Charming. Magical. Touching.
Under the Tuscan Sun is a tastefully assembled film about empowerment, self-discovery, coping with grief, and learning to embrace the gifts of joy Life brings your way. While Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is the protagonist, and the story explores issues relating to her relationship with romantic partners, friends, and self, please don't be misled and categorize this film as a "feminist" movie. That would be far too limiting. Director, Producer, and Screenplay Writer Audrey Wells is too smart for that. She's constructed her story around the circumstances of Mayes' life journey, but she's wisely painted a picture with a sense of dimensionality that revolves around a deeper human experience that touches each and every one of us -- male and female (or other) alike. Indeed had the protagonist of this film been a man, no one would consider ascribing specified "maleness" to his experiences. Neither is Well's forwarding a gender-tailored agenda through her expression of the character of Frances Mayes. This story is about people -- and the human spirit. I should add that neither is she communicating a political message of "gayness" or racial diversity...despite what may seem to some to be a rather forward use of gay and/or racially diverse characters. Wells is presenting you with characters rich in diversity to be sure, but not for diversity's sake. In the world of Under the Tuscan Sun, Fate is blind to gender, sexual orientation, race, or class distinction, and tries to teach us to be the same. Thank you Audrey.
Audrey Wells' decision to alter the story somewhat from the written novel to focus less on "things" (food, decorating, furniture) and more on lives was a good one. What impressed me most with Under the Tuscan Sun is Wells' ability to, on the one hand, deliver a story that is wondrous and typified with magical moments, while at the same time walking us through circumstances, struggles, and celebrations that are remarkably real and seem to pull from our inner-selves, enabling us to empathize on a variety of levels. Yet another reason to respect this film -- Wells' resists each opportunity that is presented to her to give "quick answers" to complex questions. If you haven't already seen Under the Tuscan Sun then please do not read any further but instead skip to the "Picture Quality" section. No reason to have part of the magic of experiencing this beautiful film spoiled by exposition.
Is Mayes' trip to Tuscany and rash decision to purchase a small villa a manifestation of her desire to escape? Or is it the expression of her bold attempt to embrace life and stare face-to-face with her fears? Is friendship being honest even when it hurts or accepting those we love just as they are? When your heart says "Yes!" does fate reward your sincerity? When Mayes' realtor falls deeply in love with her, is the "right" choice to seize the moment and make love to Mayes or to sacrifice his own passion and pleasure and maintain his loyalty to his family -- choosing to content himself with a friendship with the woman he truly loves but can never come together with as one? The integrity of this genuine love is a stronger force in this film than the rewards of romantic pursuits, and it is this "twist" that elevates this film to such a special place among its peers. In fact, in my opinion, the most powerful and moving moment in this film is so unassuming that it almost appears to pass by unnoticed...when this man tells her during the wedding celebration that her wishes have all come true; the purity of heart expressed in that moment is sublime - something seldom seen in "movies" these days.
Life often answers our prayers in ways that are indiscernible and unappreciated until an unexpected moment brings them into view. A beautiful message conveyed through this unassuming "romantic comedy" -- Under the Tuscan Sun.
Color is the primary ingredient of Wells' superb visual directing. The presence of intensity of colors steer us through the story, and create a sort of "visual score" not unlike the musical one. Flowers are a key theme and the strong golds of sunflower petals and the crimson blossoms of the bougainvillea vines shine through on this DVD vibrantly. Deep ocean blues, rich hillside greens, glowing garden reds glow vividly, yet colors never bleed or appear oversaturated. At times the colors in this film remind me of "old time Technicolor" movies which dazzled audiences with more-than-natural hues.
Detail on this DVD is good, perhaps even above average, but at times seems to be leaving just a bit to be desired. The overall impression of the picture (both on my direct-view 16x9 monitor and on my friend's Sony 10HT projector) is a generally softly rendered image. I have no idea what measure of this softness is a result of DVD mastering and what degree may be a reflection of the film-source material itself (I have not seen Under the Tuscan Sun projected theatrically on film). I have no difficulty believing that at least some softness is faithful to the "look" intended for this film. However, I can't help but feel that part of what I'm sensing is mild case of high-frequency filtering in the electronic domain intended to aid in compression efficiency. I say that because in addition to a mild softness there is some visible ringing around sharply defined objects (like the footboard of the iron bed) which is something often applied by studios attempting to "sharpen up" an image that they've robbed of a bit of real resolution. As is often the case, close-ups of characters in sharp-focus appear loaded with detail...though my experience with HD sources tells me that despite the usual "how could it look any better?" thought that goes through my head...a real HD transfer would have little difficulty showing me .
After what may have read like a depressing paragraph, let me balance out my comments by assuring you that my impression of the image on this disc...even projected large-scale and viewed at a @1.75 screen-width distance, was of an image that was satisfyingly "film like" and appeared detailed enough to convince me that overall I was experiencing something very close to a legitimate "film" experience.
Compression noise seems to be at a minimum and most of the "noise" I seemed to encounter in the image appeared to be analog film-grain (which if you've read any of my other reviews, you know is *not* a bad thing ). Black levels appear strong and contrast/shadow detail seem accurate.
Just a tad more detail and a tad less ringing would have made the image on this DVD "perfect" in my eyes.
Picture: 4.5 / 5
Gorgeous. I want to say that again: The 5.1 score to this film is GORGEOUS. The musical score is rich and full-bodied and is conveyed with an excellent sense of depth and dimensionality that makes your sound system...speakers included...disappear. Frequency response is natural and extended. Airy highs and solid bass are delivered without any hint of strain. Over and over again I kept finding myself marveling at how beautiful the score sounded in this 5.1 mix. Not a "pull you out of the movie" distraction so please don't read it that way...but a feeling of "aahhhhh" that is rewarding enough that you think to yourself "why can't more DVDs sound like this?".
Vocals are very well recorded -- easy to understand, natural, and never harsh-sounding. Surround use is also above-average for a movie of this genre with many musical-acoustics and environmental sounds placed effectively in the rears. The result is a balanced, supportive, and seamless use of the rear channel to enforce the on-screen action. Naturally one should not interpret my comments to assume that this is the "demo disc" to show off whizzing bullets and 360 degree explosions to your buddies after the Super bowl...
Sound: 5/ 5
A very nice bounty of extras which I'm growing accustomed to expecting from Buena Vista titles these days...
- [*]Commentary: Audrey Wells treats us to a better-than-average commentary track. I think this is the case for two reasons. Firstly, the "what" of this commentary mix offers a nice balance of after-the-fact insights, trivia regarding filming difficulties, disclosures of on-set curiosities and illuminating reasons behind various story device or filming choices. But in addition to good *content*, the talent of Audrey Wells the "writer" comes through in the way she phrases things and the insightful level of depth she reveals as she articulates her understanding of film, story, and the human condition.
I'm not sure about you, but often I find myself somewhat disappointed in commentaries as the mystery and aura I've imagined around the director or writer seem to evaporate as they just "talk" like normal people about their movies. Where I expected there to be something brilliant, instead there was something mundane. Or when I expected to learn the carefully crafted intention behind a particularly masterful scene, I discover that the moving result was achieved by chance to the director's surprise.
Wells is a true artist and her commentary led me on a path of continuing appreciation. Not only are her insights and thoughts solid and sound, but her eloquent speech style is a pleasure to hear. Wells' words in this commentary are as respectable a work of art as the film that she describes. The art of speech is something generally lost in modern American Culture and I'm refreshed to find that there are bastions holding fast preserving it...Audrey Wells is an active and participating member.
Near the final scene, Wells' tells us that it's no weakness that comedies turn out as expected. After all...it's that happy and expected ending that garners it that label. But what makes a comedy *good* is the *way* it gets you there. I quite agree.
[*][b]Deleted Scenes: Honestly I'm starting to get depressed when I screen these discs and discover deleted scenes that clearly would have added strength, depth, and continuity to the film from which they were cut. Why oh why can't we have a "directors cut" where these scenes (only the ones appropriate for the task, obviously) are placed back into the feature film? Scenes that are cut for "real" reasons like the flow of the film, pacing, or distraction are not what I'm talking about. But so often I discover *treasures* in the deleted-scene section that clearly were cut to satisfy a running-time agenda set forth by more commercial interests. The deleted scene "Discovering the Fresco" is one such scene. Audrey...if just for me...can you splice together some scraps of film so I can watch this movie again with that beautiful scene inserted right back where it belongs?
[*][b]Making-Of Featurette: A nice behind-the-scenes/making of featurette that you'll enjoy watching but probably not feel the need to watch ever time you play the disc. Wells shares some insights here that are also worth hearing that are not duplicated in the commentary (though there might be a tad bit of overlap in a few instances).
I'll say it again.
Charming. Magical. Touching.
Under the Tuscan Sun shares these qualities with what I would consider to be its sister films like Enchanted April, Fried Green Tomatoes, or the Accidental Tourist (Please don't work too hard to try to make direct comparisons between these films -- I only mean to try to describe for you how Under the Tuscan Sun feels to me. Your individual mileage may vary of course).
My enthusiasm can tend to make movies sound over-rated so please stay calm and don't set sail for that deserted island with your DVD of Under the Tuscan Sun in-hand just yet. But I do feel that this film was vastly underrated by critics when released and I wouldn't be doing it, or you, justice if I didn't tell you that I do consider it quite a keeper. If you get a charge out of movies that aren't shy about trying to elicit your emotions to join in the fun or enjoy movies like Fried Green Tomatoes or Enchanted April, you owe it to yourself to give Under the Tuscan Sun two hours of play-time in your home-theater.