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Notting Hill Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007

Image You either get Julia Roberts or you don’t. Her dazzling smile either charms you or you react to it like fingernails on a blackboard. Fortunately, I’m in the former group—I get her. And I like her, a lot. When she’s cast well, as in “Notting Hill,” she’s a working demonstration of the term “movie star.” She owns the camera every moment she’s in view, and yet she’s generous to her costars. She’s a better actress than her detractors are likely ever to admit, and demonstrates it several times in this film—her last scene in the bookshop is a treasure: she’s in the moment, she delivers the lines like she’s thinking them up at the moment, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Not that most of us want to, so where the heck has she been lately? (I suspect off being a content wife and mother; more power to her.)

In the extras, we learn that the script grew out of a fantasy writer Richard Curtis had. For some time, he and a group of friends met every Thursday night for dinner; he imagined what would happen if he showed up with whoever was the most prominent female celebrity—Madonna, Princess Di, whoever. The script grew around that idea, which pretty much required casting the biggest female name of the time—and they landed her: Julia.

Of course, they also cast a real movie star, Hugh Grant (who lately claims he’s retired as an actor) opposite her, but his fame doesn’t get in the way of our believing he’s just an ordinary bloke with only “a half life” who runs a struggling travel book store just off London’s scruffy/trendy Portabello Road in the Notting Hill district. (Chosen because that’s where Curtis lived at the time.) On an ordinary day, William Thacker (Grant) is nonplused when Anna Scott (Roberts), the most famous movie star on the planet, walks into his store. He’s used to seeing her face on the side of buses (look, there goes one now), billboards, buildings and, of course, movie screens. He’s surprised and puzzled and, of course, Hugh Grant diffident, not allowing her fame to floor him. They exchange a few amusing lines, and she leaves—only to walk headlong into William and his container of orange juice a short time later. He takes her to his flat, over there with the blue door, and she cleans up—and just before she leaves, impulsively kisses him.

This, of course, is the start of it all. He’s hesitant, a little confused, a lot bashful, but strongly attracted to her, and she is to him, despite their differences. Yes, it’s an unlikely story; movie stars usually marry other celebrities (because that’s who they know), not bookstore owners, however charming and amusingly self-effacing they might be. But this is really Cinderella with the genders reversed; like “Pretty Woman,” another outstanding Roberts romantic comedy, we’re not supposed to wonder why, we’re expected just to relax and have fun.

It’s easy to have fun in “Notting Hill.” Roger Michel (pr. Michelle), director, has a relaxed, easy-going style, nothing overemphasized, enough closeups but not too many. And he’s clearly great with actors, since this is one of those rare (these days) movies in which everyone who opens their mouth has a vivid personality. In the scene that plays out Curtis’ fantasy, William takes Anna to dinner with his friends, the celebration of his ditzy sister Honey’s (Emma Chambers) birthday. (Her first words on seeing who big brother’s guest is: “Holy sh!t!”) Curtis’s script, Michel’s direction and the very skilled cast subtly fill in details: Max (Tim McInnerny), hosting the party and excitedly cooking, married Bella (Gina McKee), one of William’s former girlfriends. She’s now in a wheelchair, and clearly deeply loved by Max. Both Max and Bella are doing well financially; they have a handsome flat. Honey’s struggling along, and stockbroker-but-hates-it pal Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) is unlucky in love. And doesn’t recognize Anna, even when he asks her what she was paid for her last movie. “Fifteen million dollars,” the bemused star says, ratting Bernie’s view of the world.

The great appeal of “Notting Hill” is the relaxed, easygoing charm of the two leads; Roberts doesn’t have to work to win our affection, and Grant’s work is quiet and restrained (like that other Grant, Cary). Their scenes together have a smooth naturalness that’s ingratiating, funny and warm; you can really feel these two falling for each other. Perhaps they’re just a bit more glib and witty in reality, but that’s okay—it’s a comedy, they’re supposed to be witty.

Things are going well until William arrives at her hotel room one night (on her invitation), only to discover that her American boyfriend, big-deal movie star Jeff (played winningly by big-deal movie star Alec Baldwin) has arrived in London. Blown out of the water, William disappears back into the bookstore.
The passage of time is creatively demonstrated by a walk William takes from the bookstore to his flat: it begins in the fall, as he passes a pregnant woman; as he walks by the carts of the vendors on Portabello Road, the seasons change—fall, winter and then spring, marked by heaps of flowers and that same woman, now with her baby. There’s a special segment of the extras explaining how this showy but not intrusive sequence was done; there are fewer (imperceptible) cuts than you might expect.

This warm, funny and likeable movie is fitted with warm, funny and likeable extras. “Spotlight on Location” is a cable TV episode featuring Curtis, Michel, producer Duncan Kenworthy, Grant, Roberts and others chatting about the making of the film. There’s also that “seasonal walk on Notting Hill” featurette, two vividly contrasting trailers (one for the U.S., one for Europe), a guidebook-like segment on what you can find on the real Notting Hill, and a goofy little bit with Hugh Grant escorting us around the set, including introducing us to his mother and father. (It’s the first time they’ve visited one of his sets, he says, and the last—as his parents laugh.)

More and more, studios are giving less and less thought to what’s appropriate for high definition, and in some cases, seem to be trying to create new customers by offering hit movies in high definition. “Notting Hill” was certainly a hit, and deservedly so, and it looks great in high definition—it’s a surprisingly rich-looking film (production design by the great Stuart Craig), but not visually showy. Of course, if you really want to see that Hugh Grant’s complexion tends to be a bit blotchy, this is your opportunity.

Both Richard Curtis and Roger Michel, who sound likeable on the commentary track, seem to have just about the careers they want. Curtis moves freely from TV to movies and back again; he was one of the creators of the popular “Blackadder” series, and a deft hand at amusing lines and colorful characters. Like Spike (Rhys Ifans), Williams’ Welsh flatmate. He effortlessly steals every scene he’s in: Spike is a goofball drifter, floating through life, taking his time. He’s not exactly the sharpest Crayola in the box, but he’s the funniest. He even steals the deleted scenes, most of which center on him, any one or all of which could well have been retained in the film. This time, these scenes were evidently deleted for the sake of running time; they’re definitely worth watching.

The story is, as mentioned, highly unlikely, but that’s true of a lot of romantic comedies. The trick is to get your audience to like the characters enough, to want enough to see them end up happy, as to not care about the implausibilities of the entire situation. And that’s the case here: “Notting Hill” is great fun, with a terrific cast and two unbeatable leads.

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