Tag Archives: Lake Bell

You Wanna See a Dead Body?


by Hope Madden

We’re invited to a turning point for four best friends. This is the last weekend of summer. On Monday, Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanal Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) will be middle schoolers.

The first moments of Summering communicate the film’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. Heavy-handed, stilted voiceover narration sinks what is otherwise a jubilant, funny and very authentic opening.

Daisy, in voiceover, as we watch four adorable youngsters walk and talk through their suburban neighborhood: Summer has no walls. You can go anywhere.

Mari, on-camera dialog about that time her mom made her use the men’s room because the line for the women’s room was too long: Pee was everywhere. It was like a lake of man pee.

Summering walks that weird balance for its entire run time. One moment beams with the authentic lunacy of pre-adolescence. The next, adult male writers wax poetic and pretend that poetry sprung from the mind of a 12-year-old girl.

Director James Ponsoldt (The Circle, The Spectacular Now) and co-writer Benjamin Percy set the kids on an adventure before school and life changes the delicate balance of their circle. It amounts to a modern retelling of Stand By Me, with lower stakes, less ground to cover, and a wild lack of logic. Ponsolt and Percy seem desperate to capture the raw honesty of Reiner’s classic King adaptation, but their result’s a cloying mess.

The performances – especially Redfield and Megan Mullally as Mari’s mom – charm and endear with authenticity. Victoria and Mills succeed in crafting individuals, girls with backstories and personalities. Barnett, paired with an effective if woefully underused Lake Bell as the mom who drinks, struggles with the heavy emotion of an arc that’s clearly telegraphed.

It’s another way the storytelling rings false scene after scene.

Helicopter parents and cell phones, cartwheels and nostalgia, Ponsolt brings together all the elements for a modern ode to the last moments of childhood. And he tries really hard. But he’s unconvincing.

We Fought a Zoo


by Matt Weiner

Harder even than finding a cryptid these days might be getting to see a new animated feature meant for adults. Cryptozoo, the latest from comic book artist Dash Shaw and animator Jane Samborski, is compelling proof of how vital it is that we still do—rare as these sightings get.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the many excellent animated options we do get, all with the requisite PG+ jokes to keep parents occupied and weepy climaxes that make you realize a matinee out with the family has turned into at least three future therapy sessions for a child 20 years into the future. But it’s refreshing to get a chance to see lushly textured, hand-drawn animal work go toward interrogating society just a little more than something like “stereotypes are bad.”

Cryptozoo kicks off as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a mythical twist. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), trained veterinarian and globetrotting cryptid hunter, tracks down these strange creatures and offers them a place in a protected zoo where they can safely interact with the public as well as their own kind.

Not all cryptids are humanoid, though—you try explaining “Jurassic Park but with sasquatch” to a kraken—and so the zoo’s population is a mix of humanely captured exhibits and fully sentient magical creatures who just want to live and love and go about their daily lives without fear of persecution or worse from their human neighbors.

The “worse” comes in the form of Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mercenary ex-military tracker who hunts down cryptids to sell to governments as living weapons. When Nicholas and Lauren go after the same beast (a dream-eating baku), Lauren must partner up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), whose point of view on coexistence as a gorgon leads Lauren to slowly question her lifelong pursuit and recoil from the stinging indictment of liberalism and capitalism.

If that sounds like a drag, Shaw’s script—and especially the meticulous drawings and whimsical details on each cryptid—keep it buoyant. The result is an ambitious animated feature where the medium fits the message. This is a bestiary with real bite, mapping out a world where good intentions can still come to a bad end, and that can be the most important moral to learn.

Off the Leash Again

The Secret Life of Pets 2

by Hope Madden

Illumination, the animation giant behind all things Minion, returns to their blandly entertaining dog franchise for the blandly entertaining sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2.

In the 2016 original, Louis C.K. voiced a neurotic terrier named Max who needed to loosen up a little once his beloved owner brought home a huge, lovable Newfie mix (in a NYC apartment?!). And while life lessons were the name of the game, the real gimmick was to take the Toy Story approach to house pets, giving us a glimpse into what they’re up to when we’re not around.

Because we really don’t want to associate him with children anymore, C.K.’s been replaced by Patton Oswalt, whose Max has all new reasons for anxiety. There’s a new baby, whose presence suddenly reinforces all those fears about the big, scary world.

In a move that’s as disjointed as it is interesting, returning writer Brian Lynch sends Max, Newfie Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and family on a trip to the country, creating one of three separate episodes that will eventually intersect. Well, crash into each other, anyway.

The  main story deals with trying to alpha Max up a bit with some problematically “masculine” training by way of farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who, among other things, disregards therapy as weakness.

Basically, Lynch and director Chris Renaud think we’re all a little too precious (the clear message of the original) and what they’d like to do with their sequel is beat us about the head and neck with that idea.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Chloe the cat (Lake Bell – the film’s deadpan bright spot) train to retrieve a chew toy from a crazy cat lady’s feline-overrun apartment. And separately, Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart), believing himself to be a super hero, befriends Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), and together they save a baby tiger from an evil Russian circus.

For real.

That last bit gets seriously weird, I have no idea what they feed this baby tiger the whole time, and on average, the actual lessons learned are troublingly old school (read: conservative).

Teaching boys that pretending they’re not afraid so they can take charge of every situation = literally every single problem on earth right now. So let’s stop doing that.

Otherwise, though, Illumination offers yet another blandly entertaining, cute time waster.

Dogs and Cats, Living Together… Mild Hysteria

The Secret Life of Pets

by Matt Weiner

For a madcap family movie, The Secret Life of Pets raises some deeply disturbing questions. How much libido could fuel a romantic subplot when the lovers have been neutered? Why does “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” cue up during a drive into Manhattan? And exactly where is the autonomic system located on a sausage?

Alas, The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me franchise veterans), answers none of these questions. Instead, the movie offers up a diverting animated comedy with plenty of action but little cohesion or earned emotion to back it up.

The plot, as much as it exists other than to fling a Bronx Zoo’s worth of animals across New York City set pieces, hints at a Toy Story-light conflict between earnest terrier Max (Louis C.K.) and the newly adopted Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a gruff Newfoundland with a sad past.

It’s fitting that Duke, a shaggy dog, gets the action going. Once he and Max find themselves captured by the only two animal control officers in a city of 8 million, the sole remaining tension is whether Max and Duke will learn to get along before or after a successful rescue effort, as led by Gidget the tougher-than-she-looks Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) and Chloe, a scene-stealing cat (Lake Bell).

The Secret Life of Pets features inspired physical comedy, in a Buster-Keaton-meets-future-theme-park-ride kind of way that turned the Minions into cash cows. But it’s Pixar without the pathos: the movie never misses a chance to ignore any avenue for genuine emotion, whether it’s Duke learning what happened to his former owner or the streetwise villain Snowball (Kevin Hart, playing to the back row) hinting at the dark desires that animals really harbor toward their fickle owners.

It’s the single-note drone of the movie’s action that makes the glimpses of what might have been all the more remarkable. An extended fantasy sequence in a Brooklyn sausage factory takes place for no reason other than setting up a song-and-dance number that’s a drugged-out tribute to edible body horror, complete with dancing hot dogs made rapturous by their imminent consumption. None of this advances the plot in any way, but it’s a rare delight in a movie mostly content to coast.

In the end, predators and prey make amends, Max and Duke are ready for a sequel and a reliable supporting cast have made their case for a spinoff. Not bad for a day’s work in New York. But the real secret is that our pets are very much like their human counterparts: they share our likes and dislikes, our strengths and our flaws, and — most of all — our willingness to settle for just good enough.





Slumdog Maguire

Million Dollar Arm

by Hope Madden

Disney – the studio who brought you Miracle, The Rookie, and Invincible – needs a family-friendly sports movie for the summer. It must be based on a true story. It requires one or more underdogs, a romantic subplot, and plenty of opportunities for lessons learned. Fish out of water are a plus.

The only surprising thing about Million Dollar Arm is the group of people who convened to answer Disney’s ad for a blockbuster.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy join a talented cast who, collectively, have no business making a predictable crowd pleaser like this. McCarthy, in particular, had a flawless resume up to now, having written and directed the brilliant Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win and having written the Pixar masterpiece Up. What’s going on here?

The two inexplicably crafted a film from the true(ish) story of down-on-his-luck sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his plan to find the next great MLB pitcher in India. And while Million Dollar Arm is equal parts Slumdog Millionaire and Jerry Maguire, and is obvious as all get out, it’s somehow pleasant and appealing.

The filmmaking duo seem to embrace the cliches of their topic, and they manage to expose some ugly realities – sports capitalism, for instance – while they’re at it. They are aided immeasurably by a cast that, too, has far too much talent to be involved with this film.

Jon Hamm embodies the flawed humanity of his character beautifully. While his romantic entanglements are as unmistakable as the hard-won lessons in his near future, his grace and humor provide enough distraction to almost overcome the lack of surprise.

Likewise, neighbor/love interest Lake Bell and potential MLB phenoms Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) charm in roles that could easily have been one-dimensional. Instead, the three develop a sweet chemistry and find a little believable complexity for their characters.

Alan Arkin, on the other hand, offers the same performance we’ve seen from him in his last 20 or more films, while Bollywood star Pitobash settles for broadly drawn comic relief.

Together it’s a mish-mash effort that has no business entertaining as much as it does. Even penned inside a formula, McCarthy can write, Hamm can act, and Gillespie can make it all appear fresh regardless of the fact that we know from the opening credits exactly what we’ll see by the time those credits roll again two hours later.



Familiar Faces, Fresh Filmmaking Voices for Your Queue


Lake Bell makes her feature directing debut with a clever and insightful look at the world of voiceover talent, In a World… , which is available today on DVD. Also writing and starring, she plays Carol, quirky vocal coach and daughter to a buttery-voiced industry legend who doesn’t believe women belong in his business. Boasting finely drawn characters as well as wit and charm to spare, Bell’s unique debut will leave you smiling.



Pair it with Joseph Gordon Levitt‘s debut behind the camera and pen, Don Jon. Both newbie filmmakers show surprising confidence and genuine aptitude. JGL plays a Jersey player who has either found the girl of his dreams or is facing a harsh reality about his intimacy problems. A witty and honest and insightful observation of our times.



A Unique Voice


by George Wolf


Well, I admit it, I didn’t see this coming from Lake Bell.

Bell, known mainly as an actress from her multiple film and television roles, does have experience writing and directing short films. Even so, In a World…, her debut feature as writer/director/star, has the assured confidence of a much more seasoned filmmaker.

It is a clever, witty, insightful film, uniquely set inside the professional voiceover industry.

Bell plays Carol, a voice coach who also happens to be the daughter of one of the most legendary voices heard in movie trailers (Fred Melamed). Though Carol would love to follow in her father’s buttery-voiced footsteps, she’s repeatedly told it is not an area where women are welcomed.

While her personal life spirals downward, Carol’s professional life sees an uptick. Unexpectedly, she finds herself in direct competition with her arrogant father and his douche of a protege (Ken Marino) for a coveted gig voicing the trailers of a new, Hunger Games-style “quadrilogy.”

Though never really laugh out loud hilarious, In a World… offers much to keep you engaged and smiling. Bell’s script delivers finely drawn characters, smart dialogue, and honest takes on love and sexism that feel refreshingly real.

Bell elicits wining performances from her ensemble cast (along with a couple nice cameos) and delivers a star-worthy performance herself, moving easily between emotional, goofy or sexy.

Surprise or not, In a World… establishes Bell as an original filmmaking voice with great potential. It is a movie that knows where it’s going from the opening frame, and Bell has no trouble keeping you thoroughly charmed as she slyly drops some knowledge.