C is for Cecil B. Demented

Cecil B. Demented: 2000, dir. John Waters. Seen July 21, 2007 on DVD (part of the ABC Project).
While everyone else in America was watching the movie adaptation of the Broadway adaptation of the John Waters film Hairspray last weekend, we decided to watch some unadulterated Waters. I rented Pecker awhile ago and enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and hoped that Cecil B. Demented would be the same way. It’s not as good a movie as Pecker — in fact, it’s not really a very good movie at all. But it made me laugh, and it was so much different than the cookie-cutter movies I’ve been watching in theaters that I’m willing to overlook its flaws.
I didn’t know anything about this movie going into it except that my editor at Cinematical Indie has frequently quoted one of its lines, “Power to the people who punish bad cinema!” From that and the title, I expected the movie to be about movies, but I didn’t even know it starred Melanie Griffith. I am still wondering how Waters convinced Griffith to take this role — we may have to watch the commentary track later today to try to find out. (The commentary track on Pecker was excellent.) I didn’t realize the actress had the type of sense of humor to play a self-mocking character like this. Her character Honey Whitlock starts the movie as a petulant, mean-spirited star … who is kidnapped by a ground of rebellious teenage filmmakers (led by the title character) who want to use her in their “new cinema.”
The teenage filmmakers are all unusual characters that fit right in with the John Waters universe. Everyone has a tattoo of a filmmaker’s name on his or herself (my only carp: what, no female directors? Couldn’t someone have had Ida Lupino or Penelope Spheeris tattooed on herself?). The tattoos range from William Castle to Pedro Almodovar to Herschell Gordon Lewis, so you know these are not your average teens. The group includes a drug addict gone to extremes, a Satan worshipper (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), an ex-porn star who specialized in anal scenes, and a hairdresser who hates being straight. The plot reminds one, in an amusing way, of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and this being a John Waters film, naturally Hearst herself shows up in a role as the mom of one of the teenagers.
Cecil B. Demented has a lot of in-jokes for film buffs; the coded messages for the kidnapping are lines like “Hey, hey, MPAA, how many movies did you censor today?” When the filmmakers run into trouble, they run into specialty movie theaters where the audiences help them out. The teens are determined to eradicate multiplexes and the kinds of movies that play there; they attack a theater that is showing Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut, face a crowd full of angry moms at a theater that refuses to show R or unrated films, and sabotage a Maryland Film Commission luncheon full of Hollywood execs. I liked the opening credits, which showed the marquees of what I assume were a number of Baltimore-area theaters, over a song that spoofed overwrought cliched movie music.
Cecil B. Demented is a fun movie for people who like to see movies in theaters, especially older theaters — it was a treat to see all of the theaters in the movie, including the drive-in. It’s not a great movie — the plot doesn’t make much sense, some of the acting is flat, and the teen characters’ quirks sometimes become tiresome (Gyllenhaal’s Satanic devotions get old fast, although I did like her makeup). Summertime is the perfect time to see this movie, because if you have been watching nothing but multiplex fare, especially summer blockbusters, this movie does prove its point: the latest “tentpole” film seems bland, dull, and annoyingly predictable compared to the glorious chaos of Cecil B. Demented.

B is for Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: 2006, dir. Scott Glosserman. Seen July 17, 2007 on DVD.
I like my horror movies to be funny, and not in too much of an immature way. My favorite horror movies are probably Evil Dead 2 and Re-Animator, because they made me laugh. The combination of horror and humor can be cheesy, but the two can work well together — you’re laughing to relieve a little of the tension caused by suspense, but the suspense ratchets right back up there again. I didn’t have a lot of interest in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon until I saw a trailer and realized that it had the right sense of humor to appeal to me.
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon starts out as a joke and grows a bit scary along the way. It begins as a mockumentary: Some grad students are making a documentary about Leslie Vernon, a guy who was thought to be dead a decade earlier when a town’s lynch mob drowned him. Now he’s back to take revenge and begin his life as a serial killer, following in the footsteps of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc. The filmmakers follow him as he demonstrates how to pick out a “final girl,” how to set up a house to best attack a large group of people, what to wear for a night of mass murder, and so forth. The filmmakers are faced with the age-old issue that plagues documentarians — how much should you interfere, if at all?
The movie makes fun of horror-film conventions, especially the horror movies in which a bunch of teenagers are menaced and killed, one by one, by some guy with a chainsaw or razor fingernails or wearing a freakish mask. At one point, Leslie visits some friends of his, including Eugene, who has “retired” from “the business” that Leslie is currently pursuing. In other words, an ex-serial killer. But he talks about being from the bad old days, where you just went into the house and “did your job” without all of these fancy plans and motives. That reminded me of In Cold Blood, somehow — the book, since I haven’t seen the movie. So I didn’t realize until afterwards that Scott Wilson, who played Eugene, also played Dick Hickock in the 1967 movie In Cold Blood. Nice touch. Robert Englund (best known for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies) also has a small role, but since he’s not dressed like Freddy Krueger you might not recognize him either.
My one regret was that I saw this movie on DVD and not in a theater. Behind the Mask needs a lively audience — it would be a great midnight movie. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it at SXSW in 2006; I suspect it played very well to the receptive festival crowd. The living room seemed too quiet at times; the movie needs a group of people all reacting and laughing. This would also be a good Movie Night film, if you like having people over to watch movies.
First-time director (and co-writer) Scott Glosserman made a smart and funny horror movie, without too much gore or “jump” moments. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

A is for All the President’s Men

All the President’s Men: 1976, dir. Alan J. Pakula. Seen April 22, 2007 on DVD.
All the President’s Men shouldn’t be as interesting a movie as it is. It’s more than two hours long and features a couple of journalists doing a lot of research in service to a story that we already know about ourselves. They spend a lot of time on the phone, and knocking on doors, and digging through stacks of dull paperwork. We don’t see anything about their personal lives, if they even had any at that time; a large chunk of the movie is set in a newsroom. (I’m growing tired of the guy-centric Seventies movies with the token scene or two with some girlfriend or wife, myself, and I was relieved not to see that kind of unnecessary stuff in this movie. I swear, I think those scenes are in certain movies just to show that the male buddies aren’t gay.)
It’s not quite a buddy movie, either. These two guys are working together, and they do get along much better at the end than they do at the beginning, but there aren’t any great bonding moments. They argue over trays of fast food at McDonald’s, or while one is at the typewriter and the other is fussing over notes.
So what makes All the President’s Men work? Good acting — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The faces are instantly familiar, but it works the other way around, the good way: We imagine Woodward and Bernstein as looking like Redford and Hoffman. Wow, remember when Redford was that young? In one scene, where he’s walking home after a meeting at the garage, he looked eerily like Brad Pitt.

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