Good Boys (2019)

I laughed at least once for every minute of Good Boys, which I don’t know that I can say about any other mainstream comedy in recent memory. Even other coming-of-age sex comedies like Blockers, Booksmart, and The To Do List can’t compete with this film’s joke-to-laugh ratio, despite being objectively Better films on the whole. Of course, humor is subjective, especially considering the specificity of this film’s POV in its suburban teen boy sexuality, so I can’t claim that every filmgoer will have the same high success rate with Good Boys‘s many, many gags as I did. I do feel confident in saying that the film is far more endearing & well-written than its initial “Superbad except with cussing tweens” reputation prepared me for, though. This is not a one-joke movie about how funny it is to watch children do a cuss; it’s got a lot on its mind about innocence, the pain of outgrowing relationships, and what distinguishes the earnest generation of radically wholesome kids growing up beneath us from our own meaner, amoral tween-years follies. These are very good boys.

A major aspect of this film’s success is that it acknowledges its own limitations from the outset. Its story of young tween boys’ friendships struggling to survive the social perils of sixth grade is about as low-stakes as any narrative that’s ever reached the big screen. A couple larger comedic set pieces within the film (including drug trafficking, an interstate pile-up, and a frat house brawl) distract from the plot’s total lack of meaningful consequences, but for the most part the film keeps its conflicts intimate & small. The pint-sized trio at its center want to attend their first “kissing party” at the coolest kid in sixth grade’s house. In order to achieve that modest goal, they have to avoid getting grounded, dodge teen girl bullies, try their first sips of (room temperature) beer, and maintain their solidarity as a unit even though they’re clearly outgrowing the friendship that binds them. The details of the obstacles that stand in their way can be outrageously broad, leaning into the tweens-confronted-with-sex-drugs-and-violence humor promised in the ads. Their goals & circumstances remain aggressively minor, however, and much of the humor reflects how the least meaningful bullshit imaginable means everything to you at that age, because the world you occupy is so small & inconsequential.

There’s an intelligently mapped-out relationship dynamic maintained between the three titular boys as their meaningless, go-nowhere adventure shakes their friendship to its core. Jacob Tremblay stars as the loverboy heartthrob of the group, the only one who has an active interest in reaching the kissing party destination. Keith L. Williams & Brady Noon co-star as the angel & devil on his shoulders, respectively, staging a constant moral-compass tug-of-war that steers his focus away from his girl-kissing objective with distractions like Doing the Right Thing and Searching for Beer. Of course, even the most wicked of the trio isn’t all that maliciously evil in the grand scheme of human morality. Not only are these children too young to get into too much trouble; they’re also from a nicer, more considerate generation that’s being raised with a less toxic model of a masculine norm. If we’re comparing this film to Superbad, it’s impossible to not notice how much sweeter, more vulnerable, and more aware of the value of Enthusiastic Consent these children are compared to the generations who preceded them. Superbad is often praised for its final emotional grace notes shared between teen-boy friends who’ve struggled to maintain a tough masculine exterior throughout their entire gettin’-laid adventures, to the detriment of their relationship. Here, the earnest vulnerability & emotional grace notes are constant & genuine from frame one, providing some much-needed hope for the men of the future.

If you’re looking to Good Boys for broad jokes about children doing cusses and failing to differentiate what is and what is not a sex toy, the movie is more than happy to supply them. And those jokes are funny too! They’re just not all that’s going on. I won’t say this film is better constructed or more emotionally satisfying than its fellow 2019 Superbad revision Booksmart (with which it shares a Run the Jewels needle drop and a goofball-dad performance from Will Forte), but I do think it equally clarifies what makes the earnest generation of youngsters growing up right now so unique & promising while also garnering more guffaws-per-minute on a joke efficiency scale. As a pair, the two films work well in signaling that the kids are alright, a refreshing sentiment in a mainstream comedy landscape that likes to stigmatize Gen-Z as #triggered #snowflakes (while also often miscategorizing them as Millennials for some reason). It also proves that you can participate in that open-hearted earnestness without sacrificing the horned-up raunch and deliberately offensive edginess everyone pretends is disappearing from mainstream comedy in these supposed “safe space” times. You’re just no longer tolerated for being an inhumane dickhole while doing so. Be better. Be a good boy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Predator (2018)

Everything about The Predator makes it sound like it’s exactly My Thing. Director Shane Black’s most recent feature, The Nice Guys, is one of my favorite comedies in recent memory. His 1987 collaboration with screenwriter Frank Dekker, The Monster Squad, was a personally formative introduction to classic horror tropes & monsters for me as a young child. The original Predator film (in which Black appeared as an actor in a minor role) isn’t exactly my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but is still a wonderfully tense, over-the-top sci-fi creature feature with an incredible monster design. Black’s latest sequel to that action-horror milestone even participates in a suburban-invasion monster movie trope that I’m always a sucker for, making me far more forgiving than most audiences for little-loved films like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Strange Invaders, and even Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. That’s why it’s so baffling that The Predator is likely the worst experience I’ve had with a movie all year, a total letdown.

After the laugh-a-minute slapstick violence of The Nice Guys, the last thing I expected from The Predator was to relive my discomfort watching the Deadpool movies. The same performatively #edgy, coldly sarcastic, Gen-X throwback humor that makes Deadpool so exhaustingly unfunny is rampant here, with Black & Dekker indulging in their worst impulses as provocateur humorists who believe they’re pushing the envelope of Political Incorrectness but at this point are only reinforcing the status quo. The difference is that watching Deadpool with a live audience is an alienating experience where everyone in the room Gets The Joke but you, whereas The Predator’s humor falls flat with the entire room. Jokes about “Assburgers,” Tourette’s, “loonies,” and men named Gaylord play to laughless, stony silence. An extensive bit where Olivia Munn must strip naked to escape death is only made more uncomfortable by extratextual reports of the actor’s anger over been tricked into working with an undisclosed sexual predator in the cast (in a since-deleted scene). The problem isn’t that this style of juvenile shock humor is too offensive or tasteless to be enjoyed in public. It’s that it has become so old-fashioned that it’s too hacky to be funny.

A UFO crashes, releasing a Predator at the edge of the suburbs. The government attempts to cover it up. Escaped mental patients feebly attempt to kill it. A precocious child (played by Jacob Tremblay, who might need the talent agent equivalent of Child Protective Services at this point of his career) saves the day through his autistic superbrain. It’s all wacky, disconnected nonsense barely edited together with any sense of linear coherence in service of franchise-minded worldbuilding. Some of the franchise set-up is admittedly fun – namely in the film’s conceit that the Predators are intergalactic travelers that purposefully merge their DNA with various species, leading to hybrid specimens like dog-Predators & gigantic mega-Predators. Mostly, though, it makes The Predator feel like an inconsequential episode in a franchise looking to reinvigorate itself for future follow-ups. In true Deadpool fashion, Black & Dekker even joke about that franchise-wide storytelling style in the dialogue, having a government goon explain that the Predators have arrived on Earth before in ’87 & ’97, “but lately visits have been increasing in frequency,” a blatant dig at projects like the Alien vs. Predator crossovers and 2011’s (totally fine, but mostly forgotten) Predators. The problem is, though, that like most of the film’s humor, the joke falls flat and only serves to question what we’re even doing here, why we’re even bothering – both as creators and as audience.

Not everything about The Predator is horrendous. Olivia Munn & Trevante Rhodes mostly escape with their reputations intact. Sterling K Brown is, despite the material, genuinely fun to watch as a scenery-gnawing government goon, making even the emptiest phrases like “Fuck yeah,” land with surprisingly satisfying humor. Jacob Tremblay & Keegan-Michael Key fare the worst, but can’t be blamed for the idiocy they were employed to recite, dialogue where phrases like “Shut the fuck up!” are considered the pinnacle of verbal quipping. Some of that failed humor is softened by the cheap-thrills payoffs of the film’s hard-R gore & creature feature delights, which are admirably dedicated to practical effects. Speaking as a shameless gore hound & a lover of over-the-top monster movies, though, there’s no amount of practical splatter or space alien badassery that can fully cover up the stink of a comedy that fails this disastrously to be funny. The jokes are plentiful here, but plenty unamusing – sucking all of the fun out of the room with each #edgy punchline. There have likely been worse releases this year, but none I would have seen on purpose, none with this amount of unfulfilled promise.

-Brandon Ledet

The Book of Henry (2017)

If you ask around for recommendations on the best “bad” movies of 2017, you’re likely to see the title The Book of Henry listed just as often as more obvious (and, honestly, more satisfying) selections like Power Rangers & Monster Trucks. What’s surprising about that is The Book of Henry doesn’t feature the grotesque creatures, cartoonishly eccentric performances, and shoddy filmmaking craft that usually makes a good “bad” movie fun. In fact, on the surface it appears to be a whimsical melodrama about a precocious child’s struggles in an adult world. There’s nothing especially gaudy about its filmmaking craft; if it weren’t for the story it tells you could easily mistake it for a mediocre children’s film. There’s even a cast of familiar, always-welcome faces that should assure the audience that the story it tells is to be taken in good faith: Naomi Watts, Lee Pace, Sarah Silverman, Bobby Moynihan, an original song by Stevie Nicks, etc. The Book of Henry is insanely, incomprehensibly bad, though. It’s so bad, in fact, it completely derailed the career of Safety Not Guaranteed & Jurassic World hotshot Colin Trevorrow, who was on track to directing a Star Wars film before the intensely negative critical reaction to The Book of Henry (presumably) bounced him off the project. The important thing, though, is that The Book of Henry is bad enough to be a fun watch. It really is one of the more rewardingly bizarre cinematic offerings of the year, even if its appeal is the misguided lunacy of its basic premise.

Naomi Watts stars as the world’s most ineffectual mother. Left alone to raise two boys in the absence of their deadbeat father, she essentially has the emotional & intellectual maturity of a teenager: she works a low-level job as a waitress at an ice cream parlor (?) and wastes most of her free time playing video games while her oldest, smartest son Henry (IT’s Jaeden Lieberher) runs the household and raises her younger, much less special son (Room’s Jacob Tremblay). Armed with a level of over-written precociousness we haven’t seen onscreen since Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the 12-year-old Henry is an amateur inventor & stock market genius, a burdened talent whom too many people rely on to function as adults. As much pressure as all the adults in Henry’s life put on him to solve their grown-up problems, they paradoxically insist that he not interfere when he witnesses acts of domestic violence, a mental conflict that weighs on him so heavily it gives him a deadly brain tumor that takes his life halfway into the film. Here’s where the children’s film tone of The Book of Henry gets really weird. Henry continues to run his clueless mother’s life from beyond the grave, leaving behind notebooks, letters to her boss, forged legal documents, and audience-of-one podcasts planning every detail of her life, lest she waste it getting drunk & playing video games. Featured heavily among these detailed instructions is an assassination plot to murder the family’s next-door neighbor, a brutish police commissioner Henry has not been able to convince the other adults in his life is sexually assaulting his stepdaughter (Maddie Ziegler, of Sia music video fame). The whole thing culminates in Naomi Watts going along with these assassination instructions while her youngest, most alive son participates in a middle school talent show.  The two events tonally clash in an insane crescendo as the audience is asked, in bad taste, to alternate back & forth from alphabet burping to murder to break dancing to murder to magic tricks and back to murder again.

For me, The Book of Henry’s appeal as an unintended camp pleasure is entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure. Her complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment she’s visibly frustrated that she can’t ask him for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. The ease in which she slips into following his post mortem instructions, including the proposed murder plot, is awe-inspiringly bizarre. Early in the process, she puts her foot down in a stern, parental line reading of “We are not murdering the Police Commissioner and that is final,” but Henry’s conversational instructions walk her through her doubts and she follows his deadly plan anyway. Admittedly, she’s not the only adult in the Henryverse who treats him like he’s triple his age; Sarah Silverman’s alcoholic waitress even makes good on a long-running flirtation with Henry (!) by kissing him sensually on his death bed (!!) and then lingering long enough for him to get a good look at her tits (!!!). The mother’s narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. Naomi Watts is the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Trevorrow’s Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

If nothing else, The Book of Henry is solid proof that the clash of adult themes & childlike whimsy you see in the films of twee-labeled directors like Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Spike Jonze is not as easy to pull off convincingly as it may appear. Thankfully, the movie never explicitly depicts the domestic sexual abuse that sparks its assassination plot, but it’s still difficult to reconcile all of its whimsical Rube Goldberg contraptions & ukulele lullabies with the fact that it’s a heartfelt melodrama about brain tumors & child rape. The way other adults finally come to believe Henry about the abuse he’s witnessed through the all-important talent show climax is just as hilariously baffling as any of Naomi Watts’s embarrassments as an ill-conceived matriarch character. The Book of Henry concludes at its most ludicrous point, leaving you in stunned disbelief that something so blissfully inane made it from page to screen, which makes it understandable why it’s being bandied about as one of the better high camp pleasures of the year. The only question now is how Colin Trevorrow is going to break himself out of director jail now that The Book of Henry has (rightfully) destroyed his path to Star Wars infamy; I’m actually super curious to see what he does next.

-Brandon Ledet

Room (2015)

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There’s been a lot of recent buzz about the Incredible, Show-stealing, Oscar-worthy performance Brie Larson provides in the indie drama Room that is feel does the movie (and the actor) a disservice. I went into Room with sky-high expectations from early word of its soaring virtues, so I was a little let down when I discovered it’s actually a somewhat muted small cast drama, grim in nature, but rarely brutal or affecting enough to leave a significant, lingering impression. Room is a pretty great film, for sure, but its early reputation bills it as so Big & Important that it was more or less doomed to fall short of the mark no matter what. I enjoyed Brie Larson’s wounded-animal performance in the film a great deal, but I find myself a little dubious about the idea that she stole the show. In my mind Room‘s most valuable player is not Larson at all, but instead a young boy named Jacob Tremblay.

In the film, Larson plays a young mother who’s been held captive as a sex slave in a ten-by-ten foot garden shed in a suburban backyard for seven years & counting. Her five year old son, Jack, has never known life outside their single-room home. The movie commands a very direct mode of storytelling that avoids flashbacks or easy answers, gradually filling in the audience on the circumstances of the pair’s captivity without providing much release from the understandably oppressive tone. As you can guess based on the premise, the mother & son protagonists experience levels of boredom & frustration that lead to destructive tantrums far beyond what would typically be described as cabin fever. I will say, though, that although it isn’t quite as light-hearted as narratively similar recent examples of false imprisonment media like Everly or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance.

Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured. For him, Room is all there is, excepting “outer space” (the outdoors), “the TV planets” (which he believes aren’t real), and Heaven. Jack’s mother is often frustrated with his delusions, like when he asks, “Do we go into TV for dreaming?” but she also uses them to protect her son from the harshness of their severely limited reality. There’s a monumental dramatic shift halfway into Room that undercuts what makes the film special (something I suggest you avoid spoiling for yourself by watching the trailer), but much of the film can be downright uplifting whenever the story is told through Jack’s eyes. Of course, his perspective can also be a downer at times, like the pathetic way he addresses inanimate objects as if they were people (“Good morning, lamp.” “Good morning, TV.” “Good morning, sink.”), but because he’s a five year old boy he also brings levity to the situation with self-satisfying humor about things like poo & farts.

As I said earlier, Room is a pretty great movie. It occasionally reaches some impressive cinematic heights in moments of heart-pounding suspense or in the odd way it makes you appreciate abstract concepts like freedom & external spaces. However, I do feel that a lot of what makes the film special burns out a bit too early in its runtime, especially when it shifts perspectives from Jack’s to his mother’s. Brie Larson was undoubtedly understated & nuanced in her role as a captive mother here, which is admirable, but her character’s emotional crisis often felt like a distraction from what really makes the movie a distinct work in the first place: Jack. Try to temper your own trumped up anticipation for the film & you might find yourself bowled over in a way that I ruined for myself, especially if you can manage to shift your attention from Brie Larson’s lauded performance to that of Jacob Tremblay. That’s where the real magic resides.

-Brandon Ledet