How to Be an Extra in Your Own Life: Several short film reviews

How to Be an Extra in Your Own Life: Several short film reviews August 12, 2020

or film impressions, or what have you. Saving the best for last.

Tragedy Girls: High-school BFFs seek social media fame by tracking a local serial killer–but they’re really doing all the kills themselves, for the likes. This blank-hearted film has two charismatic leads (Brianna Hildebrand and especially Alexandra Shipp), and there’s a great late-breaking subplot about democracy as social media, but otherwise this did nothing for me. It’s neon-pretty but so are lots of horror movies. If you want hilariously-dressed teen girls, colorful cinematography, and incisive commentary on social media, ignore the ridiculous title and hit up #horror.

Crawl: This, on the other hand, is a killer-croc film that made me care a lot. Haley (a fierce-faced Kaya Scodelario) learns that her semi-estranged dad (Barry Pepper) is stuck in the path of a Cat 5 hurricane. She rides to the rescue, but flooding and gale winds aren’t her biggest problem, because KILLER CROCS. (Or actually, I believe, murdergators. They’re lethal reptiles, that’s for sure.)

Alexandre Aja builds ferocious tension, and everything looks very dirty and visceral. But the relationship between dad and daughter really sells the film. They’re hardworking, hard-bitten; they’re prepared, but life will hit you with things you can’t prepare for. I started loving this movie early on, but what really pushed me over the edge was realizing that the film wasn’t condemning the dad for the crazy, stupid decision to stay in the path of the storm. His bullheadedness was coming from the exact same place as his daughter’s determination, as his coaching her to victory in swim championships. He’s clawed his way through life (and a broken marriage) and now the same ferocity which has gotten him this far is gonna kill him, and I was so sorry. Your life shapes you into somebody who deserves it, and then everybody says you deserved it.

Great little moment when the radio announcer says he’s sure all the parents out there are thinking about how to protect their families, as we see Haley rolling up to the house. Few divides are as stark as the divide between the families where that’s the parents’ job and the families where it’s the kids’.

Late in the film we get some unnecessary, saccharine reconciliation speeches about The Divorce and such, but that’s maybe the only flaw in this fast, heartfelt movie about a dad, a daughter, and some lesser predators.

Boomerang: Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens work hard on this fairly shallow sex-comedy material, but mostly this movie made me think I underestimate Jane Austen.

I’ve generally thought that if you like Austen that’s great, I’m sure she’s great in an objective sense, I just find myself never caring. Whit Stillman is, of course, a huge Austenite, and somewhere or other (the DVD commentary to Last Days of Disco???) he’s said that part of the appeal of Austen for him is that characters get the love interest they deserve. Bad with bad and good with good. That all sounded so miserable to me (all people are bad people!!!) that I didn’t realize it’s crucial to making Disco work.

Spoilers I guess, but in Disco the two nice characters wind up together, and so do the two flailing disasters who viciously, publicly humiliated the nice ones. I overidentified with and fell for the disasters, of course. It’s a good thing I’m not heterosexual or I would’ve already divorced like two cokeheads. hashtag team erlend. Anyway the point is, the film lets you love the horrible ones but also kinda cages them together, very satisfying. Boomerang, by contrast, gives you Eddie Murphy as a dog who dogs out women, then lets him meet his match in his boss (Givens), a LADY who DOGS OUT MEN. What is this strange new feeling?? Could it be… love? Could it be, even better, the desire to become a decent person?

The obvious storyline here is that he strives for the moral life to win her fidelity, and she says she’s not about that moral life, but then she wonders, “What is this strange new feeling??” and has to go on a parallel journey. But Boomerang cares about the lady’s moral journey exactly zero, so, spoilers or whatever, the dog dude ends up with a nice lady and the maneater ends up alone. Gross, no fun.

Hail, Caesar!: An immensely pleasurable Coen Brothers joint about a scrupulous Catholic Hollywood studio-era fixer trying to maintain order on the set of a sword-and-sandals epic about “The Christ.” Gosh, I adored this. I loved the portrayal of Tinseltown, the dream factory, as a place where people are genuinely wrestling with life’s meaning–the Communists are doing this as much as the Catholics. The film’s moral seriousness was just ridiculous enough, and it provoked a whole bunch of insights in between the pastiches (that homoerotic Navy dance scene!) and the wisecracks (that rabbi sniping at the priests!).

A big thing in this movie, I think, is the role of the extras. Is it that everybody’s a principal in his own story, even when he looks like an extra in ours, or is it that everybody’s an extra in his own story, even though he thinks he’s the lead? On a moral, rather than metaphysical level, what does it mean to treat everyone as a principal, and what would it require to become an extra in one’s own life? I loved how our immensely serious Catholic hero weighs the morality of one specific choice throughout the film, and never identifies the central moral issue involved, even though the literal actual pope at the time was quite clear on it! That’s his whole shtik as a character, he cares intensely and sweetly about the moral answers and he never gets the questions right. But does he have to?

That rabbi at one point shoots down the suggestion that Jesus “is Who Is” by saying, “Who isn’t Who Is?” No idea if you can get away with that in, like, normal Jewish theology, but it’s close to the heart of this movie, which uses its synchronized-swimming numbers and Commie blackmail plots to tell a story about awe and humility, and the necessity/impossibility of deriving a coherent moral picture from those two things.

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