Posted by martinteller on March 1, 2014
The time is indeterminate, but it would have to be the late 70’s or early 80’s. The setting is a hotel in an unknown city. The event is a computer chess tournament: programming teams pit their chess computers against each other, with the winner netting a $7500 prize and the chance to play against host and chess champion Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary). The team from Cal Tech includes Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), his young assistant Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and lead programmer Dr. Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann). The team from MIT includes — wow! — a woman, Shelley Flintic (Robin Schwartz). There’s also a cynical independent programmer named Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige). At the same time, the hotel is hosting some sort of new age couples retreat, including a very flirty couple indeed (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams). The Cal Tech computer seems to be deliberately losing. Papageorge’s computer plays an unpredictable strategy that gets win after win, but the creator himself can’t seem to find a room in the hotel. There’s a pair of oddball hangers-on who take drugs and talk about World War III. There’s also an unusual number of cats roaming the hallways.
Although there are trace elements of Andrew Bujalski’s earlier “mumblecore” films here — the awkward conversations and especially the low-budget aesthetic — I liked this a damn sight more than the irritating Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation. The retro cinematography (looking almost like an old kinescope) ought to come off as gimmicky, but never does. It contributes nicely to the setting and doesn’t distract. While I wouldn’t say it makes the film feel like a product of its time, it also doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to feel like a product of its time.
The movie arguably revolves around Riester and Paige the most, it’s really an ensemble piece that casually takes us down different paths. The anecdotes explore the relationships between people and machines, people and people, and machines and machines in different ways. But it doesn’t seem to be pushing any particular worldview, just setting up different scenarios and letting them go where they will. It’s a really playful movie, with a delightfully oddball sensibility and — especially towards the end — surrealist flourishes. I hesitate to say it’s “about” anything in particular (creation? connection?), but it’s funny and different and unpredictable. And in its own peculiar way, kind of sweet. It’s thought-provoking in a way that seems like it would reward repeat viewings. Rating: Very Good (82)