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Wednesday, 15 January 2014 00:00

'Computer Chess' champions artificial intelligence, lacks energy + Video

'Computer Chess' champions artificial intelligence, lacks energy www.sundance.org
Written by Diane Carson
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The faux documentary "Computer Chess" convincingly mimics a 1950s low-budget, primarily black-and-white film; but it's 1980 and that's an aesthetic weakness. Over the course of a long weekend chess tournament, the computer chess nerds who gather at a bland Texas hotel will pit themselves and their programming expertise against each other in chess combat.

At the same time, a therapy encounter group bumps up against the nerds who remain largely clueless. Immersed in the period, writer/director and editor Andrew Bujalski shoots with analog Sony video cameras. His style evokes the story's 1980 aesthetic, but I harbor no nostalgia for its soft edges and shallow focus. Awkward split-screen shots with mismatched compositions are thankfully brief but also unappealing. And the camera stays too far back at crucial junctures.

The social content promises charged, still relevant human-versus-machine contests with the central issue: Can the computer beat the individual in a chess match? We know how that turned out, as well as the suggestion that computers will be used for dating in the future. As characters ask questions for which we know the answers, the drearily debated possibilities feel anticlimactic and anachronistic, so blandly presented that drama evaporates scene after scene

The nonprofessional actors do remain consistent and in character, but they don't generate heat. Gerald Peary, a Boston film critic acquaintance of mine for full disclosure, does well as the on-camera host and interviewer, grandmaster Henderson. As abrasive programmer Mike Papageorge, Myles Paige is amusing. He can't get a room, so asks to pile in with an array of acquaintances. Several other chess experts are played well by Patrick Riester and Robin Schwartz, the sole woman represented on a team.

The film is unified and coherent but slow and pedestrian unless the viewer longs for the thrilling 80s. At one point, one of the participants complains that mediocrity triumphs, an unfortunate comment since it's tempting to feel it fits. The St. Louis premiere of "Computer Chess" is at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 24th through Sunday, January 26th.

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