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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Word Wars
Word Wars
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // April 5, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted March 7, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movie:
As much as I hate to admit it, I am absolutely awful at the game of SCRABBLE®. I was an English major in college, and I've been writing for as long as I can remember, but something about making words out of those little tiles just boggles my mind. When it's my turn, I often find myself drawing a blank, taking way too much time, and eventually putting down something my infant niece could have conjured up from my rack. So, needless to say, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a documentary that follows four of the world's top players as they advance to the North American Championship in San Diego.

A hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Word Wars takes the viewer deep into the intense world of competitive SCRABBLE®, whether it be in a tournament with more than 700 players or a dozen highly dedicated folks in New York City's Washington Square Park. Directors Eric Chaikin (a highly-skilled tournament player himself) and Julian Petrillo follow four rather eccentric, and often genius, players as they hustle, study, and triple-word-score their way for several months on the way to the National Finals. Reminiscent of another excellent documentary about an activity that most would consider fairly docile but turns out to be ravenously competitive, Spellbound, Chaikin and Petrillo's film wins us over by allowing us to not only see the competition itself, but also the ins-and-outs of these four competitors. We learn their strategies and preparation methods as well as their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Not to take anything away from their obvious genius, but you'd probably be hard-pressed to find a stranger bunch of guys than Matt Graham, Marlon Hill, Joe Edley, and "G.I." Joel Sherman. Graham is a stand-up comic who shows up to a tournament wearing a tattered t-shirt, and swallows an excessive amount of "brain function" pills. Hill is a, self-admitted, poor Black militant who hates the English language and just can't wait to "go home." Edley is a three-time SCRABBLE® champion who uses Zen strategy to "balance [his] biorhythms." And, finally, we have "G.I." Joel Sherman who didn't get that nickname by being a rough-and-tumble military hero, but rather from his "gastro-intestinal" problems, which force him to down copious amounts of Maalox while playing. See what I mean? Find me a weirder group of guys and I'd be very surprised. As strange as this group is, however, they are even more fascinating to watch as they prepare to try and become the latest National Champion.

If you thought spelling-bees could be intense, just wait until you see what lengths these players go to while getting ready for a SCRABBLE® tournament. Chaikin and Petrillo do a nice job of ratcheting up the tension as the tournament progresses, and truly place the viewer in a position to root for these players. They provide their participants with plenty of screen time to development as a whole before showing them in rigorous competition, thus allowing us to actually care whether they win or lose. It's hard not to eventually root for Graham, Hill, and Sherman as they take on Edley - the three-time champion everyone seems to hate. We see all their faults and their delusions of grandeur about the state of SCRABBLE® on the national level, just as we see their genius and tenacity. In showing us all the sides of these four characters, Chaikin and Petrillo allow us to see their participants as truly human and, in turn, truly fascinating. If you've ever played the game of SCRABBLE®, then you know just how hard it is to come up with the right words when you need them most. Graham, Hill, Sherman, and Edley seem to be able to summon the right words almost at will. Getting to see them do it throughout the duration of Word Wars is a thrill almost akin to using all seven tiles and getting that ever-elusive 50-bonus-point Bingo.

The DVD

Video:
Word Wars is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame transfer that looks pretty much like what you would expect from a digital video production. Detail is somewhat lacking, colors bloom occasionally, and the entire picture tends to look a bit flat. This is, however, all due to the quality of the original source material. The transfer itself holds up just fine as I saw no sign of pixelation or compression artifacts at all throughout the film. Given its inherent limitations, this transfer is easily the best the film is ever going to look.


Sound:
The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby 2.0 stereo format, which must deal with the same issues as the visual presentation. The quality of the source material is adequate, at best, and this track does the best it possibly can, given those limitations. Dialogue is of utmost importance for a film like Word Wars, and is handled nicely by this track. Narration and dialogue is always crisp, clear, and distinct. Although the soundtrack itself is slightly annoying at time, its presentation is nicely balanced across the front soundstage and is never overwhelming. This audio presentation isn't something to show off your home theater system with, but it does manage to get the job done.

Extras:
Included on this disc is just over 20 minutes worth of bonus footage originally cut from the film. The footage itself looks and sounds just as good as the rest of the film, and its inclusion on this disc is certainly a welcome addition. Included are a few funny moments from our four "word warriors," and some great extra footage from Washington Square Park. The filmmakers are even kind enough to bring us up to date on many of the film's participants.

Also included are trailers for three other FeatureDocs films.

Final Thoughts:
A great slice-of-life documentary that won acclaim at several festivals in 2004, Word Wars is a fascinating look into the surprisingly intense world of competitive SCRABBLE®. If you've ever played the game, you will most definitely find this film an interesting look at just how seriously some people take it. It nearly even made me get that old SCRABBLE® board out of the closet and challenge someone to a game. That is, until I realized how horrendously bad I am at making big words out of those little tiles. As for me, I'd rather just watch the film again. It's certainly never looked and sounded better than it does on this DVD, and the inclusion of some very nice bonus footage makes this a disc I can easily R-E-C-O-M-M-E-N-D. Yes! Triple-word-score!

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