Movie Review: Computer Chess

Published on July 26th, 2013 in: Current Faves, Documentaries, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Less Lee Moore


I’m ignorant when it comes to both chess and computer programming, but it doesn’t make Computer Chess any less brilliant (though I probably missed a few good jokes). It’s one of the most clever mockumentaries I’ve ever seen because it doesn’t present itself like a documentary but instead a mere document of a long weekend with a bunch of computer programmers and chess fanatics. It’s like an extremely dry yet avant garde Christopher Guest film. This is a wonderful thing.

Based on the subject matter, Computer Chess might seem tedious, but it’s completely the opposite. At first, it seems like an old, black and white home movie that captures the annual North American Computer Chess Tournament. There is superimposed text during an introductory sequence with the panel of moderators, yet there is nothing to indicate when this tournament takes place, which seems odd. (Based on the outfits, hairstyles, and technology portrayed, however, 1981 would be a good guess.) Furthermore, there is only one camera guy, and since we frequently see him filming the events, we soon realize that this entire movie has been staged.

As for that camera work: It is impeccable, including poorly framed shots (some of which become funny for other reasons) that convey the sense of an amateur behind the lens. These are interspersed, subtly, with the kinds of shots that a bad home movie likely wouldn’t include, except perhaps as mere accident, in addition to beautifully evocative shots that could only come from someone with filmmaking experience. The contrast and blending of these styles is a marvel unto itself.

The characters come across as awkward and underplayed as one would expect from a group of computer chess nerds, which makes the fact that these people are indeed acting the kind of miracle every director would kill to capture on film. (An incredibly stilted conversation in the hotel restaurant is one of the most incredible scenes in the whole film.) As an added layer of genius, some of the characters are portrayed by computer programmers and others by folks in the film industry, but only a few are professional actors. (One of them is Wiley Wiggins, who looks and sounds so much like John Hodgman it’s shocking.)

Things at the tournament seem to be relatively normal until writer/director Andrew Bujalski begins injecting seeming non-sequiturs into the film. A concurrent weekend event at the same hotel where the tournament is being held is a couples’ therapy group and the two intermingle in strange and surprising ways. The ongoing narrative regarding Peter Bishton’s (Patrick Riester, who is amazing) interactions with others fold into a comic thread about the role of women in this male-dominated arena, and the culmination is laugh out loud funny. There is a preponderance of cats around the hotel, something that is briefly addressed, but never explained, resulting in yet more laughter.

Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a mockumentary, there are also plenty of odd special effects (which increase as the film progresses) that would come across as mistakes but are clearly intentional. At times, things get downright weird and almost spooky, but I won’t give anything away because that would ruin the precise and subtle joys of a movie like Computer Chess.

Much was made of the lavish nature of Baz Luhrmann’s recent film version of The Great Gatsby, which included considerable digital effects, period costumes, and musical numbers. Computer Chess is no less lavishly stylized. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to create something so low key yet ripe with meaning and subtext. Andrew Bujalski probably won’t be nominated for an Oscar for Computer Chess, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve one.

Computer Chess screens at the TIFF/Bell Lightbox from July 26 through August 1.

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