Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Movie Review: Computer Chess

Computer Chess
Directed by: Andrew Bujalski.
Written by: Andrew Bujalski.
Starring: Patrick Riester (Peter Bishton), Wiley Wiggins (Martin Beuscher), Myles Paige (Michael Papageorge), Robin Schwartz (Shelly Flintic), Gerald Peary (Pat Henderson), Gordon Kindlmann (Tom Schoesser), Jim Lewis (John), Freddy Martinez (Freddy), James Curry (Carbray), Bob Sabiston (McVey), Tishuan Scott (Keneiloe), Chris Doubek  (Dave), Annie LaGanga (Carol).

I have never been much of a mumblecore fan – but that could well be because I haven’t been watching the right movies. Andrew Bujalski is considered probably the first name in mumblecore – and until Computer Chess, I had not seen any of his movies. In the past few years, we’ve seen some mumblecore names move (or attempt to move) into the mainstream – actress Greta Gerwig, actor/writer/director Mark Duplass, and director Joe Swanberg for example, have all done movies with bigger movie stars and/or director in an attempt to move beyond their small, but loyal, fan base. Bujalski doesn’t seem much interested in that – not yet anyway – but that doesn’t mean Computer Chess is a typical mumblecore film. For one, it’s a period piece – taking places in the early 1980s, shot in black & white, on video – and not the good digital video everyone shoots on these days, cheap, old school 1980s video.

The movie takes place over a long weekend when computer programmers from around the country converge on a low rent hotel in order to pit there computer chess programs against each other. The winner gets bragging rights, a cheque for $7,500 and an opportunity to go up against a real life chess master – Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary) – who has not lost yet, but believes that at some point around 1984, we will be beaten.

Part of the charm of Computer Chess is seeing the period details. Pretty much all the men in Computer Chess – and all but one of them are men – are not quite as nerdy as the guys in 1980s movies like Revenge of the Nerds – but they aren’t that far off either. They have cheap haircuts, geeky clothes, and haul around massive computers from one room to another. When they need to show things to a larger group in a conference room, they use an overhead projector. Shooting in cheap 1980s video makes sense for this movie – like the rest of the period details, the look, however crude, simply fits. Bujalski structures the movie almost as a mocumentary, but doesn’t really try to fool you into thinking its real.

The film is a comedy, but a low-key one – that occasionally borders on the absurd. A running joke in the movie involves one programmer (Myles Paige) whose reservation was lost by the hotel (if he ever had one), and runs around trying to get someone else to allow him to stay with them. When he finally does get a room, it is inexplicably filled with cats.

The film has many characters, who very gradually, we get to know. My favorite character is Peter (Patrick Riester), who is one of the underlings on the team who won last year. He, like many of the other characters, is shy and quiet – has trouble relating to other people. Throughout the movie though, he will gradually come out of his shell – he has a rather sweet relationship with the one woman at the competition (Robin Schwartz), perhaps because he’s one of the only ones who doesn’t make an awkward pass at her. He is also drawn in by an older couple, who is at another conference at the hotel – a new age retreat for swingers, it appears like. Bujalski gets some comic mileage out of comparing and contrasting these aging hippies, with the new wave nerds, but the scenes between Peter and this older couple go a little deeper than mere comic fodder – they are awkward, funny, and strangely honest.

The movie also does something unexpected – at least by me. While there is a lot of “geek speak” as it were, there are also some rather intelligent conversations about the future of artificial intelligence – and what it all means. I’m not sure the strange twist the movie takes near the end – involving one of the programs, and it’s developing intelligence, really works all that well, but damn it if it wasn’t strange and interesting.

And that pretty much describes the movie as well to me. It’s strange and interesting – unlike most of what I see in any given year, and while not wholly satisfying to me (the film has generated some rapturous reviews), is certainly one I’m glad I saw. I’m not quite sure what it all means, but watching it was something different and unexpected. So I’ll try and not let another Bujalski film pass me by.

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