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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Mime > Tecnhology > Modernism > Travel > France > Large Frame Format > Play Time (aka PlayTime/1967/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

Play Time (aka PlayTime/1967/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)


Picture: B+     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: A



Jacques Tati was the comic genius of the French New Wave, a master of mime and a as it turns out, filmmaking.  His Mr. Hulot became as iconic as Chaplin’s little tramp and was a character always at odds with technology.  After many a hit film as Hulot, he embarked on a massive comic undertaking.  Hollywood was already making large-frame format comedies like The Pink Panther (reviewed elsewhere on this site) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, but his idea was a spectacular without any stars (save himself) and the result was his masterpiece, Play Time.


I will state from the outset that I have been a huge fan of the film for years and along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence Of Arabia, it is the greatest large-frame 70mm-produced film ever made.  An independently produced project, Tati went overbudget on his own money, spending a fortune on production and sets, then watching his masterwork both fail and languish for years.  It arrived in 1967 and would not arrive in the U.S. until 1972.  Recently, it was finally saved and restored, resulting in Criterion issuing the film twice on DVD alone.  Now we have this new Blu-ray and it is the only version to own.


I was very vocal about my disappointment with the first Criterion DVD, shocked at how poor the film looked and sounded.  They agreed and reissued the film in a newer version that included missing footage and a somewhat better transfer.  I have seen the film in film several times (in 35mm) and knew how much better it looked and the newer DVD still did not get it.  However, I knew the restoration was on the way and the result is another one of Criterion’s great Blu-ray releases with demo-quality moments for any serious movie fan and home theater owner.


In collaboration with his greatest co-writer Jacques Lagrange, the story takes place over a 24-hour period where Mr. Hulot has an nondescript business appointment, a new restaurant is about to open and a group of American tourists have arrived to take in the sites of a beautiful city whose landmarks and distinctions are being homogenized by modernism, the modernist look and modernist designs like all the other major cites of the world.  The action also takes place at the airport, on the streets, in new offices, at a technology fare and even a neon-filled pharmacy!


The people, locations and technology vie for the focus of the film; the world is so made of clean lines, open interior spaces and subsections that it is almost like watching a science fiction film.  That it was one year ahead of 2001 in some of its look is amazing and makes for the perfect companion piece on that level.  The Hulot character is as charming as ever and just a few minutes into the film, it seems anything can happen and does.


To say more would ruin the jokes and surprises, but the film is brilliant beyond words, Tati’s ultimate love letter to city life (especially Paris) and is worthy of the best comic work of Chaplin and anyone else before or since.  Besides offering screwball comedy elements, the depth of the cleverness and irony is still remarkable and this is a film that only gets better with age.  Except for one scene still missing from the pharmacy (maybe that was never intended in the final cut by Tati, but we could not find out by the time of this posting), this is the complete film and it is nice to finally see the film get the disc release it deserves.  Like 2001, it took high definition Blu-ray to do it justice, but that makes sense.




The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image comes from a 35mm reduction print from the original 2.20 X 1 65mm camera negative aspect ratio.  Though I wished the transfer would be from 65mm like the Blu-rays of 2001, Baraka, South Pacific and the better IMAX releases (including those IMAX moments from Dark Knight), I was very pleasantly surprised (after the credits, which do not look as good as the rest of the film) how fine this transfer turned out to be.


Shot with Mitchell 65mm equipment, France has not looked this good since Funny Face (1957, reviewed elsewhere on this site) and rarely this good since.  Sure, there are sets and other massive production design, but the compositions are superior, clever and the visuals are always loaded with comic and ironic information.  You cannot watch this film twice and ever get the same experience, which is the point and Tati had two Directors of Photography (Jean Badal, Andréas Winding) for the massive undertaking and it pays off.


Though this is the first time a 35mm reduction print was used for a Blu-ray of a 70mm release, the My Fair Lady restoration transfer used a special 35mm reduction print.  However, that was anamorphic (35mm reduction prints of Lawrence Of Arabia were recently issued in 2.35 X 1 scope prints) and this is a flat widescreen presentation.  The result is better definition and a truer representation of the original cinematography.  This 35mm reduction internegative is very impressive, off of the restored 65mm interpositive, whose grain is more a product of being on 35mm than anything from any 65mm/70mm source.  Fortunately, that grain is minor, while the color (EastmanColor), depth and detail can be stunning in many shots.  That limits narrowly any idea of compromise in the presentation.


Two soundtracks are available, including a repeat of the International Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track from the DVD editions and featured on U.S. release prints, but this sounds a little better than those.  In addition, the original French soundtrack is here in PCM 2.0 Stereo and both are worth listening to.  The French soundtrack may not be as strong, but that is because it is more naturalistic and the sounds are not as sweetened.  The international version has many languages including English and sound effects tend to be louder and more distinct (making them even funnier) while dubbing (when there is actually dialogue at all) obvious voiceover work.


This is a very complex soundtrack worthy of the best films of the time and one that is smarter than most film we get in this digital 5.1 sound era now.  It was reported that Tati had actually made an 8-track soundmaster for the film for special presentations.  The original 70mm release had 6-track magnetic stereo (with five speakers behind the screen for travelling dialogue and sound effects you can still hear here), while the better 35mm prints had 4-track stereo and this restoration was issued in DTS 70mm prints.  Why this Blu-ray does not have two DTS tracks is a mystery, but the sound is still fine and Tati’s estate may have wanted to save the multi-channel experience for 70mm projection only.  That is understandable.  Add the clever, hilarious score (by Francis Lemarque, James Campbell and David Steen) along with so much of the sound design and even in two-channels derived at the 24 bit level from the original stereo stems, this is an impressive presentation.


Together, you get the complete experience as much as possible in what is likely to become a very special demo Blu-ray for the most serious film fans.


Extras include a paper pullout with technical details on the film and Jonathan Rosenbaum essay on the film The Dance Of Playtime inside the Blu-ray case, while the Blu-ray itself adds a video interview with script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, rare audio interview with Tati from the films 1972 premiere in the U.S. at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the short Cours du soir (1967) that is tied to this film, a short biographic work called Tati Story, select scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp, video introduction by writer/director/performer Terry Jones, a 1976 BBC Omnibus installment on Tati called “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” and short vintage documentary about the making of the film called Au-dela de “Playtime”.


If you have a Blu-ray player you must own this disc or if you intend to buy one, make this one of the first discs you get!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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