review by Zach B.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For Sexual Content and Language)
Running Time: 113 minutes
Starring: Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Lindsay Duncan, Raoul Bova
Screen Story and Screenplay
by: Audrey Wells
Directed by: Audrey Wells
Retail Price: $29.99
Features: Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Audrey Wells, Deleted Scenes, Tuscany 101, Sneak Peeks
Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (14 Scenes)
Released: February 3rd, 2004
Loosely based on the best-selling book (also entitled "Under The Tuscan Sun"), Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is a writer based in San Fransisco who seems to have a pretty steady life. But when she learns her husband is having an affair, a divorce comes with that and Frances is pretty much left with nothing. When she is offered a trip to Tuscany by her best friend (Sandra Oh) and her partner, Frances declines but then jumps at the chance. Facing a much more simple and beautiful kind of life in Italy, Frances ends up buying an old house in the village impulsively. It's a fixer-upper, but she does not seem to mind. The people Frances meets help change her life for the better with their hospitality and warmth - and she even helps her new friends too. Yet through it all, Frances' ends up getting much more than she realized with her random purchase - and it's all for the better.
There's a lot of life-affirming themes in "Under The Tuscan Sun" that are not hard to relate to or appreciate. While writer and director Audrey Wells is guilty of the obvious and hitting the audience over the head with what her film has to say, it's forgiveable because she says it all rather well. Beyond the yellow flowers, the blue vase, the broken faucet, the man with the flowers and the metaphor of the house Frances buys and fixes up links to her cleaning up her own life, Wells makes her film shine through with honesty and a lot of sincerity. There aren't any corny moments or scenes that manipulate the audience - there are rays of pure emotion that embrace the audience.
Yet the strongest aspect of Wells' work is how she nails and what she nails what life is all about. Beyond the people Frances meets and possibilities for romance, the heart of the story is really about unique opportunities and unexpected things happen with new beginnings. Frances takes an odd risk when she buys the house, and it leads her to so many other times to take chances. She is usually skeptical or reluctant, but if often leads to great things and some hard lessons. Essentially, life is really like this - anybody can tell you that.
The film is also about waiting. Not just for certain chances, but how some serious matters are more important than other serious matters (such as Frances helping her dumped, pregnant best friend who comes to stay deal with her crisis instead of pursing a possible love interest). We have to decide in life what is really important to us and get our priorties in order. It's true that we can't wait for some things and must grab hold of them as quickly as possible, but sometimes we really have no choice and those things pass us by. But usually, better things do come along. And "Under The Tuscan Sun" gives good examples of the whole waiting dilemma - life can be tricky, can't it?
Wells' screenplay is the epitome of a conventional romantic comedy even if it runs a bit more deep. Other than the life life lessons, there are some sad moments that touch but there is quite a bit of humor too. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but there are some scenes and lines that made me chuckle and others that made me smile. Wells knows how to structure and develop her story well - there are clever foreshadows and most of the characters are fleshed out to some degree. However, the film remains rather familiar and predictable.
This is only the second feature Wells has directed, but she's proving to be a real talent behind the camera (in addition to her writing). She moves her story along at a very good pace and as mentioned, hits the right notes so her story has the maximum impact on the audience. Also to her credit, Wells makes this movie a pure escapist trip that extends into many a romantic's fantasy - I'm sure a lot of you out there would love to move to Tuscany, buy a house, live a much different live and find love (the movie really makes you want to do that when it's all over or at least dream about that a lot more). A lot of this is brought about by Wells, renowned production designer Stephen McCabe and her director of photography, Geoffrey Simpson (oddly enough, these are the only crew members who were not based in Italy). With a lot of extraordinary shots of Italian places - the markets, the villages and the people themselves - it's hard not to get transported there and feel lost within it all. This is a film that not only looks authentic, but really feels authentic - and it's hard not to get trapped by that.
Well has also surrounded herself with some excellent acting talent. The always amazing Diane Lane once again shows how versatile of an actress she is - the character of Frances is a perfect fit for her since it entails some comedy but a lot of strong human emotions. While Lane's character is not as intense as Connie Summers (in fact there is no sense in comparing them since the roles are a bit different), Lane gets to show off a whole set of emotions from depression to complete happiness. Lane shows vulnerability, but remains rather earthy and really inhabits the character and is one-hundred percent believable. Lane has passion to spare and really knows how to bring across her lines and emotions seamlessly. Lane has always been a natural actress, and this performance is further proof (and for what it's worth, it was nominated for a Golden Globe).
Lane finds strong support though. The submersive and often underused Sandra Oh was a fine choice to play Frances' best friend. Lindsay Duncan does not overact but is pretty fun as a bizarre actress in Italy that Frances becomes friends with, while Raoul Bova is a charming suitor. The rest of the supporting cast is uniformally great, while on a different note, Christophe Beck provides a warm, gliterring score that is right on target for the film.
Overally, I found "Under The Tuscan Sun" to be satisfying and there's a lot to take away from it. I wouldn't exactly call the film fluffy, and it does a lot right, but the story's dynamics rather simple and don't not break any new ground - viewers might experience feelings of "been there, done that." Still, it's an enjoyable film and I liked it overall - and it's not the type of movie meant to win awards. It's very solid, crowd-pleasing entertainment with a lot to like (it's also nice to see Lane's star on the rise again). So if any of this sounds appealing or romantic to you, by all means go under the Tuscan sun - you probably won't want to leave.
"Under The Tuscan Sun" is being released in two versions: full screen and widescreen. Of course, you should definitely go with the widescreen - in this case it is given an anamorphic transfer in the film's aspect ratio of 1.85:1. With it, you'll get all the beautiful shots of glorious, scenic Italy that look marvelous on this transfer. With the exception of some noise, edge halos and a few blemishes, everything about the image is perfect. Fleshtones are great, detail is wonderful, there is no edge enhancment and colors are well saturated and vibrant. The glorious blues of the ocean, the sandy hues that make up Italy or the bright yellows, this transfer really brings to life the film's lovely visual glory and really takes you where Frances goes. Well done.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty standard and given what this movie is, that's perfect and was pretty much what I was expecting. The film has a few robust moments to highlight surrounds (the big lightning storm, things going awry in the house Frances fixes up) and those sound quite good and feature good use of the subwoofer. Otherwise, most surrounds are quiet (talking in the background, people walking) but can be pretty effective. Dialogue is crystal clear and there are no problems hearing it, while Christophe Beck's charming score spreads through the speakers well. For a romantic comedy, all of this will do. Also included are subtitles in English and Spanish, English closed captioning plus a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
Not too loaded, the DVD does offer a few things though that should please those who like the movie. First up is a very informative Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Audrey Wells. I am actually a big fan of Ms. Wells' work (she did the little-seen "Guinivere" and wrote the family film "The Kid"). Wells is very soft-spoken, and while at times it seems like she is reading notes or something, she keeps on talking and gives off a lot of interesting facts about the film. She touches on that pretty much all of the film was actually shot in Italy (yes, that means the San Fransisco scenes were filmed there), the actors (there is lots of praise for Ms. Lane), how she crafted Frances Mayes' book into her own and more conventional story and gives some interesting comments into the nature of the script. This is a very good commentary that is pretty accessible, and those who decide to stick through it will find it to be worth a listen.
Tuscany 101 is a featurette lasting a bit over nine minutes. It seems a bit standard with the film clips and on-the-set footage, but the interviews with Wells, executive producer Sandy Kroopf, Raoul Bova, Sandra Oh, Pawel Szajda, producer Tom Sternberg, the real Frances Mayes and Diane Lane are above-average (though what Wells says overlaps with some of her comments in the commentary, but that's not bad and was a given). They give a nice context of what the film consists of and some of the film's more noteable moments. Somewhat slight, but nothing bad at all.
There are three Deleted Scenes - "The Singing Contractor," "Discovering The Fresco" and "Clapper Montage." No commentary or intros by Wells, but the scenes don't really add too much to the movie - but given they only add up to two and a half minutes in total, I don't think these would have hurt the movie at all. You can view them one at a time or all at once. They are edited and in non-anamorphic widescreen, but feature timecodes at the top and bottom.
Finally, there are a few Sneak Peeks - trailers for "Hidalgo," "My Boss's Daughter" and "Calendar Girls" can be viewed, as well as a promo for SoapNet and a shoddy looking spot for the soundtrack to "Under The Tuscan Sun." Oh, and you DVD-ROM users can register your DVD.
"Under The Tuscan Sun" is a nice, warm romantic comedy that is satisfying but not as memorable as it could have been. It's definitely worth a rental, and is certainly a worthy purchase if you're a fan of the movie or romantic comedies in general. With an outstanding transfer, strong 5.1 track and a few nice extras, the retail price can easily be justified for those inclined to purchase the DVD. So sit back, relax and then start dreaming of your own fantasy in Tuscany - after watching this movie, it's kind of hard not to.