LITTLE ROCK There's a Critic's Notebook blurb in this week's New Yorker in which David Denby dismisses Good, a new movie about a meek literature professor (Viggo Mortensen), a "Good German" who is drawn into the Nazi party before World War II. While Denby doesn't care much for the film, he acknowledges that "it is good to see a really disastrous film every now and then: It makes one appreciate the modest victories of people with the skill to make a decent movie."
While I don't know about Good - it's got a shot at opening here sooner or later - I understand Denby's sentiment. It helps to be reminded of how hard it is to make a movie, how much competence (and money) must be marshaled in order to simply finish any project. It's very easy for a critic to feel superior to an awkward film, to overlook the difficulty of the undertaking. Nomovie every gets made without someone putting forth an extraordinary effort.
So let me say this about Insomnia, an extremely lowbudget feature showing at Market Street Cinema in Little Rock at 2 p.m. Sunday (tickets are $10 and can be bought at the door or through the Web site www.imaginary friendfi lms.com) - it's a genuine, fi nished movie that I enjoyed watching. It's got problems, maybe it's not releasable to a mass audience, but writer/director Chris Neil hung in for more than four years and now has an 86-minute result that proves he can make a fi lm.
Neil, a 1992 graduate of McClellan High School, wrote the film during his downtime as a hotel desk clerk in 1996. He began working in earnest on it in 2004 after he took ajob as a teacher at the Arkansas School for the Blind and secured the services of a co-worker, Leon Tidwell, with a digital camera.
"I suppose that when I started this crazy exercise, I aspired to be the next Kevin Smith or Robert Rodriguez, and figured I had just as good a chance as anyone to get a prominent screening at a major festival, and immediately take power lunches with Harvey [Weinstein]," Neil says. "I'll never stop aspiring to exactly that, but I remain realistic about my chances. ... I just hope that finishing a feature will give me enough street cred to attract all the great talent I can for the next one." The film, mostly shot in black and white, makes good use of locations in Little Rock and Hot Springs, and its soundtrack features local musicians. It demonstrates that it's possible to make credible homemade cinema.
And that Chris Neil can make a movie.
On another local note, Tracing Cowboys, a beautifully shot, dreamily evocative film screened in May at the 2008 Little Rock Film Festival, had its theatrical release in Los Angeles last week.
It will be released on DVD before long.
The film's worth mentioning not only because of its extraordinary cinematography that recalls the work of Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle (it won the HDNet Best Picture award at AFI Dallas and Best Cinematography at the Nashville International Film Festival last year) but because of the tragic death of its star and screenwriter, Sacha Grunpeter, killed in a car crash on the final day of production.
Because of that, screenwriter Aaron Henry, a Fayetteville native, was called in to write some new voice-over narration to tie the film together. The new version is a decided improvement over the version that showed in festivals as it lends the film an added layer of poignancy, not to mention coherence.
Better late than never, Market Street Cinema impresario Matt Smith checks in with his Top 10 - actually Top 12 - list: 1. The Wrestler 2. The Visitor 3. Tell No One 4. Rachel Getting Married 5. Frozen River 6. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days 7.
Happy-Go-Lucky 8. Let the Right One In 9. I've Loved You So Long 10. Slumdog Millionaire 11. Vicky Cristina Barcelona 12. Synecdoche, New York
MovieStyle, Pages 35, 37 on 01/16/2009