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AT THE MOVIES: Nobody Walks In LA: Crash (****)

Los Angeles is as soaked with hate as it has been with rain lately.

The talk-radio station KFI-AM has been on a mission, it seems, to generate furor-like hatred against — their term — “illegals,” which listeners know refers to Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the border and coming into Southern California to work and live.

Since the appearance of a billboard ad identifying our common place of residence as “Los Angeles, Mexico” (with the “U.S.A” crossed out) by a publicity-seeking Spanish language television station, the hate-fest over at KFI has risen to a fever pitch, with not much in the way of counter-protest coming from any corner, and no end in sight.

Just when you start to imagine that it can’t happen here, it happens here, every day on the radio.

Screenwriter Paul Haggis made a name for himself last year with Clint Eastwood’s overrated, multi-Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby. But before that, his career was in television – a prolific career it was, but about as far as you can get from having any sort of movie clout. Because of this, he’s had a hard time “going legit” and getting his movies made. That is, until he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Baby.

A far better script, and the better film by a long way, is Haggis’ Crash, which opened last weekend to mixed reviews. Of course, the critics weren’t going to glom onto Crash the way they did Million Dollar Baby, as critics tend to prefer film writers who don’t overreach. There is no question that Haggis has overreached with Crash, and it’s one of those films you’re either entirely with or entirely against – there isn’t much room in the middle ground.

Crash, the most moving and meaningful film released this year, tells the story of a group of people in Los Angeles who encounter each other in various ways – serving up the idea that because we can’t touch each other, we end up crashing into each other instead, forcing a confrontation.

A white woman is afraid of a black man – he knows she’s afraid because she clutches her purse as she passes him. He car-jacks her anyway, perpetuating the very stereotype he felt belittled by. A Hispanic man is accused of being a gang-banger; an L.A. cop is a racist, a black television director is treated like a criminal by an L.A. cop. In each instance, we are forced to look at our own prejudices and fears – which we encounter every day, often without even thinking about them.

In his circular telling of the individual stories, Haggis gets a lot in. He shows us first the angry outbursts, the mistakes – then the consequences, and finally the outcomes — both miraculous and tragic. There are angels in L.A.: lost ones, found ones. It’s a deliriously beautiful city, but how much more it could be if we understood each other better.

Haggis, perhaps because of his television background, has a touch with actors that brings them out in ways we’ve never seen. Sandra Bullock as the uptight wife of a D.A., has never been better. And Matt Dillon, who gives the film’s strongest performance, hasn’t shown this much raw ability and screen presence since the beginning of his career. Terrence Dashon Howard gives a breakthrough performance as a wealthy black man coming to terms with exactly what that means – is he an Uncle Tom? Has he just been playing the game by Whitey’s rules all of these years? And Michael Pena deserves mention for his own brooding turn as the “gang banger” just trying to give his little daughter a better life.

Ensemble work like this is rare. It is a talented and adept director who can get such fine performances across the board. It won’t be long before Haggis is right up there with Eastwood and Steven Soderbergh as a director every actor is begging to work with.

Each character in Crash, each little story that becomes a bigger story, is heartbreaking. The power of the age-old question doesn’t fade: How can human beings be capable of intense good and intense evil at the same time? What’s admirable and exceptional about Haggis’ writing here is that he allows his characters to be complicated – vain, selfish, giving, kind, petty, brave, cowardly – we see them in private moments that reveal things they’re all ashamed of. And we see their public masks – we see their motivations and their demons.

This complexity of character may make Crash a more “challenging” movie than Million Dollar Baby – which Haggis adapted from a short story by F.X. Toole — but it also makes it a far more interesting, and ultimately satisfying, movie-going experience.Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which seemed the right movie for the right time New York City, Crash is a movie for Los Angeles. We’re tucked away in our private places – mostly, we relate to one another from inside our cars. It’s so easy to forget that we are all just people trying to get from one place to another.

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