The Jungle Book
This is the latest in a proposed series of live-action remakes of Disney classics, following the success of the fresh and enjoyable Cinderella. Many people have asked, what is the point? Seriously, what is the point of remaking films which are so cherished and live on fondly in the imaginations of so many? Well, I would argue that a new cast and crew can offer new perspectives on a classic in much the same way as great plays can be continually reinterpreted in the theatre. Contemporary issues can tease out new meanings in revered texts, as is the case with this interpretation of The Jungle Book, which begins ominously with the driest season the animals can remember in a clear reference to global warming. This puts a new spin on a tale which shows humans and the natural world living for the most part in harmony, suggesting that instead of exploiting nature for our own means, which will damage the whole environment, we should embrace it, just as Mowgli embraces Baloo the bear and the wolves that raise him. So it has a reason for existing and a new spin on a classic tale, but is it any good? There is certainly a lot to enjoy, including the jazzed up remakes of two of the best Disney songs and some ingenious casting: Bill Murray just simply is Baloo, Idris Elba is the perfect obligatory British villain as the snarling Shere Khan, and in a particularly devious Freudian twist Scarlett Johannson plays the snake Kaa, which wraps itself around and ends up hypnotising poor Mowgli. But there is only one moment in which the film truly delights, when Mowgli and Baloo are riding down the river and singing ‘The Bare Necessities’ whilst playfully waving at all the animals they pass by. The camera soaks up their joy, depicting the exhilaration of their interaction with the natural world in a charming antidote to the pessimism of a certain other bear scene which came out earlier this year in The Revenant. The rest of the film fails to live up to this magical moment, being merely a string of relatively decent action scenes without much of interest to linger on in the memory. Still, kids will love it, the animation is mesmerising, and it has just about enough originality to merit its existence.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, this is perhaps the first prestigious film to confront our current refugee crisis. It follows a makeshift family consisting of a husband, wife and daughter – makeshift because in fact they are not related or even acquainted with each other, having been grouped together in Sri Lanka to adopt a dead family’s set of passports. This allows them to escape from their war-torn country to France, where they must act out their familial roles convincingly or risk being deported. Beginning with this fascinating premise, the film is at its best when exploring the notion of assumed identity and the implications this can have on human relations; Dheepan starts to harbour real feelings of love towards his imaginary wife. Or at least he appears to – is it love he is feeling or just an intense interest in playing the role of husband, which gives the chaos of his life some much needed stability? The film is quick to depict its protagonist as deeply unsettled, a former Tamil Tiger soldier in the Sri Lankan civil war, and in desperate need of finding the peace and security which can allow him to erase the violence of his past. Acting the part of husband and father briefly provides him with this respite. However, the temptation to play the role of violent avenger, as he did in his home country, is always intruding on his mind in much the same way as ambiguous shots of elephants intrude on the film. So in a bizarre and bloody denouement, he transforms into a refugee Travis Bickle, tackling the racist and aggressive drug gangs who roam the streets of Paris with gunfire and machismo. It’s a clumsily filmed conclusion, with none of the menace or irony of Taxi Driver, and its presence somewhat undermines what has gone before. However, what has gone before contains more than enough beauty and insight into the refugee experience to make it worthy of the cost of a mere cinema ticket.
The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
Or not on Spotify, as the case may be, because as anyone who followed the chaotic and frankly ludicrous release of this album will know it is only currently available on Tidal, a streaming service of which Kanye is a shareholder. Part of the reasoning behind this was apparently to have The Life of Pablo become the first evolving album, with tracks having been altered post-release and open to further change in the future. This is emblematic of the confusion of the album itself, which is indecisive both sonically and lyrically in a way that suggests Kanye was uncertain about the direction he was taking. The grand feat of almost every other Kanye album was that their grasp consistently matched their extended reach, successfully challenging the educational system in The College Dropout, examining the perceived betrayal of his African-American roots in Late Registration and exploring the strengths and limitations of his own power in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In The Life of Pablo there is no clear purpose, no drive except to demonstrate that he is the most important artist in the world right now, the contemporary Pablo Picasso. He is talented enough to convince me of this occasionally throughout the album: on ‘Ultralight Beam’ where he stirringly fuses R&B and gospel in a shout-out to the victims of the Paris massacre and to a God he’s still trying desperately to believe in, on the beautiful ‘Waves’ which is nearly flawless despite the objectionable choice of having Chris Brown croon ‘I don’t need to own you’ to a woman, and most of all in the a cappella ‘I Love Kanye’ where he satirizes his critics, his fans and (a common occurrence, but not one commonly acknowledged) his own ego, all in less than a minute. There is too much waste on the album, too many tracks which aim for Art but fall flat on their face, entangled in their own self-worth (I’m looking at you, ‘Wolves’). But hey, I just love the old Kanye more than the new Kanye, which would probably make the new Kanye laugh in my face.
Updated 05/12/16 (prev. 3 stars): What a different the right piece of music criticism can make! Reading Will Toledo (of Car Seat Headrest)’s fantastic appraisal of this album makes a nonsense of my claim that ‘there is no clear purpose, no clear drive’. Everything he described were elements that had attracted me to previous Kanye albums but I had been blind enough to miss them this time round. Many tracks are up there with his best, there is continuity and thoughtfulness in the sequencing, it deals with the theme of redemption in a completely unique way. I can’t say that I enjoy all of it, which I guess was my primary grievance first time round. I expected more from Ye. But the mess does contain, as Toledo contends, an overall beauty. Even a redemptive beauty.
The Hope Six Demolition Project – PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey has been out of action in the music industry ever since 2011’s critically acclaimed Let England Shake. Yet she has not been idle, having travelled to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. in an effort to investigate and report on the extent of poverty affecting these areas in her next album. This is therefore a collection of songs which should have a vitally important reason for existing, for after all Harvey’s main audience is a middle class intelligentsia who can always do with having their faces shoved in the dire conditions that a great many people live in and which they would normally choose to ignore. Unfortunately, the album comes across as a series of anecdotes which demonstrate the artist’s sympathetic nature but offer no serious attempt to galvanize its listeners into action on any of the social issues it depicts. In ‘Dollar, Dollar’ Harvey watches in anguish from a car window as an Afghan child begs for money; she is decent enough to be concerned for the child’s welfare, but is ultimately passive and unable to help as the car pulls away. The song is not really about the child at all, it shows no interest in the reasons for his poverty or what short or long-term strategies can be implemented to save him, but instead is about the writer and her inability to help. This passivity is astonishing in an artist who once threatened to fuck Casanova with her 20 inch penis and demanded that Robert de Niro sit on her face; earlier in her career she displayed such bravery in challenging sexual politics that it is disappointing to now see her fail to address politics at all. Even more disappointingly, the music is distracted and shows no major signs of evolution from the folky chants of Let England Shake. It delves interestingly into jazz at certain points, with the saxophone entering to signify chaos as it so often does in rock music, but not as consistently or hauntingly as Bowie managed earlier this year on his final album. Overall, it’s a huge let down from the great PJ Harvey, the second most important artist to emerge from the alt-rock wave of the early 90s (after Kurt Cobain), who now peddles despair on an album which at least fulfils its promise to demolish hope: ‘Broken glass/A white jawbone… This is how the world will end’.