It's hard to believe that this oddly mesmerizing film, set in large part in the vast subway system that snakes its way through Manhattan and its outer boroughs, wasn't made by a native New Yorker. Although it perfectly captures a particular state of mind that comes from a lifetime spent riding the IRT, BMT and IND trains, the truth is that this cool, 76-minute feature is the work of expatriate Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi, whose THE RUNNER (1984) is generally considered a watershed in the development of Iran's post-Revolution cinema. Since his relocation to New York City in the 1980s, Naderi has been working on a series of features about his adopted home and this latest installment completes a trilogy with MANHATTAN BY NUMBERS (1993) and A.B.C. MANHATTAN (1997). His usual but unusually compelling subject: a young woman who's attempting to complete a record number of crossword puzzles in a single, 24-hour period. Last year, Gretchen (Sara Paul) successfully completed a total of 77 puzzles; this year she's shooting for at least 78. While the situation hardly sounds like the stuff of a promising film, what makes it interesting is that Gretchen concentrates best while riding the subway a phenomenon not entirely unknown to anyone who's ever been lulled into a near trance by the trains' constant rhythm and noise. Her messenger bag stuffed with a thick stack of crosswords pulled from newspapers as diverse as the New York Times and the Star, Gretchen boards the Lexington Avenue Express and begins her marathon run. Exactly why Gretchen feels compelled to do this at all is just one of this intriguing film's mysteries, but from the messages her mother leaves on her answering machine it's clear that Gretchen's mania for crosswords is inherited. It also becomes clear that this obsession, relatively innocuous in and of itself, is symptomatic of a far deeper mental disturbance, an already fragile mental state that begins crumbling with each uncompleted puzzle. Shot on video, Naderi's black-and-white film has all the tonality of newsprint, which is perfect for his subject. But what really makes the film work is Paul's striking performance: Alone onscreen and with virtually no dialogue at her disposal, she's able to convey Gretchen's descent into madness with frightening immediacy. Her co-star, of course, is New York City, the great, gray behemoth that pounds and grinds implacably as Gretchen struggles to focus her attention and cling to her sanity.
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- Released: 2004
- Rating: NR
- Review: It's hard to believe that this oddly mesmerizing film, set in large part in the vast subway system that snakes its way through Manhattan and its outer boroughs, wasn't made by a native New Yorker. Although it perfectly captures a particular state of mind t… (more)