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CECIL B. DEMENTED

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt
Director:  John Waters
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  1.77:1 Anamorphic
Studio:  Artisan
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  January 23, 2001

Film ***1/2

John Waters is an acquired taste, and for those who have, along with anybody else who loves the art of making movies, he’s written an eclectic love letter in the form of 88 minutes of cinematic, comical fury called Cecil B. Demented. 

Waters is, in part at least, making fun of the public’s perception of himself as a wild, adamant outsider who makes movies to thumb his nose at the people who make bigger, more successful films than him.  His title character, played by Stephen Dorff, is that image taken to a manic extreme.

Cecil and his renegade band of outlaw filmmakers want to make a movie badly, but don’t have the means to do it.  Under his sociopathic guidance, he and his team stage an elaborate, explosive kidnapping of spoiled Hollywood A-list star, Honey Whitlock (Griffith).  His plan?  To make a realistic, guerilla film, shot in real time, with real people, that will make the ultimate statement against mainstream cinema.  And Honey will be his star.

When she first arrives at their lair, tied and gagged, what unfolds in front of her has to be her worst nightmare.  Each member of Cecil’s cast and crew introduces him or herself, one by one, by showing off that each one has a tattoo of their favorite director’s name:  Fassbinder, Sam Peckinpah, David Lynch and so on.  One of the girls actually says, “Hi, I’m a Satanist.  I’ll be doing your make-up.”  To make matters worst, she realized she’s surrounded not only by people who are crazy, but horny.  “We’ve taken a vow of celibacy for cinema,” Demented tells her.  “No one has sex until we finish the movie.”

Despite her pleas, Cecil is manically fixed on his agenda, and his team along with him.  Soon, Honey finds herself dyed blond, made up horrifically, and adorned in trashy clothes (amazingly like a John Waters heroine!), and thrust into some dangerous real life situations where unsuspecting theatre attendants and studio big wigs alike are suddenly in the middle of terrorist style movie making, complete with guns and explosions.  Two of the best sequences, which I’m sure came directly from John Waters’ heart, include an attack on a cinemaplex showing the director’s cut of Patch Adams (“the movie was already long enough!” insists Honey, as she spray paints ‘edit’ on the box office window), and a later one, where the team disrupts the set of the sequel to Forest Gump, where Kevin Nealon has taken over Tom Hanks’ old role.

If Cecil is a bit of a parody of John Waters’ own image, he’s also a caricature of a lot of amateur filmmakers taken to extreme.  I’ve known a few in my day, and they all tend to think they’re making a Citizen Kane with no budget and a cast and crew of amateurs.  None of them went to the level Cecil does in this film, naturally, but he represents the logical conclusion of such passion under such circumstances drawn out to their obvious conclusions.  “I am a prophet against profit,” he proudly proclaims, and we can see by the crazed look in his eye that he really means it.

I couldn’t help but think while watching the movie that it would make a great comic book.  Cecil and his crew taking their guns and violent revolution straight to the heart of Hollywood cookie cutter filmmaking?  I sense a series in that.  Maybe somebody’s started one already.  It could begin with Cecil’s speech about how Hollywood “has stolen our sex and co-opted our violence”.

Most of my responses to John Waters’ films over the years have been lukewarm at best…I’ve appreciated his attempt to create something different and out of the ordinary, but I haven’t always cared for his blatant sense of bad taste, his over the top sense of dialogue and direction, or just the way he sometimes fills the screens with grotesque images that, I tend to believe, delight only himself.  But I do think he’s stumbled onto something with Cecil B. Demented.  This could be considered his best work, because he blends plenty of action and comedy with some biting, exaggerated satire and extreme characters to bring a personal statement (of sorts) to life on the big screen.  If nothing else, it’s funny and entertaining, especially to those who have really given the art of moviemaking more than just a casual thought.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Keep an eye out for Waters’ favorite Ricki Lake, and one-time kidnapping victim Patricia Hearst (whose presence in a film of this nature is more than just a little ironic).

Video ****

Artisan has done a magnificent job with this anamorphic transfer.  This is a wildly flashy and colorful film, and images from start to finish render beautifully, with crisply defined lines and natural, well balanced colors.  I noticed no grain, chroma noise, or edge enhancement anywhere.  From darker scenes to well lit ones, images always maintain their integrity and never suffer distortion.  This is an excellent video offering.

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is terrific as well, with plenty of strong, dynamic range offered up by the film’s music and many action sequences.  There are plenty of discreet uses of the rear channels, as well as clean, smooth crossovers from front to back and excellent use of multi-directional sound.  The .1 channel gives the rock and hip hop tunes and the gunplay, crashes and explosions extra bottom end.  Dialogue clarity is perfect throughout.  Highest marks.

Features ***1/2

For starters, the disc contains a commentary track by John Waters, which is a pure delight to listen to.  He’s funny and flamboyant in his speaking style, and packs his commentary with plenty of good information.  The Comedy Central “Canned Ham” special on the film is also included, which features interviews with Waters, Dorff, Witt and more.  There are also production notes and talent files, plus two trailers and a TV spot.

Summary:

Cecil B. Demented is John Waters as his unapologetic, screwball best.  With a distinct lack of subtlety, he and his talented cast deliver a picture that’s big on laughs and entertainment value, one that acutely bites the proverbial hand that feeds them with a sharp, exaggerated satire on anti-Hollywood sentiment.  It’s enough to make any serious movie fan chant along:  hey, hey, MPAA, how many films did you censor today?