2022 was a good year for movies, for the most part—refreshingly so after two years where you can blame the poor output on the pandemic (though also another year before that, where you can't). But, man, some of the movies people have hyped the most have been some of the least worthwhile. Here's some more mini-ish reviews of a couple of aggravating films I didn't like, The Banshees of Inisherin and We're All Going to the World's Fair, plus a couple of pleasant little animated movies that I did, Inu-oh and The Bob's Burgers Movie.
"You're all feckin' boring!" cries Siobhan Suilleabhain (Kerry Condon) about two-thirds of the way through The Banshees of Inisherin, giving voice to my inchoate feelings as regards the ulcerating feud that has developed between her brother Padraic (Colin Farrell) and his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson) over the latter's decision to end their friendship of many years because the former is, as Colm has it, simply an excruciatingly dull time-sink. And nevertheless did Martin McDonagh make a movie about them. Siobhan isn't very interesting either, for the record. She has Belle Trait: her personality is she's literate. As for the movie McDonagh made, what we have is basically a stageplay that happens to have establishing shots sometimes—McDonagh, an Oscar-nominated (maybe Oscar-winning, I forget) filmmaker, is perhaps still fundamentally a playwright, for better and worse—and such establishing shots as there are here are mostly just things he likes to drop in, as editing bumpers. The cinematic element of Banshees is mostly just wondering how a movie devised for theatrical release and with some of the most Hibernian stretches of Ireland at its disposal still looks so much like streaming content in terms of its photography and color grading (the most "theatrical" element is that it's in 'Scope ratio, which is always the right choice for any film that is mostly close-ups and two-shots). However, if I'm being very nice I do in fact like the occasional use of windows made out of badly-made early 20th century glass to construct frames-within-frames, principally by having Farrell milling about outside a structure, frowning like a middle-aged puppy through the distorting glass whilst Gleeson, sitting in the foreground, scowls and pointedly ignores his silent entreaties. These threaten to be funny until, as they almost inevitably do, those silent entreaties become active wheedling and Padraic turns about and enters said structure. This is pretty much his whole character, now that I think about it, except he gets madder about it as time goes on.
This is, in fact, pretty much the whole movie, except I didn't mention Barry Keoghan playing a weird kid named Dominic who exists to... mainly give Padraic someone to talk to, which is a bummer for Padraic because nobody wants to talk to Dominic, so if you're really squinting you can see it as a sort of parallelism. It's unclear if Padraic's donkey wants to be somebody for Padraic to talk to, though the animal is probably anyone's best company here. I suppose I have neglected to mention the hook: this is that Colm hates Padraic so much that eventually, to deter his clinging ex-friend from continuing to waste his time and mental energy, he threatens to begin slicing off his own fingers if Padraic even talks to him, and as this is a narrative (I think this would remain true whether it was a movie or a stageplay), McDonagh is obviously not going to fail to reward us for waiting to see this threat pay off. Indeed, it pays off much earlier than you'd guess, though for reasons that don't have much to do with observation of normal communal behavior anywhere, the secondary cast continues to associate with this off-puttingly violent lunatic.
So we have that screenplay, acclaimed by basically everyone who's seen the damn thing, celebrated immediately upon its release and with no signs of that celebration ending till it wins out over better-deserving nominees, because the world in general and the Oscars in particular exist to stress me out. It reminds me how out in the wilderness I can be sometimes, because personally I found the vast majority of this tediously try-hard, and apt to provoke a genuinely physical irritation. Some of this irritation comes from the wearisome dialect play here with Irish English that everyone is ready to accept as ethnographic precision despite the fact the name of the setting is "Irish Island," but vastly more of it comes from the nails-on-chalkboard recycling of the same dialogue patterns that render every single character—despite explicit textual distinction!—as having the same exact voice, namely McDonagh's voice. It blows my mind that the world is almost unanimous in the opinion that this is artfully hilarious, rather than what I perceived, which was just characters constantly repeating the last words of the previous line of dialogue so that the simplest couplet telescopes out into infinity. ("I'm going to the pub." "You're going to the pub?" "Aye, I'm going to the pub, so." "Go to the feckin' pub then, so." [pause] "I'll be goin' to the pub." And would you be sure that's not actual dialogue? Would you bet your life on it?) This is before we even consider the sheer dreariness of its stageplay pretentions: its black-clad "banshee" (Sheila Flitton), or the Irish Civil War occurring in the background (sometimes literally), reduced to symbolism in service of these two jerks, or the tiresome eagerness with which it wants you to "get" it.
And what is there to get? Our dearth of social rituals for breaking up with pals? The tyrannies of forced socialization on an island? How masculinity causes conflicts to escalate into absurdities with only vague connections to the original insult? The latter, of course, more than anything, hence Siobhan and her sole function of standing around rolling her eyes at the men around her, which is honestly fair enough because that's the movie's sole function, though it's not always that focused on its sole function (it shoehorns in a whole thing with Irish cops that it'd like you to consider "texture" but feels like an apology for its semi-sympathetic racist cop in Three Billboards, which is ineffective on a couple of levels). I guess it does what it set out to do, in some technical sense, but I got precious little out of this film, and I strongly preferred it when it was called What About Bob?
I laughed at that film. Banshees is supposed to be one of 2022's funniest movies, though, and I don't think I laughed at this more than once. Even so, Condon castigating Keoghan for chewing with his mouth open, prompting him to wonder aloud while food falls out of his face, "What is this, France?", did make me laugh. So don't believe I'm not willing to give full credit where it's due.
It was actually in 2021, though this film didn't acquire any kind of broad accessibility till this year, that Jane Schoenbrun made their second film and the first anybody's heard of, a movie about the Internet called We're All Going to the World's Fair, and I guess it achieves its goal of capturing the experience of being extremely online, insofar as it's savagely boring. Like, this is my counter-majoritarian post of the month, but Banshees of Inisherin? You like it, I don't, reasonable minds may differ, and it's all a matter of taste. The approving reception for World's Fair made my head explode. A headless person is writing this, so that's why it's likely to be jumbled. That praise has not been issued with total unifomity—though outside of the approving majority, you have to watch your step, because, quelle surprise, it's one more front in our fucking culture wars, hooray for our side—but that praise has come from observers as divergent as the tiresome arch-dweebs at Reverse Shot to my beloved sports goth philistine Frank Knezic at Film Junk, showing up on both of their year-end lists. And I mean... fine. I don't try to begrudge anybody anything that makes them happy and doesn't harm anyone else. Legally speaking, watching this movie did not harm me.
But if you were to tell me that the actual prompt for the project was to make a narrative feature that both embodied and exceeded the tedium of watching YouTube for an hour and a half, it would only make sense; it is, after all, a narrative feature about a kid watching YouTube. It's a movie that starts out with an opening long take, from the perspective of a laptop camera, that's about five minutes long—without exaggeration, five minutes long—where our protagonist Casey mostly just stares into that camera without saying anything, and this is still the most interesting the movie ever gets. This is literally the case, unless you like watching some ASMR chick poke you in the eye for an additional three minutes (I don't), but if you do, later on there's an ASMR video that runs in fucking full. Roger Ebert once said cinema was an empathy machine; what happens if you run it in reverse?
What irks me most of all is that, fundamentally, it's a PSA pretending to be an art film, in turn pretending to be a horror movie about haunted computers, so that anyone in their right mind ever would watch it; but it doesn't really know how to be a PSA either. Mostly that PSA is about the crushing insufficiency of life lived online at the bottom of the attention hierarchy, something I ought to be able to relate to pretty easily, and yet, given it's told via the hollowest shell of a person imaginable, no joy there. (There are other elements that are invisible unless you're told they're there, and are flat even when you are, plus I'm not sure if a "boring, suggestible moron does what the Internet tells them" is the fable you're looking for.) It's "about" an ARG called The World's Fair Challenge, a sort of digital Bloody Mary thing with Videodrome connotations, which Casey takes up, saying the words "We're all going to the world's fair" to a computer screen and documenting the "changes" that occur to her on social media after she's allowed the... I don't know, allowed the signal into her body?
I can't say, for it does not even pretend to be interested in this game that defines its protagonist's entire existence within her film's narrative, which is a choice, though it just throws into sharper relief how unfathomably dull she is and everything around her is. I assume what I'm about to say isn't true, because Schoenbrun is an Internet person steeped in this junk, but I watch a lot of this kind of the-net-is-vast Internet mystery trash on YouTube, too—movies and television and even audiobooks being actual art, I don't ordinarily put those on while I'm doing my boring job—and so it's weird how it feels like they don't really know enough about their subject to make a story out of it, and their only insight is that damaged teens can get too into it. (The more likely explanation is that Schoenbrun doesn't want to make a movie with a story. I'm not sure that's a charitable explanation, but, hey, guess what, they're a Lynch fan—their Twitter is the most comically banal thing—which means Schoenbrun is one more dime-a-dozen imitator asking really important questions about whether screens represent reality. Ooh. I'm not a huge Lynch fan, but at least the dude was a pioneer. Remember when films purporting to be art did shit with cinematic form? This is just "kids these days can make 'movies' on their phones, wow!," a bunch of cringe posts that may or may not—indeed, almost certainly do not—represent any emotional reality beyond Casey's hyper-vague dysthymic breakdown, as performed before an audience of nobody. It hits me like a diamond bullet that she's explicitly designed to be the most uninteresting version of her type.)
Meanwhile, the movie it actually most resembles (although I hate to insult the other movie like this), the very excellent Eighth Grade, was a better horror movie even though it wasn't a horror movie (it was more of a PSA!), because in that one there was always the blood-curdling psychosocial horror inherent to its protagonist's keen awareness of walking the boundary of utter humiliation every second of her existence in physical space. Weirdly, that kid wasn't very interesting as an individual either, but her movie was; so this isn't impossible, it can be done.
World's Fair, on the other hand, is like if the entirety of Eighth Grade were just its protagonist's low-traffic YouTube channel—can you actually humiliate yourself if no one else is there? (It also so strongly resembles Belle it replicates its relationship dynamics in fine detail, Casey's mom also gone, Casey's dad also distant, Casey also finding an unusual connection but only online. It's missing the cartoon's resonance, wonder, beauty, etc.; for a more neutral distinction, Suzu had some IRL friendships, while Casey appears to be a legitimate shut-in, at least in spirit, which unfortunately doesn't make her more fun to watch as she walks alone around her nondescript who-gives-a-fuck middle America town. If I wanted to investigate that, I have windows and legs. It's so disengaging, incidentally, that for a long stretch I was thinking solely about how even digital photography has lighting limits, so that while I may be able to see perfectly well at night after a snowstorm, certainly well enough not to bother with a lantern for a twenty yard walk, I guess either Casey, or her camera, cannot.) Anyway, it's scarcely a movie at all, except in the barest technical sense that I consider toilet paper commercials or surveillance camera footage to be the same fundamental medium: it is, I'll give it this, a supreme act of dadaism in the way it impresses upon you an unmistakable and thorough sense of how modern existence has grown increasingly incompatible with cinematic expression, and possibly storytelling and humanity in general. This is, still, the opposite of an achievement.
Plus one for positive Creepy Old Guy On The Internet representation, though! (I'm kidding. Even the heartwarming twist I thought was going to happen with this doesn't, so it doesn't even have that much story. But it absolutely has a bunch of useless tracking shots of the fellow wandering through his house/one of Schoenbrun's friend's mansions, to top it off for a feature's length!) But, Jesus, let me tell you, I would watch the dumbest-fuck Nexpo or Nexpo-adjacent video about ARGs or about spooooky LiMiNaL sPaCes (an empty mall! why, it's so uncanny I'm questioning whether I even exist!), and I'd do it twice, before I willingly watched this again. This is the worst new release I've seen in ages, worse than Space Jam 2, for even Space Jam 2 had more incisive things to say about how the relationship between art, technology, and ourselves has evolved in this age where everyone is talking all at once. It at least made me feel how much it sucks in a keener way.
Also in 2021, but only getting an American release last year, we have Inu-oh, and what a strange beast it is. As a relitigation of Minamoto power in the aftermath of the Genpei War in 12th century Japan, now rendered as a rock opera, we have here undoubtedly the year's cartoon that the fewest people specifically asked for—fewer, even, than must have asked "hey, what if Buzz Lightyear was real?"—but the upside is that it's the most idiosycratic and at least in contention for being the most interesting. I'm fascinated with its existence, anyway, even if 1)it's my least favorite Masaaki Yuasa feature by a substantial margin and 2)it often seems like it'd have made a better concept album than a movie. In fairness, I probably would never have listened to or even heard of the concept album, so that's another point in favor of "this movie exists."
Of course, if it's Yuasa, it's bound to be idiosyncratic; that's almost a superfluous description if you're remotely familiar with the director's work on television and film, though despite the oddest logline of any of his projects, this is also the one that feels the least like an exercise in the gaudy, overwhelming style (or even "styles," plural) that are his hallmark. That's obviously a judgment that could only exist on a curve set by this filmmaker (it is often still both gaudy and overwhelming), but, still, in many respects it feels like he's consciously pulling it back, the emotive maximalism of every one of his previous features being pared down to this one's apparent main goal of being a showcase for animating the human anatomy as an object that can produce music, and moves as a result of that music Hence the one protagonist, a dancer, with a massively warped anatomy, that changes over the course of the film (I believe there's an element of allegory to that, but let's leave it alone), as well as an unusual focus on the specific shape and arrangement of the teeth of the other protagonist, a singer and a biwa player, who becomes at length a rocker. (Together, they kind of form medieval Japanese Prodigy.) Inu-oh only truly takes off once this happens about halfway through, at this point transforming from a woodblock print-inflected edutainment cartoon about biwa music into a very long and practically uninterrupted series of fanciful and bitchin' diegetic rock numbers—not too far off from an animated concert film. (And as "diegetic" and "concert film" imply, by Yuasa standards, these musical numbers are comparatively grounded, which is both a strength and a weakness.)
The bad news, then, is that the first half is indeed a bit slow, and occasionally (to my ears) unpleasant, burdened with the perceived need to impress upon you just how different traditional Japanese music is to the anachronistic arena rock that takes over the film as part of its gambit to give new life to Japanese history (curiously, I'm not sure this movie about traditional biwa bards actually likes traditional biwa music any more than I do—it surely respects its practicioners, but the verbatim text of Inu-oh is that it's got no beat and you can't dance to it). It's also barely a narrative, and while I can't say that bothered me—Yuasa films certainly aren't beloved for their airtight plotting—it's also less interested in, or maybe just less good at, hooking your feelings than anything else I've ever seen from him, and I suppose that's a demerit.
Back in 2007, they made a movie out of The Simpsons, which pushed the limits of what that show's universe could bear even further than its previous nineteen years of asymptotically spiraling towards a singularity of high-flying nonsense already had. I expect the Bob's Burgers folks knew that would be the easiest comparison, so I kind of wonder how much the idea, "let's make this the diametric opposite of The Simpsons Movie," went into the process behind this production, and having decided that, they kept its stakes accordingly low. It's kind of weird but also an absolutely perfect fit for the Bob's Burgers concept, which has somehow kept trucking along for more than a decade now being almost exactly the same thing it started out as*, that they went as small-scale as a feature's length could possibly permit, essentially just making a very long episode of the show we already like. And so instead of a grandiose sci-fi plot where (for instance) Seymour's Bay is encased in a giant transparent dome and threatened with annihilation, The Bob's Burgers Movie is about Louise finding a dead body and solving a murder, a somewhat darker extension of the premise than usual, but a scenario that still feels like it must have already been an episode of the show by now, even if it's not.
It's good at what it wants to do, though, and manages to extend a Bob's Burgers episode to an eyebrow-raising 102 minutes without that ever feeling like it's unnecessary or it's gone stale, and that's already a win. Maybe it comes off like I'd complain either way, but it almost feels too focused, and it's somehow more-pared down to just its main cast of Belchers than the show ordinarily is. I mean, Teddy's here, but less so than usual, and discounting the Belchers' landlords, the Fischoeders, who serve antagonists' duty, the rest of the secondary cast is so backgrounded that you might not need both hands to count their lines—Tina's fantasy version of Jimmy Jr. has more screentime than the real one, and the fantasy version still doesn't have much. It's also a deeply shitty murder mystery: you can solve it so easily by just noticing who won't affect the show's continuity that I'm surprised it isn't a foregrounded joke. Even on a mechanical level, it's a little annoying—it eventually explains the plot hole of how a body got ten feet under the pavement in front of the Belchers' restaurant only to be revealed by a sinkhole, and somehow this makes it more annoying than if they'd just elided it, given that Louise, Tina, and Gene have never actually treated the locked-room aspect of their mystery as something to be mystified by. Yes, I know looking for a Christie plot in Bob's Burgers makes me the idiot.
But I laughed a fair amount and enjoyed it as a fan of the show. (And, for the record, the climax of the murder mystery plot is modestly terrifying.) Aesthetically, it does well enough with its one and somehow least-necessary nod to "we're making a movie for theaters now, I guess," the 'Scope frame, using the extra horizontal real estate to stage some cute physical jokes that rely on that real estate, and while the addition of money to the show's lovably-spare animation appears to have primarily translated into Drop Shadows: The Motion Picture, once I got used to it I kind of liked it. The other effect of "money," the show-off CGI, comes off a little uncanny in a lot of places, however, and frankly it's not even that useful, above all in the stiff digital animation of the musical numbers that they want to make a big deal out of and are each worse than virtually all of the more editing-driven numbers the actual TV show just pulls out of its ass on a almost-weekly basis. Still! Entertaining and good, warm porridge just like the show—indeed, some of the warmest porridge of one lousy year for American theatrical animation.
*Well, Tina used to be slightly more of a comic sexual predator, but they phased that out fairly quickly.