 lawyers for the airline parsing his every word.

We could also run fun behavioral tests on the wormy things that don’t prove anything, and – despite how absolutely sure you are that the city’s in imminent danger – you could take a break to drive out to your ex-wife’s in Queens to have a heart-to-heart with your son about tomorrow’s custody hearing. I mean, it’s not like your son’s in mortal danger if a disease breaks out, or like the judge would move the hearing if you worked for the CDC and were in an active hot zone. By the way, the distance you’re standing from your son right now…would you say that’s about the same distance you were standing from the four infected passengers this morning when nobody was wearing any protection whatsoever?

But right after that, it’s back to preventing a pandemic with a seeming 98.1% mortality rate from breaking out in one of the world’s most populous cities, right? Well, no. You see, Eph has an AA meeting, and as he explains, keeping your commitments is a big part of AA. Doing his job preventing virulent plagues in New York for the CDC is, apparently, not on that same A-list of commitments. It’s all about prioritizing, I guess. At least I can see why this man’s nickname is Eph now, because he’s an Ephing Moron. I hope his wife gets the kid.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

As for the coroner, who should’ve been the first visit anybody made to settle this whole NTSB/CDC/”is it a plague or isn’t it” thing, he died at the end of last episode. By the end of THIS episode, he’s been dead for 17 hours, about the same time the 200 dead bodies – some of them naked and cut open – got up and walked out of the city coroner’s office, which happens to be on a busy New York Street. Nobody’s noticed. Bystanders probably just assumed it was a flashmob: “Look, honey! That guy’s trailing his intestines. Improv Everywhere’s getting so edgy these days.”

When Eph and Martinez (Mia Maestro) finally remember, “Oh yeah, we have 200 dead bodies that can prove anything we say,” and go to the coroner’s office that evening, they seem to be the very first people who’ve touched the place or noticed everyone’s missing or dead. It just must be one of those special New York City days when no one at all had to call the coroner’s office for anything whatsoever.

“But wait!” you say. Yeah, you’re a thing in this now. Don’t you feel lucky?

“Yes?” I turn my head quizzically, with the hint of a smile on the corners of my lips. My eyes twinkle playfully in the low light as I swirl my snifter of brandy and inhale its oaky aroma.

You look away shyly, taken off guard, but still you must ask: “Surely, the coroner’s office is neck-deep in all that media from the last episode, demanding to know what happened and why the 200 bodies aren’t being released, right? RIGHT?!?”

You would think. That nobody has noticed the coroner or 200 bodies missing for 17 hours is odd, even for our fickle news media. I’m willing to let it slide, though – perhaps this all takes place that day Justin Bieber got arrested.

“What about that old vampire hunter?” you ask. “He seemed interesting.”

He did, didn’t he? He has a single, early scene – he talks to a vampire from behind glass at the city lockup. You see, he’s been arrested for having a cane with a sword in it. Which I guess is a crime worthy of getting you locked up for three days without any kind of phone call or bail hearing. (Come on. It’s the NYPD. He’s white and wasn’t arrested at a protest. They can’t stay mad at each other for a whole 3 days.) Anyway, it’s by far the best scene in the thing – a clever give-and-take between two mortal (or immortal) enemies. If this show were just that scene and nothing else, I’d be endorsing it whole-heartedly.

Instead, you’ll be glad to know that the most interesting character in the whole show – you know, the one who’s ACTUALLY a VAMPIRE HUNTER and keeps his lover’s beating heart alive in a jar in his basement and who monologues about cutting up bloodsuckers and dumping them in the North Sea – is only in one scene. A city health inspector we’ve never met before gets three scenes. He must be really important, right? Yep, he shuts down a restaurant that has nothing to do with anything except that one of the airplane survivors eats at it. Compelling TV, that. However will they get their Michelin star back? Not to mention the Yelp reviews.

Does the rat he finds at the eatery have the little wormy things? Have the customers eaten the worms? Because that would be interesting and relevant and scary. So no, none of those things happen. If it’s interesting and relevant and scary you’re looking for, you came to the wrong show. Let me reiterate – these scenes have zero to do with anything else. (And come on. It’s New York City. The rats are your drinking buddies at the bar, and that’s not even a metaphor. If they shut down every restaurant with a rat in it, forget the vampire pandemic – the city would starve to death in a week.)

You’ll also be glad to know that some rich dude who looks like an elderly-Henry Winkler stand-in makes a deal with the vampire overlord. Has something to do with his liver going and having days to live. The vampire gets some dialogue. It’s in English. What’s he say? Damned if I know, cause it makes Bane and Batman’s wheeze-vs.-grunt conversations from the last Dark Knight seem crystal clear.

In the end, we know nothing more about The Strain than we did starting out. Unless you wanted to know about Eph’s divorce. Then we know a lot more, and that’s what The Strain advertised on, after all: learn more about Eph Goodweather’s painfully uninteresting divorce. Who will he tell about it next week, and how will they get out of it?

The Strain‘s mystery does have some hooks into me, though, because I can’t help but give voice to the one crucial question this episode’s begging me to ask: When is someone going to get back to that dead Air Transport Control officer in the basement? He’s starting to smell by now, Eph.

Miss Part One of my Strain recaps? Read it here.

“Lucy” Survives on Johansson Alone


Lucy lead

The big name in all the ads for Lucy is Scarlett Johansson, and for good reason. Lucy just clobbered Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s brawnier, twice-as-expensive release Hercules in theaters this weekend. I think its safe to put to rest the notion that women can’t launch action movies, and make those Black Widow and Wonder Woman spin-offs immediately.

Johansson’s isn’t the only name in Lucy you should recognize, though. Chances are you’ve seen a few of director Luc Besson’s films, from La Femme Nikita to Leon: The Professional. He’s best known for 1997’s The Fifth Element, which paired an intergalactic, cab-driving Bruce Willis with kung fu mastering, space demigod Milla Jovovich. Needless to say, it was brimming with weird. That oddness is a big reason why Fifth Element survives, however. Separate from the pack of hundreds of nearly identical 90s sci-fi movies, it doesn’t feel bound to any time or place in particular, and its cartoonish aspects are as fresh today as they were 17 years ago.

Besson brings a lot of that weirdness and cartoon sensibility to Lucy, which opens up with Johansson’s title character deciding whether or not to trust Richard, her boyfriend of a week who’s doing his best to convince her to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a gangster. When she briefly considers, Besson cuts to a mouse honing in on a baited mousetrap. When Lucy refuses, Richard forces her anyway. And when the deal goes awry and gangsters close in, Besson cuts from the tattooed henchmen to cheetahs closing in on their kill. This tongue-in-cheek sensibility eases up across the movie, but it never fully goes away – it’s an enjoyably Looney Tunes way to present an action film.

Lucy the case

Lucy is kidnapped by the gang and forced into becoming a drug mule, a baggie of a brand new superdrug surgically implanted into her “lower tummy.” It breaks, overdosing Lucy on a drug which allows her to use increasing chunks of her mental capacity, instead of the usual 10% to which humans are limited.

This eventually means she can translate any language, read 6,000 pages in a matter of minutes, change her hair color at will, and pluck phone conversations from the air with her mind. The scientific explanations, given by Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman, are a lot of hokum, but the broad idea behind it all has some basis in theoretical possibility.

More and more science regarding the human mind is turning to the notion that our brains work at a quantum mechanical level, surpassing many of the rules of classical physics. What this means is that every consciousness is more than just information that can be downloaded, and that every individual’s consciousness has its own unique relationship to perceiving and affecting the world around us. As Freeman’s pointed out in his TV documentary show Through the Wormhole, quantum consciousness is the strongest scientific argument yet for the existence of the individual soul. Lucy plays as a very broad extension of these theoretical ideas.

Lucy gun

Needless to say, by the time Lucy’s tracked down Prof. Norman, so have the gangsters. How do you have an action movie when, halfway through the film, the hero can put crowds of people to sleep and send gunmen flying through walls at the speed of thought? This is where most action movies would introduce some sort of superpowered nemesis to measure up to the hero. Lucy is more concerned with its character’s journey, however. The most compelling scenes involve Johansson’s moving performance as her perception of the world and life itself evolves into near-omnipotence. It’s an intriguing path, but Besson still feels as if its necessary to tack on gunfights and car chases that just don’t fit.

Lucy is a fun journey, but not necessarily a satisfying one. At least it effectively instates Johansson as a bonafide movie star in an age when there’s no such thing. While Besson’s style counts for a lot, and Johansson and Freeman sell moments lesser actors couldn’t, you’re still stuck with a film that can’t choose whether to be philosophy, comedy, or action, and isn’t complex enough to be all three.

Between her performances in Under the Skin, Chef, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Lucy, I feel comfortable in saying that Johansson is the most important actor – male or female – of 2014. And this comes from a critic who’d all but dismissed her 8 years ago. Lucy is rated R for violence and sexuality.

To Binge and Purge in L.A. — “The Purge: Anarchy”


Purge 2 I found this machete you guys

The truth is, a lot of horror movies could be avoided with the proper application of dobermans and German shepherds. The Purge: Anarchy is one of these movies, a supersized home invasion/midnight chase thriller in which a near-future U.S. government practices population control by allowing the annual 12-hour Purge. During the Purge, all crime is legal and emergency services are suspended. Gangs roam the streets with machetes and assault rifles while snipers crack open a beer and sit on rooftops, legally murdering anyone who crosses their path.

The characters in The Purge: Anarchy, an indirect sequel to last year’s The Purge, are not the best and brightest. If the violent Purge were just an hour away, I wouldn’t choose that as the time to stay late at my job or run to the supermarket. Upon getting home, I certainly wouldn’t postpone putting up my barricade until I’d taken a shower. No, in the reality of The Purge: Anarchy, I’d be at home a day ahead of time with windows barred, a dozen German shepherds at my side, and a pocket full of kibble to ensure their undying loyalty.

Yet if characters don’t get trapped outside during the Purge, there’s no movie. That would be a shame – once it gets over its awkward initial hurdles, Anarchy is a very solid action movie. It borrows from classic disaster films, where a tough, inaccessible hero would be paired with a hodge-podge of regular folks – in this case, our nameless hero (Frank Grillo) is using the night to exact his own vengeance, but his plans are derailed when he rescues a mother and daughter from certain death and finds a bickering couple stowed in the backseat of his armor-plated car.

Purge 2 paging Kurt Russell

In the 80s, this movie would have starred Kurt Russell and an embarrassment of studded leather jackets and neon mohawks. Anarchy plays it less postapocalyptic and with a strong social commentary, coming across as a combination of Escape From New York and The Hunger Games. That said, Anarchy has a surprisingly strong voice of its own and its episodic delivery does a lot to drive home its characters’ growth. The young Cali (Zoe Soul) is particularly stubborn about talking the hero out of his vengeance, while Liz (Kiele Sanchez) is shown to have a determined violent streak that the nameless hero recognizes, but her separated husband Shane (Sanchez’s real-life husband Zach Gilford) wouldn’t have guessed.

If you don’t recognize the performers’ names, it’s because they’re all character actors usually cast in supporting roles. Not having a dedicated lead does a lot to make the group feel real, as if it’s cobbled together from spare pieces.

What people will talk about most is the social satire Anarchy is dripping with. Since not enough Americans take advantage of the Purge, the government subsidizes it by sending in troops to purge low-income, minority communities. It’s a disturbing metaphor to make. It reminds me of New Orleans’ seizure of low-income, largely minority-owned private residences after Hurricane Katrina, evacuees returning only to find their property had been unfairly taken from them. I’d say Anarchy comes off as very liberal – at one point, our heroes are kidnapped and brought to a gala where the wealthy bid on the opportunity to hunt them – but then again, every character’s life in the movie is saved by a gun. While the movie’s overbearing government and ever-present surveillance speak to the fears of some conservatives, it’s also a government targeting minorities and named the “New Founding Fathers of America” which speaks to some liberals’ fear of racism being disguised in the trappings of nationalism.

Purge 2

Overall, I think Anarchy challenges both sides equally. It’ll definitely spark discussions. Its characters win us over, its action is effective and – while it’s not the horror movie it advertised itself as – it is a rousing action movie. And who can blame it? It’s been a dry year for horror, while you can’t spit this summer without hitting a great action movie. And that’s the problem. I recommend the film, but it’s hard to recommend it over other, more colorful action movies. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Edge of Tomorrow are still out there – their messages tighter, their action more compelling. See those first. Then give The Purge: Anarchy a chance.

It’s rated R for violence and language. Its action has a “splatter” moment or two, but otherwise it’s not any worse than you’d see in any number of primetime crime dramas. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go pet my German shepherd.

The Top 35 Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — The Full List


Hideaway Kiesza

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Last week, we ran a four-part reveal of the best music videos of the year (so far). Below, find the recap of every music video we chose. Want to watch them? Click on the title of each one to view it on YouTube. Enjoy!

Read our comments on #35-26!
35. “Hideaway” by Kiesza
34. “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry
33. “Shatter Me” by Lindsey Stirling feat. Lzzy Hale
32. “Shades of Cool” by Lana Del Rey
31. “Fall in Love” by Phantogram
30. “Birthday (lyric video)” by Katy Perry
29. “Play it Right” by Sylvan Esso
28. “Double Bubble Trouble” by M.I.A.
27. “Red Light” by f(x)
26. “King of Sorrow” by William Wolf

Read our comments on #25-16!
25. “Really Don’t Care” by Demi Lovato feat. Cher Lloyd
24. “Sweatpants/Urn” by Childish Gambino
23. “90s Music” by Kimbra
22. “Busy Earnin'” by Jungle
21. “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol
20. “No Rest for the Wicked” by Lykke Li
19. “Crime” by Real Estate
18. “Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes” by Norma Jean
17. “Down on My Luck” by Vic Mensa
16. “Black” by The-Dream

Read our comments on #15-6!
15. “You’re Not Good Enough” by Blood Orange
14. “Summertime” by The Head and the Heart
13. “Girl You Look Amazing” by Nicole Atkins
12. “Magic” by Coldplay
11. “The Writing’s on the Wall” by OK Go
10. “Work Work” by clipping. feat. Cocc Pistol Cree
9. “State of Grace” by Talib Kweli feat. Abby Dobson
8. “West Coast” by Lana Del Rey
7. “Problem” by Ariana Grande feat. Iggy Azalea
6. “Wrong or Right” by Kwabs

Read our comments on the Top 5!
5. “Re” by Nils Frahm
4. “25 Bucks” by Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring
3. “We Exist” by Arcade Fire
2. “What is This Heart” trilogy by How to Dress Well
1. “Chandelier” by Sia

Thanks for joining us! We’ve had a superb response and great involvement from writers on our music video coverage, so we’ll be keeping it up!

Should You Watch? ‘The Strain’


Strain Airplane

The Strain
“Night Zero”

“Screw the inevitable vampire outbreak, let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.” This isn’t a direct quote, but it covers close to half the run time of The Strain‘s two hour premier. There’s a certain thinking in TV drama that vampire outbreaks and murder and planes full of people dying and zombie thralls and worms that eat their way through your eyeballs just aren’t interesting enough unless the main character explains his broken family life to everyone he encounters.

Yes, it’s important to establish your protagonist has a life before his first episode, but just maybe we could hear a bit about the supervampire’s family life, or the ancient vampire hunter’s family life, or – I don’t know, crazy thought here – the plane full of 200 dead people you’re supposed to be investigating instead of telling random passersby about your divorce proceeding.

The Strain is based on a series of novels horror maestro Guillermo del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. Now, FX’s original programming has been consistently inventive and off-kilter. Nip/Tuck, The Shield, and Sons of Anarchy were long the network’s flagships, now replaced by American Horror Story, Justified, and the Peabody-winning The Bridge. FX has also made a habit of dissecting and lampooning the male gaze in comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, and Archer. This year’s Fargo has made the network’s biggest mark on the Emmys in years and, while I haven’t seen it, The Americans has been critically lauded and keeps Keri Russell employed, so I’m all in favor.

Yet FX wants a bigger piece of the cable pie, to go toe-to-toe with AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead), and this summer season’s shows have left us wanting. You can’t help but feel Tyrant is filmed on a series of L.A. backlots, which is all the more strange since it’s filmed in Israel, but strange filmmaking choices and subpar editing make it feel too precious to be taken realistically.

Strain Abraham

Which brings us back to The Strain, which FX has pushed hard. The show begins much like the pilot for Fringe, with a plane that stops responding mid-taxi on the runway: it’s gone dark, the pilots don’t respond, and all 200 passengers on board suddenly appear dead. Yet there’s none of Fringe‘s colorful, pop-art sensibility or whip-smart casting (let alone its quantum theosophy), and there’s none of the investigative, tone-poem build-up we once loved about The X-Files.

The Strain wants to be a procedural, or at least its pilot episode does, yet no procedures are followed. Characters do as they want, and not in a tongue-and-cheek, I’m-the-hero kind of way, but in a where’s-my-mark, what’s-my-line style that makes it seem like so many monkeys with typewriters submitted drafts and nobody bothered to check that it all fit together. The Strain‘s one-note mood of incredible self-seriousness means that it’d better have some logic or a damn good lead actor to fall back on. Instead: “let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

The Strain is far more concerned with characters’ intersecting broken romances than with the 200 dead people on a plane, and its moments of gore – while splattery enough for a midnight feature – are so out-of-place that you wonder if the cat sat on the remote and accidentally switched you to Starz.

The main character, a CDC epidemiologist played by Corey Stoll, is named Ephram, or Eph for short. Every time someone addresses Eph, it sounds like they started to swear but suddenly remembered they’re on cable TV, where you can graphically smash a man’s head into cement pudding for a minute straight, but you’d better not cuss.

Few shows in history have so desperately needed a script supervisor. Before knowing how the disease spreads, Eph and his CDC crew inspect the plane’s unloaded cargo in plain clothes, using no precautions. Two scenes later, CDC personnel are sealing up that same cargo Eph and friends just ran their hands up and down, except now they’re using protective gear and contained breathers.

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

Even after the CDC establishes that the virus is passed on by disgusting, little, wormy things that crawl through your skin, they fail to warn the coroner, who’s autopsying all 200 infested dead bodies alone (because that seems like an efficient use of resources) and whose protective gear amounts to a pair of latex gloves. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, there are these crazy wormy things that burrow through skin,” Eph wanders the airport, bringing his little box of highly contagious wormy things that just killed 200 people on a field trip to the security office, to the main concourse, to the parking lot, and waving them around as he talks to everyone in sight.

For its first few seasons, The X-Files could barely afford cameras or sets, but it made the world around us terrifying by giving its horrors consistent logic of their own, logic which gave every shadow down every hallway the possibility of hiding something vicious just waiting to be misunderstood. Consistency. Logic. It’s what good horror is built on. It’s why we don’t mind every X-Files takes place in an office building or a dark cave, and every Supernatural takes place in the same hotel room. Yet it’s what’s wholly missing from The Strain. Guillermo del Toro’s other work (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) prides itself on these qualities, but he both co-wrote the teleplay and directed the pilot for The Strain, so the blame for this mess has to lie with him.

Furthermore, I don’t expect every TV show to get the procedure of federal agencies right, but if you’re going to house yourself in the structure of a bone dry procedural, then you shouldn’t be embarrassingly ill-researched. At the very least, if you’re just going to make it up, at least be consistent about those details you yourself create. Making it worse, The Strain‘s complete disregard for credibility is combined with a relentless humorlessness and misplaced character struggles – at one point, the 200 unexplained deaths, a missing vampire coffin, and wormy things run amuck are all sidelined so we can spend time on what’s really important: Eph’s very mild discomfort with public speaking. Lord knows why. He opens up to everyone else with, “Let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

This gives way to the pilot episode’s worst scene, when Eph addresses the media and victims’ families. A grieving father charges him, slaps him across the face, and – despite security and police essentially hanging out of Eph’s pockets – the father turns around and monologues at length to the world media about how cheesily he misses his daughter. This dad explains he couldn’t care less if his daughter’s dead or not, but it’s unfair the CDC hasn’t released her body for a whole two hours. Talk about confused priorities. If he were evil, we could see a motive, but he’s not, so it doesn’t make any sense, let alone an emotional connection. It only makes one wonder how the hell such a scene got past…well, anyone involved.

Future episodes look like The Strain‘s dull faux-CDC shell might be cracked for some shiny vampire-bashing. This would require the show shifting more time to elderly vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley), who gives the show a little cogent mystery, but is otherwise thoroughly wasted. I’ll give The Strain a second episode out of loyalty to del Toro, but this is by far the worst thing he’s directed. Any goodwill I had stocked to forgive the show any potential flaws has been completely tapped out. The Strain has some good set design at points, but that’s it. Everything else insults the viewer at the most fundamental levels of storytelling.

Of Doves & Hawks — “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”


Dawn of the 1

If there’s one fault to find across this summer’s best blockbusters, it’s that we’ve become so good at translating plot very quickly, we often skirt over the story in order to highlight the stupendously good action. Much of this is due to the number of sequels and remakes we have – there’s less story to tell if we already know the characters and situation heading in.

The rebooted Planet of the Apes series then, remains a bit of a throwback. The first entry, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, outlined how genetically modified chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas first become intelligent, and how we humans accidentally destroy ourselves. It created a non-human hero in the chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), raised by a caring human yet struggling to come to terms with being part of two worlds.

Now its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes the story to a darker, even more challenging place. While humanity dies out to the plague it invented, the intelligent apes have taken up residence in the Redwoods of California. They practice a non-violent society, but rifts between Caesar and the militant Koba (Toby Kebbel) become apparent when surviving humans happen into the forest.

Dawn of the 4

The humans need power from a nearby dam, but the apes are wary. While the human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) distrusts the apes, his friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke) asks for three days to try to negotiate a settlement that avoids war. What follows is a one-step-forward, two-steps-back peace process that is one of the tensest pieces of storytelling this year. It’s a rare movie that shows how truly difficult it is to be a peacemaker between two cultures bent on destroying the other.

This is where Dawn stands out from other blockbusters. There’s so much more story here, so many compelling character moments for ape and man alike, that I’m astonished it all takes place in barely over two hours. There’s a miniseries’ worth of content here, packed in and yet given ample room to breathe and fill out the film’s world.

Needless to say, Koba and Dreyfus both use the lull of peace to mobilize their armies. And just like politicians do to justify their warmongering, they eventually need a war. Like Russia and Ukraine. Like Israel and Palestine. Like allies we fund and supply in Syria who become enemies the minute they cross into Iraq. It’s a tale we’re simultaneously knee-deep in and terrifyingly naïve about, boiled down to its essentials.

Dawn of the 3

For the apes, who preach “Ape does not kill ape” in the beginning, the resulting betrayals and civil war also reflect a Cain and Abel narrative. Serkis and Kebbel deserve more appreciation than they’ll get as actors. Even though their performances result in CGI characters, they must develop Caesar’s and Koba’s relationship primarily through movement. Serkis, in particular, is famous for motion-capture characters ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies to the namesake of King Kong. Here, Serkis’s Caesar is understated, allowing Kebbel’s Koba to steal the show. These actors must convey human emotion in a non-human way, and essentially direct animators who later bring the rival chimpanzees to life. In its own way, this can be far more work than actors who aren’t motion-captured; Serkis has been campaigning for an Oscar nomination for years now and it’s high time he’s recognized for his unparalleled work.

The 3-D is very solid. Despite much of the action happening in gloom (a death knell for many 3-D films), the picture is always crisp and clear. Especially effective are the moments we see the world from the apes’ perspective – atop a redwood or the Golden Gate Bridge. I hope you don’t fear heights. 3-D always takes away some finer visual detail, no matter the film, so you’ll recognize a little bit more nuance to the apes’ emotions in the 2-D version, but you can’t go wrong – in either format, the film’s visuals are compelling and it has heart to spare.

This is a sequel that resonates, especially as we watch yet one more war break out halfway around the world. It connects emotionally. More importantly than showing you a world you’ve never seen before, it shows you a culture you’ve never seen before, and it tells the tragic story of how it’s torn apart the same way we tear ours apart. This is sci-fi at its best, both entertaining and meaningful.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for violence and language. Its action is reasonable without being brutal and, more importantly, it’s always grounded and given emotional context.


The Top 5 Music Videos of 2014 (So Far)


Maddie Ziegler in Chandelier by Sia

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Vanessa here. I asked to do the intro today, because of what music videos mean to me. Music videos are the most watched form of short film. They come in all different flavors – performance videos of your favorite band, dance videos, comedies, dramas, experimental, arthouse. People say the musical’s dead, but it’s very much alive – billions of people across the world watch music videos every day. It’s our modern version of opera, touching narratives and social messages condensed into musical storytelling. And if you worry that speaks ill of our society, you’re watching the wrong music videos.

Our top 5 videos run the gamut – an animation with an ecological message, a socially conscious rap video, an angry social comment starring everybody’s favorite web-slinger, a tearjerking drama, and perhaps the most singular dance performance in recent music video history. But first, allow me to feature a personal favorite of mine.

Roar – Addy
The Make-A-Wish Foundation

This is what music videos mean to me. Here’s a little girl named Addy. She got stage IV cancer when she was just four years old. She went through chemo and radiation. What she says got her through it all is watching her favorite musicians on YouTube. The Make-A-Wish Foundation, a non-profit organization that grants dying children their one wish, was able to make a music video of Addy, thankfully after her recovery, performing Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

What do music videos mean to me? They mean a way to reach out into the world, across cultures, to perceive someone else’s story, their pain, their suffering, their success, five minutes at a time. Five minutes can change someone’s life, give them hope, and communicate the most urgent messages we have the capability to speak.

Music videos were Addy’s lifeblood, and she’s just one little girl. How many little girls, little boys, teenagers, men, women, those suffering pain, heartache or loss, find those five minutes that keep them going another day?

Why this music video? Because not everyone gets to make it out of being a kid, that’s why. Why the next one? Because I don’t own my body in the United States. Why the next one? Because thousands of underprivileged black families’ water is being turned off in Detroit. Why the next one? Because the LGBTQ community still isn’t accepted, and outed people still get beaten in certain places. There are countless next ones.

One of my co-writers, Cleopatra Parnell, wrote about Lykke Li’s “No Rest for the Wicked” (#20 in our countdown) that every country that wages war on a race, gender, religion, or lifestyle has a chance to show “whether we learned…or history repeats itself. The role of musicians and artists today is to be the conscience that refuses repetition.”

Music videos create a major part of our social consciousness now. They are our most readily accessible way to translate stories at no charge across cultures. That can save a lot of Addy’s. That can be a strong conscience that crosses borders. That can change lives. Enough changed lives can change entire cultures. And even if nothing else, at least they saved the lives of girls named Addy and Vanessa when they were unsure if they could make it another day.

Enjoy our top 5, and please keep watching and making every piece of art you can.

-Vanessa Tottle

P.S. Due to music copyright law, you may have to click through to YouTube to watch certain videos.

5. Re – Nils Frahm
directed by Balazs Simon

This is quiet, lyrically animated. It’s a story repeated day after day in a world we care about in voice, but often refuse to take action to save. What’s it like to be the last, lone beast in the scraps of a ruined wilderness? You can run, you can leap, you can be gallant and noble and beautiful, but if something’s meant to die and no one’s there to witness you, what does your beauty and talent mean? One of the best animated music videos I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing.   -Gabe Valdez

4. 25 Bucks – Danny Brown feat. Purity Ring
directed by NORTON

There’s a violence in day-to-day struggle more and more families are feeling. It’s not the obvious violence I see in movies about black gangsters and brown drug-dealers and white heroes. The violence is internal and families feel it against themselves. It’s the violence of disappointment and discouragement. When you realize you’re up against something bigger than yourself, the system’s stacked against you, and you can’t win, where else is violence supposed to turn but on yourself and your loved ones?   -S.L. Fevre

3. We Exist – Arcade Fire
directed by David Wilson

It shouldn’t matter anymore whether someone is gay. It shouldn’t get anyone beaten or killed. You would think those two statements are so obvious it would be stupid to write them. Yet we live in a world that’s wasting its time and resources on holding the LGBTQ community down when it wouldn’t make a damn difference to the world what that community does. So it’s still a big deal when Andrew Garfield stars as a transvestite in a major music video released two weeks after his role as Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

But it’s not the old moment when we used to celebrate the specialness of someone’s difference. That moment now is angry – we look at the normalcy of someone’s difference, and instead feel despair and frustration at the violent holdouts who hold back a world that needs to get on with doing something more important than clinging to hate.   -Vanessa Tottle & Gabe Valdez

2. “What is This Heart?” trilogy
Part 1: Repeat Pleasure – How to Dress Well
Part 2: Face Again – How to Dress Well
Part 3: Childhood Faith in Love – How to Dress Well
directed by Johannes Greve Muskat

A young man sacrifices having any life of his own to take care of his grandfather. His grandfather’s nurse falls in love with him. Together, they steal the grandfather away to visit his childhood home. Things go wrong. And the rest of it is about coping, how to learn to rely on someone else, how to learn to give into moments you can’t control. It’s a trilogy of videos still reeling around in my head, being turned over this way and that to get ahold of the story from every angle. Each time I watch the trilogy, I find something new in it. The performances are dramatically sterling. By the third video, the mythical power of the trilogy is astounding. Watch it through. You won’t regret it.   -Gabe Valdez

1. Chandelier – Sia
directed by Sia & Daniel Askill

This was a unanimous choice for #1. If you knew how much this group bickers about every little detail, that would blow your mind. None of us pretended anything else can be here, though, not even for a second. You don’t even need to understand why. You just need to watch “Chandelier.” The level of performance is what you get when you watch Jackie Chan or Mikhail Baryshnikov – less refined but at such a singular level nonetheless that it’s impossible to replicate or find a similar moment anywhere else you look. Maddie Ziegler shares dance solo at its finest, choreographed and performed by an 11-year-old. It’s the most unexpected music video.   -Vanessa Tottle

In any form of art there’s genius. You can’t point to what makes it up, but you know it when you see it. Maddie Ziegler’s choreography and dance here is feral, animal, chaotic, and yet so brilliantly nuanced – every move means something. She’s 11 and yet there’s a maturity that speaks to emotional moments and struggle and pushing forward despite being held back…there are times you think there’s a 30-year-old, weathered dance veteran on-screen. At the same time, there’s an immaturity, a free attitude and irreverence in the moves she’s chosen that reminds me of the experience of being a kid, of overcoming that sense of being overwhelmed in order to learn you can push your own boundaries. How she captures that, how an 11-year-old’s artistic discretion pulls from both ends of the spectrum to create and then perform a dance that speaks to you and sends chills up your spine…it’s an impossible performance, and yet there it is.   -Gabe Valdez

Enjoy the rest of our rankings:
Music videos #15-6.
Music videos #25-16.
Music videos #35-26.