Sunday, July 14, 2013

Andrew Bujalski's COMPUTER CHESS provides the first mumblecore head trip

Mumblecore alone, perhaps, is not enough. That's one possible conclusion to which I came after watching COMPUTER CHESS, the very unusual new film from the said-to-be father of this post- millennium movie genre, Andrew Bujalski. From his 2002 debut, Funny Ha-Ha, through Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax, and now this latest creation, Mr. Bujalski offers up characters who do indeed mumble -- their words, along with their thoughts, actions, desires and needs. They seem to be among the least focused or energized people you may ever have encountered. And if this makes them kind of special (and I think it does) it also leaves them, after a time, well... boring.

From film to film, however, it seems to TrustMovies that Mr. Bujalski (shown at right) has upped -- just slightly at least -- the odds, the energy and the needs of some of his characters so that there is a bit more "drive" involved in each successive film. This is also true of Computer Chess, but here the filmmaker (who writes and directs all his work) has broken ground into some other new areas, too. First off, instead of setting his movie in the "now," he's given us some big-time nostalgia by placing the time frame in the long-gone 1980s' world of early computers and those chess matches that pitted man against machine. But then, as the film moves along, Bujalski turns that nostalgia trip into a very weird "head trip," thanks to pressure, lack of sleep, drugs, desire and -- perhaps most of all -- the genuinely weird personality of one of his characters. By its end, Computer Chess has turned into something like little you will have earlier encountered.

Like it or not, the filmmaker has managed all this without really departing much from his mumblecore roots. His characters are still uber-nerdy, if not uber-needy, and -- bright as they are (chess whizzes, for goodness sake!) -- they barely manage to put words together into full or understandable sentences. Their social skills are underdeveloped to the point of non-existence.

Fortunately, they are also funny and often fun to be around. The fact that an EST-like group, espousing finding oneself via sex and the other, has taken over half the hotel where the chess matches are going on just adds to the bizarre quality of the characters and events we see. When the two groups meet (or try to), ever more fun is amassed.

Bujalski works in his same sort of faux-documentary style as usual and does it quite well. Videoing mostly in black-and-white, he also makes a visit to the lab for some posterization and finally some bleached-out color (along with some off-track lip-synching). I don't know that the filmmaker has much of anything new to say about Artificial Intelligence or the military industrial complex -- both of which come up during the movie's 92-minute length, but the askew and conspiratorial views we get of these and other topics just increase our confusion and oddly-inspired pleasure.

All the elements for a humdinger of a thriller or drama or sci-fi or what have you are here, but Bujalski leaves it to us to make what we can of them in this, the first and someday-to-be-heralded-as the "original mumblecore head trip."

Computer Chess, from Kino Lorber, has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, July 17, in New York City at Film Forum, and will then, in the weeks and months to come, open in some 20 cities and theaters around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.

Want to talk about the movie with the moviemaker? 
Film Forum will host Computer Chess filmmaker 
Andrew Bujalski in person on Wednesday, July 17, and 
 Thursday, July 18 at the 7:30 and 8:20 shows.

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