From 1980s nerds to birds to Oz: this week’s movies

Words cannot express how boring I found COMPUTER CHESS (2013), a mockumentary set in 1980 about competing groups of programmers testing how their chess-playing software does against human players. I’d heard good things about it, but a mockumentary about nerds spouting technobabble, while it might have hooked a real computer buff, didn’t add up to compelling drama — no memorable characters, no story arc, nothing to hold me. Watching a movie where D&D fans debate the change from 2nd to 3rd edition would be more compelling. “I bet you and I here are the only ones who understand that computer science has a feminine side.”

THE CURIOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. WONDERBIRD (1953) is a dubbed French cartoon from the same DVD set as Alice of Wonderland in Paris.  The English language version stars Peter Ustinov as a bird roosting on a king’s palace. When the shepherdess and a vagabond from two of the king’s paintings come to life and run away together, the king’s self-portrait comes to life to pursue the shepherdess and claim her for himself. The big draw in this one is the lovely, detailed, old-school animation. Claire Bloom and Denholm Elliott voice the young lovers.

AFTER THE WIZARD (2011) from the same DVD was, with the Alice film, the one that convinced me to pick it up (it was a library sale, so it was only three bucks or so), as I’m interested in Oz films — after all, I literally wrote the book on the subject (this one was about seven years too late to be included. This one is a familiar story of a troubled kid retreating into fantasy (similar to John Cusack’s The Martian Child): protagonist is a young orphan repressing memories of her tragic past by imagining herself as Dorothy, and that the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow have landed in America by the Wizard’s balloon and are journeying cross country to take her back to Oz. I like that the creators draw on the book rather than the film, and the way everyone accepts the protagonists as kind of eccentric cosplayers. However   the acting is so-so and the production is low-budget — the Tin Woodman is just wearing silver spray paint, the Scarecrow has straw stuffed in his collar and cuffs. Given how dark Dorothy imagines her post-Oz life (Uncle Henry died in a farm accident! Aunt Em died of kidney failure! They took Toto to the pound!) I’d suggest a double bill with the adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s even darker Was. “Could Kansas possibly be a place where there is smoke without fire?”

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