Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Utilizing some sort of gimmick is a time-honored tradition in filmmaking. Everything from 3D, black-and-white, and found-footage shaky cam has been used in the past few decades to either enhance a movie or to draw attention to it. The trick has always been to not let the gimmick distract from the film, and to actually add something to the story. Such is the task for COMPUTER CHESS, a quirky and unique film which was shot with film equipment specific to the era its story takes place in…the year 1982.
In 1982, a convention of tech-nerds meet at a hotel for a weekend computer chess tournament. They compete their state-of-the-art computers against each other without giving away the secrets of their software. Meanwhile, a couples’ encounter group looking to get in touch with their feelings is also meeting at the hotel, and create a scheduling conflict with the tournament.

Right away, COMPUTER CHESS does an excellent job of dropping us back to 1982. Shot on period video equipment in black-and-white square format, the film is partially set in the framework of a documentary, and the execution is realistic enough to make us feel like we are really watching a doc made in the early 1980’s. This is an age when computers were the size of refrigerators and the keyboards responded with a loud and clumsy clunk, and the look of the film fits the age perfectly. Director Andrew Bujalski goes as far as to take a page out of the Grindhouse thing by adding in some video glitches here and here; everything from misplaced scanlines to jumpcuts to un-synced audio…greatly enhancing the realism. The story of COMPUTER CHESS could not have been told in any other way.
Unfortunately for our beloved nerds, the story of COMPUTER CHESS is where things being to crash. The film sets up some excellent storylines…the potential for artificial intelligence, the first female programmer, a programmer who may be throwing the tournament, and the burning question if a computer could ever defeat a human being in a chess match. All of these plotlines are intriguing enough, but not one of them is brought to any sort of conclusion or resolution. No, this is not one of those films where ambiguity is the idea…for the few characters that are given some sort of arc are left hanging by movie’s end. The couples’ group who are in touch with their spiritual sides initially offer a strong contrast to the by-the-numbers techies, but they are eventually forgotten about. Even the climatic showdown between a Chess Master and the top computer of the tournament is left without a winner, or a finished game.

COMPUTER CHESS makes excellent use out of a group of unknown actors who really look like they fell out of the early 1980’s. Everyone performs great, although there are no real standouts.
The most frustrating thing about COMPUTER CHESS is that for a movie so grounded in realism, it takes a few bizarre supernatural-twists which intrude on everything and ultimately make no sense. Overall the film is proof that a trip back in time is only worthwhile if you learn something. Excellent on nostalgia but clumsy in storytelling, this match is a stalemate.


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