Film Reviews

Directed by Patrick Creadon

In the occasionally fuzzy world of habits and addictions, some things are clearly much worse than others. For instance, smoking is probably worse than picking your nose, but better than robbing liquor stores. The compulsion to tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle, then, must surely rank somewhere between channel surfing and reading the latest National Geo-graphic from cover to cover. More than 50 million Americans tackle crossword puzzles each week, making it one of the most popular – if not solitary – hobbies around. But with Wordplay, the new documentary by Patrick Creadon, puzzlers come out from the shadows and we learn the extent to which crossword puzzles have captivated the national attention. Featuring a wealth of interviews with Will Shortz, the editor behind The New York Times crossword puzzle, Creadon’s film shows us how the puzzles are constructed and the passion that goes into each of them. Additionally, the first half of the film includes many interviews with folks who regularly take on the challenge of the Times’ puzzles, ranging from the everyday to the notable, including Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls. While the first half of the film is imaginative and original, the second half fails to fully connect. Once Creadon has firmly documented the passion behind crossword puzzles, he focuses his lens on the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament – an event founded by Shortz that showcases the competitive side of puzzling. Rather than keeping the ingenious and lighthearted flavor that the film captures early on, it falls back into formulaic territory, becoming more of a typical sports movie, complete with underdogs, rivalries and accelerated tension.

Even with a second half that feels a bit too familiar, though, this is still a clever film worth seeking out. Taking a fresh look into an unexamined world is a popular theme in modern documentaries, but most simply don’t work as well as this innovative gem. Andrew Rodgers

The Notorious Bettie Page
Directed by Mary Harron

Bettie Page. Undeniably the ’50s pin-up girl with jet-black bangs, a rocket cone brassiere and riding crop in hand. Those cheap black-and-white glossies, pedaled along pre-Disney Times Square, have become the very symbol of postwar America: a confluence of sex and art outside the fresh-scrubbed mainstream. Teaming up again with screenwriter Guinevere Turner (American Psycho), director Mary Harron reveals the underside of Eisenhower’s America in The Notorious Bettie Page. The life of this inimitable icon provides plenty of the era’s contradictions. For instance, how did a devout Tennessee Christian justify bondage scenes as merely “playing dress-up”? Maybe the only notorious thing about her was her willful ignorance. But more than anything, Bettie Page is an incredibly humanistic film that eschews gimmickry in favor of warmth. In one of the most anticipated roles of the century, Gretchen Mol blends a simultaneous innocence and ballsiness as Bettie to underline a sense of dignity. And all the while, she’s as sexy and playful as Bettie ever was, while Harron-regulars Lili Taylor and Jared Harris play Paula Klaw and John Willie, no-nonsense denizens of the underground nudie-pix scene. Harron beautifully punctuates grainy, black-and-white NYC with a luscious Koda-chrome Florida. While staying true to the stylistic image, The Notorious Bettie Page transforms that image into a whole person. Millions of Bettie Page devotees should not be disappointed. Christian Bruno

The Lost City
Directed by Andy Garcia

Political and personal turmoil pervades The Lost City, actor / director / composer Andy Garcia’s nearly two-decade-long passion project, penned by the late novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Set in lush and lavish Havana, Cuba, in the revolutionary late ’50s, the film follows Fico Fellove (Garcia), owner of the popular El Tropico nightclub, as he battles with the decision of whether to leave Cuba with the fall of Batista and the rise of Fidel Castro becoming imminent. Politically, Fico strives to keep a low profile compared to his two brothers who become active in the impending revolution; Luis (Nestor Carbonell) stages an elaborate yet unsuccessful assassination attempt on Batista while Ricardo (Enrique Murciano) joins Castro and Che Guevara in the jungles of the surrounding area. Under the watchful eye of his Havana University professor father (Tomas Milian), Fico is goaded into leaving, but his decision comes too late as his love interest Aurora (Inés Sastre) has become the muse of both the revolution and Castro himself. The film is colorful with shots framing the expansive Cuban terrain and the fluttering petticoats of the El Tropico cabaret dancers. However, all visuals aside, the film often plays as overly ambitious, with several lavish musical numbers that, while entertaining, do not aid in character or plot development, leaving many elements of the film in a perpetually embryonic stage. Cameos by Bill Murray as an offbeat, unnamed American expatriate writer and Dustin Hoffman as capitalist Meyer Lansky have potential, but their inclusion in the film seems random and almost unnecessary. As a director, Garcia succeeds in illustrating the rich culture, music and lifestyle of Cuba’s Golden Age as well as the beauty of its landscape and people. But while there is no doubt of Garcia’s passion for this project, The Lost City ultimately feels disjointed and stumbles as a cohesive film. Michele Lanz