No Vacancy

As indie comedies go, No Vacancy, the 1999 sort-of-ensemble indie comedy tries desperately to be off the wall and kooky, but just falls flat and limp all over. It’s really a shame too, because it’s got some great character actors that I’d follow any cinematic route they go. Joaquim de Almeida is one of my personal faves. If you haven’t already, check out one of his best portrayals in The Burning Plain (which I reviewed previously, here). It’s also starring Christina Ricci, and I’m thinking in 1999 she was the primary reason for this movie ever being made or shed any light upon.

Ricci is okay, nothing spectacular for her oeuvre or anything, but the best thing about her performance is how she’s inter-cut throughout the film. There’s a nice editing pace to the whole feature, but in simple afterthought, much of this film is superfluous and could be cut. It’s one of those rom-com’s where pretty much every character ends up finding the person they’re meant to be with by the end of the movie. Now, yes, I may be a cynic, but I’m all for happy ending love stories in the cinema. I just don’t like the ones that waste my time up until the two people get together. Honestly, this would have probably been much better as a short. The characters are so easily pigeonholed, no back story is even necessary to involve the audience right from the first scenes.

Timothy Olyphant is Ricci’s “true” love interest, a refrigerator repairman who lives in Tarzana, just outside of Los Angeles. The story uses him as a sort of pivot point, like a compass, he guides the story where it wants to go next for the most part. The crazy cast of characters are all Hollywood rejects and oddballs who live together (and/or are just passing through) in a neon-lit side-of-the-road motel in the middle of Dead-ville.

In room #1 we have the virtuoso violinist who no one “gets” because, you know, he’s a genius, and no one ever “gets” geniuses in movies. Next door to him are two doped up losers who’ve had a long night of partying with some escorts above their budget. Then there’s the new age-y woman, played annoyingly by Lolita Davidovich. She makes people drink beet juice, wears weirdly colorful bile-based exfoliating masks and doesn’t know when to stop.

Anyway, you get the point, right? It’s your standard cast of lovable idiots, they’ll all eventually meet, the obvious conflicts will ensue and be handled, and once you see it, you’ll wish you could get your 80+ minutes back. Oh, and as a sort of coda, the filmmakers thought it would be funny to show a cat electrocuted in a pool! Just in case you didn’t like the movie up until that point, you know.

Black Snake Moan

In the 1970s exploitation films seemed to take hold of America (maybe even Europe) by surprise. In today’s cinema we don’t often see the exploitation film as a genre-defined “exploitation film,” but rather a “summer movie” or “teen movie.” Unless it’s marketed as being exploitative (i.e. a Tarantino film), this genre is primarily defunct. Until now.

I believe that director Craig Brewer has brought to audiences the first true exploitation film in a long while. Not since the early 80s have I seen anything quite like Black Snake Moan, and honestly, I only hope I can see some more. I think this is an exceptional sign-of-the-times, mainly because a large part of the catalyst to exploitation films becoming so rampant and even popular in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, was the declining state of affairs in the nation and the general wanton outlook of cinema’s primary seat-filling audiences: the youth (a.k.a. the next generation). So have we come full circle?

If Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, had of just been a little scratched on a few frames, or dusty throughout the entire negative, or even missing a scene or two, it would have been a direct throwback to the 1970s exploitation genre.

Black Snake Moan is a film that while taking itself very seriously, also panders to the viewer without remorse. Take for example, the fact that Christina Ricci’s character is a nymphomaniac. At times we are made to feel distaste for her character by the way she knowingly and excitedly flaunts herself through the town, and writhes around immediately after her “steady” boyfriend leaves her to join the war. Then at other times we are made to feel a sorrow or pity for her, finding out the potential root cause(s) for why she has become the way she is, and we are forced to endure her painful flashbacks which consequently ail her now.

Similarly, there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character who with Biblical name and all, pledges to “cure [her] of [her] wickedness,” and we appreciate the fact that he’s a seemingly harmless individual who wants nothing but to help this young woman. However, he leaves her chained to the radiator (the one thing his freshly estranged wife hated the most about their drafty old house) in nothing but a strategically ripped sweatshirt and a pair of white panties. Not to mention he feels the need to bathe her.

So, in typical exploitative fashion, this movie toys with every fiber of decency we choose to acknowledge in ourselves, it wants us to feel conflicted about it, and thereby begs the question, who in this world (or film, anyway) really does anything out of pure, un-ulterior motivated decency? Brewer has shown in the few films that he’s made that he has a special knack for being able to show raw sides of life, the internal conflicts in human beings, and their everyday motivations, all while still producing feature films that are hip, edgy and marketable. That’s the reason to watch Black Snake Moan, and mark my words; this is the beginning of a new era of cinema.