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Short Takes

Player in chief: President Bill Clinton in film about crossword puzzle enthusiasts.
Across and down

One StarOne StarOne Star

WORDPLAY

Documentary telling you everything a crossword puzzler would want to know about the game. Directed by Patrick Creadon (1:34). PG: Language. At IFC Center.

With luck and a smuggled dictionary, I could complete the crossword puzzle in an airline magazine during a flight from New York to, oh, say, Hawaii. In this documentary, I learn there are people who can solve a Monday New York Times puzzle in less than 3 minutes - without looking words up!

I don't necessarily want to know these people, but they put on a good show at the annual crossword championship in Stamford, Conn., which is the centerpiece of this affectionate, smartly done promo for puzzling.

The film is all over the 2005 contest, profiling contestants and past winners and doing a blow-by-blow of the competition. Celebrity puzzlers interviewed include Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina.

Jack Mathews

Lust and squalor

One StarOne Star

LOWER CITY

Brazilian drama about two hustlers and a prostitute who get involved in a steamy ménage à trois. Directed by Sérgio Machado (1:37). R: Nudity, sexuality, violence, language, drugs. In Portuguese with subtitles. At the Landmark Sunshine.

As metaphors go, the graphic cockfight at the start of this gritty melodrama couldn't be more fitting to the action that follows. While petty grifters Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) start out the best of friends, the battle begins the minute the flirtatious prostitute Karinna (Alice Braga) enters their lives.

Machado establishes a realistically seamy environment for his erotic triangle, and there are some surprisingly tender moments amid the squalor. But there's also something patronizing about the zeal with which Machado wallows in the muck, especially since his characters' lives revolve entirely around sex. Chances are, most working girls can't actually afford to spend this much free time in the bedroom.

Elizabeth Weitzman

Sex, drugs, filmmaking

One StarOne Star1.5 Stars

THE OUTSIDER

Documentary biography of independent filmmaker/bad boy James Toback. Directed by Nicholas Jarecki (1:25). Not rated: Language, sex, nudity, drug references. At the Cinema Village.

It's hard to say why we need a documentary about James Toback when he has always been such a tireless promoter of his own legend. Nicholas Jarecki's biography simply burnishes Toback's carefully cultivated image as a mischievous maverick, but at least it keeps us entertained.

And how could it not? Toback's life has been one of orgiastic excess in the arenas of sex, drugs and gambling. In reality, the director of films like "Two Girls and a Guy" is hardly an outsider: Everyone from Mike Tyson to Norman Mailer offers gushing tributes that are only mildly challenged by Robert Downey Jr.'s amusingly dry skepticism. Still, as is often the case with Toback's films, even as you're shaking your head at his shameless self-indulgence, you can't help but keep on watching.

E.W.

Love and agita

One StarOne StarOne Star

ONLY HUMAN

Drama about a Jewish woman who brings her Palestinian fiancé home to meet her family. Directed by Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri (1:25). R: Nudity, sexuality, mature themes. In Spanish with subtitles. At the AMC Lincoln Square and the Quad.

Sure, it owes an obvious debt to Pedro Almodóvar and is clearly inspired by "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." But this wacky Spanish comedy has an appealing tone that's all its own. Filmmakers Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri deserve credit just for having the chutzpah to submit their premise: A nice Jewish girl (Marián Aguilera) brings her boyfriend (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet the parents, and oh, yeah - he's Palestinian.

While disaster ensues, the directors have the sense to avoid the obvious, finding trouble in the least predictable of places. (Arguments about Israel are relatively benign, but Mom's chicken soup is a killer.) The slapstick gets a little too silly, and a rushed ending feels unsatisfying. But everyone whose family boasts an excess of opinions will relate.

E.W.

Bong show

One StarOne Star1.5 Stars

A/K/A TOMMY CHONG

Documentary looking at the career and recent arrest of the titular pothead comedian. Directed by Josh Gilbert (1:18). Not rated: Language, drug references. At Film Forum.

Are 1970s stoner comedians Cheech and Chong really comparable to the likes of Martin and Lewis or Abbott and Costello, as documentarian Josh Gilbert suggests? Well, maybe, if you're stoned. But even those unimpressed with the duo's genially lowbrow work will be intrigued by the political tenor of this portrait.

The primary focus is on Chong's 2003 arrest for selling bongs. Gilbert blatantly takes Chong's side, so your level of empathy will rise or fall depending on how strongly you connect with his subject's hazy, if enthusiastic, dedication to "the pursuit of righteous happiness."

E.W.



Originally published on June 16, 2006

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