Hugh Grant

Restoration (1995, Michael Hoffman)

Restoration is two parts period drama, one part character study, one part comedy. It’s often tragic, both because of events occurring and because it takes place in 1665 England and 1665 wasn’t a great time to be alive given the state of medical knowledge versus, you know, disease. Or mental health. The general complete misunderstanding of mental health (though at least they don’t think people are possessed with demon) plays a big part in the dramatics, the comedy, and the character study. There’s always the possibility for comedy… until the plague shows up. Once the plague arrives, it’s full dramatics for a while. The film doesn’t lose its sense of humor, just—appropriately—doesn’t employ it.

The film tells the story of 17th century medical doctor Robert Downey Jr. (who does an amazing job playing English). Despite innate medical talents, Downey doesn’t like how it’s the 17th century and people die from terrible things all the time. It’s a downer. So when he lucks into a court appointment for the King (a delightful Sam Neill), he takes it. It means he gets to drink and carouse and not go bankrupt from it like if he were a working stiff. Things get complicated when Neill then makes Downey marry one of his mistresses (Polly Walker) to legitimize her because Downey immediately falls for her. This portion of the film, after the gruesome medical realities of the opening, is the most comedic. Especially after Hugh Grant shows up as a portrait painter who annoys Downey so Downey annoys him back. Downey’s also got a sidekick—an affable Ian McKellen—during this sequence.

But it’s 1665 and Downey’s in his position by grace of the King and when the King decides no more grace… down Downey falls. He ends up in the 17th century equivalent of a sanitarium, run by Quakers—Downey’s best friend, David Thewlis is a Quaker, which the film actually never plays for jokes when contrasting Thewlis and Downey in the first act. In fact, Downey’s played for the laughs. A fantastic Ian McDiarmid runs the sanitarium and Meg Ryan is one of the… well, patients. They call them “inmates” though; not treating them unkindly but bound by the Quakerism when it comes to trying to help them. Outsider Downey’s the one who has the idea maybe people suffering mental health problems can (and should) be helped. If one of the better off patients who’s clearly suffering from profound depression and happens to look like Meg Ryan… well, bonus.

The plague’s arrival changes everything—again—and puts Downey through multiple harrowing experiences, some small, some big, some internal, some external. Rupert Walters’s script is never particularly outstanding, but the plotting and pacing are fantastic. Restoration moves at a steady clip, knowing exactly when it needs some humor, knowing exactly when it needs some sympathy. Hoffman’s direction of the actors is quite good, making up for his mostly mediocre composition. He and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton do a fine job showing off the beautiful, ornate Eugenio Zanetti production design—the film’s got some great sets, gorgeous costumes, and so on—but Hoffman’s pretty obvious with all of it. He’s clearly more confident with the lighter elements than the more serious ones. It works out but it’s where Restoration feels like a missed opportunity. Hoffman feels essential when it comes to the performances, but not with the film’s visuals.

Downey’s character only develops because of the people he encounters in his life—Thewlis, Walker, Ryan, Neill, McKellen, Grant—but none of the supporting parts are substantial. Neill has a lot of screen time, but he’s a plot foil. He’s the King after all. Ryan’s kind of got the biggest supporting part, but not really any more screen time than any of the other supporting parts. Her performance (as an Irish woman) is fine; she’s very likable. She and Downey definitely work well together. But not a great part, as written.

Everyone’s good—Walker, Thewlis, Grant. No matter what they do, funny, sad, whatever, it’s all about how they play off Downey anyway. The film’s narrative distance is superbly steady in its tracking of Downey.

James Newton Howard’s score is good. Appropriately lush and dramatic. Restoration is a well-executed production.

The key is Downey, who’s essential to the film’s success even though he shouldn’t be—i.e. that quarter character study. Downey’s experience of the film’s events and how they affect him is the film’s greatest achievement. Downey’s performance sets the tone, everything else has to meet that level. Great performance in a solidly but not superlatively written or directed film. The film’s all about Downey, letting it hinge entirely on his performance. And he excels.

Thanks to Downey, and also Hoffman, Walters, Ryan, Neill, and everyone else in various degrees, Restoration’s consistently successful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Hoffman; screenplay by Rupert Walters, based on the novel by Rose Tremain; director of photography, Oliver Stapleton; edited by Garth Craven; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Eugenio Zanetti; costume designer, James Acheson; produced by Sarah Black, Cary Brokaw, and Andy Paterson; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Robert), Sam Neill (The King), David Thewlis (John), Polly Walker (Celia), Meg Ryan (Katharine), Ian McKellen (Will), Hugh Grant (Finn), and Ian McDiarmid (Ambrose).


The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015, Guy Ritchie)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is surprisingly okay. Who knew Guy Ritchie would come up with such an interesting way of doing a spy movie. Sorry, a super-spy movie. It’s not an espionage movie, it’s a James Bond movie, only not. Because Ritchie isn’t anywhere near as interested in set pieces as he is how he presents them. There’s no gee whiz factor to U.N.C.L.E.’s special effects sequences. Ritchie wants the audience to pay attention to the characters.

And the characters are a lot of fun and most of the performances in the film are nearly excellent. All of them are good, even the smaller parts. U.N.C.L.E is just too self-aware, just too cute for the actors to ever transcend the material. Instead, they just revel in said material.

The standout for that reveling is Armie Hammer. While Henry Cavill has a great time playing a lovable cad, there’s not much acting involved. Hammer holds a Russian accent and sells the idea the viewer is supposed to take him seriously as a threat. He’s one of the film’s heroes and he needs to be believable as a threat. It’s a neat trick and surprisingly ambitious in a popcorn movie.

U.N.C.L.E.’s other strong performances are the female leads (Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki) and then Jared Harris, who chews the scenery as a master spy.

A great period soundtrack, beautifully set to the sequences, helps a lot.

The film’s a perfectly reasonable effort. Ritchie’s found his (mainstream) niche.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Ritchie; screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, based on a story by Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson, Ritchie and Wigram and the television series created by Sam Rolfe; director of photography, John Mathieson; edited by James Herbert; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, Oliver Scholl; produced by John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Kleeman and Wigram; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Henry Cavill (Solo), Armie Hammer (Illya), Alicia Vikander (Gaby), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria), Luca Calvani (Alexander), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Jared Harris (Sanders), Christian Berkel (Udo), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg) and Hugh Grant (Waverly).


Love Actually (2003, Richard Curtis)

Richard Curtis–I think–said he wrote Love Actually from all his unused ideas. Just threw them into the oven and baked them together. To some degree, it shows. Unlike the usual big cast films, with lots of incidental meetings and relationships (as P.T. Anderson wrote, these things “happen all the time”), Love Actually is very loose. The characters are connected by thin contrivances and a school play. Curtis is very visibly not working with themes here or making any insightful observations into the human condition.

Amusingly, though its thesis is… well, love is all around and people in love are filled with superhuman perseverance and fortitude, Love Actually… actually disproves its own thesis. In a couple ways. The most visible is the breaking marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson. Rickman’s got a wandering eye and, strangely, Curtis never tells the viewer how wrong he goes… which means it’s impossible to know where he or Thompson are at the end of the film. It’s intentional and cheap and, if either character were particularly effective–except the Thompson composing herself to Joni Mitchell scene–it would hurt the film. The second is more discreet. An utterly wasted Laura Linney is caring for her mentally ill brother. And how does she end up? How does Mr. Right respond to this news? By being a twerp. Curtis seems to have noticed too, because he just abandons Linney at the end.

Of all the stories–there are, I guess, eight–the most effective (as in, worthy of feature length treatment… something other big cast, lots of story line films never suggest) are Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon and Colin Firth and Lúcia Moniz.

The Grant and McCutcheon story is awesome–Grant’s the new prime minister, she serves him tea. It’s got Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters, it’s McCutcheon’s wonderful delivery of unintentional curses; it’s touching and their chemistry is wonderful. Throw in some more political turmoil and it’s a feature.

Firth and Moniz–he’s a lovelorn thriller novelist and she’s his maid (he’s in France writing, which looks incredibly civilized)–have a bit more comedic story going. Neither speaks the other’s language and, while the humor’s cheap, it’s very funny. Firth’s perfect in the role. So, figure he has a funny editor waiting for the novel and a family who would like a Portuguese daughter-in-law. Another feature.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, it’s hard to tell how it’d be much different), Curtis cheaps out big time on the Liam Neeson bonding with his stepson following the mother’s death. It’s the best work Neeson has done in years, but the story quickly becomes about the kid impressing a girl at school and Curtis gives Neeson the biggest copout ending in the world.

I suppose Bill Nighy, in a crazy, hilarious performance as an old rock star deserves his own paragraph but he’s not going to get one. The Nighy story is great, giving the film some much needed texture (the other characters watching Nighy on TV, for instance, ring a lot truer than the convenient school musical). There’s a lot more stuff, both funny and not so much (Curtis frequently confuses sincerely touching and melodramatic).

It’s a solid film, lots of problems, lots of good things, but it’s very unambitious. I’m left wanting more Firth and Moniz, more Grant and McCutcheon and… a) unlike Curtis’s other romantic comedies, it’s a weeding to see either again and b) I really shouldn’t be wanting them. It’s just another sign the film is not a successful ensemble picture, it’s just a bunch of disparate elements, good and not so good, strung awkwardly together.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Michael Coulter; edited by Nick Moore; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Jim Clay; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Duncan Kenworthy; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Alan Rickman (Harry), Bill Nighy (Billy Mack), Colin Firth (Jamie), Emma Thompson (Karen), Hugh Grant (The Prime Minister), Laura Linney (Sarah), Liam Neeson (Daniel), Martine McCutcheon (Natalie), Heike Makatsh (Mia), Rowan Atkinson (Rufus), Lúcia Moniz (Aurelia), Martin Freeman (John), Joanna Page (Just Judy), Andrew Lincoln (Mark), Keira Knightley (Juliet) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Peter).


Extreme Measures (1996, Michael Apted)

Thanks to a frantic trip through the New York skyline and Danny Elfman’s familiar score, Extreme Measures’s opening credits play like an unused Batman sequel opening… until the two naked guys run out on to the street. It’s an odd opening (and the naked guys and their plight are compelling enough one forgets Elfman until his credit comes up… then the opening makes more sense).

Strangely, Elfman quickly shifts gears and turns in a reasonable thriller score. Apted’s a great thriller director too–there’s one particular sequence I found myself getting agitated while watching, even though it’s perfectly clear the movie is not going to have some twist ending. In fact, the film gets off to a really unique start and keeps a solid quality pace until the resolution turns out to be a twenty minute, real time sequence. Really drags the movie down.

The reason for Extreme Measures being so damn peculiar is Hugh Grant. I’m not sure if he’s changed lately, but during his 1990s rise, Grant was actually rather unique–every movie, he played a variation on his Four Weddings and a Funeral performance. Had his British accent, that tight smile, the goofy hair. Extreme Measures is like watching some guy who ought to be bickering with Sandra Bullock instead get chased around by crazed FBI agent David Morse (Morse is fine playing a… crazed FBI agent, but I hate seeing him wasted in shallow roles). It’s hilarious and it really does work well for a thriller.

Unfortunately, besides Grant, the cast is questionable. Some of the problems stem from it being a thriller and everyone being a suspect, so there isn’t the opportunity for good character relationships (though a nice, lengthy build-up to a betrayal scene would not have hurt–however, Sarah Jessica Parker is terrible and the betrayal scene might have been centered around her and… it would have instead been awful). It wasn’t until the middle I realized there wasn’t going to be a romance between Parker and Grant. Then I realized it maybe wasn’t even giving the impression there was going to be one. I just assumed; it wasn’t so much anything in the movie, rather Parker was supposed to be playing a regular person… except, regardless of acting talent, Parker is a movie star… which probably made her performance even worse.

Gene Hackman is sort of around–I remember he was revealed as the villain in the trailer and it wouldn’t have been possible to show him as anything else. All of his scenes suggest great villainy and he’s a lot of fun when he’s being the villain, it’s when he supposed to be human too. Doesn’t work, makes Extreme Measures seem unaware of its place as a straight thriller with incredibly goofy aspects.

Bill Nunn’s in it a bit and he’s good, so is John Toles-Bey, so is Paul Guilfoyle. The ending’s failure could have been easily averted, but since Grant’s character actually had very little visual to lose or fight for (he’s doing it because he believes in being a doctor) there’s a bit of a quandary. But the ending they went with simply didn’t work following the twenty minute sequence. They sped the film up and then slowed it too suddenly. They needed to give things actual time to sit; instead the ending feels forced and empty.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Apted; written by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Michael Palmer; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Doug Kraner; produced by Elizabeth Hurley; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Hugh Grant (Dr. Guy Luthan), Gene Hackman (Dr. Lawrence Myrick), Sarah Jessica Parker (Jodie Trammel), David Morse (Frank Hare), Bill Nunn (Burke), Paul Guilfoyle (Dr. Jeffrey Manko) and John Toles-Bey (Bobby).


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