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Monday, July 03, 2006

Short Takes: Fourth of July Weekend

Wordplay

How could a movie about a subject as, well, static as crossword puzzles be interesting, especially at feature length? As this delightful little surprise of a movie demonstrates, it can’t, exactly. The movie works because it’s about people…charming, sweet-natured, but obsessed. The central figure is Will Shortz, puzzle editor at The New York Times and also an NPR regular, who has organized and hosted a competition for crossword enthusiasts every year since 1978. The movie focuses on several of the top competitors in the tournament, with occasional interruptions for funny interview excerpts with celebrity crossword-heads like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart.

It’s all very lightweight, but the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the principals is infectious. They’re all great friends, and by film’s end you may feel, as I did, that you’d love to be friends with them too. The competition itself is exciting without being cutthroat or mean-spirited. That said, 94 minutes is possibly more of this than absolutely necessary – it could have been even more fun at just an hour.

The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep gives an all-time classic comedy performance as the most fearsome boss in New York in this new farce. The scenes with her, and with Emily Blunt as her fiercely neurotic ‘first assistant,’ are consistently hilarious and delightful. Stanley Tucci is also slyly charming and funny as the gay art director who comments on the action while serving as wise, sweetly cynical confidant to all the straight women at the fashion magazine offices where most of the movie is set.

However, the movie is not nominally about any of these three characters…it’s instead the story of the non-fashionista (Anne Hathaway) who becomes the ‘second assistant’ and is the source of, first, ridicule, then admiration as she learns the ropes. Virtually everything about this main plot is unconvincing and fake, and this is especially true of the interminable, dull scenes involving our heroine’s personal life. It’s almost, but not quite, enough to drag the whole movie down. Hathaway tries gamely, but she’s miscast as an ugly duckling, and the writing of the role is hopeless.

Still, see it for the three sterling comic performances by Tucci, Blunt, and especially Streep, who may reach her biggest audience ever with this role, and deservedly so.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

This skillfully wrought little documentary has a good subject and handles it effectively. (Though, like Wordplay, it would be better at just an hour, feeling stretched out to feature length.) It’s primarily about General Motors’ EV1, an electric car halfheartedly test-marketed in California beginning in 1996. The audience responds to the space-age-looking little two-seater as if it’s a teddy bear or a favorite pet…when GM starts hauling them off to the scrapyard, there are gasps and moans as if we’re watching living beings euthanized. I resisted this anthropomorphism…they’re only cars, folks.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers convincingly cast Detroit auto makers, big oil companies, and the Bush administration as villainous, shortsighted, or both, in deliberately sabotaging the EV1 and its siblings. And there is satisfying irony in watching the success of the Prius and other hybrid vehicles, creating a bandwagon effect that brings Ford and GM aboard at last.

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