Feeling Minnesota

D: Steven Baigelman (1996)
with Keanu Reeves, Vincent D'Onofrio, Cameron Diaz, Dan Aykroyd, Courtney Love

To be honest, Feeling Minnesota is not a very good movie. The plot is thin at best -- Freddie, the small town mattress-back, is married to Sam, the local mob's accountant. Sam (D'onofrio) is thrilled by the arrangement. Freddie (Diaz) is not. She is desperate to get out of town and discovers that Jjaks, Sam's brother (Reeves) is her ticket out. A convoluted plot, sure, and one that really doesn't make much sense once you start asking questions about it. Reeves and Diaz are wooden, at best, and Aykroyd is simply reprising his role as a shady underworld figure with a twisted sense of humor. But, and this is a big but, D'onofrio, who just gave another stellar performance in Men in Black, is terrific as Sam and makes this two-hour jaunt into the lives of small-time hoods in the frozen Midwest a real treat.

-- Adrienne Martini

Whenever a model making the jump to the silver screen has a flurry of press assuring the public of her ability to act, be afraid -- be very afraid. Cameron Diaz (with Keanu Reeves) looked cute on the cover of Rolling Stone; she's wooden in Feeling Minnesota.

Gal Young 'Un

D: Victor Nunez (1979)
with Dana Preu, David Peck, J. Smith, Gene Densmore, Jenny
Stringfellow, Tim McCormick

A Flash of Green

D: Victor Nunez (1985)
with Ed Harris, Blair Brown, Richard Jordon, George Coe,
Helen Stenborg, John Glover

Ruby in Paradise

D: Victor Nunez (1993)
with Ashley Judd, Todd Field, Bentley Mitchum, Allison Dean, Dorothy Lyman

When the box office closes on the summer of 1997, it's a safe bet that Ulee's Gold -- the low-key drama about a taciturn Florida beekeeper and his family -- will be remembered as one of the season's highlights. Although the summer release was a smart move of counter-programming, appearing as it did as a soulful alternative to the high-octane spectacles that have come to define the summer season, Ulee's Gold would be a fondly remembered movie in any season. In addition to kick-starting the career of Peter Fonda (in a performance that's certain to be noticed when Oscar nominations come due), Ulee's Gold made an impression among those who take a shine to heroes who are strong, silent, and sans big sticks. The movie is the work of Floridian filmmaker Victor Nunez, his fourth (and best) feature film made over a period of 17 years. And while Ulee's Gold remains Nunez's most skillful and finely coalesced drama to date, it comes across like a glorious culmination of everything in Nunez's work that preceded it.

Long the maverick regionalist and independent filmmaker, Nunez has shot all four of his features on location in Florida in an independent fashion that affected everything from their comparatively minuscule budgets to Nunez's head-to-toe participation in all facets of the filmmaking, including the direction, scriptwriting, and often camera operation and editing. Long before filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater made cities like Portland and Austin meccas for independent film activity, Nunez was carving his name into the Florida milieux that were to become inseparable participants in the stories he was telling. Although trained in film production at UCLA and the American Film Institute, Nunez found his voice in the Florida terrain.

Gal Young 'Un burst out of the Florida backwoods in 1979 and its successful, city-by-city, arthouse-to-museum run (I believe I saw out at the lakeside amphitheatre at Laguna Gloria; whatever happened to that tradition?) helped usher in a new national awareness of something fervent and exciting happening in the world of American independent film. Based on a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story set in the Twenties, Gal Young 'Un follows the slow-arched emotional trajectory of a drab rural widow who succumbs to the romantic attentions of a moonshining con man, to whom she willingly offers her bed, land, and labor until he brings home his chippie (the gal young 'un) and, finally, incites the hand that feeds him. It's a small, well-performed and well-observed drama, whose viscous flirtations and furies seem to rise as if from the swamps in which they're entrenched.

1985 brought A Flash of Green, based on a novel by John D. MacDonald. Nunez's least successful film (both financially and artistically), this low-key thriller about corrupt political intrigues and power plays in a quiet, coastal town in Florida offers a scathing and still-pertinent portrait of the ongoing battle between a city's developmental and environmental interests, and also presents actor Ed Harris with one of the meatiest roles of his career as the cynical journalist caught in the middle.

Ruby in Paradise, like Ulee's Gold, is based on an original script by Nunez. It was the film that put newcomer Ashley Judd on the map, as she evocatively conveyed the story of a young Tennessee refugee forging a new sense of self in the off-season resort town of Panama City. The film also won the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival and helped pave the way for Nunez to be able to make films more frequently than once every six or eight years. His strong and laconic heroes (of both the male and female persuasion), his thematic emphasis on the necessity of work as an organizing principle of life, his sense of place as a determining influence in his stories, and his generous ability to elicit some of the finest work of his actors is the kind of talent that's pure American gold.

-- Marjorie Baumgarten

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