“Southpaw” vs “Hitman: Agent 47” and the power of relatability

Spoilers at no extra charge!

In the last few weeks I’ve been very focused on why stories are so important to us. It’s not news, granted, but the fact remains that humans really like stories, be that real stories, fake stories, real mixed with fake, regular, political, fantastical, you name it and there’ll be an audience for it.

This was very much on my mind when I went to the movies to watch Southpaw. As a story lover, sports themes are beyond last on my spectrum of interest. I have no time for the struggle, the strife or the pain that goes into becoming a first class athlete. We all know that reaching the top at a physical profession is hard, there’s no story there as far as I’m concerned. All the same I sat down to watch it, knowing very little about it besides the fact that it was a movie about a boxer. Ok, I’m not going to lie, Jake Gyllenhaal was the clincher in that I, ahem… “admire” his acting abilities, *cough cough.* Ok, so the dude’s hot!

To the point though: Southpaw starts at the top of the main character’s athletic career. Billy Hope has got it all; he’s beautiful, talented, rich, famous, rose from nothing to the pinnacle of his profession and all without losing a single fight. The viewer is thrown into this perfect life and finds himself rooting for this guy, because he’s tough but gentle and loving too and who through hard work and talent has managed to build himself a great career, a beautiful home and a family. His wife is his childhood sweetheart and together they have a little girl who adores them and who is adored in return. Pretty idyllic right?

Identifiability is at the core of any story. It’s seeing that character, or part of them, in yourself, or the opposite, putting yourself in their shoes and wondering what would I do in that situation? Southpaw gives sight at a lifestyle that most of us would sell our right kidney to achieve, so we know the stakes involved. However, just as all good stories should, it takes a turn; by way of selfish miscalculation and obedience to his ego, rather than the reasonable voice of his wife, he is embroiled in an altercation and the wife is killed, leaving him with two sets of immeasurable grief, his own and his kid’s. The snow globe has ruptured and it is losing pressure fast.

It is at this point that Southpaw’s life unravels and he slips into self-destruct mode from where he loses his money, his house and is on the verge of losing his daughter both by her being taken into the welfare system and, worse of all, by the force of her blame over the loss of her mother. Now Southpaw is forced to find the strength to start from scratch, retrain, gain focus, control his spiralling emotions and put the pieces of his life back together, senza wife and kid.

Though I don’t wish to spoil it entirely for those of you that have yet to see it, the end is pretty predictable; of course he gets his shit together and wins both his family and his career back by way of some rigorous body and mind training and all’s well and all that jazz.

The skill in this story wasn’t in the plot-we’ve seen all that before. The power was in the telling. The narration of the story showed his humanity, his vulnerability and his weakness in the face of this disaster, for which he was essentially to blame, which made you identify with Southpaw and his struggle. I’ll take a guess at saying that most of the viewers will not be boxers but we all know the stakes involved in one form or another. There’s the rigorous training, the pain, the focus, even the hint at the deep psychological warpage that makes someone choose a profession where they agree to get the shit kicked out of them for money. If that’s not Freudian I don’t know what is.

The beauty about this movie was how well it was orchestrated. It was a story wonderfully told from every angle, be that acting, scriptwriting or direction, each aspect was carefully worked, so much so that I was left wondering if it was based on a true story. From what I can tell it was not, but it had enough realistic elements to make you think so. And by realistic I don’t mean “real world,” I mean that it stayed true to its narrative much like GOT can be realistic provided it stays true to its narrative. In this case the anguish was convincing, and the connection with the character was there because you could feel the conflict between his immense pain vs the urgent need to put it aside and pull his pants up.

The beauty hid in the fact that this strong talented boxer was physically fierce but lacked the emotional means to keep his life together in the absence of his wife. Modern and poetic. By the end not only did he get his life and his kid back but also the emotional maturity to see where he had gone wrong the first time. Whoop Whoop Billy Hope says I!

The trope of making dreams come true and vanquishing adversity resonates with most people and was the key to the relatability of this film despite the out there nature of his profession. It was certainly more powerful to have the juxtaposition of the big strong boxer with the emotional strength of a child grow into his own than it would have been a corporate world worker who for many might be a more familiar sight but maybe not as strong a message.

Southpaw should totally be up for an Oscar this year.

In contrast to this Hitman: Agent 47 was, on paper at least, more of the kind of movie I would purposely go to watch. Spy/Sci-fi in nature and with some cool genetic tweaking thrown into the mix, it had the potential for good movie watching and yet it fell flatter than an A4.

Perhaps it marks the difference of a script written purely with the goal of commercial success as opposed to one that has all the signs of a decent creative venture.

The main character, a highly sensitive, genetically mutated girl who is on the run from something called the Syndicate is being hunted down for her skills which will be used to locate her father, the only man who knows how to make more of her. At first she appears scared, vulnerable, down to earth and bohemian; she is also a technophobe and a map using (yes real paper), archive digging polymath who, in theory, I should have been much more able to identify with. Yet I was left completely cold. The script was poor, full of holes and lacked conviction. One minute she can sense people coming for her in her sleep and the next she is fully awake and alert and doesn’t sense jack shit. What the fuck is that all about? Poor script that’s what.

At no point did I relate to her plight, which is closer to my field of interest than a male boxing champion ever would be; neither did I connect with her emerging bad assery, which felt rushed and out of character. She was as delicate, damaged and vulnerable as they come yet at no point did I feel concerned that she might die. Neither did I wonder how or whether she was going to get out of all of it alive, despite attempts to make her appear charitable, humble and chosen. Her own attachment to the male characters was cold and weak (nothing like Southpaw’s connection to his wife) even though one of the male leads turns out to be her brother who wakes her long suppressed childhood memories of abandonment. Blah!

Katia starts off as a frightened, feeble semblance of a human being but through the help of 47 she is given the space to grow and mature as the movie progresses so that she can come into her own, an improved version of the genetically enhanced human being that we know her to be by way of the film’s messages. In her universe her struggle is also very real; she fights to prove that both she and the automaton that she is travelling with are responsible for their choices and that they are not simply action figures made up by the sum of their parts, or that their mutated powers and lack of emotion, as in the case of 47, are affecting their humanity. Great in theory but it all fails to transfer out of the glossy look on the screen. Her pain simply does not contaminate the viewer.

I don’t know if you need to see both these films to recognize the similarities other than read about them here, but I thought there were enough common points in the search for personal growth at high stakes to make me wonder about weak and strong story telling. One failed miserably whereas the other was a major success. The power is always in the telling of the story.

Everyone struggles, everyone knows fear and loss and sometimes even bravery but it’s worth nothing at all if by the end of it the character leaves you cold. Blockbuster shootemups might be great for the adrenaline rush you get from watching them but I know that its Southpaw’s maturation and growth that will stay with me for the longer term.

So I ask, what is it that makes a viewer/reader empathize with the character?

What to Watch Vs What not to Watch May Edition.

I’ve decided to make “What to watch” a monthly feature of notable and not so notable movies, both English language and foreign, and not excluding series or documentaries as these may arise.

This month’s was mixed lot but in all it made for interesting viewing.

United States of Amnesia:
This movie deals with the life of Gore Vidal, a vocal American Author, playwright and thinker with roots in the civil rights movement but who went on to condemn everything that was wrong with modern day (American) society from his youth to his death. There’s not many of them left and this one in particular was worth his weight in ink, really expensive ink!
This modern day philosopher had a long and sterling career in the spotlight and was never afraid to voice his concerns with the establishment or talk back to those who disagreed with his choices or opinions. There isn’t much I can say plot wise as this is a biography, albeit of a fascinating man with a burning intellect as well as a human and frail side.
The narrative is inevitably in the form of a documentary, but because so much of Vidal’s life was spent on camera it doesn’t feel heavy or preachy, it just unfolds gradually through his own words or those that knew him. Food for thought even if you’re full.

Detachment:
Adrien Brody, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, Christina Hendriks and Bryan Cranston are a few of the actors in the all-star cast of Detachment. It was very refreshing to watch them all play real, vulnerable people in a believable setting and their on screen chemistry really worked. Adrien Brody, whom I’ve never been particularly fond of as an actor (but credit where credit is due) plays a substitute teacher in a New York school (if I remember correctly) while dealing with his senile and problematic granddad on his free time. The only word I have for the tone of the film is bleak.

The film presents a very dark side of life as teacher in a NY state school where budgets are crippled and the system is in turmoil, causing suffering both to the students and the staff who it seems are the real losers in this equation. I don’t know if it’s the nature of the job but all the people in this film appear to be living really shitty existences. I pity all American teachers if reality is even a little close to how this film portrayed it. As it progresses we see that out of all the washed out, morale depleted teachers in the film, Brody manages to reach out to the students and get some results via a nanny McPhee no-shit-taking attitude. He also manages to take an underage prostitute off the streets and change the course of her life without doing the dirty. It’s all in a day’s work for this super teach!

Worth watching if you’re in the mood for something serious and thought provoking. James Caan is brilliant even in his small role.

For more credits:

Citizen4
A documentary on the life of Edward Snowden while his exposé of NSA confidential documents was taking place. It’s interesting to see his personal take on events as well as how his life was affected as a result of the whistleblowing. Great, sobering watch but a little disjointed in places, leaving you slightly unsatisfied at the end. They could’ve wrapped it up a little better, but allowances are made due to the nature of the reporting.

On this note, this Ted Talk by Snowden is pretty groovy too.

Wild Card Viewing:

Ochos Apelidos Vascos
Apparently this was the biggest grossing Spanish film in 2014, and not surprisingly because it deals with Basque and Spanish stereotypes which have gripped, terrified and amused the country for decades from what I understand.
It was cute and funny but as a story it’s been done before: Girl meets boy, sleeps over at his house, boy falls in love. When the enamoured boy makes the trip to Basque country to return her forgotten bag she doesn’t want to know his Andalusian ass so she chases him off. When her estranged dad makes an appearance in town however, she decides to pass him off as the (former) fiancé who has broken off their engagement. Some predictable hilarity ensues.

Sorry I couldn’t find a trailer with English subs:

What Not to Watch:

Chapter 27
Focusing on the three last days of John Lennon’s life through the eyes of his murderer Mark David Chapman, this film was an attempt at a soul searching film via the medium of a mad man. Personally I prefer interpretive dance.

Though I suspect it was an attempt at Art House, down to the 80’s style shots and filter applications, it was-how shall I put this gently? –A total fail! It is my long held belief that Americans are unable to do art house cinema, despite how hard they try, and this was another nod to that.

Though sombre, morose and broody, Chapman was simply not an interesting enough character on which to base an entire hour and twenty minutes to. The movie did not look into his past or his reasoning, merely his obsession with Lennon and his dysfunctional relationships with people including those close to him as well as new acquaintances. At times it tried to paint him as a lonely, misunderstood soul trying to reach out to people who pulled away on account of his awkwardness, making you wonder whether perhaps he felt alienated enough to be driven to murder. As it is, we were shown nothing of Chapman’s motives, his past, or what led him to single out Lennon as his victim. We are not told his history or whether he was always disturbed (my guess is affirmative) but are merely shown bits about his life which seem totally irrelevant. His attachment to “Catcher in the Rye” which is probably what the title alludes to is another one of those blanks. Whatever the case, the film’s semi-exploration of a lunatic’s world was not interesting enough to make him the main character in a movie that bobbed along slower than a paper boat in a bath tub. It lost my interest repeatedly and dragged out so much it made me wonder when the shooting would take place so that the plot would move on, or better yet, end.

Having said all that however, Leto’s performance was impressive, though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it moving simply because of the character’s one dimensionality. I don’t know if the man himself truly was that way, or whether he was written thus, but I’m guessing Leto did the best that he could with how the character was written.

Zodiac (2005)
In one word: Meh….
In more words: Murderer kills people, police are clueless, main detective fucks up his family out of obsession to catch this guy, killer is still on the run. Overall feeling: ‘meh.’

In hindsight I should’ve watched the one with Jake Gyllenhaal, I think I’ll go do that now.

Cheerio kids!