Chasing Comets


Friday night lights Aussie-style.

(2018) Sports Comedy (Gravitas) Dan Ewing, Isabel Lucas, George Houvardas, Kat Hoyos, Peter Phelps, Bjorn Stewart, Deborah Galanos, Laurence Brewer, John Batchelor, Stan Walker, Gary Eck, Justin Melvey, Rhys Muldoon, Alistair Bates, Tony Chu, Lance Bonza, Kate McNamara, Sarah Furnari, Kirsty Lee Allan, David Thacker, Katrina Rieteska, Daniel Needs, Courtney Powell. Directed by Jason Perini

 

Some movies are made by slick professionals and every frame reflects it. Others are made by less experienced crews and show THAT. Once in awhile, the latter category of movies have just enough heart in them to overcome acting, directing, technical or script deficiencies.

Chase Daylight (Ewing) has the kind of name that probably requires him to be a sports star. In the small Australian town of Wagga Wagga (“so nice they named it twice”), that means rugby. A parade of stars has come from there. The town is indeed a nice one; most of the divisiveness in the town comes from which league you support. Chase was largely brought up by his mum (Galanos) after his womanizing dad walked out on them. She supported his dream to become a “footie” star, buying him jerseys when she really couldn’t afford it. Childhood friend Harry (Phelps) has been his manager, trying to get him that elusive big league contract.

But Chase has inherited his father’s penchant for drink and skirt-chasing, encouraged by his mate Rhys (Walker) who plays for the rival Tigers, a much more successful side than Chase’s Comets who have finished at the bottom of the league the past two seasons running. Still, Chase is considered a blue chip prospect, although perhaps not by his girlfriend Brooke (Lucas) who has endured his drinking and philandering and is at her breaking point.

With another dismal season in the offing and Brooke having given up on him, Chase hits bottom when his Coach (Batchelor) benches him. His career seems to be circling the drain, and at last Chase, looking for answers, finds them in church where his spiritual advisor Rev (Houvardas) preaches, aided by his perky daughter Dee (Hoyos). Chase decides to make some changes; give up drinking and fooling around, and take up celibacy and attending church. At first, it doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference, but better days must be ahead, right?

Right. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this follows underdog sports team tropes to the letter. The script, by star Aussie rugby player Jason Stevens, also has elements of a romantic comedy and faith-based drama. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t exactly hit you over the head with Christian principles (not as much as other films in the genre do, at any rate) although there is there is some sermonizing in the middle third of the film.

The comedic elements are more problematic. There really aren’t a lot of laughs here, although Stevens does try hard and the opening credits have a few chuckles in them. The movie also engages in some overt sentimentality that it doesn’t always earn. The saving grace here is that the characters have some endearing qualities to them and while the movie is very flawed, it nonetheless has a whole lot of heart. The movie is just good-natured enough to give viewers something to latch onto, although familiarity with Australian culture is extremely helpful here.

REASONS TO SEE: Just enough heart to be engaging.
REASONS TO AVOID: Flat and maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sports action and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Star “footie” player Jason Stevens wrote the screenplay based loosely on his own life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slap Shot
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
An Unknown Compelling Force

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers