Sydney Film Festival Feature Review: COMPUTER CHESS

COMPUTER CHESS is part of the Sydney Film Festival as part of the FEATURE section and will be screening on WED June 5 at 745pm and SUN June 9 at 135pm at Event Cinemas George Street – tickets can be purchased HERE. Be sure to check out the entire program for the SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL HERE.


Computer Chess - Movie Poster
Computer Chess – Movie Poster


COMPUTER CHESS is an extremely offbeat comedy set over the course of a weekend tournament for chess-software programmers in the early ’80s. Andrew Bujalski (who visited SFF with FUNNY HAHA and MUTUAL APPRECIATION) has recreated with fascinating detail a time in which the contest between technology and the human spirit seemed a little more up for grabs.

The story follows a group of super nerds, pushing humungous computers around, as they lay the groundwork for artificial intelligence as we know it. Along with the technical and philosophical discussions, our bespectacled heroes get involved with some drug use, an attempted threesome, a new-age therapeutic course and, of course, a great deal of chess.


Computer Chess - offbeat feature at the SFF
Computer Chess – offbeat feature at the SFF – JAMES CURRY


Just WOW – this mocumentary is bizarre and I really enjoyed it’s otherworldliness – the entire film is shot on equipment from the 80s (shot with a PortaPak camera in early 80’s style) and the actors, script, costumes and bloody everything including the kitchen are so authentic that for the first 30mins I thought this was one whacky documentary from the time. It was then that I started seeing the editing that gave it away – too many camera angles for a docco and then I finally realised that the cat stepping out of the elevator was way too staged for a docco. But then – it left the world of Chess and embarked on the rest of this bizarre tale.

This film would never in a million years get a commercial release but it is a talent and tour de force of bizarre cinema. It is nearly grind house for geeks and has hints of The Trip and other crazy films of the time. Like most of the films in the 70s and 80s you assumed the people making the films were as much off their heads as the characters in them and the same goes for this one. The other odd thing is that we actually had some of these computers at school in the 80s and I sit here now on a Mac computer nearly as big as a plasma that has more brain power than the first Space Shuttle and NASA at the time. Incredible.

The film was official selection for Sundance this year, as well as Berlin Film Festival (also this year) and was also officially selected for the SXSW Film Festival and of course for the SFF. It may look freaky and geeked out but it has layers and very tongue in cheek humour – I didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not but kept chuckling at the film. The acting is so good and everyone is amazing but the guy who stole the show for me was first time actor, PATRICK RIESTER as Peter Bishton. An editor by trade he needs to be picked up by Hollywood for acting – besides the fact he is gorgeous and does the 70s coke bottle glasses justice he can clearly act :). His sheltered geeky lifestyle locked away from society programming made me laugh and his uncomfortableness at the sexed up hippies trying for as threesome had me in stitches. JAMES CURRY as Les Carbray was also another standout for me – he epitomised the geeky NASA type programmer from the time and in fact is a real life software developer. He is developing two upcoming iPAD aps called THUNDERBEAM and FRANKENFOODS that are due out soon. He spoke the line of the film for me;

“A man on three scotches could program his way out of anything in the world” – that was the ticket price right there.


Computer Chess - offbeat feature at the SFF
Computer Chess – offbeat feature at the SFF


ANDREW BUJALSKI – Writer / Director / Editor

Andrew Bujalski has written and directed the films COMPUTER CHESS, FUNNY HA HA, MUTUAL APPRECIATION and BEESWAX, all of which have appeared on New York Times critics’ “Top Ten of the Year” lists. FUNNY HA HA was also identified by A.O. Scott as one of the Ten Most Influential Films of the ’00s. Between duties to his own projects, Andrew has also worked as a screenwriter-for-hire and a teacher of film production at Boston University and the University of Texas. 

Be sure to also check out their official webpage – nearly as trippy as the film itself – you can get there from HERE.

The film will not be for everyone – it is very far removed from mainstream – it is a great feature film of costume, era  and technology catching and very deadpan and somewhat droll humour. It is nothing but original and really the kind of film you want to experience at a film festival and for that I award it 3 out of 5 pops.


3 Pops