REVIEW: “Play Time”

PLAYTIME POster

“Playtime” may be one of the most difficult movies to categorize or review and it may be a difficult movie for some people to process. French filmmaker Jacques Tati is known for focusing more on people and communities and allowing his stories to be told visually through their interactions. He was much more interested in visual comedy through observation than presenting a structured narrative. With “Playtime” he takes this unique style and amplifies it. But with this film he has a different intention and much bigger expectations that may be hard to appreciate at first glance.

“Playtime” was Tati’s most ambitious project and at the time it was the most expensive movie in French history. It never made its money back at the box office and eventually drove Tati into bankruptcy. Much of the high cost went into the enormous set built by the filmmaker. Money issues made constructing the set drag out almost 4 years. But if you’ve seen the film it’s impossible to not be in awe of what Tati created. His set included an airport, skyscrapers, apartment buildings, office complexes, a downtown area, and several busy city streets. All of it represented the new futuristic Paris that Tati often spoke against in his films.

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This is also a movie intended to fade out Tati’s popular Mr. Hulot character. Tati was growing tired of him and used this as an opportunity to move on to something new. But some believe this is one reason the movie wasn’t as well received by the public as hoped. Mr. Hulot was incredibly popular with audiences and his limited appearances in this picture didn’t sit well with some viewers. But honestly, Mr. Hulot is only a cog in Tati’s big machine. This was never meant to be a Mr. Hulot picture in the same vein as “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” or “Mon Oncle”.

“Playtime” does incorporate several of Tati’s signature techniques in filmmaking and comedy. The gags often hinge on timing and some of them require careful attention or you just might miss them. There is no meaningful dialogue in the picture. Instead the voices of people are simply part of the important background noise that we hear throughout the film. Sound has often played a significant part in Tati’s films and it’s no different here. Everything from the loud heels clicking on the cold, hard floors to the flatulent noises from the hip office chairs has a distinct and intentional sound.

 

The movie is broken down into sections. It begins in what resembles a hospital but we soon find it’s an airport. It’s here that we are first introduced to some of the film’s reoccurring characters including a tour group of women from the United States and of course Mr. Hulot. From there the movie moves into Tati’s vision of where Paris was heading – a city of long, congested, assembly-line like streets with matching skyscrapers made of steel and glass. The city’s traditional beauty and history is gone replaced by a cold and sterile modernist future. Tati does give us quick looks back at the city’s glory but they are cleverly shown reflections seen in glass doors. The reflections of the Eiffel Tower and of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica on Montmartre hill are visions of a Paris that Tati sees as disappearing in the real world.

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Mr. Hulot is lost in this new world. The second big section of the movie takes place in an office high-rise where Hulot is set to have a meeting. Tati makes the place incredibly impersonal and goes to great lengths to portray the building’s futuristic technology as silly and pointless. There is a great scene that illustrates this right after Hulot enters the office building. He’s met by a little old doorman who sits him down while he calls upstairs. To do so the old fella has to work an overly complex intercom system, all the time grumbling to himself as he carries out his perfunctory, everyday duties. He refuses to let Hulot leave his seat, making him wait and wait until the executive he’s there to meet finally arrives from upstairs. But the executive moves him into an office 10 feet away from where he’s been waiting and has him sit down and wait longer. The doorman, the intercom, and the long wait were for the most part pointless.

Hulot ends up getting lost and he stumbles upon a trade show happening in another part of the building. This is where the next section of the movie takes place. It’s followed by some time spent gazing into an apartment complex before heading to an evening at a nice restaurant. Most of the film’s second half takes place in the restaurant. Hulot ends up inside but we really see very little of him. Instead we’re introduced to the new series of characters including a loud and obnoxious American businessman, a clever doorman, an embarrassed waiter who has ripped his pants, the antsy owner, a drunk, the aforementioned tour group, and a number of other people.

The restaurant sequence is a pretty impressive thing to behold. We watch as the night starts slow but as the crowd increases and several mishaps occur, things liven up. There’s really nothing else to the scene. There isn’t a deeper story angle to latch onto nor is there one central character to follow. It’s pure observation as the camera steps back and moves from one section of the restaurant to another. We simply watch everything as if we were sitting on a stool in the corner of the room. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s a bold and inventive experiment but it’s also laced with some really funny gags. And it doesn’t stop there. There’s a really good drugstore sequence and some time spent on the congested city streets before zipping us back to the airport.

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You can’t watch “Play Time” and not be impressed with the skill and the craft of Jacques Tati. And while it certainly has some funny moments, it lacks the playfulness of the previous Mr. Hulot films and I have to admit I missed that. The shelving of Hulot is obvious as Tati intentionally loses him in the concrete, glass, and metal world he created. In fact, at times it seems that Tati is rubbing it in our faces by occasionally throwing out men who walk and dress like Hulot but we find out they are not. By shortening the screen time of his beloved character he forces us to look at the bigger picture that he’s painted on his personal canvas. He makes us look beyond what we’re familiar with and what we expect.

There is nothing conventional about “Play Time”. It’s an ambitious project that also has that signature Tati humor. But it’s nothing like the filmmaker’s previous work and that took some adjusting for me. And personally speaking, this film just didn’t resonate with me like his other work. Staying with the movie can be a bit of a challenge and the humor is spread out and more subtle. But the craftsmanship behind this film can’t be questioned and the sheer scope of the undertaking is incredible. There is so much going on throughout this picture and for a movie with no substantial plot or direction that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Car Crashes

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Yet another “Fast and Furious” movie hits the big screen this week. I’ve always been indifferent to this franchise, at least until the last movie “Fast Five”. It got away from the illegal street car scene and gave us a more appealing full-blown action picture. It’s a franchise known for the crazy things it does with its cars. So in light of that I thought I would focus this week’s Phenomenal 5 on some of the biggest car crashes in the movies. Now obviously filmmakers have loved to do all sorts of damage to cars, trucks, semis, etc. so there’s no way I could call this the definitive list. But in the cinematic world of vehicular destruction these five movie car crashes stand out as phenomenal.

#5 – “CASINO ROYALE

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I cry just looking at this…

In 2006 Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale” turned me into a James Bond fan. There is so much I love about this movie – the fresh cast, the new grittier and realistic feel. But there’s also a lot of 007 traditionalism which I love. One of those things is Bond’s love for sweet cars which leads to its inclusion on this list. Why Bond thought he could have a nice, romantic dinner with his girl Vesper is beyond me. She ends up being kidnapped by the deliciously evil Mads Mikkelsen. Bond hops into his gorgeous Aston Martin and pursues. Flying through the darkness at high speeds, Bond doesn’t notice Vesper’s tied up in the middle of the road until the last second. He makes a sharp turn, loses control of his car, and it flips and flips and flips. This may not be the most eye-catching movie crash scene, but it brings tears to my eyes every time I see that beautiful car being destroyed. *sniff, sniff*

#4 – “THE MATRIX RELOADED”

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The first of MANY flying cars…

The Wachowski’s caught the attention of a lot of people in 1999 with their science-fiction mindbender “The Matrix”. It was followed by the 2003 sequel “The Matrix Reloaded”, a film best described as three insanely good action scenes threaded together by loads of boring, coma-inducing blabber. One of the great action scenes features a frenetic freeway chase where a horde of agents pursue Trinity, Morpheus, and the key maker. This long, mind-blowing sequence features cars, motorcycles, SUVs, and semis, all being blown up, flipped, and rolled in ways you would never imagine. It may be a bit of a cheat to include this entire sequence, but there’s just too many phenomenal car crashes within it to single out just one.

#3 – “THE ROAD WARRIOR”

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Soooo many pieces….

The second installment of the Mad Max series was “The Road Warrior” and it’s still my favorite. This Australian post-apocalyptic action series put Mel Gibson on the map and featured some insane vehicular mayhem. The self-serving Max redeems himself by taking a band of murderous marauders on a merry chase along the barren wasteland. Along the way cars flip, roll, and explode but there’s one particular crash that’s especially vicious. At the end of this great chase Max finds his tanker truck steaming towards a head-on collision with the evil Humongous. Lord H has no chance whatsoever and when his tricked out metal machine meets the huge plow blade on Max’s truck at a ridiculously high speed, well let’s just say you could sweep up what’s left of him and his ride with a broom and dustpan.

#2 – “PLAYTIME”

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You can just see it coming…

There have been a wide variety of car crashes over the years but none have made me laugh as hard as the huge pileup in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” from 1967. This was Tati’s final film featuring his beloved Mr. Hulot character and probably the director’s most ambitious. Nestled within this unusual film is a hilarious car wreck which all starts with a little yellow sports car speeding through an intersection. This sets off a chain reaction of funky little cars bumping into each other, sliding across the pavement, and spinning in circles. The following scene of everyone getting out and simultaneously stretching their stiff limbs is a great topper. It’s hard to describe this so that it sounds as funny as it is. Just look it up on YouTube. It’s well worth a watch.

#1 – “THE BLUES BROTHERS”

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The mother of all car crashes…

When I thought of doing this list the insanely over-the-top cop car pileup in the 1980 musical comedy “The Blues Brothers” was the first to come to mind. Aykroyd and Belushi drive their ragged ride to the “honorable” Richard J. Daley Center but not before leading a ton of Chicago’s finest on a high speed chase through the city streets. Through tunnels, under bridges, and hitting speeds of 120 mph, the chase tears through the town. That is until a quick left turn leaves a police car pileup unlike anything you’ve seen. Totally nuts but loads of fun. The Blues Brothers is remembered for a lot of things – the hilarious script, the great songs. But I’ll never be able to think of this film and not recall this phenomenal scene! If you haven’t seen it, hop to it.

So there are my five phenomenal movie car crashes. With so many great ones to choose from, I can’t wait to see your favorites. Please take time to comment and share your picks!

REVIEW: “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”

Classic Movie SpotlightHULOTMy recent time spent looking at the movies of French filmmaker Jacques Tati has been a true delight. As I’ve made my way through his small but brilliant catalog of films I’ve grown more and more impressed with the ingenious craft at the heart of them. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” was the first film featuring Tati’s lovable Monsieur Hulot character and it’s arguably the greatest display of his physical comedic abilities. Tati both starred in and directed this picture and his meticulous approach to filmmaking is seen in every frame from his carefully conceived sight gags to his beautiful work with the camera.

There’s no strict and focused narrative in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. It simply follows Hulot’s vacation at a small French beachside resort. Much like other Tati films, there is a great focus on community here. We’re introduced to a number of fellow vacationers each with their own unique personalities and quirks. There’s no real effort towards character development. Instead they simply become familiar faces who we grow to know through their reappearances. This is one of the characteristics of Tati’s films that I enjoy the most. I love how he develops a community of characters all built around their individual interactions with Mr. Hulot.

Hulot is the picture of gentleness and happiness. With his pipe in mouth and striped socks showing he certainly stands out in the crowd. But it’s his fidgety demeanor and overall clumsiness that makes him so physically awkward, something only rivaled by his social awkwardness which he seems totally unaware of. He simply goes on enjoying life completely impervious to the inconveniences he may be accidentally causing. He annoys several of his fellow vacationers which provides some great laughs for the audience.

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For me the true treat was just watching him interact with this wonderful assortment of people. For example there’s the grumpy and mopey waiter who doesn’t crack a smile for the entire movie. There’s the pretty blonde who gets the attention of nearly every young man at the resort yet she lives in her own uninterested little world. There’s the older couple who just stroll around observing everyone and taking everything in. We get the mischievous children and a handful of animals, both of which Tati loves to incorporate into his films. There are several other great characters and we never really get to know any of them yet they become very familiar to us. They all share the resort, the dining area, and the beach with Mr. Hulot which results in some hysterical moments.

First and foremost Jacques Tati is a physical comedian, a skill that dates back to his early years as a mime. His films often reflect back on the days of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keeton when the stories were told through the amazing vehicles of expressions, gestures, postures, and athleticism. That’s certainly the case here. The dialogue is scarce and the speaking we do hear from people is mostly unintelligible. Instead the story is made for our eyes and mainly told through the lens of Tati’s camera. His skill is incredible and you can’t take your eyes off what he’s doing on screen. It’s unlike anything we see today.

In many ways “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” resembles a classic silent film yet there is a steady emphasis on sound. There’s the aforementioned chatter from the characters. Most of the time we have no idea what they’re saying yet they are a delightful ingredient. The spitting and sputtering of Mr. Hulot’s funky automobile almost makes it a character itself. Then there are the little things such as the swinging door to the dining room. Every time someone walks through, it makes this peculiar “fwoom” sound. Tati removes the music and places a heavy emphasis on that unusual sound. It may not sound like much but in the flow of the film it fits perfectly.

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Tati is also a director of timing. So many of his hilarious gags are dependent on precise timing and I can imagine even some of the smallest scenes taking a lot of time and expertise to get right. Take one scene where Hulot is fixing his broken down jalopy on the side of the road. He is underneath his car but with his legs laying out in the road. Another car comes flying through and at just the right time Hulot pulls in his legs as the car barely misses them. He never moves his legs to miss the oncoming car but to just shift positions yet the timing is perfect. Now there could very well be some camera trickery involved but it’s just one example of the many great gags revolving around perfectly timed people or objects.

“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” was a huge success upon its release and it remains a cherished movie for many today. It’s a perfect display of Jacques Tati’s artistry as both a filmmaker and a comedic actor. It’s a celebration of silent comedy as well as its own unique brand of filmmaking. It also gives us our first introduction to one of the most lovable characters in cinema chock full of his deadpan humor. Just a couple of days ago as I sat in a theater watching a series of comedy trailers that looked neither interesting or funny I thought of this film. I thought of how lazy and formulaic the one-trick-pony comedies of today are. Then I thought of Tati’s creativity, his style, his skill with the camera, his poetic grace. All of these things and more are beautifully wrapped up in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. I sat in that dark theater thinking the same thing I’m thinking now – “Man I wish they still made comedies like this today”!

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

5 PHENOMENAL FRENCH LANGUAGE FILMS

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Years ago as I began to grow as a movie fan I opened myself up to foreign cinema. I can’t express how thankful I am for that decision. And while I still don’t see as many foreign language films as I should, over the years foreign cinema has introduced me to some truly great movies. From the far east to the middle east, from South America to Central Europe, there are wonderful filmmakers making movies all over the globe. While I’ve dipped my toes into the films of many different countries, I’ve found French cinema to be one of my favorites. So I thought it would be fun to look at five phenomenal French language films. This is the first Phenomenal 5 dedicated to foreign cinema but it won’t be the last. Now there are many French films that I haven’t seen so it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But there is no denying that these five French movies are nothing short of phenomenal.

MON ONCLE#5 – “MON ONCLE”  Jacques Tati only made six feature-length movies but that’s all it took to establish him as a fantastic filmmaker. “Mon Oncle” is the consummation of Tati’s many talents all wrapped into one delightful creation. The film features Tati’s signature style of visual storytelling and comedy as well as his familiar critiques of materialism, consumerism, and social elitism. But at its heart is a very funny story featuring one of the most lovable characters you’ll find – socially awkward but certainly lovable. Monsieur Hulot’s sweet and friendly demeanor is infectious and he’s always content regardless of his state. But perhaps my favorite thing about this film is the incredible sense of community that Tati is able to capture. Hulot’s working class neighborhood is filled with life, energy, and an assortment of entertaining characters. Those things also perfectly describe “Mon Oncle”.

#4 – “BREATHLESS”BREATHLESS – Acclaimed director Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film was “Breathless” from 1960. Long considered one of the signature movies from the French New Wave, “Breathless” remains to this day a highly influential film. In the movie Godard went to great lengths to buck the traditional trends in filmmaking by using several innovative visual techniques now forever associated with the French New Wave. But “Breathless” isn’t all about style. There’s also a very good story born out of the social climate of 1960 Paris. At first I had a tough time gathering my thoughts on the movie. But after processing the film and looking closer at the story, it has become a true favorite of mine. Jean-Paul Belmondo and the lovely Jean Seberg are fantastic and Godard gives us some of the best street views of Paris. Groundbreaking and highly entertaining.

MR HULOT#3 – “MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY – I really want there to be variety in every Phenomenal 5 I do, but for this list I couldn’t leave off either if these two Jacques Tati classics, the aforementioned “Mon Oncle” and “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is my favorite Tati film and one of my favorite comedies of all time. Every ounce of Tati’s creative genius is on display in this film. As a director he has an incredible eye for structuring each scene and capturing each moment. In front of the camera as Mr. Hulot he brings out the comic brilliance of legends such as Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” is a very visual comedy with a heavy emphasis on sight gags and perfectly timed humor. There are so many great laughs in this simple but hilarious picture and it’s a profound example of how true comedy can be done without the gimmicks and clichés we often see today.

#2 – “AMELIE”AMELIE – One of the most delightful French films I have ever scene is “Amelie” and delightful is the perfect word for it. It’s the story of a shy and reserved waitress and all of the quirky individuals that make up her everyday life. She’s a lonely soul who tries to overcome it through her playful imagination. The perfectly cast Audrey Tautou is magnificent as Amelie who lives her life in beautifully filmed Montmartre. But there’s also the wonderful assortment of side characters that give this film such life. There’s the mysterious painter neighbor, her wacky cafe coworkers and regular customers, the mean jerk of a grocer. I can go on and on but regardless of who they are, Amelie has a positive impact on their lives. There is so much charm mixed with laugh-out-loud hilarity that permeates this entire picture. Gorgeous cinematography, brilliant writing, and pitch-perfect performances. “Amelie” is a joy.

The 400 Blows (1959)#1 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Much like “Breathless”, Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” was a pivotal film in the French New Wave. It’s arguably the most powerful movie about adolescence and it’s an intensely personal film for the acclaimed director. Based on Truffaut’s own childhood, “The 400 Blows” looks at the life of young Antoine in early 1950’s Paris. He’s viewed as a troublemaker by the adults in his life and he finds the streets to be his only refuge. There are several stinging and uncomfortable scenes but all of them lead to the final shot which is one of the most potent in film history. There is such feeling and emotional pop throughout as we see this challenging and often times difficult world through young Antoine’s eyes. There’s also an undeniable technique and style behind the movie’s visual presentation. It’s an amazing expression of Truffaut’s vision and when combined with the brilliant screenplay the result is a glorious piece of cinema history.

So there are my five picks for the most phenomenal films in French cinema. Agree or disagree – please leave you thoughts below. Also be watching throughout the next several days as I review several of these and other French films on the site.