How to Watch Movies
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A film critic for the Washington Post offers advice on watching movies.

Hornaday isn’t the first to write a primer about critically assessing films instead of subjectively responding to them as simply good or bad. Avoiding critical jargon, she hopes to guide novice viewers into “appreciating movies more fully when they succeed, and for explaining their missteps when they fall short.” She has conducted extensive interviews with film folk over the years, which adds an informed, insider’s quality to her discussions. Hornaday smartly divides the book into seven sections: screenwriting, acting, production design, cinematography, editing, sound and music, and directing. Within each section, the author poses a number of questions that she then answers (“where was the camera and why was it there?”), giving the book an unfortunate textbook quality. The narrative is also heavily prescriptive. Hornaday is quick to give her likes and dislikes: “I’ve never loved the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu…credibility might be the chief problem.” On acting, “the most fundamental element of cinematic grammar,” she cites John Sayles: “casting the right actors is easily 90 percent of the [director’s] job.” But mistakes are made. Cameron Diaz was “fatally miscast” in The Gangs of New York. One of the stronger sections is production design, often overlooked by general moviegoers. It encompasses backdrops, locations, sets, props, costumes, hair, and makeup. Done well, writes the author, it establishes “the overall look of a film, the sense of richness, texture, and detail.” In the cinematography section, Hornaday confesses that one of the “few things I truly despise in life…[is] 3-D.” She was “awed” by Sandra Adair’s editing work in Boyhood; Raging Bull and GoodFellas are “masterpieces of editing and rhythm.” The section on sound and music is also good, the one on directing poor, and because the author’s picks are very American-centric, the book’s scope is limited.

If uninspiring, this is a user-friendly, nonintimidating guide to appreciating movies.

Pub Date: June 13th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-465-09423-3
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2017


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