LIFF27 - Computer Chess - Cinema Review

'“ironically dull” is still dull'

Computer Chess is an awkward marriage of the bold and the boring. There are notable stretches of the film which are undeniably tedious, and you get the impression director Andrew Bujalski, known as the “Godfather of Mumblecore”, wanted it that way. It makes little difference; “ironically dull” is still dull when played out in front of you. Bujalski is at several points throughout Computer Chess willing to sacrifice making something interesting for making something painstakingly authentic.

Speaking of authenticity, Computer Chess’ cannot be faulted. Bar one scene, Bujalski chooses for his film a grainy, bleary monochrome crafting the uncanny look of an amateurish documentary shot using early eighties technology - exactly what Computer Chess is, for the most part, intended to be. Bujalski nails the throwback feel comprehensively, from the costumes to the sets to the chess-playing computer technology on show. It’s this commitment to creating a film as close in style to a primitive eighties documentary as possible that also ends up as Bujalski’s downfall at several points. There are sequences, particularly during the first act, seriously lacking in focus that go on considerably too long and simply fail to engage.

Once Bujalski is satisfied that he’s established the period aesthetic of his film, however, he then allows things to develop in various ways, some of which are perhaps less expected than others. Computer Chess is often at its best when at its most comedic. It’s probably no surprise that at least some of the humour is derived through the subtle skewering of “computer nerd” culture, especially during the scenes focused upon the chess tournament rounds. Thankfully, Bujalski manages to just about keep things subtle enough to avoid slipping into either hackneyed teen movie or grossly offensive territory.

The film is better, however, when deriving laughs from elements away from nerd culture, be it through tightfisted tournament competitor Michael Papageorge’s (Myles Paige) various solutions to not having a room to stay in at the hotel, or the venue’s unexplained cat infestation which worsens throughout the film. One memorable scene between awkward programmer Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and a husband and wife staying at the hotel as part of a bizarrely entertaining religious group arguably covers well-trodden comedy ground, but is crafted so well I found myself laughing out loud.

Bujalski’s secondary focus here is on the sci-fi-tinged surreal, which becomes more and more prominent in the film’s second half. The director raises questions about human interaction with computers and technology - at first overtly and then more and more subtly - as well as blurring the lines between the two every so often with some seriously weird results. There are scenes in Computer Chess reminiscent of David Lynch, but too often Bujalski has neither the control nor the refinement of vision to carry off this Lynchian style successfully enough, meaning some scenes end up entirely bewildering.

Computer Chess is a true original, unlike anything else you will have seen this year (or indeed any other), and Bujalski deserves credit for that. There are undeniable points when the film becomes just too odd for its own good - at times I felt alienated to the point of not being sure of what I was actually watching. That said, if you’re willing to endure the more wearisome and less successful sections of Bujalski’s film, the humour and invention squirrelled away within Computer Chess delivers some of the year’s most uniquely entertaining cinema.

The 27th Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) took place from the 6th-21st November at cinemas around the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. More information is available via the official LIFF website.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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