(Alliance Atlantis, 2006), D: Patrick Creadon, w/ Will Shortz, Bill Clinton. Rating: NNN
For people who can't get enough of the current spate of spelling bee movies, here's a charming documentary about the people who create and solve the New York Times daily crossword puzzle. The putative star of the show is puzzles editor Will Shortz, but he gets upstaged by a coterie of celebrity crossword puzzlers including Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Indigo Girls and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
The big treat of the first half is seeing a crossword made up by one of the Times puzzle setters, followed by quick cutting between the various solvers as they work through the very puzzle we've seen created.
And the celebrity solvers are genuine. A couple identify the setter from the style, and others make observations like "This isn't really a Tuesday puzzle - it's more of a Wednesday." (For those of you who don't work the Times puzzle, Monday is pretty easy. Saturday is most assuredly not.)
In the rest of the film, which could be called Puzzle Geeks On Parade, the filmmakers visit the high-tension world of the annual crossword puzzle tournament in Stanford, Connecticut. This is what happens to those kids from the spelling bee movies when they grow up.
Commentary with director Patrick Creadon and Shortz, deleted scenes, interview gallery, Wordplay At Sundance, DVD-ROM puzzles.
Strangers With Candy
(Thinkfilm, 2005) D: Paul Donello, w/ Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert. Rating: NNN
Developed from the comedy central TV series, Strangers With Candy is a small-scale version of the story brought to the big screen by its creators, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Donello. For those who've never watched the series, Sedaris stars as a middle-aged ex-con, ex-hooker and career substance abuser who returns home to find her mother dead and her father in a coma and decides to make things right by picking up her life at the moment before it went horribly wrong - in high school.
It's a tonally odd show and movie, and it never quite builds the momentum to link its great high points - Colbert, particularly, covers himself in glory as a sexually conflicted science teacher, and there are some great cameos from the likes of Ian Holm and Matthew Broderick.
At the same time, having seen Sedaris interviewed by Letterman and Stewart, I can't help but wonder at the effort taken to make her look unattractive here, with makeup and padding and a face screwed into a rictus of dismay.
On the DVD, we get that fun element of comics riffing on their own material.
DVD EXTRAS Director/writer/star commentary, deleted scenes, Atomic Car music video, theatrical trailer. Spanish subtitles.
(First Run Features/Paradox, 2000) D: Peter Watkins. Rating: NNN
John waters once suggested that foreign films be marketed by emphasizing those things least likely to appeal to a mass audience, which suggests that the ideal campaign for Peter Watkins's epic TV drama on the Paris Commune, 1871, would go something like this: "It's French. It's black-and- white. It's six and a half hours long." On the one hand, this is an honourable, serious look at an interesting moment in history, presented as if there were TV news crews running around Paris in 1871. Watkins has used this method before, to present Culloden as a BBC documentary on the battle that squashed Scotland as a semi-independent nation back in 1746.
On the other hand, I have to admit that after about three hours, I wasn't excited about having to sit through another three hours. I found myself thinking unproductive thoughts like "Of course it's black-and-white. They didn't have colour TV in France in 1871."
So I should highly recommend this as something that's good for you, like Brussels sprouts. But there's not a lot of pleasure to be had from watching the amateur cast running around a vast set mouthing "The people united will never be defeated" rhetoric, even if you agree with its basic premise. Geoff Bowie's documentary, The Universal Clock, does provide a really interesting look at what happened when the film went to the MIP market at Cannes.
EXTRAS Feature-length documentary The Universal Clock
on the making and selling of La Commune. French soundtrack. English subtitles.
The Da Vinci Code
(Sony, 2006) D: Ron Howard, w/ Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen. Rating: NN
In its favour, the dvd edition of The Da Vinci Code is very well transferred and the making-of doc is high-end corporate fluff. Everybody involved thinks everyone else who worked on the film is a genius. On the other hand, this galumphing adaptation mercilessly exposes the structural weaknesses of Dan Brown's novel, a highly literary thriller that layers every action and chase scene with dozens of pages of exposition.
As Robert Langdon, Tom Hanks is stuck playing the most passive action hero ever. Langdon hardly does anything in this picture except look dismayed and help explain things. And when we finally get to the film's destination and the thriller stuff ends at about the 120 minute mark, there's still half an hour to go.
EXTRAS Ninety minutes of making-of featurettes. English, French and Spanish soundtracks and subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, November 21
Seinfeld: Season 7
(Sony, 1990) The season of George's prolonged engagement to Susan, and we all remember how that ends. In between, though, The Sponge, The Rye, The Calzone, The Shower Head and, of course, The Soup Nazi.
The Double Life Of Véronique
(Criterion/Paradox, 1991) Krzysztof Kieslowski's highly regarded study of two women separated by a continent but played by the same actor, Irène Jacob. Two-disc Criterion edition, with a scholarly commentary by Kieslowski expert Annette Insdorf, a full-length documentary on the director and some Kieslowski short films.
Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film
(PBS/Paramount, 2006) Ric Burns's excellent four-hour American Masters documentary.
(BFS, 1995) A young woman in L.A. is pushed to the edge and starts pushing back. A hit on the American festival circuit shows up on home video.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb