The best sci-fi tends to raise more questions than answers about our future, e.g.: How far
can technology take us (2001)? What does it mean to be conscious (Blade Runner)? And how many sequels can they possibly milk from one saga (Star Wars)? Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director best known for last year’s Sicario and currently in production on the Blade Runner sequel, knows this full well and asks us a big one in Arrival: how would we be able to communicate with alien visitors if and when they arrived? And would we want to? Language is as much a barrier between humans and aliens in this film as the glass screen that literally separates them on board the looming, ominously dark UFOs that have landed in arbitrary locations across the globe. Well, not arbitrary enough to exclude the USA of course, and so the country’s military deploy linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt a communication of the third kind. This good-looking and charismatic pair of academics (it’s a film, ok) are soon the only people left who trust the invaders, whilst the military’s fingers itch to pull a trigger on these extraterrestrial threats.
How much you enjoy the film will depend entirely on your willingness to accept a third-act supernatural twist, which is unquestionably silly but also impassioned, allowing Adams an opportunity to display the full range of her acting chops. If you associate ‘sci-fi’ and ‘aliens’ with ‘action’ then I would also give this a miss, as the bored, fidgety people at the screening I attended evidently gathered. The tone is low-key, not hysterical – a Close Encounters as opposed to an Independence Day. Villeneuve can’t resist a few touches of B-movie excess though, including an unnerving score from Jóhann Jóhannsson that induces, as Peep Show’s Super Hans would express it, ‘a powerful sense of dread’. That tone turns out not to suit the film’s overarching message, which is full of hope and conciliation. The ultimate belief is in the power of communication to conquer all, which might fill you with scepticism, but for the duration of the film you can sure believe it.
Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s sophomore effort is as slick and polished as a Gucci exhibition. The photography has a sheen that defies the gritty elements of the plot details, the cast is almost uniformly beautiful, and they are adorned in of course very chic clothing. It hides, I think, a hollowness at its core, a fear that its director really doesn’t have much to say. Amy Adams plays a frosty, dissatisfied artist called Susan, who fears that she really doesn’t have much to say, but opens her grotesque exhibition consisting of nude fat women dancing anyway. It emerges that she was once married to an author, played with alternate charm and malevolence by Jake Gyllenhaal, who fears that he really doesn’t have much to say, but whose first completed manuscript arrives on Susan’s doorstep anyway. As she reads it, she starts to realise that he has been driven to complete his work by a singular motive: revenge. A classic plot catalyst, its importance here is sledgehammered home by Ford, with Susan even walking past a painting that says ‘Revenge’ on it; the book turns out to be a deliberately designed tool to unsettle her, a retributive act for past betrayals. It also turns out to be a standard revenge thriller, a meditation on justice within a rural West community that Ford just can’t elevate above hick country clichés. There are nevertheless some bravura sequences of suspense, particularly an early scene which takes place on a nocturnal highway and introduces a spectacularly unhinged portrayal of depravity from Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It’s a performance that offers a vivid contrast to Adams’ cloistered one, yet at either end of the scale there is little inner depth exposed. Ford thinks we’re all just animals, driven by irrational impulses and destined to repeat cycles of revenge and self-destruction ad infinitum. He may be right, at least to an extent, but we’re certainly more interesting than that, and better directors are able to show us how.
A Seat at the Table – Solange
Queen Bey’s baby sister comes into her own on this album – or so we’ve been led to believe, with such fawning reviews as this one at Pitchfork suggesting it bears comparison to Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly. Simply put, it doesn’t. The tone here is not ‘Mad’, as implied by one track, but ‘Weary’, as proclaimed by another, a weariness that infects even a guest spot from an abnormally reticent Lil Wayne. This is most evident in the album’s groove, which is relaxed, leaning on bass lines to provide the melody as guitars and vocals meander to nowhere. Horn sections come and go, whispering of Motown as they pass, whilst aimless synth squiggles betray a hope of art-rock ‘profundity’. It’s the kind of abstruse, fractured sound collage that Pitchfork love, and has gained surprising commercial credibility following the Frank Ocean phenomenon. I prefer this to Blonde, mostly due to the aforementioned bass lines, which do have a way of drawing you into the airy compositions. But call me a moron, I don’t care: I’m much more attracted to the grandeur and occasionally absurd melodrama of her sister’s Lemonade, which I find more impressive not just as entertainment (which is important) but also as political commentary. That album had a rare understanding of how the Personal can converge with the Political, without ever assuming that they’re inextricable, and the same sense is captured by Solange here only in interviews with family and friends that comprise the interludes. Funny, sickening, and inspiring, they place the album within a historical context of black oppression that is fascinating, even if it fades into vagueness whenever Solange starts singing (with one or two exceptions – I salute the rousing ‘F.U.B.U.’). Compared to the purposeful drive of D’Angelo and Kendrick, this album therefore seems lacking, no matter what the well-meaning folk at Pitchfork would like to hear in it.
Stripped – Macy Gray
Unlike Solange, Macy Gray’s voice is strong enough to hold its own in a hushed setting, as evinced on these acoustic jazz live performances recorded in a decommissioned Brooklyn church. The backing is supple and graceful, as befits an empty church, a quartet that’s reserved and wise enough to give Gray room to shine, offering brief guitar and trumpet solos to comment on and gently push her melodic inventiveness to new heights. Gray’s never really done jazz before, at least not explicitly, although her husky vocals have always been redolent of latter-day Billie Holiday. She began her career with dreams of pop success which, in that attention deficit world, materialised only briefly with the hit ‘I Try’. That song is reimagined here in hard bop format, along with other self-penned standards, a few originals, and covers of Metallica and Bob Marley. I’ll take the guitar solo on ‘Nothing Else Matters’ over James Hetfield’s any day, not to mention Gray’s actual singing, both of which make the surprise cut an unexpected highlight. And despite not managing to wrestle ‘Redemption Song’ away from Bob, she does his legacy proud, showing a generosity of spirit that suits me just fine in this world’s toxic atmosphere. In fact this album has been just about the only thing to keep my spirits up over the last few days, a validation of music’s escapist potential. You could do a lot worse than try it out as a cure for the post-Trump blues – vaulting over dark times has long been black music’s greatest gift to the world, and Macy Gray is keeping that spirit alive.