Entertainment » Jim Harris

Crosswords get their day



When you go to the annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October and watch some of the films, and visit with some of the filmmakers, it becomes pretty apparently that you can make a documentary about anything. Anyone with a hand-held camera, in fact, can embark on a documentary, with infinite subjects awaiting.

Whether you make it entertaining, or enlightening, or both, is another matter.

It’s becoming obvious that documentaries are moving more into the mainstream with each passing year. Maybe the sorry state of Hollywood films this spring and summer, following up previously slow non-Oscar season periods, has opened up a slot for interesting and smart documentaries — not to mention the satirical independent “mockumentaries” such as “Thank You for Smoking” or anything by Christopher Guest — to capture the movie goer.

Penguins, the fears surrounding global warming, and now crossword puzzles and their legion of fans are getting star treatment these days. “Wordplay” is the documentary about crosswords that opens Friday at Market Street Cinema. It has humor, interesting characters, drama that builds, and a lot to offer in information about crossword puzzles, particularly the New York Times version, that you didn’t know.

For me, it’s not that I never liked crossword puzzles, or the Word Sleuth or any of those other newspaper games — usually somebody else in my family might be doing them, or reading the sports page took up most of the newspaper time (I had to memorize every word, of course). The good newspaper crosswords seemed too frustrating at times, too much of a time-consumer unless you did it regularly, and just weren’t something that became a daily devotion. But I’m interested in the people who do them. That’s why “Wordplay” appealed to me; I watched a DVD screener of the film earlier this week.

Leslie Peacock of our staff keeps up with our crossword page, choosing among batches of puzzles sent here by the New York Times for which one to run on a particular week. She also likes to work crosswords. I asked why. “I like them,” she said simply. “Why do you like playing golf?” Good question, I thought. Or good answer.

Like golf can be to many of us, some folks apparently catch this crossword bug and it sticks with them. They must have their morning coffee, and their morning (or evening) crossword. In “Wordplay,” that’s people like former President Bill Clinton, or Daily Show host Jon Stewart. The Indigo Girls have terrific song lyrics; it was no surprise to see them featured as crossword puzzle fans.

The best puzzles, you learn, are the ones with a theme and a trick to them, not just simple word solving. And who knew (at least I didn’t, even though now I think it should be obvious) that if you had copies of the same unsolved puzzle and turned one upside down, the filled spaces would still be identical.

“Wordplay” shows how a great puzzle, with a theme, is constructed. “Wordplay” also notes that crosswords may be the only puzzle a computer can’t be programmed to solve.

The film also follows a few crossword fanatics to the National Crossword Puzzle Championships, held annually since 1978 at Stamford, Conn., and hosted by the New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. These people who attend can do regular puzzles in three or four minutes, sometimes maybe less. They don’t have the crossword-helper book beside them. They tick me off.

In the contest, these people from throughout the country meet in at the Stamford Marriott for two days of competition: six puzzles at various time limits on Saturday and one on Sunday morning that determine the three finalists in the various categories. “Wordplay” is following the best puzzle solvers. The film turns rather exciting, all this wordplay.

Vic Fleming, a district judge from Little Rock, is shown several times from the 2005 championships, including with guitar in hand and singing, and he composed a couple of songs that are highlighted in the film.

The documentary runs 90 minutes. That’s at least as long as I’d need to solve crossword in this week’s paper in your hands, even with a cheat book handy.

Save this sentence for this time next summer, we’re sure: So, just how bad are the movies getting these days. In Entertainment Weekly, a grid showing 10 current movies out and the grades from national critics showed no film averaging out an A, and only one film, Pixar’s “Cars,” grading even an A-minus with the EW readers. Most are Cs on average with the critics; the readers tend to like the films slightly better.

We liked “The Devil Wears Prada,” and “Superman Returns,” when it wasn’t wearing on us in length, was an exciting return of the comic book hero. Our criteria for a good film is whether we’d watch it again: We’d wouldn’t pay to see them, but we’d watch “Prada” as well as “Cars” again on TV, and maybe “Superman Returns.”

Pardon the spoiler here (or skip a paragraph or two), but we’re disappointed to learn that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series has taken the “Back to the Future” route and made the sequel a lead-in to part 3. Meanwhile, a record $132 million was spent by moviegoers nationwide on a sequel that, in effect, doesn’t end. Barnum was right.

We’ll wait for the DVD release.

Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer, admitting to panning the well-received first “Pirates,” upgrader her initial impression of the first “Pirates” after seeing the sequel, which she ripped with a D-plus. Our David Koon, in this issue, seems to like it, however.

So, back to that first sentence. Actually, there are probably the same number of entertaining, good films as there are total wastes of time this summer as in the past. But the fact is, the best film entertainment these days, thanks to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Wordplay” is coming via documentaries. Those are films you can watch more than once, without question.

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