Computer Chess – movie and reviews

by ChessBase
10/27/2013 – "The most striking thing about the movie is its amazingly detailed and precise reconstruction of the styles of the day," says Richard Brody in the New Yorker. "The black and white fly-on-the-wall style may appeal to some, but it overstays its welcome over 90 dull minutes," writes Sean Marsh in Chess Magazine. We have trailers and reviews of this recently released film by Andrew Bujalski, which you can download for $12.99. Judge for yourself.

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Computer Chess Official Trailer 1 (2013)

The most striking thing about the movie is its amazingly detailed and precise reconstruction of the styles of the day—the haircuts, the clothing, the eyeglasses, and the furnishing; the classic computer, down to the blinking C.R.T. cursor and the dot-matrix printer—and even the images themselves, which Bujalski and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, created with archival, analogue, vacuum-tube-based video cameras (which are even seen onscreen). The tournament resembles nothing so much as a film crew arriving for a shoot and investing a location with its presence—an isolated hotel where the participants arrive by car and van, and disembark with their cases full of equipment. There’s the unloading and the loading, the unpacking of screens, wires, and cameras (which results in a discussion—and several comical demonstrations—of what can be done with a video camera), and, when it’s all over and the equipment is packed away and everyone goes their own way, the sense of anticlimax.

Read the full New Yorker review here

Sundance (2013) - Computer Chess Teaser

Computer Chess is a fictional account of a weekend chess tournament for chess software programmers, set sometime in the 1980s; an era in which it was still unclear whether or not a commercially available computer would ever be strong enough for people to be unable to beat it.

The film purports to “transport viewers to a nostalgic moment when the contest between technology and the human spirit seemed a little more up for grabs.” It also purports to be a comedy. Writer and director, Andrew Bujalski, says: “My education certainly wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t try to make at least one bizarre, left-field, mind-blower movie – Computer Chess is that.”

The film comes with a gimmick. Shot mainly in black and white on old video, complete with time stamp and the occasional lapse into an unsynchronised soundtrack, it is delivered in the style of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The 1980s are accurately recreated: huge computers, undesirable hair-styles, and more pairs of spectacles than a high street optician. Despite the premise, there is a minimum of actual chess content, meaning non-players won’t be put off by that particular aspect.

Behind the scenes of the tournament we find various personnel indulging in a plethora of misdemeanours, from sleeping in the foyer (part of a running gag for one character who hasn’t got his own room), taking drugs and a couple of swingers intent on leading a quiet chess computer nerd astray. Presumably, this is where one needs to look to find the main comedic element of the film.

Unfortunately, the film disappoints on various levels. The black and white fly-on-the-wall style may appeal to some, but it overstays its welcome over 90 dull minutes. The characters are clichéd and lack depth, the plot never tunnels its way to daylight and, frankly, it simply isn’t funny. I’m not even sure who would represent the target audience. Chess fans will find virtually nothing of interest and anyone looking for a good comedy will have to look elsewhere.

I suppose one problem with films featuring chess is that they can never hope to trump real life events. It really is a case of ‘you couldn’t make it up’. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how Tobey Maguire’s take on Bobby Fischer in the forthcoming Pawn Sacrifice will measure up against the true version seen two years ago in Bobby Fischer Against the World. The intention is for Computer Chess to receive a UK cinema run followed by a Blu-ray and DVD release in spring 2014, so readers will soon have the opportunity to judge the film for themselves.

Sean Marsh in CHESS Magazine November 2013

Andrew Bujalski Computer Chess premiere at Sundance 2013

Other reviews

  • Michael Hayden in BFI Film forever
    Computer Chess marks something of a departure for Andrew Bujalski, though it has plenty of the wit and warmth of his previous features. It’s the early 1980s and a chess conference is being held in a cheap hotel, the delegates attempting to discover whether it’s possible to design a computer program that can beat a real person at the game. There are conflicts and rivalries within this group of geeks; things start to get increasingly tense and strange, particularly as a self-discovery class have been booked into the same hotel. There’s ample evidence here to show what an inventive, daring and individual filmmaker Bujalski has become.

  • Eric Kohn, Indiewire
    A savvy ensemble piece. COMPUTER CHESS echoes Bujalski’s preceding efforts by investigating the pratfalls of miscommunication in continuing deadpan fashion. The shift in this case involves taking that idea to its logical, hilarious extreme of man versus machine. Grade: A –.

  • Anthony Kaufman, Screen International
    Unlike anything Bujalski has done before – and unlike just about anything anyone has done before. A bizarre and fascinating retrograde portrait of an eccentric people and a faraway time.

  • Justin Chang, Variety
    An endearingly nutty, proudly analog tribute to the ultra-nerdy innovators of yesteryear. About as weird and singular as independent cinema gets.

  • Andrew Pulver, The Guardian (UK)
    (A) rather brilliantly conceived study of a (fictional) computer v computer chess tournament in the early 80s. About as perfect a rendering of the era as you could ask for…the acting is uniformly superb: every twitch, every stumble, every stutter is deployed with absolutely plausibility. Bujalski really has pulled off something extraordinary here…as an act of cultural archeology I can think of few better.

  • See also: previous ChessBase report on Computer Chess – the movie

  • Official Computer Chess movie site (where the film is available as a DRM free download for $12.99)

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