Thursday, November 17, 2016

Arrival, Certain Women, and The Story of 90 Coins

                                            Time Is What You Make of It
 By chance, each of the films to be reviewed this week are getting a 3½-star-rating from me because I think all of them have a useful presence in our cinemas although they each could offer a bit more in terms of clarity or impact.  Let’s see if you agree or not, so please speak up either way.
                                                       Reviews by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                                   Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve)
A linguistics professor is recruited by the U.S. government to work with a theoretical physicist to deal with the sudden appearance of huge UFOs hovering above 12 various Earthly locations; she finds the aliens communicate with a complex series of circles, then works frantically to decode what they’re saying before the military carries out threats of hostile actions.
What Happens: We begin with the simultaneous arrival of UFOs at different locations around planet Earth as we then see celebrated linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams)—wistful in low-key-lighting at her lovely lake house—telling us (in voice-over) how it all began on that fateful day, following by quick shots of what we assume are flashbacks of daughter Hannah, shown from babyhood to girlhood (Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan) but then dying at age 12 of cancer.  Next, Louise is off to class but few students have shown up, with those there watching their laptop-news-reports of the sudden appearance of the aliens with general panic, falling stock markets, states of emergency worldwide because there are 12 of these spaceships arranged in no particular pattern.  Dr. Banks is soon visited at home by government men, led by Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), who need her skills in making sense of the aliens’ language, although recordings of such reveal a type of speech incomprehensible to human ears; soon she’s on a helicopter to Montana where another member of the team is gruff theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).  They find the huge spaceship hovering just above ground, with an upper door opening every 18 hours; the contact team enters, then walks cautiously down a long, dark passageway (accompanied by strange, bombastic music), coming to a transparent wall containing a foggy environment where 2 squid-like creatures (later defined as Heptapods but named Abbott and Costello for reference by Donnelly) have no way of communicating with them, even as other sites around the globe have agitated humans also trying to make sense of this ominous presence while the various military leaders are preparing for a 1st-strike-offense as soon as they deem it necessary.

 Dr. Banks, using a small erasable whiteboard, tries to indicate some word-meaning-association to these remarkable-visitors who respond by squirting ink onto the glass wall which forms into intricate circles.  Through a slow process of question/ answer with the aliens 
(far too slow for the many nervous government men [she seems to be the only woman of authority here—maybe the only woman at all; by now, I can’t say that I remember—as part of this project], including Ian, who all anticipate big-time-trouble, hoping to act decisively before it occurs), Louise begins to draw conclusions about the alien words in these sentence-circles, so she keeps trying to make any sense that she can of why they’ve come to our planet.  Before she can get clarity, though, the team in China gets a brief message with the translated words “use weapon,” leading Gen. Shang (Tzi Ma) to impose a deadline for alien departure before he takes the offensive initiative (with other countries ready to do the same).  Back in Montana, Louise and Ian are given a complex burst of a message (looks like a Jackson Pollock painting) before some local hostilities break out due to over-anxious-soldiers, leading to the spaceship rising considerably higher off the ground once these visitors have been extracted.  Somehow (beyond my comprehension) Ian begins to decode the complicated message, realizing it’s about the concept of time, whereupon Louise breaks away from confinement to rush back to the ship where a small shuttle descends to bring her up to the main vehicle.  Once 
inside she now somehow (again) has a much better command of their very-complex-language so she finds herself within the fog on the other side of the glass, carrying on a crucial conversation with “Costello” who tells her that “Abbott” is dying 
(I’m not clear on the reason for this either nor, truly, how it impacts the plot).  Quickly she learns that the Heptapods are on Earth to seek our help against a disaster 3,000 in the future (they live in a different relationship with time than we do), that the visions Louise has been having about a child are actually flashforwards of something that has yet to occur (not flashbacks of a past event, as we’d been led to believe) but the little girl's father will leave Louise because she makes “the wrong choice,” that fully learning all of the Heptapod language will allow humans to experience time the way they do (How?  Beats me!), that the humans must coordinate responses from all 12 spaceships to know their full purpose (seemingly to force our fractured planet to work together to achieve a zero-sum-game rather than our preference for winners or losers, but I guess with that intention now failed she alone is getting the whole picture in a manner that could be interpreted as some sort of bizarre Bernie Sanders-Donald Trump mash-up, even though it’s being applied after-the-film-production-fact to our recent election cycle), and that an attack by us will destroy all of this intended inter-species-cooperation.

 When she’s returned to the base camp, Louise somehow (once again) sees on a computer screen a vision into the future that she’s written a book (which is dedicated to Hannah, whose name is a backwards-forwards palindrome, just like the alien sentences are structured as circles indicating a unity of time aspects rather than a strict linear progression) translating the Heptapod language, then she has another vision of a big celebration 18 months into the future (seemingly Louise has always had strong psychic powers—previously unknown to her—which are increasing with her understanding of written-Heptapod) where she’s in conversation with Gen. Shang about how she convinced him to call off his attack when she quoted his dying wife’s words to him; by continuing to interact with this vision, present-day-Louise gets Shang’s private cell-phone-number, then tells him those words, so that the future is able to inform the past just as it did in Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014; review in our November 13, 2014 posting, an even-more-lengthy [but informative, I hope, with its many links] review than usual from me [but I now see its graphic layout as being sloppy; I’ve tried to be more cognizant of that lately]).  When Shang calls off his attack, the spaceships disappear (seemingly in clouds of smoke; maybe like a cloaking-device), the crisis is over, Ian expresses his love for Louise (oddly, he says something about wanting to hold her again, as if he’s also able to do some mental-time-traveling, but that’s not explained either) so it’s clear that they’ll marry, he’ll be upset when Louise chooses to have the child knowing she’ll die young, yet she makes that decision anyway (with no clarity about what comes for all humankind once we’re able to use the Heptapod insights contained in Banks’ forthcoming book).

So What? When the aliens show up (in what resemble huge silver metal biscotti cookies—but unless they came through a wormhole from some Italian-based-solar-system [well, after all, these Heptapods look like they’d make some delicious calamari
I know, very crass for interplanetary-relations] 
I don’t know what kind of stealth-technology they have that allows them to suddenly appear all over our planet with not a hint of foreknowledge from Earth’s many satellite-based-tracking-devices), we revel in a blessedly-welcome-sci-fi-tale where we’re not dealing with vicious creatures from the unknown who’ve either come here to destroy us (as with what's presented in The Thing form Another World [Howard Hawks, 1951], Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996], and so many others like them) or we’ve gone “out there” only to find monsters ready and willing to destroy us (as with scenarios we find in such movies as the Alien series [begun by Ridley Scott, 1979, now being continued by him in prequels beginning with Prometheus {2012; review in our June 14, 2012 posting}]).  Instead, as with the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951; somewhat-similar-plot-flow in the remake by Scott Derrickson, 2008), the main violence comes from trigger-happy-Earth-soldiers who’ve been overtrained in the concept of fight (in hopes the “enemy” takes flight), although thanks to the desperate-but-cool-headed-actions of Dr. Banks no further inter-species-conflict occurs in Arrival.  

 But we also get something a little more akin to the fantasy explanations of the Superman-Spiderman-X-Men variety (somehow a planetary-relocation allows x-ray and heat vision for the former [the gravitation differences might allow stupendous-high-jumping, but flight throughout the galaxies?], a radioactive arachnid bite conveys spider-qualities to a human in the middle example, naturally-occurring-mutations give certain humans control of the weather, waves of energy flashed from their eyes, bodily-transformations, etc. in the latter) than the quasi-physics-realm of science-fiction, or maybe my problem with this film is simply that the Heptapods’ astounding ability to free-flow through time would have been more impactful for me if this plot had explored it more rather than just using it as a narrative twist to change our understanding of Louise’s later-life-choices.

 Admittedly, Arrival needs to sell itself as an alien-encounter-mystery, where the assumed-assault-clock is ticking for both the involved characters and their audiences’ nerves until we find out what these intergalactic-travelers really want from us, so that ticket-buyers will get their expected, expertly-calculated dose of intentionally-confusing suspense until the actual, surprising, global-mutual-cooperation-theme is revealed (seemingly as a 21st-century-call for the international-connectivity needed to deal with our current massive problems that include the disruptive factors of climate change, terrorism, income along with resource inequity, enhanced employment opportunities, genuine acceptance of those not in a society’s majority, etc., but, given all of the inner-turmoil in so many countries now over issues like immigration, economic stability, tolerance of diversity, that makes a difficult-selling-point for a big-budget-Hollywood-movie); however, when Arrival does shift into a more-cerebral-mode we’re shown only that the main impact of human knowledge about Heptapod-interaction with time is Louise’s painful acceptance of bearing a child she knows will die in girlhood (in the process, also ending her relationship with Ian), leaving us to ponder on our own the type of questions that parents of soon-to-be-born-children-with-known-birth-defects already are forced to grapple with, whether they chance to find some future cure or improvement, whether they decide 
to cherish the time with the likely-fated-child (as Louise does [along with legions of real-world-pro-life-proponents, although she brings no moral nor theological arguments to her defense]), or whether to spare the future-child the agony of either a compromised life or a heart-rendering-early-death, a tragic end for all involved.  This is powerful, thought-provoking-stuff, but it only comes clear in the long-afterthoughts of viewing this film, piecing it all back together again as we finally understand that this complex film began at the end of the story's many events as we see Louise’s ongoing remorse over her daughter’s death, with everything else as flashback (although we realize in retrospect that the quick scenes of the child were actually flashforwards within the context of Louise’s life, that everything about marriage, divorce, and Hannah’s death came after her encounter with the aliens).  This should be intriguing filmmaking, well worth pondering after the fact of the screening, but it all rushes by so quickly at the end (along with the unanswered-questions about what humanity will later do with its new-found-knowledge of Heptapod-time-management) that it begins to feel like a set-up for a more involved sense of resolution that running-time-demands interrupted (unlike with Interstellar, which also raises a lot of challenging concepts but fortunately is granted almost 3 hours to better address them all).

 Another aspect that we find in Arrival’s structure that also slightly flows into X-Men territory is Louise’s existent powerful psychic ability (which seemingly enhances her linguistics cognitive knowledge in being able to translate the abstract-symbol-elements of the Heptapod language written with spewed ink), which probably is why our interplanetary visitors appear to have chosen Montana as one of their locations, with their clear foreknowledge of her extraordinary potential (however they acquired it; maybe it came about through their fluid-time-abilities because they’d already had the advance-opportunity to read her forthcoming [for us] book) because they already knew she’d have to be chosen by our nervous government to be brought to their spacecraft nearest to her (unspecified) university location (but if that’s the case then you’d think they’d know the outcome of this story before they even meet her, demonstrating once again how the concept of any sort of time-travel has difficulty translating from physics to fiction).  Maybe she’s just that insightful (although having served many years as a college professor I can testify that doesn’t always come with the job), but based on the few circles (at least that we’re shown in the film, when the human crew had limited access to the spaceship) they gave back to her in response to the very few English words she wrote out for them, I can’t see how she made as much sense as she did of their exquisite-constructions, nor can I understand why—if all 
12 of the human translators working separately (so that others were making progress similar to hers, especially in Russia and China) were needed to get beyond the confusion of the “weapon” message but Louise is the only one who could properly use that future-connection-ability to bring about the stand-down-order from Gen. Shang—that more information wasn’t given directly to her earlier in order to get past the military-standoff which almost aborted the whole mission, to the detriment of both species.  It all plays great on-screen but unravels some upon further scrutiny.

 But, as I noted with Interstellar, ultimately we must remember that these are constructed-stories, not fact-based-documentaries (or even a merge of the 2, as is the case with the present Mars mini-series on the National Geographic Channel about current desires coupling with future projections about human-habitation of the Red Planet), so we’ve got to grant some leeway to entertainment/ artistic-needs, even if the final results get a little murky in terms of internal story logic or bring 
about a half-star-rating-demotion from an internationally-known-film-critic (or me, for that matter).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: As with the other items to be reviewed below, I’ve veered toward a more cautious rating for Arrival (3½ stars, 70% of my optimal 5, although this is still a strongly-positive-response from me given that I rarely go above 4, reserving my highest numbers for re-releases of films already proven as classics or any of the extremely few new ones with an especially-strong-potential ultimately to be considered as such), even as the accepted critical consensus is notably-higher with 93% of the reviews surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes being positive while at Metacritic the average score is 81% (quite high for this group with only such recent fare as Hell or High Water [David Mackenzie; review in our August 26, 2016 posting] and Moonlight [Barry Jenkins; review in our November 10, 2016 posting] achieving considerably better with them, the former getting an 88% score, the latter an astounding 99%, with 4 stars for each from me, as high as I feel I can go at this time—in addition to more info on these consensus ratings for Arrival in the Related Links section of this posting far below you can also find the link for our summary of Two Guys reviews to see what offerings in the cinematic marketplace
since late 2011 have earned the rare 4½- or 5-star-ratings from stingy old me).  Where I do have some nagging-problems with Arrival, as opposed to other films it’s been compared to* such as Interstellar or 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)—the former garnering 4 stars from me, the latter an easy 5-star-standard-bearer if I'd ever do a review of it—is that unlike Interstellar this current film presents some difficult-to-comprehend-devices that it doesn’t thoroughly sell in the process of its narrative exposition (despite all of Interstellar’s seemingly-fantastic-aspects of time-dislocation and tesseract-activity within a black hole/singularity-state of existence, this fictionalized version of humanity’s escape from our collapsing-planet passes muster with many astrophysicists—if you accept the appearance of a wormhole near Saturn and a few other not-fully-answered-questions in my review) nor does Arrival go far enough in relying on evolutionary-assisting-aliens as does Kubrick’s classic.  For me, this new film, despite its many fine aspects, pushes us to the plausibility level of storytelling-challenges (as does all effective sci-fi) but falls just short of either solidifying the science aspect (like Gravity [Alfonso Cuarón, 2013; review in our October 9, 2013 posting]) or nudging rationality aside with the larger-embrace of fiction (like what E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial [Steven Spielberg, 1982] or various manifestations of Star Trek [reviews of recent Treks in our May 24, 2013 and July 28, 2016 postings] have been doing in our popular culture for decades).

*I have very limited access to mainstream movie screenings (but I’m still willing to depend on the kindness of strangers in the San Francisco Film Critics Circle when I’ll soon make another attempt at membership application), so I assume by the time my reviews appear most of my readers are joining me in a post-viewing-state of remembrance/contemplation (or are simply using my astute comments as a substitute for even seeing what I’m reviewing, thereby saving a little cash).  The downside is the standard preview-reviewers often beat me to the punch in making observations that I share with them (such as connections between Arrival and the earlier films noted above) so 
I hope I don't seem like a serial-plagiarist; you’ll just have to trust me that I had the same brilliant ideas my colleagues did, but they get to share them in public before I do.  It's a little frustrating at times although also a fundamental reality with the Two Guys blog so I just have to live with it.

 Consequently, I realize that I’ve offered up a lot of complaints (but of a relatively-mild-nature, all of which might be easily, reasonably responded to in direct dialogue with the director and screenwriter [Eric Heisserer]) about why Arrival, in my after-the fact, retrospective 
re-evaluation (another challenge I face as a normally-after-the-fact-reviewer because I have time to mull over what I’ve seen before I explore it—other aspects of my life put distance between when I see something on a weekend and when I write about it a few days later, unlike the “do-this-for-a-living”-folks who likely pound out their responses as soon as possible after the screenings to avail themselves of fresh memories that may be more spontaneous [honest?] than mine, which are filtered through a mesh of detail-fog and contemplative-consideration) isn’t coming out in these review words as being quite as impactful as it was upon my initial viewing of this film.  Yet, there’s a lot to like here, from its concept that beings (even human beings) with no understanding of those who don’t resemble them in hardly any manner can still find means of comprehended-interaction, appreciate mutual needs, share resources leading to mutual benefits (an excellent lesson for all of us in our
current rocky times of constant sociopolitical-turmoil), to its off-kilter, unconventional structure that dislocates our on-screen-time by purposely confusing flashbacks with flashforwards, to all of the excellent acting by its key performers especially Adams (who merits new consideration to add to her previously-well-deserved 5 Oscar-acting-nominations, but will likely have a hard time getting such because awards-love for lead roles in sci-fi-films is difficult to come by, despite Sandra Bullock getting suitable recognition for Gravity [plus this film's 9 other nods, with 7 wins for directing and several of the technical contests; Interstellar got 5 Oscar noms, with a win in the Visual Effects category, but no mention of acting]), who gives the concept of effective female leadership a strong case here in her dogged-determination to understand what these strange (to human eyes) creatures are doing on our planet as well as to unravel what they mean by “weapon” (which, like most elements of our languages, can become quite ambiguous when we continue to add layers of context and vague interpretation, the sort of thing that can lead to declarations of war in spite of no such intentions).

 All in all, Arrival’s not just another brick in the wall of sad-misunderstanding that drives so much of the conflict we find both on- and off-screen, but rather it’s a (somewhat rushed, too ambiguous) meditation on not only the difficulty of achieving clear communication (or even initiating it, such as in the situation leading to the demise of Louise and Ian’s relationship because she chooses not to tell him that their daughter will be born dealing with a limited-life-span) to help make sense of our place on this planet but also the difficulty that we humans currently have with no command of time like the Heptapods can experience, so that far too often we’re “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day […] Waiting for someone or something to show you the way [… then] The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older Shorter of breath and one day closer to death,” making it only natural that I’d want to choose Pink Floyd’s “Time” (from their monumental 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon) as my specific Musical Metaphor for what goes on in Arrival, but I’d also like to highlight the impressive, intuitive power of female ability in this story so I’ll just follow up my first Metaphor choice with the next cut from that grand-musical-work, “The Great Gig in the Sky” (vocal composition and delivery on the album from Clare Torry); for my benefit of keeping the past in parallel with the present I’ll take us all back again to my fabulous experience a month ago at the Desert Trip festival where Roger Waters reprised this section of his original band's album, first at WBWsBeI but then you have to go to for a marvelous rendition of “The Great Gig …” with vocals by Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe (normally performing with their own group known as Lucius).  Both of these videos were shot by concert attendees; here’s another one that shows this 2-song-performance in real-time-flow but focuses more on the performers than the enthralling visuals on the huge screens behind the stage so I chose to lead with the other videos to give you a better sense of that element of the performance.
                                      Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
This film comprises 3 separate stories of women dealing with their lives in rural Montana: (1) a lawyer whose injured client is desperately looking for financial relief, (2) a wife who’s trying to build a house so her family doesn’t have to keep living in a tent, (3) a young woman ranch hand who becomes infatuated with another female lawyer teaching a night-school-class.
What Happens: This film consists of 3 parallel narratives (based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s anthology, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It [2009]) that generally have only 2 things in common: (1) they all feature female protagonists, (2) they all at least partly take place in the same Montana location (although it’s extended into a faraway-town in the last segment).  In the first story we have lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern) having previously worked for quite some time with a rightfully-aggrieved-but-still-troublesome client, Will Fuller (Jared Harris), the victim of a workplace accident.  He’s distraught, suffering mental difficulties, his marriage is reaching a breaking point, and he’s determined to get further compensation from his former employer but that’s no longer available because he took a prior settlement (even though he should have held out for more but didn’t realize it at the time).  To try to get some resolution, Laura takes Fuller to another lawyer who tells him the same thing she’s been saying for months; on the ride home, he pours out his aching-frustration, which boils over that night when he goes to his former job site to take a security guard hostage, demanding that Laura come there to go through the company file on him in hopes of getting legal standing for an appeal (the other lawyer says he got screwed but can offer no route for relief).  She arrives, verifies he was cheated, but when he decides to let the guard go then sneak out the back with her detaining the police at the front door pretending he’s got a gun on her she simply tells the cops to go around back to capture him.  After the other 2 episodes have mostly run their courses, we return to Laura visiting Fuller in jail (she brings him a milkshake) where he asks her to write letters to him—of any generic content, just for the connective correspondence (his wife’s left him for an ex-con, moved to Wyoming)—which she agrees to do in a very low-key-manner.

 The 2nd segment is the most seemingly-plotless of all as it simply presents a married couple, Gina (Michelle Williams) and Ryan Lewis (James Le Gros), who are currently living in a tent out in the woods with their always-disgusted-teenage-daughter, Guthrie (Sara Rodlier), while making plans to build a home at their campsite.  Their only real story point—besides the ever-present-tension between the parents (matching the growing distain of their daughter for them, especially Mom, although we know of a reason why the parents are getting testy, even if the truth’s not out yet, because when we first met Laura in story 1 she’s getting dressed for work after having had Ryan in her bed for the night, although I forget what excuse he’s using to pull off this affair)—is whether they can acquire some blocks of sandstone from a pile in the yard of neighbor Albert (René Auberjonois); he talks distractedly to them, tells them the pile is from a former schoolhouse, seems to agree to give them the building materials (not enough for their entire new house but will provide part of it), yet never makes it clear if it’s a done-deal or not nor whether it would be a gift or if he’d take their offer of payment.  All we know is that Gina, Ryan, and some helpers come back later with a truck to take away the sandstone; Gina sees Albert inside his house, waves to him, but he just stares back at her.  Truly, that’s about all that happens in this section of the film, with a good many scenes that are either silent or contain little dialogue.There’s a bit more being said in the 3rd story, although there are plenty of quiet patches there as well while we follow the attempts of young ranch hand Jamie 
(Lily Gladstone) to get a romantic-relationship going with another lawyer, Beth Travis (Kristen Stewart), who teaches a night-school-class on legal aspects of the educational system.  Jamie’s not interested in the class (attended by a few schoolteachers, I assume, in this town, Belfry, a 4-hour-drive from Livingston where the other stories occur) but just wanders into it one night, quickly becomes infatuated with this novice teacher (trying to pick up some extra cash to supplement her day job), then after class steers Beth to a diner where Jamie declines Beth’s leftovers (but buys some food at a convenience store after Beth drives off into the night).  This goes on for awhile until the commute gets the best of Beth, so when Jamie arrives at class one night to find someone else teaching she leaves immediately, drives the distance to Livingston, sleeps in her truck, then starts tracking down Beth’s law firm (one place she tries is Laura’s, whom we see briefly moving through the background of a shot); when she finds Beth they have an awkward interchange (Beth never shared any of the infatuation), Jamie leaves abruptly, dozes on the way home with her truck rolling slowly into a field with no damage.  As the film wraps up, we have the aforementioned scene with Laura and Fuller, a quick shot of Gina looking at her new pile of sandstone in anticipation of building her house, and Jamie back at her ranch morosely tending her horses in the ever-present-snow.

*At the screening I attended, the sound suddenly became unpleasantly-low once the previews were over and the feature started, so I had to twice ask the worker-bees to boost it up a bit; therefore, I might have missed something useful in the first segment’s dialogue (although, in context of what little happens in any of these stories, I doubt it), but if that problem had to occur I wish it had been during this sandstone-negotiation-segment, where virtually nothing important is said anyway.

So What? Certain Women’s 1st visual is a wide shot of a rugged landscape, somewhat winter-snow-covered, with mountains in the background and a train slowly moving across the foreground.  This serves as foreshadowing of what we’ll find when people enter this forlorn picture: there’s quite a lot of wide-open-space here but no particular reason to move around all that much in it; the cold of the physical environment mirrors the emotional cold that most of the characters live with on a daily basis; while there are available means of movement to other locations there seems to be very little interest or motivation to do such (except in the Jamie-Beth story in the latter’s weekly treks from Livingston to Belfry—although Google Maps shows me it’s a distance of about 130 miles, should take about 2 hrs. to travel given that it’s Interstate most of the way, so I don’t know why it’s a 1-way-slog of 4 hrs. for Beth each time).  As we explore each of these episodes we find further stagnation in each of the protagonist’s lives, as Laura has no solution for Fuller’s problems (except to offer him some semblance of human contact, which he has little other option for), Gina and Ryan’s house is a very slow-moving-project but maybe when it’s done it’ll give her a better situation for clamping down on his affair with Laura, Jamie’s life seems to be a dead-end-experience except for the slight enjoyment she gets from riding the horses she cares for (she even comes to class that way one night, then gives Beth a lift to the diner and back to the school parking lot on horseback) while Beth just seems to already be overwhelmed at a young age trying to make ends meet while getting a law practice established.  

 The slow pace of these stories, occasional use of oddly-appropriate-elements (a local Native American ceremony taking place in a shopping mall), and lack of much meaningful dialogue in episodes 2 and 3 makes for a drastic contrast from Arrival or other current-cinematic-options such as Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson; review in our November 10, 2016 posting), Inferno (Ron Howard; review in our November 3, 2016 posting), or The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor; review in our October 27, 2016 posting), with the missing mayhem filled in nicely by well-considered-yet-odd-camera-framings, along with excellent acting to give subdued-substance to all the main characters.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Despite overall critical consensus that’s quite complimentary for what goes on within the plots of Certain Women—the varied package of Rotten Tomatoes’ reviews hit the 89% positive mark just as Metacritic’s not too far behind, offering an 81% average score from its reviewers—this film is doubtful as an easy sell to the mass audience (even 2 of my viewing companions, whose tastes favor films with artistic, documentary, foreign, and/or the use of unconventional screen approaches, were just basically bored stiff by it, although I can report that my ever-delightful-wife, Nina, and I both enjoyed it quite a bit but possibly her more than me, given that she’s going to have to keep finding interesting women’s stories in art and journalism rather than in the White House for the foreseeable future).  After 5 weeks in release Certain Women’s presence has slipped to only 117 theaters (by comparison, The Girl on the Train’s still in 1,008 locations after 6 weeks [making $73.3 million in the process], while Doctor Strange continues to dominate the domestic [U.S.-Canada] box-office with 3,882 theaters [while raking in about $152.9 million after only 2 weeks], just as Arrival opened strong, with $24 million) gathering a domestic gross of only $937,120 so I do hope that all of these well-known-women in the starring roles were willing to work for reduced salaries because if not I’ll assume the producers will have difficulty even seeing a break-even-result for their budget).  Maybe its on-screen-aura plays better across the Atlantic as it won the Best Film prize at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival, an award for “inspiring, inventive and distinctive filmmaking,” with the 2016 jury finding Certain Women to be a “humane and poignant story that calibrates with startling vulnerability and delicate understatement the isolation, frustration and loneliness of lives unlived in a quiet corner of rural America.”  (Maybe the Democratic Party leaders should take a look at it before they plan any more campaign strategies for 2018 and beyond.)

 We have implications of connections among these stories with our sudden realization that Ryan’s waking up with Laura at the beginning of Certain Women but turns out to be the same guy sharing a tent with his wife and daughter at the beginning of the 2nd act (where the stories just shift with the movement of a cut; no demarcations are used as with the chronological-graphics-notations among the 3 parts of Moonlight), yet nothing further comes of this (except for the ongoing build of animosity between Ryan and his often-put-upon-spouse), nor is there any sense that Laura and Beth know each other despite being in the same profession (although in Livingston, a town of only about 7,000, it’s likely that they do even with no shown interaction here [who knows, these may be the only 2 law firms around]—for that matter, now that I’ve looked up this population fact I find it even less likely in a place that small that Gina doesn’t know about Laura and Ryan [or at least have a strong suspicion; my grandmother, then later my parents, lived in Clyde, a 2,000-size town {now up to about 3,700 apparently} in west Texas where everyone knew everybody’s else’s business; thus, I doubt there are many secrets in Livingston]), so the expectations that these plots will more actively intersect never comes to pass, allowing for a sense of frustrated-viewer-expectation that leaves me more responsive to Certain Women than my Friday-night-companions but less so than the critical establishment as a whole.  Given that no character gets a great deal of screen time, it’s hard to imagine that any of the actors will be given much thought when awards nominations begin to emerge (except for organizations that give full-cast/ensemble-recognitions), but that element’s certainly the main strength of this film, well worth your watching for that aspect alone, at least at some future time in some video format.

 You likely won’t see anything else this year in a movie theater where things move so nonchalantly—seemingly randomly in many scenes, as if we're just watching the film stock dry (except it's likely shot on video to keep the costs down)—unless you happen to stumble onto a rare arthouse-retrospective of Antonioni films (although you'll find that Blow-Up [1966] and Zabriske Point [1970] do feature aspects of action at times), but if you can slow down your body clock from the more hectic/traumatic aspects of the day and just go with the slow flow here, I think you’d find that there's a lot to appreciate with Certain Women's quiet focus on seemingly-unimportant-lives (note “seemingly,” Democratic National Committee) which has led me to a Musical Metaphor that also doesn’t demand much from you except a close listen to some melancholy (What else?) lyrics from recently-departed poet-musician Leonard Cohen, surely the next songwriter after Bob Dylan deserving of a Nobel Prize for Literature (except, after 1974, these awards aren’t given posthumously so that’ll never happen), allowing us to give more perspective to Certain Women while taking time to remember a complex, compelling voice (and man) now silenced except for his recordings.  I'm speaking of “Winter Lady” (from the 1967 Songs of Leonard Cohen album) at, used in this video clip to connect it to another contemplative film (but with considerably more narrative complexity than what we find in Certain Women) where it’s part of the final few minutes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) accompanying parallel scenes of McCabe (Warren Beatty) dying in the snow after being shot by a hired gunman as the oblivious townspeople attempt to save a church (that most of them never attend) from burning down while his love-interest, Constance Miller (Julie Christy), once again loses herself to her opium addiction.  (However, if you’d like to hear this song more clearly than with all of that added rushing wind, here’s a straight version, which also uses the cut from the album but puts it to black & white images from another great western, Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992].)

 When I hear lyrics such as “And why are you so quiet now Standing there in the doorway? You chose your journey long before You came upon this highway.  Traveling lady, stay awhile Until the night is over.  I’m just a station on your way, I know I’m not your lover,” I find resonance in all of these Certain Women stories, from Laura’s functional-affair with Ryan which offers about success in her life as does her complicated relationship with the client/inmate Fuller, to Gina’s strained-at-best-connection with her husband and daughter where her only triumph is acquiring a pile of used-sandstone-blocks, to the unrequited-affection that Jamie attempts to offer to Beth (leaving young but already tired, broke, overworked, uninterested Beth at a loss for words when she realizes this former "student" of hers wanted considerably more than weekly-diner-chatter about Beth’s accumulating-frustrations).  In this bleak environment (in winter at least; I imagine that the summers are much more scenic and enjoyable) each of these women seems to be like “a child of snow [… facing a world where] the nights grew colder.”  What time’s that next train coming through?  I think it’s time to buy a ticket.
                       The Story of 90 Coins (Michael Wong, 2015)
 It’s appropriate that I put these next comments under my SHORT TAKES category because I’m reviewing a short film, from a Malaysian filmmaker currently living in Beijing, China (you can find out more about him at his website and/or this Vimeo site); occasionally, I get a request to review a specific film—usually the offer comes from the director—which is the case here, so I take pleasure in sharing with you The Story of 90 Coins, which has been shown at several international festivals, in some cases receiving awards or nominations.  I encourage you to watch it (runs for a brief 9:23) so that my comments will have better context, but as usual I’ll summarize what goes on in it as I explain my responses.  Given the compressed formats that short films must follow (where many are about this length or shorter, some run up to a half-hour or a bit longer), … 90 Coins gets right to the point as Wang Yu Yang (Dongjun Han) expresses his deep love for Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi) but she’s not ready to reciprocate.  Undaunted, he makes an offer of them spending the next 90 days together, with him giving her a little note and a coin at the end of each one, after which they’ll have $9 (or, I assume, the equivalent in Chinese currency [if you haven’t watched this movie yet, you’ll find it has subtitles, although I hope that won’t discourage your choice of viewing it*]) which they can spend either at the place where they met for a farewell drink or to buy their wedding license. 

*Through correspondence with director Wong I learned that he also added Chinese subtitles for the dialogue so his primary target audience—young Mainland Chinese viewers—would get all that's being said because he knows they may be viewing … 90 Coins on a mobile device while in transit so he didn’t want them to miss what the characters convey verbally, a critical aspect of his story.

 After this trial period, she accepts his love, but they postpone marriage until they can afford a house.  However, she’s a fashion designer whose work catches the attention of Andre (José Acosta) who’s encouraging her to join him in Paris to further her career; Wang perceives this as being from a rival, leading them to argue, then separate, but before packing for her Paris departure Chen looks again through the 90 notes, realizes her lingering love for Wang, contacts him, he proposes over the phone, she accepts.  (There’s not a lot of nuance in this chain of events, but production costs often determine the length of these short films; this reality makes it a challenge for such filmmakers to develop enough story to be engaging within the limited frameworks their budgets can tolerate).

 Based on my briefer-than-usual-summary, you might think that … 90 Coins is merely a short dose of sappy romance (there are 4 reviews at the IMDb site, 3 of which take that approach), but for me such criticisms are overly harsh; they even seem to be missing the point of this touching story which ends with the clear graphic admonition of “Don’t let a promise become just a beautiful memory,” advice that may make better sense to me now as a guy in my late 60s more so than it did in my 20s and 30s when those youthful-relationships (including my first marriage) often ended more on short-fused-whims than by thoughtful consideration.  I’m not saying that I’d prefer any of those failed-romances should have endured rather than the marvelous 30-year-connection I’ve had (and intend to keep having for years to come) with my wonderful current wife, Nina Kindblad, but just that at younger ages (as with the …90 Coins couple)—no matter what type of society the lovers live in—what transpires is all too often driven by hormones (of various kinds, not just the lustful ones) rather than needed conversation, clarification, conscientious-conclusion.  Both of these ... 90 Coins characters were too quick in their decision-making but found reason to reconsider; whether their marriage will last into later years will largely depend on whether they can overcome such hair-trigger-responses in their mutual future (where they can’t depend on Heptapod-forewarning-visions).  If this young couple can find their needed maturing-sophistication over their years together (to match the cinematic sophistication of the solid camera work, smoothly-concise editing, and well-articulated acting—especially by Zhuang [Chinese names lead with what we in the West call the surname]) I think their relationship will survive, just as Wong’s career shows strong promise (you can also offer your opinions directly at his IMDb and Vimeo sites or on Facebook).

Although this is an especially-short-review for me (please hold your applause), I will offer just a bit more on The Story of 90 Coins (which feels to me a little more like a fable than the realistic look at contemporary romance that the IMDb complainers demand more of) with a Musical Metaphor that I think speaks to the sense of desired/compromised/ reconsidered romance that impacts both main characters here, as well as honors the memory of another great musician who very recently died—Leon Russell—with his highly-popular ballad, “A Song for You” (from the 1970 Leon Russell album) at, a live 1971 performance.  Nina’s fond of this song too,* as am I, because it gets to the heart of what lovers want to be able to say to their mates: “You taught me precious secrets of the truth withholding nothing You came out in front and I was hiding But now I’m so much better and if my words don’t come together Listen to the melody ‘cause my love is in there hiding.”  ( I think the Heptapods would appreciate the line, “I love you in a place where there’s no space or time,” just as I hope the ... 90 Coins kids would appreciate Leon.)

*However, she prefers it sung by the older Russell (in the above video, as I often do, I try to choose a version recorded close when the song was released)—maybe that’s why I’ve subconsciously-transformed my appearance to be more like his in recent years (although my beard’s mercifully much shorter)—so just for her (and our relationship, now gone light years beyond the initial 90 days) I’ll also offer this one with a final thanks to Michael Wong for sharing his sweetly-touching-film.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:

We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Arrival: (2 trailers; between them you get a reasonably full version of what happens in this film until the narrative shifts its emphasis) (8:14 explanation of the film’s obscure ending)

Here’s more information about Certain Women: (35:05 interview with director Kelly Reichardt and actors Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone; audio’s a bit low at times, much more so with the interviewees rather than the interviewer)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.



  1. Regarding Arrival, I found it interesting and agree that the wrap-up was rushed. Perhaps a sequel is being considered, but such is, thankfully, not blatantly promoted. Amy Adams' acting certainly elevates the film and makes it an entirely worthwhile diversion.

    Personally I found your Two Guys site while seeking a better understanding (or at least an informed opinion) of another somewhat ambiguous film. A more detailed analysis is what Mr. Burke brings to the table over many of the big name overnight critics.

    One might suggest that Arrival's humans and the aliens were in the same position as the human and dogs analog that Adams "recalls" on several occasions. The question might be who is who in this story. Perhaps Adams' advanced linguistic abilities and evolved psychic focus has eclipsed the Alien's abilities even though their environment and evolution allows them access to technology, time and place shifts. Sequel stuff but do we really want Arrival2? Doubtful. 2010 added little to Kubrick's 2001 although it attempted to explain things from the earlier classic.

    Overall I would have given Arrival three stars, placing it somewhat below most of the other works described in the film's review above. Many may not embrace a limited action scifi such as this, but I would certainly recommend it to the right audience.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for your comments as always. I agree that a sequel to Arrival would likely answer some (if not all) of my questions, but, like you, I don't think we need more of this just for closure. Also, I'm in complete agreement that making sequels to films such as 2001 or Psycho is a useless enterprise unless someone's got an idea for something as substantial as Godfather II. Ken