27 January 2015

Under the Tuscan Sun (starring Diane Lane)

Every so often Amazon recommends a film to me which I've never heard of before, based on my previous choices. I assume this was one of those; the reviews sounded good, and I added it to my wishlist. It's based on a true biographical book of the same name, by Frances Mayes.

In the film we first meet Frances - played by Diane Lane - at a large reception. She is an American writer, although she’s struggling a bit with her muse and has mostly been writing book reviews. At the reception she gets her first hint that her husband is being unfaithful…

We’re then fast-forwarded through a traumatic period in Frances’ life where her only support seems to be her two closest friends, a lesbian pair, one of whom is expecting a baby. Patti (Sandra Oh) is very believable as her closest friend. Worried about Francis’ growing depression and lack of inspiration, Patti and her partner send her to Italy on a package holiday.

Through a series of coincidences, Frances spots and then buys an extremely run-down villa. She sets to work on the daunting task of getting it repaired and renewed. It’s evidently a metaphor for her life which also needs a great deal of repair and refurbishment; these both gradually happen through the course of the film.

It’s not a lot as far as plot goes; but Frances’ journey is punctuated by a series of interesting people. Some are undoubted caricatures, included for a bit of humour, others are more realistic. The Italian way of life is parodied in a way that feels warm and only a little overdone - and the positive side is shown more than the stereotyped negatives.

'Under the Tuscan Sun' is billed as a romantic comedy but it's far more a ‘coming of age’ story, even though Frances is probably in her thirties. There are several possible men who appear in her life, one of whom becomes a lover - but gradually she realises that she can be her own person without the need of a special guy, or of anyone to approve of her choices. Her deepest wishes can be fulfilled in ways she does not necessarily foresee, and her eventual happiness arises out of her own personality and inner growth.

It was a good film to watch with my husband when we wanted to relax, and not deal with anything complicated. We both like character-based stories, we appreciated the gentle digs at Italian (and American) culture, and we enjoyed the gorgeous scenery. The humour is understated, but we certainly smiled a few times.

This film is rated 15 in the UK, which I think is about right. There’s one ‘moderate’ intimate scene and occasional ‘strong’ language; the story could have been managed with a less explicit scene and yet it’s quite tastefully done. The subject matter and slow pace isn’t likely to be of any interest to younger teenagers anyway.

This film is not for those who like action or complex story-lines; nor for those who take offence at stereotypes. But if you want a gentle character-based story with an attractive backdrop, a strong female lead and occasional light-hearted moments, I would recommend this.

There aren't many extras on the DVD, but we enjoyed the brief documentary about the film and its making. There were three deleted scenes, one of which we thought well have been included, although the final one was a bit silly.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews

03 January 2015

Solstice: The Night Before Christmas (starring Mike Kelley)

I picked this up inexpensively in a charity shop, intrigued both by the title and by the front cover. It claimed to be a Christmas story, rated PG and a double award winner. Sounded ideal...

We thought it would be good to watch at the start of the new year, although we were a little surprised to notice that it was only 47 minutes long. We were even more surprised and a bit disappointed to realise that it was evidently a low budget film, with rather poor sound quality and not the greatest of photography.

Still, the plot seemed promising at first. The main character, Nick (Mike Kelly) is disillusioned by Christmas. He doesn’t want to get in touch with his parents, he hasn’t bought any presents, and he finds carol singers annoying. I didn’t quite understand why his apartment is decorated for Christmas, but it turns out that he recently broke up with his girlfriend. So, as he keeps saying, he’s lost the Christmas spirit.

The story, such as it is, takes place on Christmas Eve and we see Nick through the day, interacting with his colleagues, a few friends and random strangers. He seems a likeable person, who cares about others - and really, that’s the problem. He doesn’t come across as depressed or fed up - just mildly bored.

There’s no real conflict in the film, and nothing much happens. It’s a day-in-the-life cameo of an ordinary guy who eventually finds something that gives him a bit of hope. It’s not schmalzy or exaggerated; nor is it Christian. It doesn't even have anything to do with the Winter Solstice despite the title. It’s also not very interesting. It was obvious that something was going to trigger him to feel a bit better about himself, and there’s quite a nice scene towards the end, although it all looks very dated. It was made in 1994 but it looks like something out of the ‘70s.

I didn’t dislike it. But I can’t imagine wanting to see it again.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's DVD Reviews