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Review: 'Ulee's Gold' outshines blockbuster pack

Ulee's Gold

June 20, 1997
Web posted at: 6:55 p.m. EDT (2255 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I lived in Gainesville, Florida from about 1985 to 1990, and often heard the name Victor Nuñez bandied about in what (at that time) passed for the state's independent film community. Nuñez was something of a folk hero there, having managed to make two small but very well-received films, "Gal Young 'Un" and "A Flash of Green" (the latter starring Ed Harris.) These films showed that he had the chops to proceed to bigger and better things, but over the course of the last few years, Nuñez has made an interesting decision -- he's gotten better, but has refused to let his stories get needlessly "bigger."

"Ulee's Gold," starring Peter Fonda as a haunted, serenely self-possessed beekeeper, is one of the best movies of the year, and proof positive that the size of Nuñez's heart can amply compensate for his downscale production technique. This is not quite an independent film. Director (and native Floridian) Jonathan Demme helped Nuñez secure his relative pittance of a budget from Orion Pictures. "Ulee's Gold" is, however, an example of what American independent films promised to be before almost everyone started making "Pulp Fiction"-esque audition reels for the major studios. Quiet, measured, character-oriented, and focused on succinct storytelling, Nuñez and company are not concerned with outrunning fireballs or (on the other end of the cliché spectrum) kissing in the rain. I haven't gotten this lost in a film in months.

Fonda plays Ulee Jackson, a near-hermit who is left to raise his two granddaughters after their father is thrown in jail for robbery and their mother disappears into the Florida night. When we first meet this splintered family, they seem to have been together for quite some time. Casey, the oldest daughter (played by Jessica Bell) is a rebellious teen-ager with more than a little bit of contempt for her nuts-and-bolts grandfather.

One of Nuñez's gifts as a writer is that he chooses not to spell out the "pre-film" lives of his characters. We can determine for ourselves what the cause of this split between Ulee and his granddaughter might be, just as we can imagine what Ulee went through as the only surviving member of his unit in Vietnam. Anyone else would have Ulee waking up in a cold sweat from a hellish 'Nam flashback, but Nuñez prefers to have Fonda walk with a slight limp. The clear-minded way he responds to dangerous situations will tell us all we need to know about why Ulee made it out of the jungle alive.

Scenes from "Ulee's Gold"
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Movie clip: 1.1MB/30 sec. QuickTime movie
Full trailer: 4.1MB/1:52 QuickTime movie

Ulee's "gold" is the prized honey he bottles for a living (Van Morrison fans will appreciate that he calls it "Tupelo Honey." Song over credits.) Again, we learn volumes about the man just by watching him work with his bees -- the gentle way that he shakes them away from the honey, the single-minded labor he puts into bottling it. Fonda is very good, looking more like his father's Man of the Land with every passing year. One can sense Ulee continually wrestling with his grief over a wife who died six years earlier, as well as with the knowledge that his son never wanted any part of his supposedly outdated, defiantly clear-sighted dignity.

The bulk of the film deals with Ulee's grudging attempt to save his drug-addicted daughter-in-law (Christine Dunford.) His jailbird son (Tom Wood) begs him to journey to Orlando, find her, and take her back home with him. The only problem is that the son's partners in crime (sleazy-to-the-max Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber) have her in their possession, and are after some money that the son hid before being thrown into prison. These small-timers proceed to embroil Ulee in the plan to recover the stolen dough. This sounds a whole lot more redundantly movie-ish than it actually plays. Nuñez handles small-time crime like small-time crime, as opposed to the kind of hyperkinetic posturing that a pointed gun ignites in most studio films. Just like real life, everyone in the film works for a living. As violent and mean-spirited as they may get about how to proceed, Flynn and Weber's simple-minded characters are trying to make a living the best way they know how.

Nuñez's last film, "Ruby in Paradise," contains a performance by Ashley Judd that verges on a revelation, my vote for the best work by an actress in the 1990s. Though no one here approaches Judd's level of clarity, the performances are uniformly fine, and, once again, mercifully understated. Dunford is solid as the addict, with her withdrawal being the most harrowing scene in the movie. Her terrified (and newly reunited) family tying her to the bed with twisted-up sheets while she thrashes against her demons is heartbreaking. Also on hand is "Home Improvement"'s Patricia Richardson as a neighbor who starts to grow close to the instinctively secretive Ulee.

With the recent glut of barely-realized foolishness that the studios have been feeding us, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to see a truly affecting movie again. Kudos to Jonathan Demme and Orion Pictures for allowing Victor Nuñez to realize his reserved vision. I certainly hope it doesn't take him another four years to do it again.

"Ulee's Gold" contains some rough language, scenes of drug withdrawal, and a couple of menacing situations. Not for children, or childish adults, for that matter. Rated R. 120 minutes.


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