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The puzzle man, thinking up more puzzles: Shortz in Wordplay.

Until Their Puzzlers Were Sore

 By Shawn Stone

Wordplay

Directed by Patrick Creadon

Every Thursday morning, Trevor walks into the editorial room from the Metroland production department and places a page proof of the next issue’s crossword puzzle on my desk. I usually ignore it for some period of time—a minute, an hour, a day, two days—and then check to make sure the answer to last week’s puzzle is correct. Then, I make sure the numbers on the puzzle correspond to the questions and check a couple of clues to see if there’s a plausible answer. Then, after initialing my OK, I take the proof into production and leave it on Trevor’s desk.

That is the extent of my involvement with, and interest in, crossword puzzles.

In fact, I haven’t had the slightest interest in crossword puzzles since I was a kid, when I’d test my TV-trivia skills on the TV Guide crossword puzzle every week. Judging from Wordplay, however, the fun, new documentary by Patrick Creadon (better known for directing Rachel Ray’s cooking show and—hubba hubba—Maxim magazine video productions), millions of my fellow Americans are batshit-crazy for puzzles.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that The New York Times publishes the king of all crossword puzzles; their puzzle editor, Will Shortz, graduated with a degree in puzzling from Indiana University in the 1970s. If you’ve heard him on NPR’s Sunday Edition, you know that the mild-mannered Shortz can come up with some fiendish puzzle questions.

Anyway, Wordplay brings the audience up to speed on all things wordy. Like, for instance, the Monday and Tuesday puzzles are significantly easier than the Saturday and Sunday puzzles. (Who knew?) Also, celebrities love to do puzzles. We are treated, at one point, to watching Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina and Ken Burns all working on the same crossword puzzle. The Indigo Girls didn’t seem so bright, though Mussina seemed smart enough—for a baseball player, anyway.

The film really becomes engaging when it centers on noncelebrity puzzle-enthusiasts, and their quest to win an annual crossword puzzle competition in Stamford, Conn., that was started by Shortz in the late 1970s. Maybe Creadon was afraid of ripping off Spellbound, the charming documentary about the national spelling bee contest, but he should have gone ahead and ripped it off anyway. These people and their talent for wordplay are amazing.

There’s multiple-time winner Trip Payne, who felt the need to move from New York City to Florida at one point in his life because he was doing puzzles, for work and for play, like 18 hours a day. There’s RPI whiz kid Tyler Hinman, whose speed at doing crossword puzzles on his laptop—while chatting away with the (unseen) interviewer—kinda freaked me out. And one-time winner Ellen Ripstein, whose puzzle skills are matched only by her endearing, awkward charm (and odd baton-twirling hobby).

The film builds to its climax by following these, and a few other, contestants through the weekend competition. It’s tense, exciting and dramatic, with a surprise ending that combines triumph with heartbreak.

Not bad for a flick about puzzles.

Havana Farewell

The Lost City

Directed by Andy Garcia

The Cuban revolution and the social upheavals that preceded and followed this signal Cold War-era event will, someday, make a great movie. It hasn’t happened yet.

Sure, Francis Coppola incorporated a nifty Cuban episode into The Godfather, Part II, but—however expertly realized—it was strictly about the mob in Cuba. The likely reason no one’s succeeded yet is the nasty political thicket a filmmaker must slip through to tell the story.

In The Lost City, actor Andy Garcia, in his directorial debut, faces this problem squarely. The misery of the pre-Castro period under the dictator Fulgencio Batista is presented unvarnished: Batista (Juan Fernández) is portrayed as a vain, cruel man who uses his brutal secret police to suppress dissent and murder his enemies. Like Jesus in Ben-Hur, an actor playing Fidel Castro is not actually shown in the film, but his populist appeal—and brutal tactics—dominate the last third of the picture. And, when brothers, friends and lovers are pulled apart by their pro- or anti-Communist beliefs at the story’s end, Garcia and screenwriter G. Cabrera Infante refrain from passing political judgment on them.

Where Garcia and his screenwriter falter, however, is in the family saga that forms the dramatic heart of The Lost City. There is the professor father (Tomas Milian) and his wife (Millie Perkins), their three sons (Garcia, Nestor Carbonell, Enrique Murciano) and their wives, children, servants, employees . . . you get the idea. There are certainly enough characters to flesh out this 2-hour, 20-minute epic, but the story—grand family torn apart by politics—and splashy nightclub setting are, respectively, underdeveloped and over familiar. Garcia also makes the actor-turned-director mistake of letting scenes—and his actors—go on too long, while self-consciously starting and ending sequences with artsy images.

Still, for all of its shortcomings, The Lost City has something going for it. The plot may only offer one or two surprises, but the characters themselves are developed in interesting ways. The romance between Fico (Garcia’s character) and Aurora (Inés Sastre) is well written and acted, and its ultimate unhappy outcome—telegraphed early on—is resonant and nuanced. And any movie that lets Bill Murray (in a small part as a writer) be a clown and steal scenes from Dustin Hoffman (in a cameo as Meyer Lansky) is all right with me.

—Shawn Stone


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