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Saturday, July 20

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For the second week in a row, I feel compelled to apologize for my travel schedule, which has kept me from attending a film most of you have been eagerly awaiting all year: Adam Sandler's Click. It's alright, let it all out.

Wordplay

For all of the brain power represented in this film, this review is a no-brainer. If you enjoyed yourself at all during Spellbound (the documentary about the weirdly charming spelling bee kids), Wordplay is the natural, necessary, and must-see extension of that film. What happens to wordsmiths for whom spelling bees are simply not enough? They go on to puzzle solving, hoping one day to be able to tackle the gold-standard New York Times crossword puzzle. This film is about two fascinating groups of individuals: the makers/editors of those puzzles and those who are obsessed with solving them.

The entry point into Wordplay is the strikingly normal Times crossword editor Will Shortz (who also hosts a puzzlemaster show on NPR), who in 1978 founded the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Much like in Spellbound, first-time feature director Patrick Creadon introduces us to the likely front-runners in the competition, and we track their strategies and abilities as being amazingly swift and accurate at solving these puzzles. Most can do any Times puzzle in under three minutes; a few can do it in under two. Each player has their own set of quirks and lifestyles. Most seem well-rounded and they range in occupation from accomplished professional piano player to 20-year-old fraternity brother. And the respect these players have for each other is remarkable. At one point during a competition, players lodge a protest when another player has been given too low a score.

Some of the more purely entertaining moments in Wordplay focus on celebrity players, including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls, who mark as a career highlight when their band's name was an answer in a Times puzzle. Most of the players are interviewed while completing a puzzle, but Jon Stewart takes the cake as the most entertaining player, who throws out verbal insults at Shortz every time he solves a particularly hard or easy clue (upon figuring out the expression "cross swords", Stewart declares "Your three 's' strategy, your triple consonants can't fool me, Shortz!"

Perhaps my favorite moments in the film center on one puzzle maker who works for Shortz actually letting us watch him painstakingly piece together a puzzle that eventually does appear in the Times. His playful style of building his baby one letter at a time is remarkable. He laughs when he comes up with a great word or phrase. The added bonus is that we see most of the celebrity solvers actually get this particular puzzle and solve it, uncovering the cleverness just as the writer intended it.

The film concludes with the 2005 tournament weekend, and the wildly unexpected outcome. Wordplay is about grown-up geeks (I say that will all due affection), who seemingly never grow tired of using their brain to create and disseminate. These are the clue solvers we should be worshipping, rather than some fictional hero in The Da Vinci Code. This film is a celebration of intelligence and friendly competitors, and it's a shoe-in come Oscar nomination season.

Autumn

Normally when I sit down to watch any film, I have some idea what it's about beforehand; at the very least, I know who's in it. But every so often, I enjoy deliberately avoid any advance details about a movie. Sometimes, there's a reason has stayed under my radar, but other times (such as this) it allows me the rare opportunity to discover something wonderful. When I looked at my screening calendar and saw the title Autumn, I realized I didn't have a clue what this film was about. So as I experienced the sophisticated twists and turns of the French-language Autumn, I naturally assumed this was the work of a veteran European director whose confidence behind the camera and with his talented (and familiar-to-me) cast was apparent in every scene. Imagine my shock after watching this complex and devastating film that the relatively young man behind it was an American whose love for European crime dramas runs deep.

After premiering nearly two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, first-time feature writer-director (and producer and editor) Ra-up McGee's crime drama Autumn has been making the festival rounds ever since. Its subject is not entirely foreign to U.S. audiences: a hitman trying to leave the business after meeting a wonderful woman. Laurent Lucas (Harry, He's Here to Help; In My Skin) plays the handsome and slightly frayed hitman Jean-Pierre, who stumbles upon childhood friend Michelle (Irene Jacob from The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors: Red). Just as Jean-Pierre is beginning to think love is his ticket out of crime, he discovers that a missing briefcase that his superior is desperately looking for has been stolen by Michelle. Suddenly his two worlds smash into each other with the force of a train wreck.

Jean-Pierre's life in the world of crime is too deeply rooted for him to get out quite so easily. His shady brother Claude (Samuel Dupuy) has a junkie-like gambling habit and his boss (the legendary Michel Aumont) is a nasty fuck who manipulates the people around him like pieces on a gameboard. Jean-Pierre also houses a shared childhood secret with Claude and Michelle, one that influences his mind and conscience to this day. As the search for the suitcase continues, Jean-Pierre struggles to protect Michelle while staying out of the murder game. The levels of deceit and double-crossing are many, but the story still manages to make perfect sense; sometimes even the most obvious turncoats find ways of surprising us. My favorite of the supporting cast is the character of rookie killer-for-hire (and obvious replacement for Jean-Pierre) Veronique, played with a cold forwardness by Dinara Droukarova (Of Freaks and Mean, Since Otar Left). She speaks very little, and some mistake this for a person who simply takes orders unthinkingly, but do not misjudge or take her reactions for granted.

McGee's script not only delves into this intricate plot with a sure hand usually reserved for the more experienced set (he comes to Autumn from the world of documentaries), but he also takes the much-needed time to develop his characters and reveal their neurosis, feelings of guilt, and what emotions they suppress in order to commit their crimes. The idea of an American directing a French crime drama is not a gimmick, and McGee is the real deal. If this were a perfect world, the guy would direct all of his future films (of which there will be many, I feel) in French, using all of the tricks French film have been seducing us with for years. Not only are the character's moral ambiguities at the forefront of Autumn (as is often the case in such French films), but McGee refuses to wrap things up nicely for us, leaving his audience with a heavy and bloody heart that doesn't go away easily. Autumn is a major statement from a new voice in American film; just don't be scared to hear what he has to say just because he's speaking another language. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Three Times

Over the last 25 years or so, Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien has been delivering some of the most luscious and heart-felt works of any Asian filmmaker. But since he never ventured into the realm of action films, his works have gone largely unnoticed in the Western world. But with movies such as Goodbye South, Goodbye; Millennium Mambo and Café Lumiere (to name three of his most recent efforts), his anonymity may be about to end. His latest, Three Times, is as ambitious as it is sumptuous. It gives us not one but three very different love stories set in three different time periods in Taiwanese history, using the same two lead actors to play couples whose relationships for various reason are made complicated and frustrating. As with most of his other works, Three Times features a pacing that is meant to give the audience time to reflect, allowing us to move our eyes through the sometimes-haunting visuals.

The first story is set primarily in a pool hall circa 1966. A young soldier (Chang Chen from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; 2046; Happy Together) is about to ship out when he enters a billiards hall and spots the stunning Shu Qi (The Transporter, So Close), who works there. With little conversation between them, the two separate shortly after meeting, agreeing that they will write while the solider is away. Upon his return a couple years later, he discovers she no longer works at the same parlor and sets out across the various nearby villages, following clues to her whereabouts. This episode not only gives us a chance to meet these actors for the first time, but familiarize ourselves with the nation and the people of that era. When the two do finally reconnect, they share a brief, humid evening together, one that the rest of should hope we ever get to share with someone we love. The story is quiet, sweet, innocent, and absolutely divine.

The middle tale jumps back to 1911, during Japan's occupation of Taiwan. Chang plays a married diplomat who frequents a high-end brothel, where he frequents and has clearly fallen in love with a courtesan (Shu). Director Hou makes an interesting choice with this story by presenting it as a silent film, complete with dialogue cards and a moody score (mostly piano). The diplomat is extremely kind to the courtesan and her friends, but his principles forbid him from taking her as his concubine. The two are clearly matched as intellectuals and have lengthy conversations about any number of topics. A matched level of respect travels between the pair, which makes his abrupt leaving on "business" all the more difficult for her. Of the three stories, this is the most heartbreaking and the most awe-inspiring. Everything from the period clothes to the pristine sets to the delicate nature and actions of the courtesans will take the breath clean out of your body. Obviously, this is the episode that I enjoyed the most.

The one I enjoyed the least was the one set in 2005. Times in Taiwan are on edge with the threat of war with China always a possibility. Shu plays a bisexual woman with a hot and slightly possessive and jealous girlfriend. But that doesn't stop her from using all of her modern technology (cell phone, text messaging, e-mails, etc.) to have a passionate affair with a scooter-riding bad-ass (Chang). The level of contempt for her girlfriend and the lengths she goes to deceive her are kind of appalling, but that isn't why I didn't like it. There's just nothing to the story or characters under the surface. I suppose this is Hou's comment on the shallow, callous nature of modern romance, but it comes across as cold and boring.

As with many of Hou's works, Three Times asks its audience to be patient and not be in such a rush to see where things are going. Through the first two stories of this film that is not an issue, but the third short is taxing, despite the shimmering cinematography and the sheer attractiveness of the two leads. The third story isn't painful enough to keep me from recommending the entire piece, but I can't recall being so disappointed by Hou (who also co-wrote the tales) and his dreamy vision. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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