For What to watch now – from a critic (and parent)

This week, the most successful filmmaker of all time is back with a new film, “Ready Player One.” (Warner Bros.)

This week saw the debut of a new film column from me for

The latest from Steven Spielberg and the home release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” make for a fascinating week for movie lovers. But the must-see is— believe it or not — “Paddington 2,” which just arrived on digital.

Pick of the week: “Ready Player One”

Two years ago, my then-six-year-old son decided he’d like to be Indiana Jones for Halloween, and I was thrilled. As a child of the 1980s, VHS copies of the first three “Jones” films were on an endless loop in my household. What was interesting about my son’s choice, though, was that he’d never actually seen a full Indy film. He knew the character through some old books of mine, a few action figures, and the brief clips I’d shown him from 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

The “Jones” films, of course, were directed by Steven Spielberg, and his ability to grab the attention of kids — and their parents — is unmatched. Even from a few clips and photos, my son was entranced by this heroic figure who just so happens to look a lot like Han Solo. (Go figure!)

This week, the most successful filmmaker of all time is back with a new film, “Ready Player One.” So why is there so little buzz about the director’s adaptation of the nostalgia-overload novel by Ernest Cline? Perhaps it’s because the Spielberg name itself is no longer the family film draw it once was. Consider the underwhelming box office results from his last three kid-friendly efforts, 2011’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse,” and 2016’s Roald Dahl adaptation, “The BFG.” All three were imaginative treats, especially “Tintin,” but none took over the zeitgeist.

While the PG-13-rated “Ready Player One” features a cavalcade of references sure to excite mom and dad — from a “Back to the Future” DeLorean to Chucky from “Child’s Play” — pre-teens might feel clueless. Plus, the trailers have struggled with explaining the future-set film’s plot, which is centered on a teenager’s adventures in a virtual reality world called “the OASIS.”

In other words, “Ready Player One” should hold great appeal for adults and maybe some pop culture-savvy teens. But kids won’t be wearing “OASIS”-themed Halloween costumes this fall.

New to digital: “Paddington 2”

The trippy “Annihilation,” the story of a biologist who embarks on a mind-bending secret expedition, is the best film so far this year. In the No. 2 slot is “Paddington 2.” Seriously!

This time around, the beloved bear from darkest Peru becomes entangled with a pompous actor played by a delightful Hugh Grant, and winds up in jail. “Paddington 2” debuted on digital this week (with the DVD/Blu-ray set to follow on April 24), and whether you have children, or not, it’s a must-see.

DVD/Blu-ray pick of the week: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

There is a strong likelihood that you saw “The Last Jedi” in theaters, and it’s even more likely that you have a strong opinion about it. Perhaps now, months after its release, it will be easier for viewers to watch the latest adventures of Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe, and the surviving Skywalkers with an open mind.

The concerns of some adult “Star Wars” fans, of course, were not the concerns of kids. (“How DARE they kill off Luke Skywalker?!” “Calm down, dad.”) The latter audience adored the follow-up to “The Force Awakens.” And guess what? They were correct.

New to streaming: “Little Women” (Netflix)

One of the somewhat forgotten literary adaptations of the 1990s is 1994’s “Little Women,” and that’s a shame. Featuring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon and a dashing young Christian Bale, this version of the Louisa May Alcott novel is a gem. The film arrives on Netflix on March 28, and it’s a fine film for the entire family. Tweens and young teens will be enchanted.

Just be prepared for some shocked looks when you explain that Jo is the mom from “Stranger Things.”

Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: ‘The Shape of Water,’ Godard, and More (from The Film Stage)

My latest books piece for The Film Stage features a look at the recent Oscar winner for Best Picture.

Our latest deep-dive into recent books on cinema is heavy on 2017 follow-ups. But there’s also a unique look at late Godard, a romp through holiday horror, and a visually inventive stroll through 101 memorable movies. Let’s march on, starting with every cinephile’s buddy, Guillermo del Toro.


Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water: Creating a Fairy Tale for Troubled Times by Gina McIntyre (Insight Editions)

Guillermo del Toro’s fairy tale romance The Shape of Water was heralded by some as one of 2017’s finest (I’m in that camp) or as 2017’s The Artist (boo). Wherever one stands in this debate, its aesthetic beauty is undeniable. In other words, Shape is more than deserving of the Insight Editions treatment. The book is a gorgeous concoction, filled with del Toro’s endearing sketches, effects tests, film stills, and, best of all, accompanying text that is smart and entertaining; del Toro’s  lengthy character bios are especially fun. (del Toro on Octavia Spencer’s Zelda Fuller: “IS VIEWED AS: Funny but a little loud.”) The book is a reminder, if one was needed, thatThe Shape of Water is deserving of its praise. And if you’re a Torontonian or Toronto International Film Fest veteran, there is frame-worthy spread of del Toro with stars Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in the great Elgin Theatre. What more could a Shape fan want?


Godard and Sound: Acoustic Innovation in the Late Films of Jean-Luc Godard by Albertine Fox (I.B. Taurus)

The most wholly original book in this month’s rundown is surely Godard and Sound, written with deep insight by University of Bristol lecturer Albertine Fox. This analysis of soundscapes in the “late” period of Jean-Luc Godard’s career — from 1979’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself) to 2014’s Adieu au Langage (Goodbye to Language) — is uniquely insightful. The questions Fox asks (“How does one begin to think and write about film sounds when it defies categorization as ‘film music,’ ‘dialogue’ or ‘sound effects’?”) are relevant to all of cinema. But the focus on Godard’s most daring and structurally bold period makes this text particularly important. Understanding his use of sound deepens our understanding of “difficult” works like Film socialisme. “The image of the cruise ship in Film socialisme,” Fox writes, “comes to figure as a forbidding container haunted by a cinema of the past.” That’s beautiful writing, and Godard and Sound is a stunning book.


Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Televisionedited by Paul Corupe and Kier-La Janisse (Spectacular Optical)

Yuletide Terror is a deliciously nasty delight for horror junkies. The obvious Christmastime horror flicks are here — the likes of Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night — but what’s most fascinating are the studies of less-obvious films like Hammer’s Cash on Demand and even 2007 flop P2. There’s even an analysis of 1951’s A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, the finest and most genuinely terrifying big-screen adaptation of Dickens’s tale. And, best of all, Eyes Wide Shut takes its proper place among holiday nightmare tales.


Books inspired by Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s been three months after the release of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, and the conversation around the film has barely diminished. Some has been negative, but for the film’s supporters (right here), its rich storylines and bold choices continue to excite. Anyone who continues to ponder Jedi will adore four noteworthy books inspired by the film. At the top of the list — as usual — is an entry from Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo. Star Wars: The Last Jedi — The Visual Dictionary (DK) is as successful as DK’s other Star Wars visual dictionaries. Here, up-close and with Hidalgo’s always-impressive background details, are porglets, Ahch-to caretakers, Canto Bight big-shots, and, yes, Snoke’s slippers. The Art of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Abrams) is the latest behind-the-scenes stunner from Phil Szostak, whose texts on JediThe Force Awakens, and Rogue One are must-owns. The book offers the best account yet of Rian Johnson’s approach to creating episode eight. Consider this quote from costume designer Michael  Kaplan: “We’re waving goodbye to the legacy that is the original films and the prequels, even to The Force Awakens … It’s definitely a place that we haven’t been before.” Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Incredible Cross-sections (DK) by Jason Fry takes us inside ships like Snoke’s Supremacy and the Resistance bomber. Lastly is one of the more unique entries in the recent Star Wars literary canon, Canto Bight (Del Rey). This collection of four novellas — written by Saladin Ahmed, Rae Carson, Mira Grant, and John Jackson Miller — is set during one night on the casino planet memorably visited by Finn and Rose.


101 Movies to Watch Before You Die by Ricardo Cavolo (Nobrow Press)

Artist Ricardo Cavolo’s work is an explosion of color and creativity, and 101 Movies to Watch Before You Die is a fine example. Framed as his movie diary, 101 Movies is a joy to behold. Cavolo’s studies of films like Buffalo ’66and Drive are almost as delightful as the films themselves. Also fun is his rundown of “eight people from the movie world I wish were my friends,” highlighted by his question for Hitchcock: “I need to ask Alfred how I can throw all my fears and obsessions into my work, just as he did.” Whether Cavolo realizes it or not, he pulls off the obsession angle in this wonderful collection.


Justice League: The Art of the Film by Abbie Bernstein (Titan Books)

Is it possible that Justice League: The Art of the Film is more interesting than Justice League the film? Indeed, it is. However, this is not because the concept art, costumes, and film stills are so memorable; they are adequate, at best. Rather, it’s because Art of the Film offers a slight glimpse into Zack Snyder’s plans for Justice League. This includes a  slightly different look for Steppenwolf, a.k.a., the worst villain in modern comic book cinema, not to mention stills from a few deleted scenes. For a behind-the-scenes book, Art of the Film has very little text. But there is plenty to ponder here, and, it might be enough to make one want to revisit the film. Maybe … maybe not.


Lego Star Wars Build Your Own Adventure (DK)

One of the favorite pastimes of my seven-year-old and I is playing with Legos together. OK, he leads, and I follow. That means Lego Star Wars Build Your Own Adventure is a perfect textual companion. It offers handy, easy-to-follow guides to creating mini Slaves 1s and wee tauntaun hitching posts out of whatever Legos one has handy. Now, making a perfect match is tricky. But that’s part of the fun. Build even comes with a Rebel pilot minifigure and Y-wing starfighter. Evan Schobert appreciates that, and so do I.


From Buffalo Magazine: Buffalo’s film production renaissance pays off

I recently wrote a feature article on film production in WNY for Buffalo magazine. I was very pleased with how it came out — take a look.

On October 20, 2017, the most famous and culturally significant film ever shot in Buffalo came home — so to speak. Barry Levinson’s “The Natural,” the stirring baseball drama starring Robert Redford, screened before a packed house at the North Park Theatre as a presentation of Turner Classic Movies. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and director Levinson were in attendance for a pre-screening chat. Tickets were free, and so was the popcorn. But any Hertel Avenue visitor that night would have also noticed the scores of Buffalonians streaming into restaurants and bars for some pre- and post-film food and drink.

Yes, “The Natural” continues to pay off in Buffalo, more than three decades after it opened in theaters nationwide. Imagine, for a moment, if it had kicked off a filmmaking boom in the Queen City. What would a continual pat on the back from Hollywood have done to the area’s collective confidence? And what type of economic impact might this have had on Western New York?

Well…now we know. In recent years, film productions have descended on Buffalo with thrilling regularity. And the results have been extraordinary. From large-scale studio features like “The Purge: The Island” and star-driven efforts like “Marshall,” to passion projects like Cheektowaga native William Fichtner’s “Cold Brook,” there’s been a near-constant stream of new film production. For that, we can thank the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, a two-person operation — consisting of Film Commissioner Tim Clark and Director of Operations Rich Wall — funded through Erie County and the City of Buffalo.

It’s the Film Office’s job to answer a simple question: Why Buffalo? Clark says one factor is the New York State Film Tax Credit Program, which offers a variety of credits meant to encourage production in New York. But there’s more to it than that. That’s why Clark and Wall meet with interested filmmakers early in the process to learn their specific needs, and to stress the area’s offerings.

“We approach all inquiries with a regional eye to make sure filmmakers know about our location assets in Erie and Niagara counties as well as other adjacent counties,” Clark says. “Western New York has architecture from nearly every period in American history and large locations like the Central Terminal, Niagara Falls, Zoar Valley and the Lockport Cave.”

For many filmmakers, taking advantage of the area’s unique sites fits the script and the budget. Buffalo native Greg Stuhr starred in, produced and co-wrote Jennifer Ricker’s acclaimed 2016 noir drama “The American Side.” A mystery involving a detective’s search for a long-lost Nikola Tesla design, the film featured a cast of silver screen veterans like Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster and Janeane Garofalo. When preparing to shoot “The American Side,” Stuhr and Ricker sought distinctive locations and affordability. Buffalo provided both.

“Shooting in Buffalo saved us money in perceptible ways,” Stuhr says. “We couldn’t afford [to create what] a lot of the Buffalo locations offered just as they were. We didn’t have to spend extra time and money making Fera’s or the Buffalo Club look just right. They already did.”

Ricker says time and money went further in Western New York. And for a low-budget, independent project, this is essential.

“There is no way we could have shot this film with our budget and schedule anywhere else,” she says. “Had we tried this in another city, we’d be lucky to have a film in the can. We not only had a film that folks think was ten times the budget we shot with, but we came in on time and on budget. Those are words not often spoken in the film business.”

Buffalo native Kyle Mecca is the writer-director of “Dwelling,” a haunted-house horror film that was recently released on DVD as a Walmart exclusive. He had a deep desire to “bring Hollywood to Buffalo,” as he puts it.

“As I’ve grown as an indie filmmaker, Buffalo has grown into its own Hollywood at an exponential rate,” Mecca says. “So our pre- and post-production were both done in Buffalo, with only a small portion of post in Los Angeles. The producers and I wanted to pull our resources from home in every aspect of the production.”

Film Commissioner Clark has had a front-row seat as Buffalo-based production has exploded. He’s seen the positive benefit the boom has had on local businesses.

“The economic impact is huge,” he says. “The direct spend of the movie industry in the Western New York economy is expected to be upwards of $40 million this year, and we’ve seen a progressive climb in this number. ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’ was here two years ago and there were thousands of hotel room nights on that project alone.”

The largest scale recent production in Buffalo was the fourth film in the “Purge” series, “The Purge: Island.” Clark says the hotel numbers exceeded even the impressive “Ninja Turtles” tally.

“The hotels thank us every day,” he says. “These movies can have a greater impact than most conventions and other events. One hotel recently had four different movies staying with them at the same time. And it also extends to restaurants, caterers, hardware stores, fuel suppliers, equipment rental houses, and beyond.”

To Stuhr, there is no doubt that a Buffalo production greatly impacts the local economy. But he sees a greater impact than just dollars and cents.

“We put a number of local artists, actors, and technicians to work,” he says. “We booked hotels, rented cars, rented equipment, rented locations, paid fees, hired caterers, patronized restaurants.

But there’s another element I think is worth noting: a film shooting around the city can be a great source of civic pride, especially when Buffalo is playing itself — as in ‘The American Side’ — and when its character is being shown off in such a beautiful way.”

“Dwelling” director Mecca is thrilled to see that “film and television production isn’t relegated to two or three cities anymore. Places like Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh have thriving film and TV industries. There’s no reason Buffalo shouldn’t be counted among them going forward.”

With so many satisfied producers and directors, Clark says the future of film production in Buffalo is bright: “We are working on some very large and exciting projects for 2018 and beyond. Rest assured that there will be no slowdown anytime soon of movie trucks, crews and stars in Western New York.”

PHOTO: The vacant Dillon Courthouse in Niagara Square downtown was the backdrop for many of the scenes fillmed for “Marshall,” the Supreme Court justice thriller released nationwide in fall 2017. (Buffalo Niagara Film Office)