Sometimes a man's true strength lies in his power to grow from the forces that sting the heart and cut deep into the soul. Peter Fonda (Wanda Nevada, Killer Force), in the performance of his career, received a Best Actor Golden Globe and a Best Actor Oscar® nomination for his portrayal of a man who escapes one war only to find himself at battle with an even greater enemy - his wounded spirit. Third-generation Florida beekeeper Ulee Jackson (Fonda) may have gotten out of Vietnam alive, but he left a part of himself behind. Now he methodically tends his bees, carefully provides for those who need him, and vigilantly keeps his emotions at bay. But when both his family and livelihood are threatened by a long-buried secret, Ulee must break through his emotional walls, find the strength to change, and begin life anew. Writer and Director Victor Nunez (Ruby in Paradise) directed this gut-wrenching drama with a fine cast that includes Patricia Richardson (TV s Home Improvement), Tom Wood (The Fugitive, U.S. Marshals) and Jessica Biel (The A-Team, The Illusionist).
Most people don't remember Victor Nunez's film 'Ulee's Gold', which came out as recently as 1997, but this film is probably Nunez's best film to date as well as one of Peter Fonda's best roles of his career. Not only was 'Ulee's Gold' the centerpiece selection for Sundance, but the film was nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes, as well as for several others, mostly for Peter Fonda's work in the film.
The movie is a slow-burn drama about an older, stubborn man who is forced to take care of his granddaughters, where their mother is going thru a severe detox from drugs and their dad is spending time in prison. There are a ton of moments here where things could wander into the cheesy realm and cliched moments that could've plagued this movie, but instead, Nunez avoids all those usual tropes and focuses on each character's subtle reactions and emotions to take care of these bigger family issues, as well as, show the character development of a seemingly bitter old man set in his ways, who becomes the life of the family.
The film mostly follows a man named Ulee (Peter Fonda), who lives in central Florida and is a beekeeper by trade. The gold in the title of the film is the honey that the bees produce. Ulee is haunted by his terrible memories from his time in the Vietnam War. Not only that, he is a widow, his son is in prison, and his daughter-in-law has been recently found after being missing, and under the strong influence of major drugs. Ulee's granddaughters Casey (Jessica Biel) and Penny (Vanessa Zima) have to see their mother in this horrible state, as Ulee tries to raise them.
Casey is the older sister, who is more rebellious than anything, while young Penny is always by Ulee's side and very interested in the beekeeping business. Meanwhile, two thugs that were associated with Ulee's son in prison, threaten Ulee and his family, unless he tells them where his son hid a box full of money. Luckily for Ulee, his new next door neighbor Connie (Patricia Richardson from 'Home Improvement') is a nurse and can help out with his daughter-in-law, while Ulee tends to his grandkids and keeps them safe.
With thugs, stolen money, threats, and bees, you might think this could dive into the thriller category, but it doesn't really, with the exception of some very mild violence. Instead, we watch as Ulee slowly realizes what he has to do in order to change and keep his family on top and provide for them with the upcoming honey harvest. In addition, he has to deal with two thugs who are dangerous and willing to do anything to get that box of hidden money. What Nunez does so well is that he shows just how cool and calm Ulee can be with the never ending obstacles and problems thrown in his way, and how he uses his honey business to keep things in check and grounded for his family.
Fonda plays Ulee extremely well, never going over board with the character. He has an undeniable cool about him at all times and a heart of gold. His emotions and struggles are all to real on screen and comes across very well. Patricia Richardson also turns in an excellent performance and makes me wonder why she never branched out into the drama realm, but kept at the laugh-track sitcoms. 'Ulee's Gold' is a thin slice of gold in my opinion, and hopefully it garners more recognition.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ulee's Gold' comes with a 50GB Blu-ray Disc from Kino Lorber that is Region A locked. The disc is housed in a hard, blue plastic case with no insert or digital download code.
Ulee's Gold' comes with a 1080p HD transfer from Kino Lorber and is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, even though the box says 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot on 16mm and never achieves that ultra sharp or vivd detail that we would see from a film that came out in 1997. The overall image has a soft look to it, no matter if it's a closeup shot or a wider shot that showcases the southern locations. You won't be able to make out a ton of facial lines or individual hairs really, but certain closeups that are well lit will showcase some light detail.
Wider shots are also fairly soft, which doesn't give the film a whole lot of visual depth. Colors look realistic for the most part, but are never striking or bold. There are a lot of earthy tones here that seem a tiny bit muted. Black levels are deep and inky for the most part and the skin tones are natural looking. There was some evidence of dirt and debris here and there with some minor video noise, but it wasn't anything to write home about. This video presentation doesn't look ultra clear, but it gets the job done.
This release comes with a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix and is on the quiet side. Don't expect a loud, robust, explosive soundscape here, because that's not what this film is all about. The music of the film is where the spotlight is at, as it flows evenly and nicely through the front speakers. It never drowns out any dialogue or sound effects.
Dialogue is rather soft, which you might need to turn up the volume louder than normal to follow everything that is being said here. Again, this is a rather quiet film, but the dialogue is clear sounding, just a tiny bit soft. The sound effects are natural and clean, which add to the ambient noises of the south in the exterior scenes. Just don't expect to be fully immersed in the film as far as the sound is concerned.
Peter Fonda Soundbites (SD, 3 Mins.) - Peter Fonda discusses his work on the film and with his fellow actors and filmmakers in this promo piece for the movie.
Patricia Richardson Soundbites (SD, 3 Mins.) - That his Patricia talking about her work on the film as well as well as her character and theme of the movie.
B-Roll Footage (SD, 7 Mins.) - This is a few minutes of watching the director and actors at work, staging the scenes and rehearsing on set.
Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) - Trailer for the film is included here.
'Ulee's Gold' is a complex tale that you've seen before, but never like this. Nunez takes this storyline and makes it more of a character study about a stubborn old man, who must change in order to save his family. Sure, this is an aspect that could have gone into the action or thriller genre, but Nunez keeps things grounded and focused on the central characters, which are all excellent. It's nice to see a film do this from time to time, in keeping the characters front and center and their transformation, rather than explosive action sequences. The video and audio presentations are both decent, but not great, and the extras are interesting, but brief. 'Ulee's Gold' comes recommended strictly for the film itself.