15 Mar 2011 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 224 | March 15, 2011

Black-and-White Box Sets, Ten Letters

As you may have gleaned from looking around the site, I’m a puzzle guy.  I solve ’em and I make ’em, and so for a couple of days this week I get to indulge by combining two of my passions—movies and crossword puzzles.

This is my regularly scheduled “light” week (and I’m particularly busy anyway), so I will (try to) be brief.  First, a few announcements:


The 34th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is happening this coming weekend, the 18th through 20th.  The fun and games take place at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott.  It’s not too late to take part in the country’s oldest and largest crossword competition (as it says at the link, where you’ll find puzzles and plenty of info about the tournament).  If you’re a crossword fan and anywhere within shootin’ range of Brooklyn, go.  (I’m not able to make it this time but had a great experience a couple of years ago and hope to make it back again before long.)

The tournament founder and director is Will Shortz, editor at the New York Times, home to many of the greatest crossword puzzles you’ll find anywhere.  Case in point:  the puzzle in today’s morning paper.  I absolutely adore this crossword and highly recommend you get to it.  You can pick up the Times, of course, at any Starbucks, or if you’re an online subscriber, get the puzzle here.  Kudos to constructor Jeremy Newton for a clever idea and great execution.  It’s everything a crossword puzzle should be!  (After you’ve finished—no spoilers here—you can find this apt movie clip from this post a year ago.)

I’ve been making puzzles for several years, with a few dozen that have run in the major venues, mostly in the Times.  My latest endeavor has been making a monthly pair of mini-crosswords called Gram Crackers.  You can find them, as always, at the MAD Puzzles page.  Next month’s will be going up a few days early, on April Fools’ Day.  Consider yourself warned.

Our theme this week
Movies about crossword puzzles

Crossword Craze Cartoons

crossword puzzle_arthur wynne

The man credited with the first crossword puzzle in this country is Arthur Wynne, who created something he called a “word-cross” that ran in the New York World on December 21, 1913.  That’s a picture of his work above, back when puzzles were at “square one,” so to speak, with FUN already there to give solvers a head start.  Crosswords have changed a lot in their century-long history.  You could say they have a checkered past.  One notable time in crossword lore was the 1920s, when among other crazes—flagpole sitting, marathon dancing—the country fell hard for the crossword puzzle.  Puzzle books flew off shelves, contests tested the wits of solvers, and somebody in Hollywood had picked up the habit too.

Today we have a couple of animated short films, a form not much older than crosswords themselves.  Both feature popular characters who starred in dozens of cartoons.  One was Felix the Cat, in his first incarnation, who debuted in 1919 and appeared in today’s short, Felix All Puzzled, at the height of the crossoword craze, in 1924.  The other is Alice, a young girl played by Margie Gay, about five years old, starring with a cast of make-believe characters in Alice Solves the Puzzle, in 1925.  The Alice comedies are notable for the man behind the series, Walt Disney, who was still a few years away from creating the toon that changed it all, Mickey Mouse.

Like puzzles, cartoons have changed a lot too.  These shorts are a long way from Pixar, but as Arthur Wynne might have said, you gotta start somewhere. 

Felix All Puzzled (1924)
Otto Messmer, director
Felix created by Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer
Silent Cartoon / Felix the Cat


Alice Solves the Puzzle (1925)
Walt Disney, director
Introducing Pete
Margie Gay as Alice

The Adventures of “Pongo the Pup” (1923)
Pongo Catches the Crossword Craze

The Brits caught the craze too.

Quote of note
Myrtle Sousé (solving a crossword):  What’s a six-letter word meaning “embezzlement”?
Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch:  Prison.
—Myrtle Sousé (Una Merkel), Mrs. Hermisillo Brunch (Jessie Ralph), The Bank Dick (1940)


 07 Feb 2011 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 211 | February 7, 2011

Best of 2010

It’s never too late to take a look back, and with the Oscars coming later this month, this may be as good a time as any.  I will forgo any lengthy introduction—none needed, really—except to say that the films featured this week are what I view to be the best of 2010.  The number 15 seems to work best for the format of this site and allows me to avoid skipping some worthy films which would be the case if I limited the list to 10.  The rankings are somewhat arbitrary.  I might rank them differently on another day.  The exception would be the top two films, which I think are head and shoulders above the other contenders, movies most likely to remembered and watched again many years from now.

For this week, I’ll just be looking at English-language films.  I’ll take a briefer look at a few foreign-language movies next week.

Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010

Best Films of 2010 (#15 to #11)

#15 — Fair Game

fair game_new

A political thriller about the Plame affair in which a high-profile couple takes on the Bush regime and are fortunate to survive, Fair Game is a mostly fact-based document of what happened in one telling episode of a low, dishonest decade.  In their third collaboration, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn offer first-rate performances as wife and husband Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, who sacrifice careers for getting out the truth.  At this moment, the nation may not have much passion for a film about the misconduct (not to mention, crimes) of our bygone leaders; we have more urgent problems, and we’d just as well be done with the past.  Hardly a hit, the film fell short of $10 million at the domestic box office, and barely broke $20 million worldwide.  But I’d guess the picture will stand as one of the better political films of our time.  It’s not exactly an uplifting tale, not if you like to see justice prevail, though that’s not the fault of the filmmaking so much as history.

(Fair Game at MAD:  preview and review)

#14 — The Kids Are All Right

the kids are all right

It’s a normal family in the usual way—dysfunctional.  But a family headed by a lesbian couple is not something we’ve seen much onscreen before.  Nic and Jules have two teenage kids, and when the biological father comes into the picture, life gets complicated.  The title tells the story:  the kids are better at coping than any of the adults.  The acting is pitch-perfect, with a fine ensemble that includes Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo.  I enjoyed the mix of comedy and drama, along with the interplay of the characters.  It all felt very much like family.  The writing, though, I found a bit uneven.  Mark Ruffalo’s sperm-donor character is at times clichéd and in the end left dangling without a real resolution.  But The Kids Are All Right was nevertheless one of the gems of the summer, and having just then seen a string of films that fell short of the mark, I left the theater this time smiling.  For that, I remain grateful.

#13 — Toy Story 3

toy story 3

Andy is heading off to college and that brings some big changes to the lives of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and their toy pals.  Toy Story 3 tugs at the heartstrings, and though manipulative, it’s effective in the best Pixar tradition.  It’s hard to argue with the success of the studio, the envy of the rest of Hollywood, but this film, as enjoyable as it was, seemed to be missing some of the spark that Pixar is known for.  That may be because this is a sequel, a reprise of many characters we know very well, here in a new film for the third (and hopefully last) time.  Two of the next three Pixar releases will also be sequels (Cars 2 this year, Monsters, Inc. 2 next year); if the focus of the company now is to mine old hits for new box office gold, that would be a shame.  Pixar became Pixar because it was startlingly original.  That’s its legacy, and I hope, its future.

#12 — The Illusionist

the illusionist

Here’s an animated film that felt original from the first frame to the last.  Maybe the trick is to dust off an old, unproduced script written by the great Jacques Tati.  Director Sylvain Chomet brings the story to life, a whimsical and melancholy tale about an aging magician who befriends Alice, a young fan who believes his illusions are real.  The illusionist is Tatischeff (Tati’s birth name), and the story is a personal one, intended to be a missive to Tati’s estranged daughter.  The Illusionist is set in a series of European cities, primarily Edinburgh.  A British-French production, the movie takes its time, in stark contrast to the hyper, breathless pace of much American animation.  It’s not a story aimed at kids, but still one that kids can enjoy.  My five-year-old son liked it some but thought it slow in parts.  Children a bit older should find the film entertaining and worthwhile.

#11 — The King’s Speech

the king's speech_4

Movies about British royals have become staples of the holiday film calendar, and The King’s Speech is one of the finer examples.  It’s an entertaining look at the troubles of George VI, the king with the stammer who needs the help of a commoner to learn to give a speech.  The cast is superb throughout, led by Colin Firth as the king, Geoffrey Rush as his unorthodox speech therapist, and Helena Bonham Carter as the devoted queen whose faith in her husband hardly wavers and is never broken.  The king’s ordeal, and his efforts to overcome it, are the focus of the story.  Unspoken is the fact that his heroism, as important as it may be, does not compare on a personal level with the heroism of the many thousands who fought for their country, at great sacrifice, in the war to come.  One quibble with the film is its utter respectability, as if the filmmakers knew they had a dynamite story, a real crowd-pleaser, and didn’t dare do a thing to risk it.  A little more of the unexpected may have made a very good film even better.

(The King’s Speech at MAD:  preview and review)

The Illusionist (2010)
Sylvain Chomet, director
Jacques Tati (original screenplay), Sylvain Chomet (adaptation), writers

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Lisa Cholodenko, director
Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg, writers
Igor Jadue-Lillo, director of photography
Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo

Quote of note
:  And this, well, this is where I live.  It’s got a disco, it’s got a dune buggy, and a whole room just for trying on clothes.
Barbie:  You have everything!
Ken:  Everything, except someone to share it with.
—Ken (Michael Keaton, voice), Barbie (Jodi Benson, voice), Toy Story 3 (2010)


 06 Aug 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
Entr’acte | August 6, 2010

“Upside Down”

from Curious George

This week I need to keep to an abbreviated schedule so this will be another musical interlude, continuing with the general theme of last week, the world of animation.  Look for a return to regular features in the next week or two.

Curious George (2006)
Matthew O’Callaghan, director
Based on the book series by H.A. and Margret Rey
“Upside Down”
Jack Johnson, singer-songwriter


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 01 Aug 2010 @ 03:10 PM

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 05 Aug 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
Entr’acte | August 5, 2010

“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”

from Toy Story

This week I need to keep to an abbreviated schedule so this will be another musical interlude, continuing with the general theme of last week, the world of animation.  Look for a return to regular features in the next week or two.

Toy Story (1995)
John Lasseter, director
“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”
Randy Newman, singer-songwriter


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 01 Aug 2010 @ 03:09 PM

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 04 Aug 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
Entr’acte | August 4, 2010

“The Bare Necessities”

from The Jungle Book

This week I need to keep to an abbreviated schedule so this will be another musical interlude, continuing with the general theme of last week, the world of animation.  Look for a return to regular features in the next week or two.

The Jungle Book (1967)
Wolfgang Reitherman, director
Based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling
“The Bare Necessities”
Terry Gilkyson, songwriter
Phil Harris (Baloo), Wolfgang Reitherman (Mowgli), voices


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 01 Aug 2010 @ 03:09 PM

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