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Patrick Creadon
Writing Credits:
Patrick Creadon, Christine O'Malley

An in-depth look at The New York Times' long-time crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and his loyal fan base.

Will Shortz may not be a familiar name to many, but he commands enormous respect from the fans who face a daily battle to solve the crossword puzzles he edits for the New York Times. This documentary takes a look at Shortz's life and career.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$32.847 thousand on 2 screens.
Domestic Gross
$3.117 million.

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.66:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 85 min.
Price: $24.95
Release Date: 11/7/2006

• Audio Commentary with Director Patrick Creadon, New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz, and Crossword Constructor Merl Reagle
• Deleted Scenes
• Interview Gallery
• “5 Unforgettable Puzzles” Featurettes
• “Wordplay Goes to Sundance” Featurettes
• Music Video
• “And the Winner Is… - Results from Stamford 2006”
• Photo Gallery
Waiting for the New York Times Short Film
• Five Printable Crossword Puzzles
• Previews


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Wordplay (2006)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 29, 2006)

Is it possible for a documentary about crossword puzzles to turn into anything other than a complete bore? In the case of 2006’s Wordplay, the answer would be “yes”, as the film presents a pretty interesting take on the topic.

Wordplay opens with longtime New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. Representing another side of the business, we find remarks from crossword constructor Merl Reagle. We also get comments from puzzle fans both notable and unknown. In the former category, we hear from TV host Jon Stewart, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, musician Indigo Girls, former NYT public editor Daniel Okrent, President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, and pitcher Mike Mussina. In addition, we find notes from Stamford contestants Al Sanders, Ellen Ripstein, Jon Delfin, Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, and Patrick Jordan.

We learn how Shortz developed into a world class puzzler and the course of his career. Shortz looks at how puzzles are chosen and developed, and we also hear about the history of the crossword. Reagle lets us in on the creation of puzzles and we get many notes about the publishing side of things.

In addition, we find details of the Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament held in Stamford CT and learn about some contestants. This means we see parts of the 28th event from March 2005 along with insights into what make puzzlers tick.

With such dry subject matter, some filmmakers would feel tempted to artificially spice up the program via wacky angles and quick cutting. Happily, director Patrick Creadon avoids those traps. Wordplay provides a perfectly straightforward view of the material. It adds enough music and other production elements to add a little life, but it never becomes awkward or too busy. The presentation suits the footage and complements it well.

I also like the way the movie mixes the publishing side of things with the lives of the puzzlers. As a crossword fan myself, I’ve always been curious to know more about how creators make the things and what else goes into their printing. The film fleshes out these elements well.

The combination of famous and “ordinary” fans also offers a nice balance. The celebrities don’t feel like gratuitous additions; they fit the project logically and bring a little pizzazz to it. The concentration on the lives of the regular puzzlers also works nicely. We learn just enough about them to bring in a little human interest, and those elements set up the tournament.

I do think the film drags a little during the tournament portions, partially because it dallies too much on extracurricular elements. Do we really need to see the after hours talent show? A few too many music montages slow the progress and feel like padding.

That’s a fairly minor complaint for what is an otherwise enjoyable documentary. Wordplay won’t dazzle you or provoke hours of conversation after it ends. It just gives us an intriguing look at a fun hobby and those who practice it. Seinfeld fans who want to see the interior of the real diner used for exteriors, check out the chapter with Ripstein. We see that famous façade and then get to inspect the actual diner. I don’t think this appears to make an actual Seinfeld tie-in, but it’s fun anyway.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus B+

Wordplay appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Non-anamorphic transfers are rare in this day and age, so it’s a disappointment that Wordplay came without the enhancement.

Sharpness varied somewhat but generally remained solid. The image never became particularly crisp and detailed, but it also rarely displayed notable problems related to softness. The picture took on a reasonably accurate but not razor-sharp look that matched what I’d expect for this kind of project. Occasional jagged edges cropped up, but those remained pretty minor, and I saw no issues with shimmer or edge enhancement. Source flaws weren’t an issue, as the program looked clean.

A low-key project boasted low-key colors. The tones appeared fairly lackluster and drab throughout the flick. They weren’t really bad, but they didn’t demonstrate much life or vivacity. Blacks came across as decent, while shadow detail varied. Generally the situations appeared acceptably distinct, though they could be a little murky. Overall, this was a watchable presentation but not one with many particular strengths.

Oddly, transfer confusion seems to abound among various sites. I found three other reviews of Wordplay and each listed different specs! One called it 1.85:1 anamorphic, another referred to it as 1.66:1 anamorphic, and the third declared it 1.33:1 non-anamorphic. I stand by my 1.66:1 non-anamorphic. I switched my player’s playback from 4X3 to 16X9 and saw identical dimensions; an anamorphic transfer would’ve filled more of my screen. I didn’t measure the aspect ratio, but it sure looked 1.66:1 to me.

At least all four of us agreed that Wordplay presented a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Did a documentary about crossword puzzles require a multichannel mix? No, but the audio worked fine for the material.

For the most part, the soundfield remained fairly monaural. Music showed good stereo imaging, and the songs also spread nicely to the rear at times. Otherwise, the track featured a center bias. On a few occasions, the side channels and rears opened up to give us decent ambience, but those instances happened infrequently.

As one might expect from a documentary presentation, audio quality varied, but the piece usually sounded fine. Dialogue appeared acceptably clear and intelligible. Effects played a minor role and lacked much presence, but they remained fairly natural and distinct. Music fared nicely. The score presented good clarity and low-end response. Though this wasn’t an exceptional piece, it was more than acceptable.

As we check out the disc’s extras, we start with an audio commentary from director Patrick Creadon, puzzle editor Will Shortz, and crossword constructor Merl Reagle. All three sit together for this running, screen-specific chat. They cover aspects of the movie and related topics. We find background about crossword subjects and get more insights into their construction. We learn how the film came about and hear about aspects of its assembly such as camerawork, editing and music.

Though the commentary doesn’t provide any essential information, it proves reasonably interesting. At times it veers too much into the realm of happy talk, but since the three participants remain genial and likable, this goes over without too much pain. They make sure we get some decent basics about the production such as how Creadon recruited the various celebrities and find enough nice info to make this a positive experience.

Three separate sections of Deleted Scenes appear. We get seven with Shortz (7:09), six under “More Deleted Scenes” (7:34), and three “Deleted Scenes from Stamford” (5:36). In the Interview Gallery we get seven more clips. These feature Indigo Girls (0:31), Ken Burns (0:41), Jon Stewart (3:13), Mike Mussina (1:04), Daniel Okrent (2:56), President Bill Clinton (3:05) and Senator Bob Dole (0:44).

Since all of these really stand as deleted scenes, I figured it made sense to discuss them as one large package. Most of them don’t add a whole lot and were good cuts from the flick. We get a little more info about some of the participants, but none of this fleshes them out to a substantial degree.

I do like the clip in which Shortz discusses his initially reactions to negative mail from puzzlers, and the pieces with Stewart and Okrent are amusing. It’s also fun to see Clinton in this role, as he comes across as refreshingly open and natural; we don’t see his usual politician’s mask here. Overall, the scenes are erratic but worth a look.

Under the banner of 5 Unforgettable Puzzles from the Pages of the New York Times, we locate five featurettes. These include “High Definition” (3:13), “19 Black Squares” (3:15), “Wardrobe Malfunction” (2:13), “Drawing Power” (3:36) and “Laboratory Maze” (2:24). Each of these features a different puzzle constructor and we learn how they put together some specific crosswords. This is the kind of extra perfect for DVDs. If the filmmakers put this footage in the movie, it’d have slowed things down quite a bit. In the “Special Features” area, though, it gives us a fun look at the challenges of puzzle construction.

Wordplay Goes to Sundance runs 21 minutes and three seconds. It splits into three areas: “The Premiere” (3:31), “The Q&A” (11:29) and “Will’s NPR Puzzle Live” (6:03). We find comments from Creadon, Shortz, Reagle, producers Christine O’Malley and Michael Creadon, and the main puzzlers featured in the flick. “Q&A” works the best. It repeats some info from the commentary, but it adds more than a few useful notes. “Premiere” just gives us a rudimentary look at the Sundance experience, while “NPR” gives us a Sundance-themed puzzle. It’s moderate fun.

A music video for “Every Word” by Gary Louris fills two minutes, 33 seconds. It’s a distinctly low-budget affair. Neither the song nor the video offer much of interest.

Next we see the three-minute and 33-second And the Winner Is… - Results from Stamford 2006. As you’d expect, we see who won at the most recent tournament. You’ll see some familiar faces and some we don’t know. No, I won’t reveal the ultimate champion!

A Wordplay Photo Gallery offers a running montage of stills accompanied by music. It lasts two minutes, 49 seconds as it shows pictures of the filmmakers and subjects, most of which come from Sundance and other publicity spots. It’s not particularly memorable.

A short film called Waiting for the New York Times runs 12 minutes, 21 seconds. Created by Patricia Erens, she looks at the residents of Three Oaks MI who love the NYT. My feeling: who cares? I don’t find anything intriguing about these people or their fondness for the paper, so this feels like someone’s home movie.

The DVD opens with a few ads. We get promos for Clerks II, Factotum, Land of Plenty and Pizza.

In the package’s booklet, you’ll find 5 Unforgettable Puzzles. Those with DVD-ROM abilities can also print out these crosswords.

Quiet, subdued and introspective, Wordplay presents a good look at the world of crossword puzzles and their fans. It provides a nice picture of these areas and remains surprisingly interesting. The DVD offers average picture and audio along with a pretty nice collection of extras. Wordplay won’t stun you, but it creates an enjoyable experience, especially for fans of crosswords.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.2857 Stars Number of Votes: 7
2 3:
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