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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

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1.  Steve Rhodes review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
2.  Walter Frith read the review movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
3.  Jerry Saravia read the review ---

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

Writer and director Victor Nunez's last film was the widely praised but rarely seen RUBY IN PARADISE (1993). His latest picture, ULEE'S GOLD, which stars Peter Fonda in an exquisite performance, seems destined to suffer the same fate. An incredible, but understated character study, it has no special effects and the biggest surprise is the way the story shuns all the popular movie cliches.

Quiet and withdrawn Vietnam veteran Ulee Jackson (Fonda) has the honorable profession of beekeeper. ("The bees and I have an understanding. I take care of them, and they take care of me.") Peter Fonda, looking, sounding, and acting like his father Henry, gives the best performance of his career -- an astounding piece of acting. A complex character who slowly reveals his feelings, but always seems to have even more bottled up inside. From Ulee's troubled eyes down to the methodical way he takes off his glasses, this character burns with some inner rage.

Jaded viewers reading words like "troubled Vietnam vet" and "rage" will probably have already finished the script in their minds, but they will be wrong. This is not a typical film. Set in a working class area of Florida, the fictional story has an authenticity that most movies only dream of.

Ulee takes care of his two grandkids, teenage Casey and 9-year-old Penny, played by Jessica Biel and Vanessa Zima, since their father Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in prison for robbery. Ulee, who always refuses help from outsiders, does his best to raise the girls. Rebellious Casey is almost more than he can handle. "You'll pay for the rest of your life for being a jackass," he warns her as she stomps out of the house. "Yeah, well, it's better than dying of boredom," she screams back at him as she gets into her boyfriend's car.

Prominently featured in the film is the art of beekeeping. Ulee finds solace in the serenity of the bees and satisfaction from the back breaking work. Whereas many shows lose it in the small details, Nunez knows how to get everything right. When Ulee comes in after a hard day lifting the boxes, he takes a nap on the hardwood floor of the dining room. As he awakens, Virgil Mirano's careful camerawork shoots his view looking up seeing the tablecloth and the light above and thus increases the audience's empathy by showing exactly what Ulee's life is like.

Charles Engstrom's music manages to be melancholy without ever being maudlin. As a soft piano tune plays, you become one with the bees and the troubled hero.

One day, Ulee gets a call from Jimmy's two ex-partners in crime, Eddie Flowers (Steven Flynn) and Ferris Dooley (Dewey Weber). They have Jimmy's wife, Helen (Christine Dunford). A druggie, she is in bad shape, and they want Ulee to come and take her away. And, they have something they need to tell Ulee. What little narrative drive this character study has will derive from that conversation, but do not be distracted. The show's bounteous rewards come from the character study of Ulee. The marvelous supporting cast serve mainly to help Ulee reveal himself to us.

Ulee has the good fortune to have recently rented out his nearby cottage to a nurse he calls Miss Hope (Patricia Richardson), but she asks him to call her Connie. He tells her of his beloved wife who died six years ago. "Me, I'm divorced twice," she tells him. "No kids fortunately. I guess, fortunately." As with everything in this realistic story, their relationship moves in sometimes surprising ways and the dialog seems more natural than scripted.

The gripping story, which manages to be both intense and peaceful, eventually comes to a carefully orchestrated and satisfactory conclusion. Well, partially. These characters, like good neighbors, are not the sort you like to lose.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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