Archive for December 2011
DVD review: Seven Days in Utopia. 100 minutes. Rated G.
For 2011, we saw a rash of religious-spiritual sports films: basketball in Breaking the Press, football in The Fifth Quarter and Everything in Between. We now pick up a golf club with Seven Days in Utopia, somehow combining the sport with country, cowboys and cute girls. OK, just one cute girl.
Still, the the film is well done for its type. It has some decent acting, fair to very good production qualities, and a realistic lesson about making life more than the living you make.
The opening scene sets the mood: a man silhouetted in the sun, taking swing after swing. The mood is intent, focused, to the point of obsession.
Luke is a promising young golfer who hones his whole life toward winning on the green. But under pressure to perform — plus the strained relationship with his overbearing caddie father — he cracks at the worst time: during an important tournament. He snaps his club, throws it into a water hazard and drives off.
Out in the country, he crashes and has to stay in Utopia, a rundown but friendly little Texas town, while the car is repaired. He’s befriended by elderly Johnny, played by Robert Duvall with the same folksy grace he lent to 1983’s Tender Mercies.
Turns out Johnny is an old pro himself, with his own golf course, though no one else seems to play there. He mentors Luke with some unorthodox golfing lessons, like painting and fly fishing. He also shares his troubled past, for which he’s still paying.
Luke’s other lessons come off the golf course, as he finds his place among the other Utopians. One of them is Sarah, a pretty redhead played by Deborah Ann Woll, previously a guest actor on The Mentalist and My Name is Earl. Sarah chats with Luke as they sit on bales of hay, though they don’t take a roll in it; this movie well earns its G rating. But their relationship helps convince him that there’s more to life than putting.
But there’s business to finish. Luke has to reconcile with his father somehow. He has to get into another tournament, while preventing his fears and the game itself from consuming him. And he must face down a champion golfer and sink a crucial putt.
Visually, Seven Days in Utopia is often beautiful. Director Mathew Dean Russell, a veteran of films like 2006’s Night at the Museum, captures the faded but engaging charm of the real-life town of Utopia, Texas. And he occasionally shines: In one shot, the camera follows the arc of a golf ball — not merely tracking it, but appearing to fly behind it.
The film is also an honest-to-God look at golf, not just a gospel tract with a thin sports overlay. Luke is played by Lucas Black, not only an actor but a scratch golfer. The champ and Luke’s nemesis is played by K.J. Choi, a Korean-born PGA pro. Director Russell even recruited some Golf Channel reporters for cameos.
Spoiler alert: We never do find out if Luke makes the putt, which is kind of a cheat. The film ends with an invitation to visit a website, didhemaketheputt.com. The answer is unexpectedly obvious, yet matters less than the spiritual issues raised in the film.
If you like Seven Days in Utopia, you can actually buy some Utopia merchandise. The Links of Utopia golf course has its own website, which hawks a lot of film memorabilia — especially caps, towels and ball markers with the film’s slogan, “See, Feel, Trust.”
Here’s the film’s website.
DVD review: “Buck Denver Asks, Why Do We Call It Christmas?” Jellyfish Labs. 90 minutes.
The creator of VeggieTales is back, this time with big puppets instead of CGI fruits and vegetables. And for Christmas, they’re going to tell you, well, about Christmas.
Buck Denver Asks, Why Do We Call It Christmas? gives a nice, brisk walkthrough of December traditions — everything from the tree to the date to the color of Santa’s suit. Unfortunately, the show does more talkin’ than walkin’. More on that later.
The video is the latest work of Phil Vischer, creator of Big Idea Productions and its lamented VeggieTales. That company went bankrupt and was sold to a conglomerate. Vischer then put together a new company, Jellyfish Labs.
Jellyfish last year began its well-received What’s in the Bible DVD series, with friendly though pompous newspuppet Buck Denver as the main character. Buck is back for Christmas, with a host of friends, all voiced by the multi-talented Vischer.
For some reason, he gives the characters exaggerated accents. There’s an explorer with a British accent. There’s a cowboy with a Texas drawl. There’s a pirate with a Scottish burr. There’s even a monkey with an Asian Indian accent.
They’re all trying to get to a house in Indiana for a Christmas party. Unfortunately, each is delayed by a mishap, like a broken-down wagon or car. Except for the pirate, whose ship mistakenly drops him off in India instead of Indiana.
During their travels, they noodle over various Yule trappings. They trace the American Santa Claus to the Dutch Sinterklaas, then back to his original form, the fourth-century Bishop Nicholas of Myra. The Christmas tree, they say, came from the Great Oak of Thor, a “made-up god.”
The format makes the show necessarily short on action, long on talk, which was the same flaw of VeggieTales. In this one, they try to compensate with vignettes dreamed up by the puppet characters. Some of those are cute/funny, like a picket line of Norsemen with signs like “I (heart) Thor.” Will the net effect hold kids’ attention? Maybe. Vischer’s company says VeggieTales sold 50 million copies, and What’s in the Bible? has sold 170,000 units so far.
The video is refreshingly ecumenical (unless, maybe, you’re a Germanic pagan). The puppets point out that Christmas comes from “Christ Mass,” without any anti-Catholic tinge. That’s not only good theology; it’s good business for the 77 million potential customers who are Catholic.
For adults, there’s the blooper reel among the extras, with the puppets flubbing their lines. My favorite is when one says “Jesus Claus,” then runs with it: “My contract has a Jesus Claus. I get off work for the Second Coming.”
As a kids’ introduction to Christmas, Buck Denver Asks, Why Do We Call It Christmas? does the job. Don’t expect it to become a classic like, say, Miracle on 34th Street. But it may just help your kids to see the many facets of Christmas with new eyes.
James D. Davis