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ULEE'S GOLD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Jessica Beil, Christine Dunford
Director:  Victor Nunez
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.66:1, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  113 Minutes                
Release Date:  August 24, 1999

Film ****

Uleeís Gold is a masterful film of quiet revelation.  Itís a film that achieves a sense of power not by unbottling its emotions, nor by restraining them.  It finds a kind of satisfying balance by keeping it at a simmer throughout, so the feelings can be strong without needing to reach a point of exploding. 

Itís about a troubled family, but donít think that the movie unfolds with all the sitcom or prime time drama clichťs.  Writer/director Victor Nunez shows an uncanny understanding of what family problems are really like, and he lets his story unfold with honesty rather than going for the gusto in the usual tired ways.  Jonathan Demmeís name, as producer, may have top billing here, but Nunezís style is more akin to that of Robert Redford, who is famous for allowing his characters the time, the space, and the means to explore and realize their own humanity.

Ulee Jackson (Fonda) lives a quiet life in Florida.  Heís a beekeeper, like his father and grandfather before him.  He leads a somewhat secluded existence, preferring to take care of every problem himself with no outside help.  He has a keen sense of duty and responsibility.  He lives with his two granddaughters.  Basically, heís a simple man, but a rather complex character. 

The film uses the plot line to allow us our insights into the family, when an unexpected call from his son in prison sends Ulee on a quest heíd rather not make.  Turns out, his stepdaughter, and the kidsí mother, is an almost hopeless drug addict who was picked up by a couple of his sonís former associates in crime.  Sheís sick, his son claims.  Reluctantly, and even against the wishes of the elder daughter, Ulee resolves to go get her and bring her home.

But things become increasingly complicated, as the men who are keeping her have a secret agenda of their own.  Theyíre looking for their share of money from a job they did with Uleeís son years back.  Now he has to deal with several unstable elements at onceÖthe criminals, the stepdaughter going through withdrawal that doesnít want help, and the necessary intrusion of a kind nurse (Richardson) living next door, who offers to help care for her.

But the film isnít about the plot.  The plot really exists to serve the characters and the study of their relationships to one another.  The movie doesnít give much explanation as to why they are where they are, nor does it leave a false sense of resolution at the end.  Thatís what I loved most about it.  It doesnít pretend, as most stories do, that itís easily diagnosed why decent kids follow wrong paths that lead to self-destruction.  Itís often a lot more complicated than movies would have you believe.  Itís not always about blame.  Emotional scars run deep, and often never completely heal underneath.  As such, the film instinctively understands that the healing process cannot be completed over the course of a movie timeline.  But it can begin.

Not enough praise can be given to Fonda, whose work in this picture is incredible, and one of the best screen performances of the decade.  He brings amazing life and depth to his character, and does so in beautifully subtle ways.  Most actors playing a role as unassuming as this one would try too hard to constantly convey that something is brimming under the surface.  Fonda expresses it beautifully without indulging in that kind of excess.  Many times, he reminded me of his father, and that made me smile.

But kudos goes also to Patricia Richardson, who achieves a remarkable breakout from her well-known television work to prove that she is an actress of some caliber.  Her scenes with Fonda are perfectly played and honest.  Nothing conventional creeps in to their performances to ruin the spell.

I also enjoy when a film takes me into a world Iíve never been, and in this case, it was the world of the beekeeper.  It was fascinating how the keeper and the bees have such a symbiotic relationship.  The keeper cares for and protects the bees, the bees provide the goods for him to sell.  The events of the story take place at the most crucial time of year for Uleeís profession, when he has to move his bees to a specific floral area to create a special and rare kind of honey, so he ends up having to deal with his familyís situation while this window of opportunity is gradually closing.

I couldnít help but notice at the beginning of the movie how disjointed the credits seemed.  Some names appeared left, some right, some high, some low, and even when there were lists of names, they were never in line or in unison.  I wondered at the time if that meant something.  I also wondered about the symbolism involved in the beesÖfor example, how they sense fear, and how it makes them panic and attack when they ordinarily wouldnít.  I even wondered about the fact that the nurse had the last name of Hope.  But looking back afterwards, I realized that this movie is a lot like life in terms of interpretation of symbols.  Maybe those kinds of things mean something.  Maybe not.  But how we choose to interpret, or not to interpret, canít help but influence our points of view.

Video *

Not counting much older films that have an excuse, this is the poorest transfer Iíve yet seen on DVD.  Itís extremely soft, with a consistent lack of detail.  I actually checked my TV settings while watching it to make sure the sharpness hadnít been adjusted.  The picture is somewhat grainy, with washed out looking color.  Some instances are worse than others, but in certain outdoor scenes, trees donít even seem to have real leaves, but rather globs of dull green smeared across the branches.  Itís a shame, because Florida is a beautiful locale for outdoor filming.  The 1.66:1 aspect ratio also means no anamorphic enhancement.  Maybe the ratio was correct, but I would have preferred to have the image matted down a little further in hopes that a 16x9 treatment would have sharpened up the picture a little bit. 

Audio **

The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, but given the nature of the film, is not very dynamic or remarkable, simply serviceable:  clear dialogue, little to no use of independent signals to the surrounds or .1 channel, and only fair dynamics.

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary: 

Uleeís Gold is gold.  It should be remembered as one of the best films of the 90ís.  Itís smart, well paced, and extremely well acted.  Itís a movie about very real people and very real difficulties, and the unforced, honest way in which their stories are told should win the appreciation of any movie fan.