Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Checkmate by software


Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in director Andrew Bujalskis Computer Chess. Photo: Kino Lorber, Inc.
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If I told you that a breakout summer hit for adults might just be a grainy, B&W, fake doc about a gaggle of creepy-looking guys with really bad haircuts hovering around the meeting rooms of a rundown Austin motel, would you rush out to Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas?

Computer Chess creator Andrew Bujalski specializes in deadpan comedies whose characters are slip-sliding out of college with only a tenuous hold on a center of gravity for their romantic or professional lives. The term "Mumblecore" adheres to him and a few young film peers the way "New Wave" defined a post-WWII generation of French directors. Like Eric Rohmer, Bujalski is fascinated by the way 20somethings define themselves in loose bursts of innocuous chatter.

The film is set at a 1980 showdown between programming teams out to prove that a machine can win at chess. Peter (agile newcomer Patrick Riester), a nervous, bright boy who dresses like he's still in high school, is wandering the motel in a daze when he stumbles upon horny, unscrupulous spiritualists, a husband/wife duo bent on recruiting him for slutty ends.

"What should we get him, coffee, tea or a drink?"

"Our guy Ken Lowe says no alcohol, no dope. He's kind of strict about that sort of thing."

"Right, he says it's a spiritual shortcut, unearned grace. Have you ever tried LSD?"

"Whoa, honey, let's not have the Spanish Inquisition over here. Give the boy some room."

"No, but I've read about it, and I thought it was interesting how just a temporary hallucination had a permanent effect on some people's consciousness."

"Look at the way his mind is working."

"Peter, if you want to leave, it's okay. It's a free country."

Often the phrase "It's a free country" is a sign that a film is headed to a dark place. But Bujalski traffics in ambiguity, and Peter is not mauled by these spiritual wolverines. The impact of this virtual heavy petting comes at film's end in a scene he engineers for himself. In a Bujalski film there's often little difference between acting and living. His mostly non-professional actors insinuate their real-life concerns seamlessly into the story. In an unnerving climax, a real-life programmer imagines he's found godlike presence inside a computer.

If the Fox-TV classic Undeclared or CBS' The Big Bang Theory are too nerdy for your taste, then avoid the brainy, awkwardly dressed young fellows in this techie howler. Shot with a cutting-edge 1980 videocamera that resembles a hairdryer, the chess players, terminally frozen in angst, are the show. From an aggressive religious stalker (Myles Paige) who sleeps in the hotel lobby to a programmer upset that his software may have been tampered with (Wiley Wiggins), this engrossing giggle-fest is an instant cult classic.

The Hunt In Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg's latest offering, an unassuming rural kindergarten teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), becomes a virtual human sacrifice when the school's headmistress suspects him of exposing himself to the young daughter, Klara, of his best friend. What distinguishes this high-stakes moral thriller is that Lucas is the victim not only of a happenstance – Klara's older brother jokingly shows sis a drawing of a penis – but also of the girl's inability to distinguish between reality and make-believe when hysterical adults pounce.

Those familiar with the classics of Ingmar Bergman will recognize a Scandinavian penchant for dark insights into how treacherous grownups can be when their deepest fears are stirred beyond the brink of paranoia. With our firm grasp on Lucas' innocence, it's traumatic to watch him expelled, stripped of friends, beaten to a pulp, and enduring the murder of his dog and humiliation of his teenage son. As gay playwright William Hoffman once said of Joe Orton, "He presents a view of people as unredeemed beasts. We raise our hands in horror, but often we are like that." (Both opening Fri.)


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