Wooly Boys
WOOLY BOYS. 2001
Director: Leszek Burzynski

ULEE'S GOLD. 1997
Director: Victor Nunez

AN UNFINISHED LIFE. 2005
Director: Lasse Hallstrom

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



Kris Kristofferson & Peter Fonda play Shuck & Stony, cantakerous old sheep-rearing coots, aka Wooly Boys (2001), who've lived together in the wilds of North Dakota for twenty-five years. Instead of a sheep dog they have a super-smart horse named Dakota who herds sheep.

Wooly BoysWhen Kris & Peter are on screen, the film is rather charming. Two old coots play two old coots extremely well, & with great natural humor. The rest of the cast is another matter. The moronic comic relief bad guys are merely the worst of an unconvincing support cast, & the film loses all life when the coots aren't center screen.

The story is family film all the way, but also extremely predictable & never wavers from the obvious. Stoney (Fonda) hasn't gotten to know his grandson Charles (Joseph Mazzello) who's now sixteen & hasn't seen his grampa since the second grade. Near the end of his own long life, Stoney virtually kidnaps Charles.

Charles starts out highly upset that he's stuck on a primitive ranch without access to his life on the web, but by the end he has grown to appreciate codgerliness as the American Way.

The mix of a cornball sentimental tale of family bonding, vs the slapstick story of the FBI agent or the troublemaking young men who horsenap Dakota, just doesn't work. The story takes place in a world where kidnapping is a ha-ha funny thing, & you can shoot off a six-gun in a hospital without any negative repurcussions. I just never believed this world existed.

Every time I got close to being seriously involved with what the coots were up to next, we cut to comic relief with the overlarge array of unmemorable characters, Keith Carradine as the town sheriff the only exception. By the end I felt only ripped off for my time.


Ulee's GoldFonda played a much finer version of the rural farmer & widower in Ulee's Gold (1997). Though this film too can be summed up as a family film about healing & bonding across a family's generations, this one's neither mawkish nor slapstick, & the characters are agonizingly real.

The "Gold" is honey, but it is also the nature of family itself. Ulee raises bees & hires out his hives to orchards then processes the honey. This element of the film is itself fascinating; without going all documentary-like it manages to show a great deal about how bees are cared for.

Ulee carries a burden of emotion over the loss of his wife, & still suffers from events in Viet Nam. His main coping mechanism is to work hard & express little.

His son (Tom Wood) is serving a prison term, so Ulee's been raising his granddaughters (Jessica Biel & Vanessa Zima). The junkie mother (Christine Dunford) who had abandoned the family is pretty much rescued by Ulee, & the two must come to terms with a lot of pain in their lives. Slowly all the resentments, bitternesses, & disappointments of a fractured family are healed by love & understanding, without a mawkish moment to ruin the quietly dramatic excellence.

Set in a rural area of Florida, the southern setting gives the tale a Faulkneresque or Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings feel. It's almost certainly the best performance of Fonda's career. Though there's a bit of "suspense" from a threat to the family, worked into the plot in the form of a couple of dangerous thieves (Steven Flynn & Dewey Weber), yet really it's the relationships here that count.

Every performance down to the smallest is beatifully acted. I'm rarely captivated by safe little family films, but this one's just unimaginably good, always understated but with lingering power. And no wonder it gained Fonda an Oscar nomination.


An Unfinished LifeEinar & Mitch (Robert Redford & Morgan Freeman) have lived together on a Wyoming ranch for forty years. They are the only family each other has had during the last eleven years, since the death of Einar's son Griffin followed soon thereafter with Einar's wife leaving him. To compound tragedy, a year previous, Mitch was badly mauled by a bear, & never fully recovered, so Einar nurses & cares for him, having been forced to sell off the cattle since he could not run the ranch alone.

Jean (Jennifer Lopez), badly beaten by a vicious boyfriend Gary (Damian Lewis), seeks refuge with Einar & Mitch, who she knew sixteen years earlier before Einar's son was killed in a car accident. Because of Einar's bitterness toward Jean (who was driving the car), she never told him she was pregnant, & he only now discovers he has a granddaughter, Griff (Becca Gardner).

A curmudgeon at best, Einar has a particular dislike for her daughter-in-law, though it isn't long before eleven year old Griff begins to bond with her grampa. Mitch wants Einar to put his grief aside & stop blaming Jean, as he's destroying himself with anger.

Mitch, too, has learn to forgive. The bear that crippled him is still in the area, but it's eventually captured & caged at a roadside private zoo that charges tourists $5 to look at a few native animals. At first Mitch wanted the bear killed but now he believes he should not carry bitterness toward an animal that was just being itself. Eventually he charges Einar with the duty of liberating the bear, supposedly to transport it to some distant wilderness where it would not have the opportunity to harm others.

An Unfinished LifeWhen Einar & Griff accidentally let the bear get loose while trying to get it in the transport cage, it makes a beeline for the ranch, where helpless Mitch is alone. He'll have to face his worst fear, & Einar will learn a lesson about "accidents" & what it means to forgive.

Jennifer Lopez is not usually a very good actor but she's quite good under the direction of Lasse Hallstrom, director of My Life as a Dog (1985) & What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). But the main performances remain Freeman's & Redford's, whose masculine capacity for nurturing one another is extremely moving & something that needs to be seen more often, in life as well as in cinema.

Their closeness makes Griff presume they're a gay couple, & she tries to tell them that's all right with her because she once had a lesbian teacher. Her assumption startles the old guys, but amuses them rather than threatens their manhood.

We learn just about everything about the life of Einar, but Mitch remains somewhat at a distance. We know he "always wanted to be a cowboy" & spent his life as Einar's ranchhand. Why he seems never to have had a family of his own, nor any history of his own apart from Einar, is a little unsettling because this leaves the character of Mitch comparatively diminished & incomplete. As portrayed by Morgan Freeman, however, he conveys more depth than is in the script. These two men's deep abiding friendship & their fearlessness in nurturing one another is beautiful to see.

The story of Jean & her stalker boyfriend is of less consequence but adds a bit of suspense as we know Einar is capable of beating up such a bad guy & maybe even killing him, & we know the boyfriend is easily willing to beat up Jean & could well end up killing her. This lends the tale fairly realistic tension, though the presence of the bear is more important both as tension-builder & as symbol.

A mere description of these plot elements cannot convey how good the film is due to such fine direction, acting, & cinematography, & a well written script about the healing of a rather non-traditional family. The elements are close to those in the awful Wooly Boys, but in An Unfinished Life the story unfolds with intelligence & honest emotion lacking in Wooly Boys.

The ultimate theme here is forgiveness: Mitch forgiving the bear for crippling him, Einar forgiving Jean (& himself), Jean forgiving Einar his cruelty, Griff forgiving her mother the terrifying relationships she has used to punish herself along the years. This great theme of forgiving, together with the lesson in nurturant masculinity, makes for a very great drama.

I started watching this film with a bit of dread because Morgan Freeman has been so over-exposed in too many ordinary films so that a viewer can lose faith in his ability to select roles worthy of his talent; Lopez usually can't act; Redford is not a star I think of right away when dreaming up perfect casts; & "family" films can be so insipid & mawkish & uninspired. But I was quickly pulled into An Unfinished Life, & when it concluded, I murmured to my sweety, "God damn, that was a good film."

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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