Movies are more than screen deep. Here’s how to watch like a critic
HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: Jeffrey Brown picks the brain of a lifelong movie critic on how to get the most out of the moviegoing experience.
It's the latest installment of the NewsHour Bookshelf.
JEFFREY BROWN: A movie will teach you how to watch it, and while you can always eat your popcorn and enjoy the show, those lessons can be illuminating, entertaining, rewarding.
That's the guiding spirit of a new book called "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies."
Author Ann Hornaday is chief film critic at The Washington Post. She's joined me often here to help us watch current movies. And she's back to talk pictures.
ANN HORNADAY, Author, "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies": Hello.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, we can watch for fun. Right?
ANN HORNADAY: Absolutely.
JEFFREY BROWN: We can just enjoy.
But what is this? What are you trying to offer us?
ANN HORNADAY: Well, we live in an age of instant movie reviews, with social media and Web sites and aggregators. Everybody — literally, everybody is a critic.
JEFFREY BROWN: We all are.
ANN HORNADAY: We all are.
And everyone loves to weigh in. And that's a lot of fun. And this book is really designed for those people who are casual viewers and who do have a lot of fun weighing in, but might want to take their game up a notch.
And so what I have done with the book, I hope, is to guide readers through my process in evaluating a movie as a professional critic.
JEFFREY BROWN: The way you think about it as a critic. Right?
ANN HORNADAY: Exactly.
As I explain it in the book, I didn't start out as a movie buff. I kind of came to this sideways as a freelance writer. So I have actually learned to watch movies sort of on the job. And in many cases, that means through my interviews with filmmakers like writers, directors, and actors and different craftspeople.
And they have really taught me a great deal about this medium and how to appreciate it. And so a lot of their wisdom is included in the book.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, so the fun of this — and we're going to have some fun with this.
ANN HORNADAY: Oh, yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is go through the categories of filmmaking.
I asked you to pick a few examples. We are going to start with screenwriting. This is the great opening scene from the 2007 film "Michael Clayton." OK? Let's take a look.
ANN HORNADAY: Yes.
ACTOR: Two weeks ago, I came out of a building, OK? I'm running across Sixth Avenue. There's a car waiting. I have got exactly 38 minutes to get to the airport, and I'm dictating.
There's this panicked associate sprinting along beside me, scribbling in a notepad. And suddenly she starts screaming. And I realize we're standing in the middle of the street, the lights change, and there's this wall of traffic, serious traffic spinning towards us. And I freeze. I can't move.
And I'm suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I'm covered with some sort of film. And it's in my hair, my face. It's like a glaze.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, that's how a film opens, right, an unseen character, monologue, empty building.
ANN HORNADAY: Exactly.
It's just incredible. It's one of the great scenes of recent memory.
What I say in the book is, a movie — as you said, a movie teaches us how to watch it really within those first few moments. That's when we're hooked. That's when we know where we are, we're oriented, we're in an environment, we're in a world.
We have no idea how that voice-over narration relates to that scene that we're watching, but we have such a strong idea of the environment and the atmosphere. And we want to know more. And that's the great Tony Gilroy, the great screenwriter, making his directing debut with that movie.
And it was — it kept up that pace and that degree of intensity all the way through.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, our second example, I'm going to call this section visual storytelling, but it's about cinematography and design.
This is from 1976, "All The President's Men." Now, this is Robert Redford as reporter Bob Woodward. And it's a very subtle — you can — let's watch and you will explain it, but subtle.
ANN HORNADAY: Yes, one of my favorite scenes. Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Here it is.
ROBERT REDFORD, Actor: This is Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.
ROBERT REDFORD: About that $25,000 check deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, Mr. Bernard Barker. As you know, sir, the check has your name on it.
We were doing a story on this, and I was wondering if you would care to comment or explain.
ACTOR: I turned all my money over to the committee.
ROBERT REDFORD: What committee is that, sir, the Committee to Reelect?
JEFFREY BROWN: It's an almost imperceptible push into Redford. Right?
ANN HORNADAY: Exactly. Think about …
JEFFREY BROWN: But something is happening.
ANN HORNADAY: Something is definitely happening.
That is such a masterful shot, for many reasons. One is that the filmmakers, Alan Pakula, and Gordon Willis, his cinematographer, you know, if you think of a guy on a phone making a phone call, what could be more boring, what could be more static and more inert, right?
And so what they have done is, they pull back to get a sense of that environment, that highly charged environment in the newsroom. And they use..
JEFFREY BROWN: All those people on the left.
ANN HORNADAY: Exactly, who are in perfect focus, by the way. So, we can see them. And we see what they're doing and that they're reacting to what's on the news on television.
They did that by a way of split diopter. It's very technical. But they remain a very deep focus to take in that environment and that sense of tension.
And then, like you said, they just push in bit by bit in the course of this phone call. And it's followed by another one, where the tension is ratcheted up, as it starts to zoom in on Redford's face.
So, it's just a masterful example of how a very finely detailed production design, such as that was for "All the President's Men," where they literally reproduced The Post newsroom on an L.A. set, how a production design interacts with an actor and his performance to create — and then a camera move like that just to create this amazing sense of tension.
JEFFREY BROWN: The category that gets most attention usually is acting. Right?
ANN HORNADAY: Indeed.
JEFFREY BROWN: And so I want to watch a scene that is even from last year, and it's one I did on this program, "Manchester By the Sea." It's written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
And this is Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. Let's take a look.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS, Actress: We couldn't have lunch?
CASEY AFFLECK, Actor: I'm really sorry. I don't think so. But thank you for saying everything that you said.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: You can't just die.
CASEY AFFLECK: I'm not. I'm not. I'm not. And I'm …
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Honey …
CASEY AFFLECK: I want you to be happy.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Honey, I see you walking around here, and I just want to tell you …
CASEY AFFLECK: I would want to talk to you …
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Please.
CASEY AFFLECK: Please, I — I …
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: You have got to — I don't know what …
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I don't want to torture you.
CASEY AFFLECK: You're not torturing me.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I just want to tell you that I was wrong.
CASEY AFFLECK: No. No. No. You understand there's nothing — there's nothing there.
ANN HORNADAY: Oh, my gosh.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's very few words even spoken in this film.
ANN HORNADAY: Exactly.
JEFFREY BROWN: In that scene, I don't think anybody finishes a sentence. Right?
ANN HORNADAY: That's right.
And that's by design. I actually — you interviewed Kenny Lonergan. And I interviewed Casey and Michelle about him as a writer, saying, what is it about his screenplays that makes them different?
And they said, he spells everything out, including all of those um's and uh's out.
What people are saying on the surface is just surface. And it's really the tip of a very, very deep and fraught emotional iceberg. And so he's giving those actors something to play that, in the hands of a good actor, they can invest all that subtext in.
And so that's just a great example of screen acting at its finest, which is really all about just honesty and truth in the moment and playing that subtext.
JEFFREY BROWN: Pulling all of this together, of course, is the director. How did you come to see the director's role?
ANN HORNADAY: Well, in interviewing the filmmakers that I did over the years, the two words that kept coming up were taste and tone.
So, if we go back to that screenplay as the founding document of a movie, it's the director's job to realize that to its fullest potential.
So, when you mention somebody like a Kathryn Bigelow, the way that she tells the story of the Algiers Motel incident in the movie "Detroit" is very unique to her. I don't think any other filmmaker would have approached the story quite the way that she does in this film.
And you can say the same about Patty Jenkins. Her vision for "Wonder Woman" was very much, I think, a product of her personal taste and her predilections. And, in both those cases, they work wonderfully well.
"Dunkirk" is another great example. I mean, we could go on and on.
JEFFREY BROWN: We could go on and on.
ANN HORNADAY: It's been a good summer for directors, I will say.
JEFFREY BROWN: The new book is "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies."
Ann Hornaday, thank you very much.
ANN HORNADAY: Thank you.