dead again

Computer Chess
Just in case there was any doubt that fashions and haircuts of the early 1980s were mighty ugly, the time capsule Computer Chess is a solid reminder. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski, in his use of antiquated cameras and technology that could make a TRS-80 look cutting-edge, evokes the period in gloriously fuzzy black and white.

The story, such as it is, follows a weekend tournament in which bespectacled, socially awkward techies from MIT, Stanford and the like gather at a tacky hotel to square off with their chess-playing computer programs. Computer Chess’ shambling, episodic feel is loosely built around a handful of characters, including an abrasive computer programmer (Myles Paige) in search of a hotel room; a brilliant, repressed college student (Patrick Reister); and the tournament’s sole “lady” competitor (Robin Schwartz). Longtime film critic Gerald Peary has an amusing turn as a chessmaster certain that no CPU can best him.

Bujalski is a unique talent in the über-indie world, having made several of the few so-called “mumblecore” films that have more than navel-gazing appeal. Computer Chess is hardly for everyone’s taste. Its humor is wry, its observations obtuse and its proudly experimental storytelling ranges from broad comedy to interludes of eye-rolling pretentiousness and ballsy weirdness.

That fearlessness alone makes it worthwhile, at least by my calculations. —Phil Bacharach

Dear Mr. Watterson
As Charles Schulz did for one generation (or two) with “Peanuts,” so, too, did Bill Watterson with “Calvin and Hobbes” — and that is not only to give kids a reason to visit their local newspapers’ comics page as part of a daily ritual but to carry its themes and thoughts with them through life. By humanizing their youthful characters yet writing to their audiences as if they were adults, both men crafted comic strips that have affected so many readers so deeply.

One of them is Joel Allen Schroeder, for whom Watterson’s decade of work about an adventurous 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger — 3,150 strips in all — represents some sort of gospel.

In Dear Mr. Watterson, Schroeder embarks on “an exploration” of “Calvin and Hobbes” and its impact. He travels to meet like-minded fans and Watterson’s peers — including Tulsa-raised “Bizarro” cartoonist Dan Piraro — to hear them gush as Schroeder gushes.

Note that in doing so, the feature documentary is not really about the strip or its creator but how those two stayed with and shaped Schroeder and his subjects. Not among them is Watterson, the J.D. Salinger of the syndicated comics world. But those who have found “Calvin and Hobbes” extending beyond paper panels and into their own character are likely to adore Schroeder’s tour of adulation. —Rod Lott

Furever
Are you a more of a dog person or a cat person? What about a freeze-dried dog or cat? In the fascinating documentary Furever, the depths of pet love are explored in terms of how people grieve their furry friends.

As noted by documentary maker Amy Finkel, the process by which we grieve for our pets has little in terms of tradition or precedent. Consequently, despondent pet owners are free to mourn their loss in a host of strange and affecting ways, from mummification to tattoos made with the inky ashes of Sparky or Miss Kitty.

“I hate to say it, but I grieved more for losing Boomer than I did for losing my own father, even though I loved and adored my father,” says a heartbroken cat lover in Furever’s opening minutes. “He (Boomer) and I were attached at the soul.” Either that pronouncement strikes one as crazy or understandable, but the documentary, to its credit, finds room for both reactions.

Finkel introduces us to pet lovers whose obsessions verge on wacky — one couple takes their freeze-dried, dearly departed canine out for walks in a baby stroller — but she rejects the temptation to be condescending or judgmental. These folks love and miss their animals. Their sundry responses to a pet’s passing might not be particularly healthy, but they are very much human. Furever is as quirky as it is touching. —Phil Bacharach

I Am Divine
An icon to both the cult-movie and LGBT sets, Divine was a larger-than-life character who shone on a besotted silver screen — and she was indeed a character. I Am Divine, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, documents the life of the brief, boisterous life of the man underneath all that makeup and padded breasts.

It’s one of sadness, then redemption, then sadness again. Known to friends and family as Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine grew up as an obese outcast before finding comfort in drag for the lens of Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, who put his pal through the ringer in such instant cult classics as Female Trouble, Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos. Among Divine’s more, um, memorable moments as Waters’ muse were being raped by a giant lobster and making a meal of a freshly dropped dog turd; only one of those two scenes was simulated.

When Waters finally penetrated the mainstream in 1988 with the goofy, goody-two-shoes comedy Hairspray, Divine did, too. But only for a moment, as his vices — sex, drugs and an all-you-can-eat appetite — caught up with him.

Known for helming more than 100 short-form documentaries as DVD and Blu-ray extras, Schwarz brings the same style of quick, no-nonsense storytelling to this feature-length treatment. As with his 2007 doc, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, he mixes heavy doses of talking-head interviews and film clips that move at near-lightning speed to chronicle a psychotronic life actually worth chronicling. —Rod Lott

The Jogger
Locals Jeff Robison and Casey Twenter are going places. Not only did the pair script Rudderless — a film currently being shot in the metro by William H. Macy (making his directorial debut) and starring Billy Crudup, Selena Gomez and Laurence Fishburne — but they are also behind this taut, low-budget thriller.

Derek Phillips (42) portrays the titular character, otherwise known as Paul, a mild-mannered husband and father slowly sliding down a rabbit hole of unease. Why? Most of Paul’s problems stem from the influence of a sleazy friend and coworker, Malcolm (Jason Wiles, The Stepfather). Through razor-sharp crosscutting and flashbacks, The Jogger begins with Paul on a nighttime jog that dissolves into a nightmare run for his life.

Dark and tense, The Jogger deftly wrings suspense from suburban male paranoia. Its narrative is self-assured, the production polished. And the creepy factor gets a considerable jolt from Phillips and Wiles, both of whom are excellent.

If the mysteries of The Jogger don’t ultimately match the promise of their expert buildup, it doesn’t matter too much. It’s a nifty bit of genre footwork that remains absorbing throughout. Robison and Twenter are the real deal. I can’t wait to see where they go from here. —Phil Bacharach

Out of Print
In a way, Out of Print is a documentary about a tragedy — not a tornado, not an act of terrorism, but the death of the printed book. In a lean and mean 54 minutes, director Vivienne Roumani examines the sweeping changes currently afoot in the publishing and education realms, thanks — or not — to technology.

Sparingly narrated by Meryl Streep, the smart doc’s smart subjects posit books as the foundation of our civilization but question what that will do if books as we know them cease to exist. An equal number of Americans — 20 percent — now own an e-reader and tablet, so there’s no shortage of eyeballs; in fact, a stunning 1 million new books are released annually worldwide.

But the film is gravely concerned for the future, as members of the generation who never knew life before the Internet don’t really read, outside of boy wizards and vampire/werewolf/girl threesomes. They’re “digital doofuses” who accrue information easily and quickly yet fail to gain true knowledge from it and are incapable of critical analyses. To them, the Dewey Decimal System is Farsi, if not some unwritten tribal language consisting only of clicked tongues. Somewhere, Gutenberg weeps.

Out of Print fails to address how the shoddiness of so many self-published works taints the pool (“Look, Ma! Me is a author!”), but does acknowledge the tactile pleasures of holding and smelling a book.  
It’s fascinating literary porn, and I don’t mean Fifty Shades of Grey. —Rod Lott

The Taiwan Oyster
The directorial debut of Mark Jarrett, The Taiwan Oyster begins with an ominous quote from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Jarrett had been reading the book while conceptualizing his film, and there are shared themes and motifs present throughout its 108 minutes. But what makes the movie so unique — and an utter delight to watch — is how Jarrett interlaces ambitious undertones throughout the quixotic, idiosyncratic events of a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach feature.

In an intense opening scene, a group of American friends enjoys some adult beverages atop a moonlit rooftop in Taiwan. Innocent enough, until one particularly inebriated ex-pat, Jedidiah, takes an ill-fated jump and falls to his death. We then come to meet the two protagonists, Simon and Darin, two spiritually depraved kindergarten teachers who learn that Jed left no family behind to claim him and, therefore, must be cremated.

The two — along with their newly acquainted Taiwanese damsel, Nakita — make it their mission to give their fellow countryman a proper burial, going so far as stealing Jed’s body and trucking it across the country in search of an appropriate resting place.

It all has the unmistakable feel of a traditional American road-trip movie (albeit in a Far East setting), yet there are some truly moving moments of characterization and remarkably polished cinematography that add tremendous depth to the film. With Jarrett’s impressive directorial stamp, The Taiwan Oyster achieves something far more momentous. —Zach Hale

Worm
Remember Requiem for a Dream‘s arguably showiest scene, which mounted director Darren Aronofsky’s camera to a running Marlon Wayans, thereby putting the actor’s face front and center in frame, oddly stationary as everything else around him was in motion? (If not, YouTube is your friend.) Take that idea and plop it onto another gimmick — Alfred Hitchcock’s seemingly single-shot thriller, 1948’s Rope — and you have Worm.

Written, directed, edited and — whew! — co-produced by its star, Andrew Bowser, Worm wriggles its way through 90 minutes of a day in the (low)life of the titular, simple-minded man as he flees the authorities and other shady characters while attempting to undo past misdeeds in order to save himself and his family.

Whether digging a hole, jumping underwater or driving a car, Worm and his bearded mug are the in-your-face focus of the partly experimental, stripped-down picture. The fun of the noir-tinged exercise is not the obvious gimmick of perspective but to see the criminal events unfold in the environs of good-ol’-boy Guthrie. Even in black-and-white, the colorful town stands out as a supporting character. —Rod Lott

Hey! Read This:
2013 deadCENTER Film Festival: The Last of the Mohicans     
42 film review   
Jeff Robison, Casey Twenter and William H. Macy interview   
The William Castle Film Collection DVD review  

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