The Belles of St. Dismas: Short movie reviews

The Belles of St. Dismas: Short movie reviews February 27, 2020

in the order in which I saw them.

Dead of Night: A 1945 British horror anthology. Mostly what you’d expect from that description: people gather at a country house and tell tales, there’s a sad one and a funny one and a kinda spooky children’s one. AND THEN THERE’S THE VENTRILOQUIST’S DUMMY. You know, I’ve always assumed people’s fear of dummies was semi-performative. But this anthology ends with an absolutely spine-chilling tale of a dummy who controls his ventriloquist’s life (this is how they do) and I was legitimately, thoroughly creeped out. This film is available on Kanopy, so you may be able to watch it using your library card, and it would make a stellar close-out for February, the month of The Shortening.

Set It Off: Bank heist flick in which the thieves are a group of black women with truly harrowing personal histories. Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah are both terrific. The Queen plays a butch stoner slice of heaven by the name of Cleopatra Sims, and she eats up the screen every moment she’s on it, whether she’s playing comedy or tragedy. It’s hard to watch because this kind of film only ends one way and that’s down, and these are not women you want to see lose when they’ve already lost so much. The heterosexual subplot seemed thoroughly unnecessary but I guess people do enjoy their softcore; at least our streetwise heroine’s heartthrob is a Yale man. Also would’ve cut the whole cop subplot, who even cares about Dr. Cox from “Scrubs” in this movie? …Also I get the joke with Cleo’s girlfriend being around all the time but never having any lines, but it’s still obnoxious to make your gay couple the half-silent one, and they need the girlfriend for poignancy at the end so why not let her be a complete person before that?

All that said, this movie offers a startling, unstable blend of comedy, action, comfort-flick girlfriends film, rote romance with an extremely ’90s naked music montage… and wrenching tragedy. A woman loses her brother to police violence, and like ten minutes later we’ve got Cleo thinking the “cow” at the bank (a movable vault) will possibly be a mooing type cow. (“Stop smoking weed,” her friend sighs.) I loved so much of this movie, though I admit at least 70% of that was because Latifah was so, so good.

The Bells of St Mary’s: You may have noticed that I rarely do negative reviews. “Here’s a movie you’ve never heard of; don’t bother.” Who needs to read that? But this film turns up on a lot of nostalgic lists of midcentury Catholic Americana, so it’s worth saying, I think, that it’s no Trouble with Angels. The “save our school!” plotline feels shopworn, the acting is average but not great, and there’s a subplot where a nun convinces a boy that violence is the answer and we don’t really need to turn the other cheek. The film is from 1945 and I get that the playground is a microcosm, but it’s all played out with so much wishful thinking and violence-makes-you-a-man rhetoric that even the charm of Ingrid Bergman doing boxing footwork in a habit can’t save it from feeling dishonest. Unless you like Bing Crosby much more than I do this is just an unnecessary movie. Go and treat yourself to The Song of Bernadette instead.

Chocolate Babies: Black lgbt AIDS activists/hapless terrorists hold rooftop parties and kidnap closeted city councilmen in this missive from that great drowned continent, the 1990s. This is a rambling, angry indie film and it made my heart ache. I have no idea how this movie would play to people who came out post-2000. How would they take the brazen camera-glaring declarations: “I don’t have Magic Johnson disease. I don’t have Ryan White disease. I have AIDS,” like, at what historical remove does agony become camp? For me this was a very funny movie and almost unwatchably sad. It was also occasionally boring, it was self-righteous, it was glamorous, it captured the high dumb hilarity of drunkenness, it was as close to a slice of life as a movie about The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straights could be. A million stars. And thanks to Suns Cinema for screening this.

The Amityville Horror: A sad ’70s Catholics-vs.-demons movie which feels more like The Shining than The Exorcist. Is it–to borrow from Kindertrauma–the bee’s knees… or the fly’s thighs?

A little of both, for me. The imagery is quite strong, especially the hell-glow in the iconic eye-windows of the house. (The giant purple devil pig was… surprisingly more scary than laughable! But not zero percent laughable.) Stephen King wrote about Amityville as economic horror, and the scene with the lost catering money hits that note even harder than the evil-toilet-goo scene.

And James Brolin as the father George, on whom the demon fastens, does a fantastic job of coming apart. He’s newly married to Kathy (Margot Kidder!), who has three children from a previous marriage. He converted to Catholicism for his bride, which suggests either death or annulment as the ending to her first marriage, though we never find out which; his descent from supportive stepfather to violent menace is even more poignant if mother and children are recovering from an annulment and only slowly beginning to trust again. The nightmare of the gentle, loving man who transforms into a monster after marriage–like Beauty and the Beast in reverse–is inherently so raw and frightening. This movie didn’t reach the emotional depths of The Shining, either book or movie. The book shows us all of Jack Torrance’s choices, his inner life, so we’re right there inside him as he resists or succumbs to the hotel’s evil and his own. And the movie isn’t about Jack’s journey but Wendy’s, where again we really get inside her mind and choices. Amityville‘s storytelling focuses about equally on both spouses, but never gets quite deep enough inside them. The extended climax, in which George resists the house and then you think he’s given in but surprise! he hasn’t, falls especially flat. I think that’s because the viewer is led to expect that the character is in a much grimmer place than it turns out he really reached, so the stakes were always lower than we thought. Plus the actual ending is so abrupt as to be hilarious. The family abandoned their belongings and now lives elsewhere! The end. WHAT IS THE DEMON DOING THOUGH.

Because the film itself doesn’t shill for The Warrens (TM) and The Extended Warrens Universe, and because it isn’t about the real family murdered in Amityville although it obviously expects us to know about them, I am somewhat more willing to accept that it might be morally ok to film this story. Still not totally convinced though.

The Catholic element is similar to the Conjuring take, but less blatantly anti-Catholic. (I’m lowkey convinced that the Conjuring series is a literal anti-Catholic plot.) The priests refuse to help, though one (Rod Steiger, playing this role with great conviction) does seem to want to. He has a line which here in 2020 is painfully resonant, when he shouts at his religious superiors, “[H]as that become the fashion now? To cover up?” But there is no Conjuring-like alternative authority, because this is a ’70s film so it’s about disintegration and mistrust. If the alternative is fake exorcists maybe that isn’t such a bad thing!

If you’d like to feel bad, this movie is a good example of the heavy, depressing miasma of its era. If you’d like a supernatural movie about a family watching the father descend into violence, I’d suggest Oculus.

Wikimedia Commons provided this photo of Edgar Bergen and his frie–AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!


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