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Ulee's Gold

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Ulee's Gold

Starring: Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson
Director: Victor Nunez
Rated: R
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: June 1997
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Christine Dunford, Tom Wood, Jessica Biel, Vanessa Zima, Steven Flynn

Review by Jerry Saravia
No Rating Supplied

The late 60's and early 70's were arguably the most influential and revolutionary years of personal filmmaking in history. Therefore, there must be something said for the long-lost actors of that time who are suddenly popping out now and reinventing themselves. John Travolta is the most phenomenal of the 70's artifacts because he has come back stronger and better than ever. Peter Fonda is not really an icon (unless you consider his "Easy Rider" role to be one) but for the first time in twenty years, he gives a performance of such subtlety and strength that I became deeply overwhelmed.

"Ulee's Gold" stars Fonda as Ulee Jackson, a Florida beekeeper who is trying to hold a dysfunctional family together. He is a Vietnam veteran whose wife died several years ago, and now he has two granddaughters at home, a son in jail, and his bees to take care of. Ulee's older granddaughter is a brash teenager who wants her life to be separate from their supposed family circle - she truly hates her mother for having left them. Ulee's jailed son begs him to pick up his sick, drugged wife (Christine Dunford) in Orlando since he's hoping to be out soon to join his family. Ulee is hesitant at first because she fled from her kids and has left him to raise them - Ulee is a righteous person who has shielded himself from others even society (not unlike his daughter-in-law). Trouble is coming his way, though, when his son's thieving partners are searching for a stash of money hidden in Ulee's bee farm.

"Ulee's Gold" is written and directed by Victor Nunez ("Ruby in Paradise"), and as long as he sticks to Ulee's loss of love and mixed feelings about his family, the film is genuinely heartbreaking. However, when the rotten thieves show up packing pistols and molesting Ulee's older granddaughter, the film stops and doesn't quite recover. This whole subplot is meant to show Ulee's redemption and while it isn't manipulative, sentimental or sensational, it isn't particularly engaging or interesting either. The screenplay spends too much time dealing with these lowlifes in a been-there-done-that atmosphere. The moment where Ulee kicks the thieves' gun into the pond rather than shooting them with it is a moment of pure humanity but it is too brief to resonate. The rest of the film teeters on the melodramatic whereas the tightly structured first half of the film relied on simple human observation as its tactic.

The best moments in "Ulee's Gold" are the quiet ones: Ulee extracting honey from the bees in his workshop; his delicate bedtime stories with his innocent younger granddaughter (Vanessa Zima) who is inquisitive about her mother's condition; his developing relationship with a caring nurse (Patricia Richardson); the bitterness between Ulee and his son in the prison scenes; and even the scenes where Ulee tries to reason with the thieves claiming they've done him "a world of good."

"Ulee's Gold" is fluidly directed by Nunez, and beautifully performed especially Fonda who brings a gleam and sense of regret in his eyes that is as pure as gold (he was nominated for an Oscar). Kudos must also go to Christine Dunford (should have been nominated) who is riveting to watch as she struggles through her self-destructive, drug-induced convulsions to becoming a mature woman and responsible mother who is full of regret as well. The dichotomy between Ulee and his daughter-in-law unmistakably presents them as people analogous in their loss of love and emotions. If the film stuck to these vivid, three-dimensional characters, it would have been a masterpiece. As it is, "Ulee's Gold" is only half of a great film, and ends abruptly just as the story starts to get more interesting.

Copyright 1997 Jerry Saravia

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