puzzle man, thinking up more puzzles: Shortz in Wordplay.
Their Puzzlers Were Sore
by Patrick Creadon
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
That is the extent of my involvement with, and interest in,
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
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
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.
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.