Combustible Celluloid Review - Computer Chess (2013), Andrew Bujalski, Andrew Bujalski, Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Gordon Kindlmann, James Curry, Jim Lewis, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott
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With: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Gordon Kindlmann, James Curry, Jim Lewis, Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott
Written by: Andrew Bujalski
Directed by: Andrew Bujalski
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 92
Date: 07/25/2013

Computer Chess (2013)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Dork Knight

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Andrew Bujalski was one of the inventors of the "Mumblecore" movement, with his excellent movies Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax.

But just as any movement becomes identified as such, its members have begun to move into new and different arenas, including Lynn Shelton (Your Sister's Sister) and Jay and Mark Duplass (Jeff, Who Lives at Home).

Now Bujalski outdoes them all with his astounding, perplexing Computer Chess. It's certainly one of the year's most unique movies, sure to polarize the few viewers that actually venture out to see it.

Computer Chess is set in the early 1980s at a convention in a nondescript hotel. Computer programmers have gathered to see which has developed the best and smartest chess-playing computer.

At the end of the convention, a chess master (played by film critic Gerald Peary), promises to play against the winning machine.

Bujalski begins the movie as if it were a documentary, shot on what looks like a video camera from the period. The result is a smeary, washed-out, black-and-white look.

Little behind-the-scenes dramas start to build. The obnoxious Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) can't get a room in the hotel, while quiet Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) starts to develop his own theories and enlists the help of the convention's only girl, Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz).

Meanwhile, the hotel is also occupied by a bizarre encounter group that enacts adult "births," as well as an infestation of fluffy cats.

However, Bujalski is not concerned with the outcome of the chess match, or the convention, or actual conclusions of any kind.

Instead, the movie draws sly parallels between nature and machines, beginning with its opening shot where our cameraperson is admonished for shooting into the sun ("you'll burn out the tube!").

As things draw to a close, the movie begins to flip out, reverting briefly to color, repeating images, and generally turning surreal.

In Bujalski's earlier films, characters tried to connect through realistic, but oddly mannered language, which was both fascinating and maddening.

Now they have computer language to contend with: some of the computers appear to be malfunctioning in ways that resemble human behavior, and human error.

Everything here is up for grabs: human brains and computer memory, physical and mental activity, past and future, video and life.

Computer Chess is actually open to many interpretations, and the best part is that Bujalski doesn't explain any of them. In a summer filled with numbingly repetitive entertainments, here's an extraordinary movie that invites viewers to think.

Kino Lorber has released a terrific DVD edition that embraces the movie's lo-fi look. If you tuned into the movie's humor, the extras are wonderfully funny. They include several little featurettes about old technology and chess games, trailers, and two commentary tracks, one by Murray Campbell, the programmer of Deep Blue, and another by an "enthusiastic stoner."

In 2023, for the film's 10th anniversary, Kino Lorber released a deluxe Blu-ray edition. It's hard to comment on the transfer, since the film is designed to look like old video, but I love it. There are also optional subtitles. Bonuses include the two aforementioned commentary tracks, a tutorial on the old Sony ACV-3260 video camera (5 minutes), a Q&A from 2019 (24 minutes), "8 Reference Games for Computer Chess," which is a digital re-creation of eight real-life games (45 minutes); a short video to help raise funds for the movie; a featurette on old computers; interview with Bujalski (28 minutes), producer Alex Lipschultz (21 minutes), and actor Wiley Wiggins (22 minutes); a promo for the Sundance Film Festival, three trailers, and (hang onto your hates), a truly bizarre trailer, created by AI for a "sequel." This is Highly Recommended.

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