Strange 'Computer Chess' will compel you to think 

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

Just as any movement becomes identified, its members move to different arenas, including Lynn Shelton ("Your Sister's Sister") and Jay and Mark Duplass ("Jeff, Who Lives at Home"). But Bujalski outdoes them all with his astounding, perplexing "Computer Chess," opening today at the Opera Plaza. One of the year's most unique movies, it's sure to polarize viewers who venture out to see it.

Set in the early 1980s at a convention in a nondescript hotel, "Computer Chess" focuses on programmers who have gathered to see who has developed the best and smartest chess-playing computer. 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 era. 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 group that enacts adult "births" and an infestation of fluffy cats.

But Bujalski is not concerned with the outcome of the chess match, or the convention, or conclusions of any kind. Instead, the movie draws sly parallels between nature and machines, beginning with its opening shot where the cameraperson is admonished for shooting into the sun ("You'll burn out the tube!").

Contrasting themes of all kinds are up for grabs: human brains and computer memory, physical and mental activity, past and future, video and life.

As things draw to a close, the movie begins to flip out, reverting briefly to color and 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.

Contrasting themes of all kinds are up for grabs: human brains and computer memory, physical and mental activity, past and future, video and life.

"Computer Chess" is open to many interpretations, and it's great that Bujalski doesn't explain any of them. In a summer filled with numbingly repetitive entertainment, here's an extraordinary movie that invites viewers to think.


Computer Chess

(three and a half stars)

Starring Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary

Written and directed by Andrew Bujalski

Not rated

Running time 1 hour, 32 minutes

About The Author

Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies for the San Francisco Examiner since 2000, in addition to many other publications and websites. He holds a master's degree in cinema, and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics... more
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