REVIEW: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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INTERVIEW: Lake Bell, producer, director, writer, and star of “In A World”

23 08 2013

Lake Bell in IN A WORLD“I like words, I’m very fond of them,” began Lake Bell.

It was easy to tell that her opening statement was no lie because Bell had no shortage of words in the 30 minutes I got to spend in a roundtable discussion with her.  Despite having landed in Houston at 3:00 AM that morning and then getting up to do morning shows at the crack of dawn, she was as sharp and clever as her debut feature film, “In A World.”  Bell proved herself to be quite the jack of all trades on the movie, serving as its writer, director, producer, and star.  And in case you were wondering if she spread herself too thin, here’s an excerpt from my review of the film:

“As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in ‘It’s Complicated‘ and ‘No Strings Attached‘), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy.

And if writing and directing wasn’t enough, Bell goes full Woody Allen and stars in the film too […] ‘In A World,’ despite being just over 90 minutes, manages to squeeze in more than just Carol’s story as well.  Not unlike ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ (though without all the philosophical and existential postulating), Bell involves us in the lives of Carol’s friends and family along the journey.”

In just the brief amount of time I got to spend talking with Bell, she was able to talk not only about the basics of “In A World” but also about some of the deeper thematic and feminist underpinnings of the film.  If you watch the film and wonder if it means to sound intelligent, I can tell you with confidence that it is.  Lake Bell is a very smart writer with a lot to say about women in cinema and all other professional fields.  She’s reluctant to turn herself into an activist, however, prefacing one of her most profound remarks with “not to get on my soapbox…”

In A WorldBell was willing, though, to call out girls suffering from what she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus,” a second wave of Valley Girl-itis.  The element, now sutured into the fabric of the film, did not come into the script until later drafts.  But according to Bell, “The sexy baby vocal virus was something that I personally had been preaching to my friends about, and then I had a friend that said, ‘I don’t know why you don’t have that in the script.  It should be your protagonist’s plight.’”

To Bell, it’s more than just an annoyance.  After studying voice in school, she knows it is merely an affection.  By putting on this voice, they are also stripping away a sense of feminine empowerment.  “I felt like, as a woman,” she said, “it was evoking this feeling that women are less than, that people don’t believe in themselves.”

The good news, Bell shared, is that the “sexy baby vocal virus” can be beaten.  These women can choose to sound like Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Anne Bancroft, or Charlotte Rampling, Bell’s vocal role models.  It just requires a lot of self-awareness and determination to stop, not unlike when Bell decided she did not want to say like every other word.

The feminist critique goes far beyond this memorable addition to the plot, however.  Bell’s film takes a look at competition in the voice-over industry and the difficulties women face when trying to enter it.  Granted, movie trailers were dominated by one man for so long, the golden voiced Don LaFontaine.  According to Bell, LaFontaine’s estate owns the phrase in a world, but the royalty payments aren’t the reason why it’s fallen out of use.

“It’s considered archaic now,” she reamrked, “it’s considered outdated.  Which is why in the movie, that it being resurrected, they’ve decided to make it a thing … is kind of a fantasy for me because I want them to bring it back.  But it’s not as trendy to do it now.”

(And if you’re curious, Bell pointed out that there is only one movie trailer with female voice-over: Melissa Disney narrating the “Gone in 60 Seconds” trailer.)

Though it might seem that Bell’s own experiences trying to break into the business would provide the framework for “In A World,” the foundation was laid much earlier for her when she was a young girl at her father’s racetrack.  As she put it,

“I was always around cars, he was always racing, I was always around the track since I was a little girl – another male dominated world that’s super cutthroat.  And lots of egos swinging around, lots of colorful characters, and if anything I used my father’s interactions with people on the sidelines of the racetrack for the voice-over industry when I later wrote this movie.”

Lake Bell“In A World” came about, though, much further down the road after a few hard knocks and some serious discussion:

“From my own experience, even just in organic conversations, I remember just thinking about the words ‘in a world…’ and how fun it was.  And then the conversation went to, ‘gosh, isn’t it strange that women have never done that?’

And then the conversation blossomed into that of something a little more serious, the sort of feminist issue at bay – an omniscient voice, an authoritative voice, is almost never female.  And why is that?  And perhaps it’s just ‘oh, people are just used to the male voice, that’s just how it is.’  Well, I don’t know if that’s quite good enough.

I think it’s strange when you have female-dominated content, addressed to women, and there’s still a male selling it to you.  Especially in the movie trailer.”

Bell admits that at least tampon commercials seem to get it right with a female voice selling you the product.  But she believes that the “fear-based” movie industry is too timid to shake up the system and employ women’s voices in trailers.  She makes a reasonable argument: “If it’s a chick flick, you’re already going for the female audience […] why not have a female authoritative voice to go see the movie?”

Through no fault of Bell’s, “In A World” is being released into a climate where women’s stories are still undervalued by major Hollywood studios.  This summer, two full years after “Bridesmaids” and “The Help” were box office smashes, there was just one movie with a female protagonist: “The Heat.”  Bell said that she loved the Bullock-McCarthy buddy comedy, admitting “[‘In a World’] is nice to be next to ‘The Heat’ where there is a dearth of female-driven movies.”

Asking her about “The Heat” opened up another conversation, perhaps her most profound statement of the day.  Bell pointed out that there’s a vast double standard in the way that our society looks at films based on the gender of their protagonists.  (Yes, this was the aforementioned “soapbox” moment.)

“The word rom-com has become such a negative stamp only because even though I love a great rom-com, when it’s a female-driven movie, it’s often immediately stamped as a rom-com.  While it’s not technically a love story, it’s a comedy that has family drama and family fodder.  And there’s romance and there’s all kinds of industry competitiveness and ego bashing.

Gosh, I hate to get on my soapbox – but if it’s male-dominated and has to do with marriage and relationships and love, it’s never called a romantic comedy.  Like ‘Wedding Crashers’ is LITERALLY about weddings and people getting together.  If it were a female-driven movie, it would be considered a rom-com.  Because it’s a male-dominated movie, it’s a BUDDY comedy!”

Lake Bell as Carol SolomonSo after taking a powerful stand for women on film, what’s next for Bell?

She’s currently at work on her next feature called “What’s The Point?”  When I asked her if she could share anything, she replied, “I can’t really speak to ‘What’s The Point?’ because it’s so embryonic at this point and I think it would be doing it a disservice if I speak too much about it.  But I’ve been working on it for a year intermittently and I continue to do so.”  After my time with Lake Bell, I certainly look forward to seeing her further explore and develop her voice.  She has meaningful things to say; someone needs to give her a louder microphone.

REVIEW: In A World

23 08 2013

In a world where the movies began to buckle under the weight of copious cliches, one movie dared to be different.  It was not a romantic comedy yet still had romance.  It was not a drama but managed to tackle serious issues convincingly.

While I might have made Lake Bell’s “In a World” sound like some kind of panacea, it’s really just a nice, simple movie that does a lot of things very right.  As a feature debut for Bell (who I only knew from her supporting turns in “It’s Complicated” and “No Strings Attached“), the film is certainly promising for many great things to come.  She makes no major missteps in her finely-tuned comedy, but it is rather safe and risk-free.

Bell also wrote the film’s script, which contains a smart and well-observed feminist critique.  In a summer where “The Heat” was the only major studio release with a female protagonist, “In a World” opens up a fascinating dialogue about sexism and male hegemony in the art of voice-overs.  While much of the film is industry-specific, Bell gives us plenty of food for thought about women in any workplace.  She even manages the current impasse for many women between symbolic affirmative action and equal judgment with finesse.

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