Catching Up With: Computer Chess – 2013

Computer Chess (2013)

Even though the film is shot on ancient black-and-white video cameras with tubes in them that can’t even handle sunlight, Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” has an air of familiarity to it. It depicts a chess tournament in a non-descript hotel, likely somewhere in the Midwest, where the players are computer programmers, each with their own chess program, and the prize is $7,500 and the chance to play a game against the doddering, almost oblivious Professor Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary). The film opens like a mockumentary, with a panel lined with professors who do nothing but bloviate hot air about the future of technology. The film cuts to the competitors in the audience, zombified and trying to stay awake. Bujalski is keenly aware of how dull this man vs. technology struggle can be on the surface.

This film is set in the early 1980’s so the nerds that populate this lo-fi universe are still 30 years away from “geek chic.” Thrift store polos, thick aviator eyeglasses and social graces only a few steps above Raymond Babbitt rule this community. We get to know the MIT team (who make waves by having the tournament’s first-ever female participant), and the Cal Tech team, whose computer defies its own programming and intentionally loses chess matches. And then there’s Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who personifies smug amusement but also arrives broke, roomless and with a penchant for stealing pills.

I have not seen Bujalski’s previous films, most notably his 2003 film “Funny Ha Ha,” which is considered a key text in the “mumblecore” sub-genre (for those who don’t know, mumblecore makes higher-profile independent films look like “Ben-Hur” in comparison, with more stuttering). And for a while, “Computer Chess” mines the comedy from this tournament in the hilariously designed computers (some look like mini-refrigerators, others look like revved-up typewriters), the spectacularly tone-deaf commentary from the organizers, and Papageorge’s misaventures in trying to find a place to stay. It’s a story of computers that have more humanity than the players.

And then things get weird. Really weird.

The Cal Tech team’s computer betrays it’s own algorithm and loses matches at will, so much so that the team forfeits a match before making a single move. A group of middle-aged couples arrive at the hotel as part of a self-help seminar that consists of digging through bread and re-enacting human birth in an attempt to reconnect with each other. The filmmaking, already odd in its approach thanks to cameras that make your childhood Christmas home movies look like they were shot by Roger Deakins, gets even more and more screwy. The editing becomes faster and more haphazard, images are randomly super-imposed, and scenes get repeated like a vinyl record with a stuck needle, or even shift into color. Also, an army of cats show up and commandeer their own hotel room.  And this is all before two members of the couple’s therapy group try to seduce Peter (Patrick Riester), the timid virgin from the Cal Tech team, into a menage a trois.

As these scenarios pile up and the film’s themes of man vs. technology become more twisted and infused with what little narrative the film has, “Computer Chess” doesn’t just go off the reservation, it goes off “Planet Earth.” Bujalski puts up a front of techno-parody only to indulge his inner David Lynch and unleash a plethora of ghosts into this run-down machine. But this isn’t a horror film. As it becomes more and more of a mindfuck, leading up to a shocking, bizarre and hilarious final confrontation between Peter and a mysterious woman, “Computer Chess” cements itself as one of 2013’s most surprising, daring and altogether fascinating films. Andrew Bujalski flips the script by setting speculative science-fiction in the recent past, by using technology that’s even older. “Computer Chess” starts out as a lark and becomes a strange thoughtful exploration into what computers are built to do, whether it’s to play chess or reach a point of self-awareness and develop a soul, and whether human connections are permanently out of whack or doomed altogether. The film’s surreal pleasures are best left unspoiled, but I will say that in this hotel, which starts to feel like the last place in the universe, “Computer Chess” shows us that artificial intelligence may not stay artificial for long.

Grade: A-


New Arrivals: The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In retrospect, it’s appropriate that the teaser trailer for “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest opus from the incomparable Martin Scorsese, was scored to the pounding march of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” That song, along with the album it was taken from, “Yeezus,” is a scalding document of rampaging male id, meant to both exhilarate and appall in its lack of inhibitions. This film, chronicling the rise and fall of stockbroker/fiend Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the Hell he raised, drugs he took, money he stole and lives he ruined, is also a scalding, hilarious descent into madness and excess.

Scorsese has built a career out of confrontation. Dangerous men, some who poisoned by isolation (“Taxi Driver”), sexual impotence and personal inadequacy (“Raging Bull”) or who come on as charming rogues only to turn into drug-ravaged monsters (“Goodfellas”) populate his work. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the longest, wildest, and possibly greatest film from his late period, is an onslaught of all the great director’s favorite themes, as we see Belfort and his cohorts at Stratton Oakmont recreate their own Roman Empire, built on money, sex, cramming every toxin they can find into their blood streams, etc. “Wolf of Wall Street” is a comedy on the surface, a brilliant one for most of the run time. But there is a seed of darkness that runs through.

We meet Belfort in 1987, as a bright-eyed kid from Queens ready to chase the American Dream on Wall Street. This is more difficult than it seems, since the stock market is built on destroying everyone around you to chase the Almighty dollar. This is white male privelege on steroids. Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey, in ten minutes of reptilian lunacy) lays down the stockbroker mantra: get high, get rich, fuck everything and everyone. Black Monday sends Hanna into unemployment and Jordan to Long Island, selling penny stocks to people naive enough to think the stock market is supposed to be a fun way to make money. These stocks give 50 percent commission to the broker, a loophole that Jordan will exploit to build his empire.

The degenerates who populate his boiler room are led by Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, also totally unhinged), who will become the court fool to Belfort’s Lear, and jumps feet first into the stockbroker racket for the respect but mostly for the high you get from gobbling Quaaludes like candy.

The firm grows in power. Their office is filled with whores, dwarf-tossing, drugs, fighting and basically the fall of Western civilization in microcosm. Jordan dumps his first wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie, giving a nothing role cunning and depth), a piece of blonde royalty from Queens who toys with Jordan’s sexual dependency.

“Wolf of Wall Street” is paced like the film itself is on cocaine; it’s like the helicopter sequence from “Goodfellas” stretched to three hours. All the power these guys have reduces them to their base, primal states. More money, more sex, more drugs, more everything. DiCaprio is one hell of a ring-leader. His towering performance is the most complete he’s ever given. His movie-star charisma, his boyish, age-resistant face and his inner rage combine to make Jordan Belfort a force of nature. The movie is a force of nature, as Scorsese, and the dense, cracking script by “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terrence Winter, pummels us with debauchery. It’s the funniest movie he’s ever made; recalling the black-comic New York anarchy of his little-seen 1985 film “After Hours.” For the first two thirds, this film is a punk rock bonanza as Scorsese’s camera flies around like a maniac and editor Thelma Schoonmaker gives shape to the chaos.

But as the movie goes on, rock and roll retreats back to the blues. This is foreshadowed in an early scene where the firm pays a woman working in their office $10,000 to shave her head to pay for breast implants. At first she’s in on it; even the women in the office are just like the boys. But as her blonde hair falls in crooked chunks to the floor, there are cracks in her oblivious smile. The rumble of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” slows down, as does the film. When the movie takes a breather, we don’t see men; we see deranged children, we see monsters. We are far away from Henry Hill gliding through the Copacabana. There’s little romance here. Scorsese’s films have dealt with themes like guilt, masculinity, identity amongst a specific group and remorse. Belfort has no remorse. He doesn’t care that the FBI (personified by the always excellent Kyle Chandler) and the SEC are circling him like sharks.  Not since “Raging Bull” has one of Scorsese’s protagonists been so monstrous. So Scorsese gets to focus on something  that he’s dealt with in his own life but never to this degree on film: addiction.

Jordan and Donnie refuse to be sober, no matter the situation or consequences. This is demonstrated when they dig out some “Lemmons,” ultra-concentrated Quaaludes that rob the user of all motor skills, showcased in an insane, screamingly funny scene allowing DiCaprio to unleash his inner Charlie Chaplin. The film becomes exhausting and darker in tone because we are seeing everything from Jordan Belfort’s perspective. Consuming copious toxins wears you down. The film is still hilarious, but the laugh have a chaser of horror and disgust to go along with them. It’s hard not to think of someone like Jake La Motta, especially when looking at the deterioration of his marriage.

In “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort doesn’t get wacked, or gain 40 pounds or go into hiding. Neither do his cohorts. In 1983’s “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese showed an audience lauding a man who committed atrocities to become a celebrity. Jordan Belfort and countless others on Wall Street did the same. When we get to that quietly devastating final shot, as a cycle of adulation continues, “Wolf of Wall Street” cements itself as one of the director’s most uncompromising and dangerous films. It’s an epic farce on the surface, but underneath, this bull is still raging.

Grade: A

Catching Up With: Frances Ha – 2013

The quarter-life crisis is hard to capture on film. Unless you are burdened by some horrible personal tragedy, life in your mid-20’s after you graduate from college is hard to make into interesting comedy or drama, because in the big picture it’s pretty insignificant in the spectrum of life. But director Noah Baumbach took a stab at it anyway with “Frances Ha,” a black-and-white comedy about an eccentric, 27-year-old woman with a degree in modern dance named Frances (the wonderful Greta Gerwig, who also co-wrote the script with Baumbach), who tries and fails to get her shit together in a romantic but still foreboding New York City. This is a character study, since there is nothing in this film beyond the perspective of Frances, as we are invited to observe a few weeks in her life, which undergoes several upheavals.

Frances is an understudy in a local dance company. It doesn’t matter at first, since the streets of Brooklyn are her stage, as she joyously pirouettes through the masses. She shares an apartment with Sophie (Micky Sumner), and they have a friendship that’s described as being like “a lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” Frances is so committed to her relationship with Frances that she breaks up with her boyfriend after refusing to move in with him. Unfortunately, Sophie is moving in to her boyfriend’s apartment, leaving Frances out on her own for the first time in her adult life.

Frances is a fascinating character. She has a naivete about her, but she isn’t quite dumb. She’s a free-spirit who’s constricted by her surroundings and her own immaturity. In other words, she’s a human being. Greta Gerwig, full aware that this is a role perfect for a budding movie star, deftly brings all of Frances’ hang-ups to life. She has a face Norma Desmond would approve of; expressive, imperfect, awkward, yet still beguiling. Gerwig personifies unconventionality.

A more glib title for this film would be “Living Arrangements: The Movie” since that’s what Frances goes through after Sophie leaves her behind. She moves in with two pretentious artists (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen) who are just as immature as she is but are far more stable. She briefly lives with one of her fellow dancers, which after a disastrous dinner with her family inspires her to spend a whopping two days in Paris, most of which is dealing with the jet lag. Frances is stuck in that post-college limbo that ensnares a lot of us recent graduates. You don’t know what to do will your life until the “rest of your life” phase kicks in. Along with that is the fear that the “rest of your life” phase is happening right now.

“Frances Ha” registered strongly with me, since I’m in a similar stage in my life as our dear Frances. Peers thinking your old at 27 (25, in my case). Having friendships weaken when one of them matures faster than the other. Lying about  and embellishing your career prospects when the real adults ask about them. Going on spontaneous trips or misaventures only to immediately realize they were pretty fucking stupid ideas. What Baumbach and Gerwig do with Frances is not play up her misfortunes to the point where they seem petty to those outside of her demographic. This movie never says “poor me.” Frances isn’t destitute. She’s in a city bursting with opportunities. Guys, find her “undateable,” but the movie doesn’t delve into her love life, and thank God for that. “Frances Ha” has moments of sadness and discomfort, but it isn’t a drama. It’s a comedy; a spirited, even joyous one, in some moments. Scenes where Frances experiences a setback, such as a heartbreaking phone call with Sophie during which both friends are concealing personal miseries, end in punchlines, or non sequiters. “Frances Ha” doesn’t have, or need, much plot. It has dancing in the streets. It has David Bowie crooning about “Modern Love,” even though Frances doesn’t find any, at least not in this film. It’s a love letter to an imposing city that is also a romantic one, even in lo-fi digital black and white.

That’s what makes “Frances Ha” such a unique character study.  It doesn’t have the raw sexuality or darkness of the similar HBO show “Girls” (which Adam Driver also appears in) but it doesn’t need it. Baumbach and Gerwig don’t need to show us rock bottom. Their film is about possibilities, both good and bad. The film’s title is a reference to a punchline revealed in the final shot, which I won’t reveal here, but it sums up the movie perfectly. Frances is a dreamer who doesn’t fit neatly into reality, but she’s willing to make herself fit. And to do that, you have to literally and figuratively look back and laugh.

Grade: A-

New Arrivals: American Hustle

American Hustle (2013)

David O. Russell is a filmmaker who loves the people who populate his movies. His recent films are filled with eccentrics, crazies, dreamers and criminals, all filtered through Russell’s neurotic, madcap sensibilities (or if you’ve seen the video of him arguing with Lily Tomlin on the set of his 2004 film, “I Heart Huckabees,” he’s just an abrasive dick, but that’s another conversation).

His films also walk a tightrope. 2010’s “The Fighter,” 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook” and even his 1999 masterpiece “Three Kings” all walk a delicate line between genre convention and self-indulgent craziness. His latest film, “American Hustle” was shot guerilla-style, supposedly detailing the crazy antics surrounding the ABSCAM scandal, a sort of sting operation conducted by the FBI in the late 1970’s. I don’t have more information about ABSCAM, because Russell and his stable of actors do not give a fuck about this scandal. Or making an interesting film, for that matter. True to its title, “American Hustle” is about hustlers; con men and women who live for the art of the steal, ruining suckers to fill the void in lives as fake and outlandish as their haircuts.

These con artists are Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, 4o pounds heavier with an impossibly elaborate combover) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, sexy as hell), two melancholy souls who finally found purpose setting up a fake loan office in New York, robbing cash-strapped marks at $5,000 a head. Irv’s a sad-sack Long Island Jew, lonely and melancholy, trapped with a beautiful idiot of a trophy wife named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Sydney seeks solace in Duke Ellington records and putting on the guise of a British Lady with good banking connections.

These two get involved in an even bigger swindle, spear-headed by near-insane FBI agent Richie DiMasso (a miscast Bradley Cooper, doing a terrible Robert De Niro impression), involving the take-down of politicians including Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, underserved) and the mob, and fake sheikhs…and…well…screw it. This film doesn’t care about the ABSCAM plot, or any plot for that matter. Describing the damn thing is an exercise in futility. “American Hustle” is an incomprehensible, self-indulgent, self-amused and completely up its own tacky polyester-clad ass. The slow-motion, constantly roving camera, and wall-to-wall pop songs on the soundtrack are emblematic of a film that tries desperately to be something like “Goodfellas.” Except that film had a point, coherence, character development, and any other compliment one might use to describe a movie that actually works.

It’s inexplicable to me that people find this enjoyable and propulsive, not hollow and tedious like it was for me. 130 minutes felt like an eternity. Why? Because every scene of this film is drained of purpose; it’s just an enormously talented cast riffing on a theme that isn’t nearly as profound as it thinks it is. Hold on to your hairpieces guys, but some people in America lie to themselves to get ahead. And sometimes they feel bad about it. The tone of this review might be condescending, but that’s because the movie was condescending. The director thinks just having his cast wax poetically on the nature of fakery and forging your livelihood is enough to carry an entire film. If “American Hustle” was committed to being a plotless, ramshackle affair, akin to something like another Scorsese film, “Mean Streets,” it might have been easier to sit through. There are plenty of great films made in the ’70s that treated plot like a nuisance.  But the film wants to have it both ways. It’s both driven by its plot and it doesn’t care about its plot. That battle makes the movie a well-acted chore, because so many moments are based on plot developments that are so cluttered and dispensed in random chunks that makes “The Big Sleep” look logical. As a result, this movie was numbing, with every moment ringing hollow since it didn’t earn any profundity.

Although this film is the Donovan to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan, some of the actors are committed to this hairsprayed wreck. Amy Adams is fantastic, nailing the sexuality, loneliness and desperation of Sydney, filling in the blanks that the script co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer didn’t bother itself with. Renner does what he can with Carmine, the naive mayor who…I’m honestly not sure what he’s trying to do in this movie. At least he doesn’t mumble and loaf around as the least-convincing Jew in recent memory like Christian Bale does (the Batman voice is now the second-most ridiculous voice in Bale’s repertoire, after the community-theater Woody Allen impression put on display here). Jennifer Lawrence does have a lot of fun playing the screeching Long Island stereotype, but a little goes a long way, and the dramatic moments she’s given at the end of the film feel shrill, like Russell was too afraid to reel her back in.

“American Hustle” isn’t just a wannabe Scorsese riff. It reminds me of why I hate Judd Apatow movies now, its just a smattering of scenes where the actors do things for the sake of doing them, narrative momentum be damned. This movie is an impeccably-decorated jam session with a band without a rhythm section. David O. Russell loves his cast so much that he forgot he was supposed to make a damn movie, not a cluttered, store-brand version of other great films. You don’t get elated watching “American Hustle,” but it does achieve something, perhaps, if a movie about con artists leaves you feeling totally conned.

Grade: C