Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movies and Messages ~ Million $ Baby, Crash, In the Valley of Elah

It was by chance rather than good management that we've watched three movies in the past couple of weeks in which Canadian director, producer and screenwriter, Paul Haggis had involvement. Two of the films were shown on HBO the other I'd picked up on DVD, in a junk store:
Million Dollar Baby,
In the Valley of Elah.

Haggis was screenwriter and producer of two of the films which were also consecutive Best Picture award winners in 2004/5, Million Dollar Baby, and Crash, which he also directed. In the Valley of Elah (2007) had Paul Haggis as screenwriter (adaptation), director and producer.

I've nothing much to say about Million Dollar Baby, other than it was a well-acted, and an oddly engaging tale of a female who had the strange obsession to become a prize-winning boxer. I felt let down by the ending, but I guess it stands as a dire warning to those who might be nurturing similar obessions.

The other two movies had a lot more general relevance to life in the 21st century.

Crash, set in Los Angeles, puts the focus squarely on racism in the USA. The embedded message applies equally elsewhere, of course. Crash uses what I think of as "the tangled net" method of story-telling. A number of totally unconnected characters are introduced, and by the end of the movie we find they are linked in some way to at least one of the other characters, often to several. The Crash characters all have different ethnic backgrounds: African American, Middle-Eastern, Asian-American, Mexican, Caucasian, Latin-American (hope I didn't forget any). There is heavy stereotyping, and that is a drawback, but in this film it was necessary to get a point across in limited time. Each incident and reaction is drawn in extreme terms - cartoonish in fact. After I'd watched the film my first reaction was that it wasn't at all true to life, it was more like distilled version, keeping only the strongest flavours intact. It reminded me a bit of the way people sometimes train a puppy not to soil the living room carpet by rubbing its nose in the mess. Our noses were rubbed in the mess we sometimes make of relationships with others of different background from ourselves.

So as not to end on a completely negative note, Paul Haggis made sure that he did show that most characters though their bad traits were horrendous, had a decent, or even heroic, side too. Whether this was a cop out to stop audiences hating the movie I cannot say. I saw only one truly decent guy in the film - a Mexican locksmith.

I was glad to have seen the movie, but it left me part-irritated by the hyperbole, part glad that someone was at least attempting to point out how destructive racism can be.

In the Valley of Elah had a message too: war de-sensitises, war de-humanises.

The Last scene of In the Valley of Elah sees Tommy Lee Jones asking a guy to fly a worn and tattered Stars and Stripes in upside down position. His dead soldier son had sent him the flag. I had to look up the meaning of flying the US flag upside down; it means: "we are in distress".

We watched the movie on HBO, but had missed the first 15 minutes. I'd avoided this film when shown in the past, even though Tommy Lee Jones stars and is one of my favourite actors. I'd assumed it to be a war movie set in Iraq. We decided to give it a spin for half an hour or so to see whether it was as bad as I'd feared. It wasn't - and I'm very glad to have seen it at last. It's a story, based on real events, of a soldier's father seeking answers about his son's death, not in Iraq, but after his return to a military base in New Mexico.

Rather than recite the storyline here, Peter Bradshaw's 2008 review in The Guardian was a good one. My own takeaway from the movie was an underlining of something of which I was already aware: military action and war can brutalise and de-humanise even the best intentioned of humans. How many young soldiers come home alive but destroyed inside? How many commit suicide? How many come back with changed personalities - and not for the better?

Tommy Lee Jones' understated acting style, in the father's role was exactly right for an ex-Military Police officer with service in Vietnam, who has now lost the lives of his two sons to the army - one way or another. While watching the film I recalled another, from the past, in which Tommy Lee Jones played a character, a marine blighted by the war in Vietnam who, in the end, committed suicide: Heaven and Earth.

Crash and In the Valley of Elah are Two movies with messages that are important, very hard to miss and equally hard to disagree with. Paul Haggis did a good job!


myr lock said...

I've seen 'Million Dollar Baby' and 'Crash'. I will consider watching 'In the valley of Elah'.
Thank you for the inspiration.

DC said...

I think you could appreciate this one...I think you'll like it.
Let me know if you decide to see it.
....a very "down to earth" film....no pun intended.

Twilight said...

myr lock ~~ Hi! Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm watching for HBO to show In the Valley of Elah again myself, so's we can catch the first 15 minutes we missed. :-)

Twilight said...

DC ~~ Oooh yes! That one sounds to be right up my street! I've ordered a used version this morning! Thanks for the recommendation. I'll do a post on the movie in due course. :-)