How to watch movies: A critic explains it all

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Did you ever go to a movie and say to yourself: “Boy, that was a stinker!” Recently, that was my exact feeling after watching the fiasco, The Mummy. I thought, “Where is Lon Chaney, Jr., the mummy in that 1941 film classic, when you needed him the most?”

Sofia Boutella as the Mummy

This 2017 version of the mummy legend lacked a lot; especially a cogent plot, careful editing and a steady hand at the directorial helm. It was literally all over the place. Maybe, this was because it had three writers. Even Tom Cruise in the lead — doing stunts, too — couldn’t save The Mummy from flopping artistically, and (more painfully), at the box office as well.

On the flip side, one of my fave flicks was L.A. Confidential. It came out in 1997. I recall watching it down in historic Fell’s Point on Thames Street, in Baltimore, MD, at George Figgs’ now-defunct Orpheum Cinema. It had everything you might want in a movie: a great plot; terrific actors — such as Russell Crowe, the lovely Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey (n/k/a Francis Underwood of “House of Cards” fame) — action; writing; top notch directing; and lots of unforgettable scenes.

Kim Bassinger was such a major hottie in this film that Crowe (a hard-nosed cop) and Guy Pearce (another LA detective) were beating the hell out of each other just to get her attention.

Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey in “L.A. Confidential”

My favorite scene from that movie is where James Cromwell (as a crooked police detective) snuffs out Danny DeVito (a smarty pants editor of a scandal magazine) with that “hush-hush” line, while cutting off his breathing. The film was based on a riveting novel by James Ellroy. “L.A. Confidential” also had a surprise ending!

Now, there is a book out to guide movie-goers about how to fully appreciate a movie — good and bad, alike. Of course, it has something to say about my fave, L.A. Confidential. It also explains in detail the prime ingredients that contribute to a film’s final outcome. The title is: Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies. Its author is Ann Hornaday. Her day job is reviewing films for the Washington Post.

Along the way, Hornaday also did a stint movie reviewing with the Baltimore Sun and at the Austin American-Statesman.

Hornaday uses seven sections in her book to analyze the main attributes of a movie. You will recognize most of these: screenwriting, acting, production design, cinematography, editing, sound and music, and the biggie, the maker or breaker: directing.

In practicing her craft over the years, Hornaday has interviewed many talented people in Hollywood and beyond, who make movies for a living. This has included: directors, screenwriters, producers, actors, sound technicians, cinematographers and editors. So, her book has some inside stuff from the experts themselves, and usually what they have to say is right on target. Hornaday works their astute comments skillfully into each of her seven sections.

Before launching her career as a movie reviewer, Hornaday was given some guidance from a fellow journalist. He suggested asking herself these three relevant questions: “What was the artist trying to achieve? Did they achieve it? And, was it worth doing?”

Hornaday added that those key questions have served her as a “North star” throughout her career. They also happen to be the advice that the legendary Goethe gave on reviewing theatre.

All of the above, Hornaday suggests, gets you to that mother of all questions: What make a movie “good?” And conversely, what makes a movie — “bad?”

Not even Tom Cruise doing his own stunts could save “The Mummy”

After each chapter in the book — I really like this part — Hornaday included examples of movies that “captured the best practices of a particular cinematic discipline.” For this segment, she also cited films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” right up till the “present moment” to make her points.

Hornaday underscored how the hundreds of artists that she has interviewed over the last 25 years or so kept the “highest ideals” of filmmaking in their minds during the challenging “creative process.” Her book will help the reader see movies “in a new light,” not just as a fan but as a “film critic” in their own right.

The writing style of Hornaday is straight forward and easy to follow. Her book, which I am strongly recommending, is not only for the movie buff and the wannabe movie buffs, but for a general audience as well. There are plenty of gems in it.

Photos are YouTube screenshots except book cover
Top photo: Kim Bassinger in “L.A. Confidential”