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OPINION | NEW MOVIES: Two that (sort of) got away

by Philip Martin | May 7, 2021 at 1:35 a.m.

Behind the scenes here at Big Shot Movie Guy Inc., we are always scrambling.

You don't care about our problems, but we have them. Mondays and Tuesdays around here are hectic times, as we try to figure out what movies are actually opening in Arkansas this week (which is trickier than you might think) and what streaming films we want to cover and how we might get advanced access to them.

It's not always a straightforward process; often -- but not always -- distributors email us offers of screening links, but at other times we have to track down the people who are in charge of promoting a movie. It could be a big advertising agency -- in which case I need to find the right person -- or a freelancer working out of a home office or someone in the employ of a studio. There's a document on my laptop that's more than 20 pages long containing names and email addresses and websites for various distributors -- and I add to it almost every week. There's a real art to finding out the best contact for any given movie.

And let's not get started on how difficult it sometimes is to find hi-res publicity stills. They used to all be on a couple of websites, now it seems more and more of them are delivered via Dropbox ...

It has always been sort of complicated, because there's a natural tension between publicists and the press. Publicists are interested in having their messages delivered in ways that benefit their clients. And the press is supposed to -- without fear or favor -- tell the truth.

But we can't tell you the truth about a movie unless we see the movie. And we can't make a studio show us a movie in advance. They will only show us a movie in advance if they think it accrues to their advantage to do so.

Most of the time, they figure that having a review in the newspaper (and online) on the day their movie opens is, on balance, a positive thing. I don't think publicists care much one way or the other about whether the review is positive or not (actors, directors and other creative types may care a great deal), they just want to raise awareness about their movie. They see the review as a free ad for the movie.

We want to write about movies because we honestly think that there's something worthwhile in considering mass entertainments -- that it is worthwhile to examine the cultural products we consume. Even though fewer and fewer people attend the movies every week, the movies still function as kind of a cultural glue. They are the things we talk about at water coolers (and soon we will again gather around water coolers).

We started this section more than 20 years ago to look at movies critically, through the prism of, as Anthony Trollope would put it, how we live now. We looked around and saw that a lot of the entertainment press in this country seemed to function as cheerleaders and lapdogs, reveling in proximity to celebrity, and we thought that was kind of silly. We decide to treat silly things seriously, and we're still standing. There aren't a lot of people out there doing criticism in general interest newspapers anymore, but we keep trying.

Maybe you aren't -- and shouldn't be -- interested in how we make the sausage. But when we make deals, I try to be transparent.

There is no review of Gia Coppola's movie "Mainstream" in the newspaper today. For whatever reason, the studio, IFC, didn't offer critics advance screening links for review. But -- and this is unusual -- they did offer screening links for journalists who wanted to interview Coppola for feature purposes.

It's pretty easy to work out why. They didn't want reviews of "Mainstream" on the day it opened in theaters. But they did hope that some outlets would run interviews with Coppola promoting the movie.

And that's OK, that's their prerogative. They are under no obligation to show us their movie so we can review it. If we wanted to we could wait until the movie opened and buy a ticket and review it. But we are not required to promote their movie either. So at first we passed on the interview. Our priority is to review movies; if we can't review a film then we generally don't write about it at all.

But I happen to know the people who were promoting this particular film pretty well, and after some further communication, we arrived at a compromise. We would interview Coppola -- because we adjudged that interview to be of some value to readers -- but we wouldn't run it until after we've had a chance to review the film. Which in effect means we're holding the interview until next week. And we may or may not review the film next week.

As of right now, I'm leaning toward not reviewing the film in a separate piece next week -- space is still a valuable thing to us, even now that our main product is digital -- but having the interviewer, Dan Lybarger, who also reviews movies for us, fold his critical opinion into the piece. That will mean we will attach an "opinion" label to his interview piece, which is something we don't ordinarily do.

I haven't seen "Mainstream" and so I don't want to offer an opinion of it beyond what I can glean from a few text messages I've exchanged with Dan: It doesn't appear to be the kind of disastrous effort that studios and publicists typically withhold from critics. I don't know why the powers that be didn't want to screen it for critics. I'm not sure we should infer anything negative about the movie from that decision.

Whenever a movie opens theatrically in Arkansas we try to review it as close to its opening day as possible. This is the first time I can remember that we agreed not to review a film in this way, and I am not sure this is exactly the way we ought to proceed. But it's what we're doing in this case.

And I wanted you to know that.


Our failure to review Philip Noyce's new film, "Above Suspicion," doesn't have a back story that's nearly as interesting; I sent out feelers to a few likely suspects last week and simply didn't hear back. It might be that I didn't reach the right person, or it might be that someone just forget to email me back. In any case it slipped through the cracks, and that's a shame because I generally enjoy both Noyce's movie starry action thrillers ("Clear and Present Danger," "Salt,") and his quieter historical dramas ("Newsfront," "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "The Quiet American").

This one -- which stars Jack Huston as the real-life FBI agent Mark Putnam, the first FBI agent ever convicted of murder -- promised to be sort of a hybrid between those two modes. In real life Putnam, who was investigating drug trafficking in Kentucky, became romantically involved with one of his informants, a woman named Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke, "Game of Thrones").

In 1989, Putnam, who was married, strangled Smith to death after an argument in which she allegedly claimed to be pregnant with his child. Putnam dumped her body alongside a coal road and drove home to his family in Florida. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but he was granted early release after serving 10 years.

"Above Suspicion" was completed in 2019 and it opened in England last year, so there are a few reviews of it floating around on the web. The Rotten Tomatoes website has logged 11 critic reviews, six of which they consider unfavorable, but one of my favorite critics, Peter Bradshaw of the U.K. newspaper The Guardian thought it was fairly interesting.

"There are times when 'Above Suspicion" resembles an old-fashioned TV movie: It's based on a famous scandal, more interested in melodrama than sociology, and views its subjects without the panoramic scope of better crime films," Jesse Hassenger wrote in the U.K. periodical NME. "To Noyce's credit, the film makes an impression even when it feels truncated. He directs action crisply, and does his best not to gawk at the story's hard-living grimness. 'Above Suspicion' moves so swiftly that it only starts to feel like a foregone conclusion in its final minutes."

So that's what we didn't get to this week. We'll try again next week.



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