I hate romantic comedies. I'm a romantic guy and certainly am all for romance but there is a certain element to a lot of the romantic comedies that are coming out lately that I find very stale or at least very problematic. They aren't subtle or even smart; many times, we don't believe the two people who end up together or their motivations in coming together. This was especially evident in "You've Got Mail", a movie where Tom Hanks's mega-bookstore owner put Meg Ryan's little children's bookstore out of business, effectively not only crushing her, but closing the history of generations, since the children's bookstore had been in her family for ages. And yet, in the end, they fall in love with each other. I'm sorry, but I don't believe it.
Julia Roberts looks to become the queen of romantic comedies and she certainly deserves that title. She has picked two films now that are romantic comedies, but they are smart, subtle and do remarkably fresh things with what I feel is a very tired genre. "My Best Friends Wedding" was a fantastically smart, light comedy that had a thrilling energy to it and great performances. "Notting Hill" is a way different film for the most part, but it still contains a lot of the same elements; very smart, witty and literate dialogue combined with some very colorful characters who have been fully written and fully realized. Hugh Grant stars as William, the owner of a small Notting Hill bookstore that is certainly down on his luck; the store is failing when one day, in walks Anna Scott(Roberts), a world famous starlet that is in town promoting her new film. The two have a very cute and funny meeting as Grant's bookstore owner apprehends a shoplifter in the midst of their conversation. There isn't much said or done, but there are some very slight gestures and enjoyable acting that shares with us the fact that there is certainly more possibilities left in this newly found relationship.
The two meet again at various times and what's so nice is that their meetings are everything at once that we need, but in a small package. What that means is that these meetings are smart, sweet and entirely believable, but they don't go for the grand scene, they are twice as effective as that: these meetings build off of small events like William spilling Orange Juice on Anna on the street. Soon enough, William finds himself sneaking into a press conference for Anna's new film in a hilarious sequence where Grant must pretend to be a reporter. It's during scenes like these that are a good example of why I liked Grant so much in this film. Before, he was always funny in sort of a slightly sloppy way, doing his stuttering bit("Uh,um, yes, well, hello.") Here, he's shaped that sort of bit into a sharper, smarter more detailed and interesting performance that combines comedy and a little bit of drama into a far better performance than anything else I've seen him in.
We know the steps that the film will take; the two will have a lot of fun together, something will happen to split them apart, then it's only a matter of time before they find one another again. It's through the performances and the very literate screenplay that we're still caring after 120 minutes whether or not these people ever end up together. "Notting Hill" does get a little long during the middle point where it seems to spin over and over, with interesting scenes- but a lot of these scenes don't really help to push the film towards its conclusion; the forward momentum from the smart first half seems to get lost slightly here, but towards the end, we regain the sort of madcap comedy/romance that we're looking for, and the film certainly has an enjoyable final act.
The film isn't really a satire or even that much of a look at the sort of privacy and fame issues that the film seems to be going for before it starts. Yes, it certainly has elements that either joke or hint at the reality of showbiz, but it uses these elements to fuel the romantic drama/comedy of the film and it works. I certainly think that this film could have gone down the road of satiring the kind of films that "Anna" does, but I think that the final product here is more successful than that idea would have been. Again, it's all in the performances: Grant is smart, funny and detailed in his performance; Roberts is growing stronger as an actress with every role and she's great here, an excellently played perfomance that combines great timing and sweetness. What I really liked about both of their characters was the fact that a few genuinely believeable flaws were added into the personalities of both and Roberts makes particularly effective use of building these flaws into a very real and memorable character that we can sympathize with because she's not perfect. We're not watching "Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant", we're watching "William and Anna". A lot of films today really don't get that far, convincing us to forget that we're watching stars and become involved in the characters they play. The surrounding characters, especially William's family and roommate(Rhys Ilfans) are very funny and wonderfully written here as well and provide an enjoyably comic background to the proceedings. Really, the biggest thing I didn't care for was the score, full of obvious and predictable songs that basically tell us what we already know that's going on in the film. I would have liked to have seen a less "song-driven" score that would match the subtle, witty charms of the film.
All in all I really enjoyed "Notting Hill". Like the characters involved, the film certainly has a couple of flaws, but it's so wonderfully made and greatly acted that you can't help being charmed by it. It's a very smart romantic comedy and one of the year's best films.
VIDEO: Universal has really only put out one disc in recent memory that I've considered problematic(Affliction) For the majority of the time though, they've brought out some outstanding efforts(The Mummy or EDTV,, for example) and the quality of "Notting Hill" certainly is one of Universal's best efforts; although the picture seems to be intentionally a little bit on the soft side, images are still clear and quite crisp, with accurate and natural colors. There's quite a few scenes on the streets of Notting Hill and naturally, they look wonderful, since it's a beautiful area. These scenes have almost a three-dimensional feel to them and are the real highlight in terms of images on this disc. Even though the scenes on the streets are a real highlight, the image during the rest of the film remains quite consistent, looking very clean and "film-like".
There really aren't any noticable flaws to this image; none of the usual bits such as shimmering or pixelization make an appearance here, and the print used is crystal clear. All in all, this is an excellent anamorphic transfer from Universal and definitely a great looking image. The film is letterboxed at 2.35:1. The same presentation for the original returns again here and a full_frame edition is on disc two.
SOUND: For this "Ultimate Edition" of "Notting Hill" is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 audio. The movie though, is essentially the definition of "comedy audio". There's a pleasant enough score with several pop tunes throughout the proceedings, but the music is the only element that - and subtly so - uses the surrounds. Dialogue sounded clear and easily understood with nothing coming across as "thin" or "edgy".
Certainly, the DTS edition isn't going to provide a night and day change in the experience for a film like this one that makes so little use of sound, but it does provide some pleasant improvements in audio quality. The sound overall seemed fuller, warmer and clearer, but only slightly.
MENUS:: Menus are very nicely animated with clips from the movie and a piece of the score in the background. The packaging is a bit of a mistake from Universal. They've used the same clear plastic packaging that the "Sex and the City" season one disc used. Although there's a lot of possibilities with the design and art on a case like this, there's also the fact that these attract fingerprints well and can get scratched. The discs also seem to have a greater chance of falling out during shipment.
Commentary: This is a commentary track from the main crew behind the movie; writer Richard Curtis, director Roger Mitchell and producer Duncan Kenworthy. Like almost every other commentary crew on Universal discs it seems, they open their film with their thoughts on the Universal logo. The crew then goes into a very interesting and in-depth discussion on the production of the picture.
I honestly enjoy a commentary that focuses more on the details of the film's production than how the actors worked together or focused on their performances, which seems to be the focus for quite a few filmmakers who provide commentary tracks. The group here also talks a bit about the locations, taking us through the various locations where the movie was filmed. There are a few tidbits about the actors; working with the various actors and how they were chosen for their roles, but all-in-all it really does attain a nice balance between a commentary about the acting and a commentary about the more technical and production oriented aspects of the picture. They also occasionally talk about some details of scenes that were cut out of the film and some original ideas for how scenes were going to go.
Most importantly, the three have fun with their discussion, occasionally joking about some of the small errors in the picture or the hilarity of some of the production details and stories. The three really have quite a bit to say and thankfully, rarely ever fall back to simply telling us what's going on on-screen, which is something I don't care for in commentaries. This is definitely a fun and interesting commentary track and certainly one of the better ones that I've had the pleasure to listen to lately. The commentary is also available on disc 2.
Deleted Scenes- "The Scenes That Got Away": These scenes were most likely taken out of the film in the interest of keeping the time shorter; in my opinion, it already runs a little too long at its current length. There are quite a few very funny scenes included here, but I don't think they really have a place in the final picture. The first scene is Grant's character trying to explain to his parents who he's dating, and although it's funny, it's only funny to a certain point and then it goes a little too long. The next scene involves trying to find Grant's character a new girlfriend- it's alright, not terribly funny. There's a number of other scenes included in this section, some are interesting and funny, some don't work quite as well, but all in all these are more entertaining than the usual deleted scenes that are included on most discs. There's a little over 10 minutes of scenes included here.
Music Highlights: There's a seperate section of chapters that allow the user to jump to a certain scene where a song is playing. There are 9 of these chapters you can jump to in the menu.
Hugh Grant's Movie Tips:: A really very funny little extra where Hugh Grant goes through tips on what actors should do on a movie set; we see how to "dress on set", watch as Grant's parents visit, and see quite a bit of very funny behind-the-scenes incidents. Grant leads us through a lot of the funnier moments of film production and I thought this was very, very funny and extremely entertaining.
The Travel Book: Various maps of the area where the movie was filmed and details about where to go in the area.
Also:: Production notes, cast/crew bios, the trailer and basic DVD-Rom content with notes about the film.
Spotlight On Location: New to disc one is another one of Universal's "Spotlight On Location" making-of documentaries. This one lasts 15 minutes and provides interviews with the cast and crew about their roles and the making of the film. It's a mixture - some of it is fluff about the story and how wonderful everyone was to work with, but there's also a couple of interesting stories about production. Worth a look.
Seasonal Walk On Portobello Road: This is a short featurette that takes a look at how the scene where Grant walks down the street and the seasons change was done. The scene plays in a lower box and the documentary is in a box above.
Also: New to the disc and included on the second disc is a photo montage set to the score, the international trailer, music videos from Shania Twain and Elvis Costello. The "Erin Brockovich" trailer can be found under "recommendations". DVD-ROM features include script-to-scene and website.
Final Thoughts: Maybe it's just me, but I don't really understand the concept of going back to do additional editions of special edition titles, I suppose if you don't already own "Notting Hill", certainly this is the edition to get. It's a fine film and if you haven't seen it, it's well worth a look.