Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Retro look at computers filled with bold moves

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DIRECTOR Andrew Bujalski's delirious look at early computer culture may leave some viewers feeling decidedly uncomfortable, especially if you came of age in a nerdy environment during the '70s and '80s.

Visually it cuts uncomfortably close. The clothes. The sideburns. Those glasses!

The film -- actually shot on primitive analogue video -- is set in the claustrophobic environs of a hotel convention centre during an annual staging of a chess tournament.

The games are played between computers, that is, the really big clunky computers that require a few people to carry. The winner of the tournament gets to take on a human chess master (played by film critic Gerald Peary), who is also the event's coolly arrogant master of ceremonies.

Among the programmer contestants: the painfully shy Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester), a mere kid upset to learn his team's chess program seems bent on suicide.

Peter finds himself in the same sphere as Shelley (Robin Schwartz), whom we are repeatedly reminded is the only female participant in the games. (The maddeningly reticent Peter could evidently use all the reminders he could get.)

Shelley briefly becomes the object of Papageorge (Myles Paige), a wildcard competitor with a three-piece suit, attitude, the social finesse of a battering ram and no booked room.

As luck would have it, the tournament takes place at the same time as a touchy-feely self-actualization seminar whose participants lean towards more hedonistic physical pleasures, as opposed to cerebral challenge. One lascivious older couple attempt to seduce Peter in a scene that must rank as one of the most squirmy come-ons in the history of film, sorry... analogue video.

The set-up is not unlike a Robert Altman ensemble comedy along the lines of A Wedding, but director Bujalski, who helped develop the mumblecore movement (Funny Ha Ha), eschews Altman's approach, a loosey-goosey marijuana drift, in favour of something more dangerous: banal reality interrupted by startling acid flashbacks.

This is manifest a few times among a few characters, including Shelley, who notices the tournament's participants behave like chess pieces, or Papageorge, whose story arc ends in a loop approximating an unwinnable chess draw.

Oh, and steel yourself for the shot just before the end credits involving a mysterious hooker.

In the midst of it all, the movie offers up wryly funny 20/20 hindsight on the direction of computer technology, the potential for weaponizing artificial intelligence and the human capacity for creating a divide between mind and body.

For a cheap little black-and-white video-shot movie, Computer Chess is a surprisingly effective mind-blower.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2013 D3

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