In Peter Fonda’s last film, 1994’s Nadja, he seemed to be imitating his old easy-riding traveling partner, Dennis Hopper. In his latest, Ulee’s Gold, he resembles his father, Henry Fondabut not because he’s imitating him. He has simply grown up, and slowed down, to the point that the resemblance has become unmistakable.
Fonda’s Ulee Jackson is a widowed grandfather, but he’s not really from the timeless past he seems to inhabit: He served in Vietnam. He’s a taciturn, shabbily dignified beekeeper in northern Florida, where his spiritual neighbors might include the characters in writer/director Victor Nunez’s previous films, notably Gal Young ‘Un and Ruby in Paradise. Regular folks on the wrong side of the American economic divide, Nunez’s Floridians are just holding on, and sometimes fall prey to hustlers. Ulee knows better than that, and so do the two granddaughters he looks after, Penny and Casey (Vanessa Zima and Jessica Biel). But common sense seems to have skipped a generation: Ulee’s son Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in jail after a robbery, and Jimmy’s wife Helen (Christine Dunford), the girls’ mother, has become a drug addict.
At the film’s outset, it’s time for Ulee to relocate the bees that enable him to make his best honey, Tupelo. “The Chinese don’t have anything like our Tupelo,” he quietly boasts, although he knows that most businesses that purchase honey these days are more interested in price than quality. The work’s getting hard for the increasingly creaky Ulee, but he likes to keep to himself. Then Jimmy calls with a complication: Helen has turned up in Orlando, north Florida’s equivalent of Babylon, and Jimmy wants his father to go get her and bring her home.
He reluctantly does, but Helen doesn’t initially appreciate the gesture. Neither do Casey and Perry, who resent their mother for abandoning them. A new neighbor, a nurse named Connie (Patricia Richardson), helps Ulee and the girls deal with Helen’s drug withdrawal, and domestic normality seems to be returning. In fact, the crusty, solitary Ulee discovers that Connie awakens old feelings. Nunez doesn’t entirely trust this simple tale, however, and so introduces that Hollywood perennial, men with guns. While stoned, Helen revealed the existence of a stash of money to Jimmy’s old accomplices, and they’re entirely willing to hurt people to get it.
This development could be more capricious than it is, but it’s still mostly a distraction. The film is grounded in the carefully observed details of Ulee’s work, not in the resolution of its most lurid plot strand. Indeed, whenever Nunez wanders too far into modernity, Ulee’s Gold loses its authority: Helen’s tough-love recovery comes a little too easy, and the soundtrack’s modern-rock embellishments (Morphine, Lida Husik) seem to emanate from another universe. (The soundtrack can also be too obvious: Yes, it includes Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey.”) Both the film and Ulee are uncomfortable in the sleazy Orlando bar where the latter goes to meet thugs Eddie and Ferris, far from the natural light that warms the film’s most convincing scenes.
Ulee is short for Ulysses, and just to make sure the classical reference is understood, Nunez names Ulee’s late wife Penelope. It’s ironic, of course, because Ulee is hardly a world traveler: He went off to war, got wounded, and came right back home. But Ulee’s odyssey is a psychological one, a journey from alienation”I pretty much feel off the planet,” he tells Connieto belonging. Throughout the film, Ulee talks tribal”It’s Jackson business,” he insists with hushed vehemencebut it’s only at the end that he has a family that can protect him the way he has protected it.
Belonging is the key to Nunez’s work as well. His films are as firmly rooted and as carefully crafted as Ulee’s honey. In Ulee’s Gold, he’s found the ideal (if unexpected) collaborator in Fonda, whose performance puts the laconic tough-but-tender guy in a new context. Ironically, it took a dedicated indie filmmaker to make a home for the traditional Hollywood masculine virtues that have been displaced by flash powder and bluster.
In 1993, agents of the United States government gassed and incinerated 76 members of the Branch Davidian cult after a 51-day siege near Waco, Texas. That’s disturbingly demonstrated by a new documentary, Waco: The Rules of Engagement. What remains unclear is the FBI and ATF agents’ intent. Director William Gazecki and producers Dan Gifford and Amy Sommer Gifford suggest that the feds fired on the compound and then probably set it on fire. The FBI has denied that it did either, and a congressional investigation ultimately accepted that version of the events. After watching this film, you may find yourself in the awkward situation of finding Timothy McVeigh’s analysis of the debacle more credible than the U.S. Congress’.
Perhaps the feds were merely arrogant and incompetent, but they could hardly look worse than they do here. They knew, for example, that the CS gas they lobbed into the compound was highly flammable, yet they made no preparations for extinguishing fires. When the buildings did catch fire, the FBI refused to let firetrucks approach the blaze, purportedly to protect the firefighters from possible gunshots. That was a sentence of gruesome death to anyone still alive in the compound.
The film also presents analysis of infrared film that allegedly shows that the agents raked the buildings with machine-gun fire, although the government steadfastly insists that its side never fired a shot. A fire chief argues that federal assault vehicles knocked holes in the building in a pattern designed to encourage fire. The film also presents analysts who propose that infrared footage shows the feds actually setting the compound ablaze. None of these contentions, however, is conclusively demonstrated.
The film does establish that federal spokesmen and negotiators lied throughout the siege and subsequent investigation. In one incident preserved on audiotape, a negotiator talks on the phone with cult leader David Koresh, who says that helicopters have been firing on the Davidians. The negotiator responds that the helicopters don’t have guns, then revises that to say that they don’t have mounted guns, then says that they have guns but they haven’t been firing, and finally that they did fire but they’ve stopped. It’s enough to make the Bible-addled Koresh look like a straight talker.
Indeed, one of the film’s difficulties is that it does try to make Koresh look like a regular guyor at least a regular Texan, legally pursuing his Constitutional rights to stock up on guns and plan for the end of the world. Waco: The Rules of Engagement is not about to admit that heavily armed religious fanatics are a potential problem. Instead, the filmmakers use home-video footage and snapshots of the martyred Davidian kids to humanize the cult members. They also suggest that Koresh would have led his followers out peacefully if only the government had let him finish writing his interpretation of the seven seals from the book of Revelationas if anyone who has dedicated his life to such wacky apocalyptics can be expected to behave rationally under stress.
If crackpot Christers with machine guns don’t worry the filmmakersand Gifford is a committed opponent of gun controlit nonetheless appears that the Davidians’ transgressions (including the much-touted but unproven child sexual abuse) were dwarfed by the government’s brutal retort. When the film matches David Hamilton’s shrill, ominous strings with photos of the conflagration’s youngest victims, Waco: The Rules of Engagement is crudely manipulative. Still, those kids deserve a better eulogy than the half-truths and evasions the government has provided so far.
It goes almost without saying that Batman and Robin, like its three predecessors, is leaden, bloated, and tiresome. So let’s salute its good points for a minute.
Perhaps most striking is the use of color. Director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt make the cotton-candy hues shimmer and glow; whole scenes look as if they were shot under black light. Production designer Barbara Ling has expanded impressively on the series’s architectural vision of Gotham City, which combines haunted-house gothic with fascist monumentality and Russian constructivism. The movie is fast-paced and vibrant, propelled by quick cuts, kinetic camera movements, and oblique angles. And the surround-sound is enveloping, especially during scenes of massive freezing or thawing: When you’re sitting in the center of the theater, it sounds as if you’re standing on a glacier that’s fracturing around you. Except that it’s actually the script that’s disintegrating.
Written by Akiva Goldsman, who worked with Schumacher on Batman Forever as well as on his two John Grisham adaptations, the screenplay owes little to original director Tim Burton’s vision (mostly cribbed from Frank Miller’s revisionist Dark Knight comic) of Batman as a pathological loner twisted by his lust for revenge. Indeed, Batman (now George Clooney) is hardly a loner anymore: The film spends so much time establishing new characterstop-billed Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, Elle MacPherson as Bruce Wayne’s girlfriendthat there’s hardly time to advance the plot or amplify the regular players. Rather than develop character, the film just keeps remodeling costumes.
Instead of exploring the dark knight, the film follows the example of the late-’60s TV series: short scenes, bad puns, and paper-thin characterization. That campy approach, however, requires a cheesy sense of fun that Batman and Robin is altogether too ponderous to achieve. The dreary gags mostly comment on TV-commercial tag lines, and even the inside jibe at the competitionMr. Freeze ices a museum’s model dinosaur until it collapses into a Jurassic heapisn’t very exuberant. Though the pacing is frenetic, as an action director Schumacher isn’t qualified to cater a John Woo flick; his fight scenes stumble and his showdowns flop.
Although the opening sequence features excited close-ups of Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) in their tight leather get-ups, the movie retreats from its predecessor’s homoerotic emphasis. Robin has lost his earring, and when Batgirl finally suits up she gets her own series of fetishistic closeups: crotch, butt, breasts, high-heeled boots. This is ludicrous, too, of course, but Silverstone’s small role as the series’ first nonvillainous superfemale is the most refreshing thing in the movie. When Batgirl sensibly tells Poison Ivy that “chicks like you give women a bad name,” you wish she’d been invited to sit in on the script sessions.CP