Screened Out invites you to add a third device for the Cinerama experience.
“What’s with all the movies?” was one of my father’s pet questions. “Don’t you ever read a book?” (This coming from a man who never cracked a spine in his life.) Years later, Dad’s counsel was revised to, “You watch too much television. Why don’t you go to a movie?” According to Jon Hyatt’s Screened Out, the fathers and mothers of today’s first “fully connected” generation are more likely to cry, “Enough Instagram! Watch a movie on your phone.” In olden times, MTV helped to reduce the extent of our already limited concentration range down to 3 minutes. According to Hyatt, the mobile age we live in has driven the average attention span down to 8 seconds, and he cites social media as the main culprit. My own addiction to screens began long ago, when I first set eyes on two Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. The hardest thing for me about quarantine is the absence of cinemas. Transitioning from the 60-foot screen in the big Grossmont theater to a telephone is like shooting dog water when the heroin runs out.
Screened Out opens on Super8 images of writer-director Hyatt’s childhood. Apart from the switch from film to video, what follows is little more than an extended home movie. Rather than experiment by eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner out of a McDonald’s bag, Hyatt made the personal sacrifice of swearing off all forms of digital interaction, save email and phone service.
Hanna-Barbera cartoons were designed without focal depth in mind. Everything plays out on a flat plane, with very little in the way of in-and-out movement. The modern approach to technology draws upon the exact opposite aesthetic. Immersive first person video games are engineered with a forward momentum guaranteed to suck the player ever further toward an unreachable horizon line. According to addictive app designer Nir Eyal, social media is an outgrowth of video gaming and advertising. As Hyatt points out, ours is a society engulfed in behavioral addiction. And unlike pinball or slot machines, the internet is an ever-evolving hit. The more content one posts to Twitter, the more “likes” s/he will get. The more “likes,” the greater the likelihood the psychological approbation will act like a shot of dopamine rushing through our system.
The one term that Hyatt permanently placed in my cinematic lexicography was “stoppage cues.” Movies have a finite running time. They end, you leave. The internet is designed to act as a vacuum to the brain; once attached, it sucks the user further and further down a black hole of killing time. Once powerful studio publicity hacks have been replaced with “brain hackers,” an elite corps whose job it is to make our smartphone interaction ever more addictive. There’s a lot to be learned here, but as a film, it makes a great research project. ★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Banana Split — Sometimes the worst enemies make the best friends. April (screenwriter Hannah Marks) could just as easily have pretended she was not Nick’s (Dylan Sprouse) ex and deleted Clara’s (Liana Liberato, liberating a gift for light comedy) phone number when the two came face-to-face at a party. But it turns out April is in-tune with Clara, and enjoys spending time in her company more than she does with the class stud who still has a thing for her. They could ditch Nick and sleep together, but why run the risk of ruining a good friendship, not to mention the outcome of this winsome romantic comedy? Marks’ semi-autobiographical script, co-written by her After Everything director Joey Power, is caustic enough to earn an R rating without falling prey to gross-out humor or the cheap coincidence frequently found in teen comedies. Completed in 2018, it played the festival circuit and has at last been deemed fit for movie lovers. A complaint: at 88 minutes, one could easily have withstood another half-hour spent in the company of these characters. 2018. —S.M. ★★★
The High Note — The personal assistant (Dakota Johnson, relaxed and confident) to a megastar headliner (Tracee Ellis Ross, peerless-ish) at the crossroads of Vegas residency and cutting a live greatest hits album tries branching out by guiding the career of a promising singer (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Considering the error margin potential inherent in the material, it’s surprising how freshly the situations unfold. Even the inevitable romance turns up structurally on time and unscathed. And allow me a moment to praise Ice Cube. From punching the “Yuh” in “Hawaii-yuh” to (for once) being on the giving end of a backstage dressing down that he could probably have ad-libbed based on past experience, the actor is at his comic best. Like a pair of expert skiers, writer Flora Greeson and director Nisha Ganatra slalom around the stereotypes, but rather than end the film pursuant to its title, the filmmakers close in a manner befitting the climactic reveal in a cheesy twist-ending thriller. Fun while it lasts, anyway. 2020. —S.M. ★★
The Postcard Killings — A hunch-playing, coarse-grained, and otherwise universal model New York detective (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) travels to London to ID the bodies of his daughter and her husband, butchered on their honeymoon by a couturier killer. But wait. It’s not the stitchery of one body-parts-transposing ghoul, but two. A young couple that, by the good fortune of the five (!) screenwriters it took to adapt the eponymous novel, settled on a shared career in serial killing. Director Danis Tanovic has a hard time keeping pace with the aridity of invention. The headquarters-addressed stamped clues, the viscous flashes of gore, the Big Apple bull poised to outsmart any of his Bobby-brethren… Isn’t there anything fresh on the menu? Just this: the identities of the pair and their desultory motivation in the name of art is but a bubble of originality floating atop a tank weighted down with neon confetti gravel. What follows is a matter of Xeroxing. 2020. —S.M. ★
The Wretched — Thirty-five years ago, someone left an Etch-A-Sketch in the rain while the witch in the basement had the neighbor kid for dinner. Five days ago — and with his parent’s divorce looming large — Ben (John-Paul Howard) arrived in town to spend a little chastisement time with dad (Jamison Jones); breaking into a neighbor’s home in search of Vicodin resulted in a short cast from a long fall. Now, Ben’s still a second-story man, this time with a pair of field glasses. The alternative-fashioned MILF across the way asks her baby boy to hold mommy’s beer while she’s dressing the very roadkill in which the monster lurks. Come the dawn, she’s bedecked in fashionable summer attire, the kid nowhere in sight. The monster is gentle enough to kill with a whisper, yet so steeped in fetid fragrance that flowers wilt in its presence. It’s one thing to shoplift from Hitchcock, but if the pace and structure of the film is any indication, I’m guessing the closest the Pierce Brothers came to Rear Window was Disturbia. 2019. —S.M. ★