Category: Guest bloggers

Music Review: Seasick Steve at Wembley

Casual music lover Harry Casey-Woodward was lucky enough to see bearded bluesman Seasick Steve playing in our merry capital at Wembley Stadium…

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Apart from Elvis, there is perhaps no other musician who embodies the American dream than Seasick Steve. In particular, he embodies the mythical spirit of American freedom, that gets lost on highways and hitches on trains. In October, this big-bearded icon graced our shores with a one-off show.

After fruitlessly circling the wrong Wembley arena, me and my companion found the right venue. We were introduced by Steve himself on a giant screen to his support act, a two-man band named Black Dog Revelation. They sounded like a gnarly Black Keys with slow snarling songs powered by thunderous drums.

After they rocked the house, we were treated to a video of Steve driving up to the venue in a tractor before he walked on stage to deafening applause. He started off with some politics, voicing his disapproval of Trump before opening his set with a hushed Dylanesque solo song.

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Steve and his small handful of musicians then proceeded to turn the cavernous venue into a warm, cosy atmosphere. Steve was as relaxed as if he was playing in your front room. The lighting helped too. The stage was backlit by simple but pleasant fairy lights, draped as if over a tree. The most striking lighting was used when Steve played solo songs like ‘Treasures’. One spotlight would light him up in the middle of the dark venue, making him look dramatically humble.

Humble is something Steve is very good at. More than once, he asked for the spotlights to sweep his cheering audience and appeared constantly stunned at their adoration. He came close to tears when he expressed gratitude for his slot on the Jools Holland show that got him exposure.

He was also good at being kickass during his louder songs like ‘Thunderbird’. He and his giant bearded drummer lost themselves in colossal solos as they thrashed their instruments, even the homemade ones Steve expressed fondness for like his Diddley Bo.

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His most stunning performance was when he pulled a random woman from the crowd and played her a tender rendition of ‘Walkin’ Man’. The lucky lass looked as if she would melt from tearful gratitude.

Other ladies who joined Steve onstage included a singing guitarist from Glasgow who played a cover of a Steve song she had already done on YouTube, which Steve had admired. There was also a gifted filly on the fiddle and a talented square dancer who could tap along to Steve’s songs with her shoes.

The gig ended with Steve being given a cake, showing us a picture of his tractor and playing ‘Dog House Boogie’, which took a while to finish since he forced his drummer to repeat faster and faster endings.

So despite drunken calls of ‘Steeeeeeve-oooooh’ and one or two fights (one of which broke out in front of our seats) the gig was an evening of musical magic and thrilling musicianship. It was also a pleasure to be in the company of such a character like Seasick Steve.

Images from bluesmagazine.nl.

Film Review: The Girl on the Train

Casual film viewer Harry Casey-Woodward investigates the psychological thriller of The Girl on the Train, based on the bestselling novel.

The Girl on the Train, 2016, cert 15, dir Tate Taylor, 2/5

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Naturally a lot is expected of a cinematic adaptation of a popular book, especially when it’s released so hot on the heels of said book. There is the assumption that just because the book was a success, the film will be just as good. Unfortunately this is not often the case.

Before I talk about one of this year’s most hyped book adaptations, The Girl on the Train, I better admit that I have yet to read the novel by Paula Hawkins, so this isn’t going to be one of those reviews where I list point by point what the film gets wrong. Nevertheless there is one fact I learnt about the film that bothered me.

I was informed that the story has been transferred from the UK to Manhattan. Not only do I feel it a bit much to adapt a bestseller a year after publication, but it also feels like extra cashing-in for DreamWorks to Americanize the story for bigger US audiences. There’s no denying however that its dark story is gripping.

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Emily Blunt plays Rachel, the woman who likes to ride on trains. We gradually learn some unpleasant facts about her life, such as her alcoholism and her obsession with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and baby. One night their young neighbour Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing and Rachel is terrified that she was somehow involved, but can’t remember due to a drink-induced blackout.

The film’s strongest feature is Emily Blunt, who gives a convincing portrayal of a woman on the constant verge of emotional and mental breakdown. This doesn’t mean she acts so mental that we don’t feel sorry for her, but when she does fly off the handle she’s genuinely scary. She is also a fascinating protagonist since we can never trust her view of the plot, for she has no firm grip on reality or even her memories.

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The remaining cast’s performances are also good, but they are too good-looking to be believable as ordinary people. This is where the Americanization of the plot rears its ugly head. I feel if the film had been made in the UK, it would have felt much grittier. Instead it has this slick sheen of beautiful actors and glamorous sets that makes it feel like an episode of some glossy US drama.

In fact the whole film, despite its fine performances and dark, occasionally moving story, feels like a formulaic thriller, which would be fine if there hadn’t been so much hype. As it is it feels underwhelming, a familiar helping of suburban strife and domestic depression. It’s a maze of twists, flashbacks and awkward sex scenes that tries to be some menacing film noir but cinematically lacked ‘oomph’. Blunt’s powerful performance deserves to be in a better film.

Film Review: Ava’s Possessions

Casual reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward reviews a new breed of exorcism film, Ava’s Possessions.

Ava’s Possessions, 2015, dir Jordan Galland, 4/5

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This movie answers the question: what does a person do after they’ve been possessed by a demon? The Last Exorcism Part II tried to give an answer in 2013, but its main character was some delicate flower who floated around, trying not to bother anyone. Ava’s Possession is the first exorcism film I’ve seen which shows a down-to-earth person struggling to piece back the nuts and bolts of her old life after a traumatic supernatural experience. It also has a sense of humour.

Apart from The Exorcist, I generally dislike films about demonic possession since they tend to be Exorcist rip-offs that take themselves far too seriously without any of the power of that classic pea-soup-spurting original. Ava’s Possessions is the first I’ve seen with an original and refreshing approach. It focuses more on the aftermath of an exorcism rather than on the event itself.

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The opening credits are interspersed with distorted shots from the point of view of a girl tied to a bed while a priest chants above her. The audience is forced to see the world through the eyes of someone possessed, which is quite creepy. The film opens with said priest sitting on the bed of said girl (named Ava, in case you hadn’t guessed and played by Louisa Krause), matter-of-factly informing her that he has saved her from a demon.

It doesn’t take long for Ava to discover that the possession has completely ruined her life. The actions she committed while possessed, including wild sexual behaviour and violent assaults, have driven away her friends, her boyfriend and even her family, none of whom seem very understanding or sympathetic. Even worse, the law is looking to prosecute her for her crimes, even though she can’t remember committing them. Her lawyer informs her that the charges can be dropped if she takes a possession therapy course.

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Her moustached therapist encourages her to seek out people she wronged while possessed and make amends, which will also help her realise everything she did. In the process however, she discovers evidence that suggests she committed crimes much worse than she can imagine. She is also troubled by weird, terrifying visions as the demon tries to return and there’s also a girl she befriends in therapy who is far too eager to be reunited with her own demon.

This tangled mystery is more like a neon-lit film noir than your typical exorcism movie. For one thing, rather than going for that muted Gothic look most horrors go for, Ava’s Possessions uses a lot of bright, trashy colours and stylised, disorientating shots to create a misleading, glamorous look. Also, as I’ve mentioned above, this movie thankfully focuses more on messy human relationships and frustrations, rather than on horror clichés or showing off the demon with bad CGI. Overall this is one of the coolest, sexiest and most blackly comic horrors you could see. While it may not be as gut-wrenching as The Exorcist, it maintains some degree of realism and still has the ability to chill.

Images from frightday.com, thehorrorhoneys.com and imdb.

Music Review: Slaves, ‘Take Control’

Harry Casey-Woodward, hobbyist reviewer and noise lover, reviews the new album by Kent punk duo Slaves, Take Control.

Slaves, Take Control, 2016, Virgin/EMI, 4/5

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Slaves are something British music has needed for a while. We’ve had plenty of cool noise-making bands over recent years, but none have been as fun or direct as Isaac Holman on drums and Laurie Vincent on strings, both gleefully roaring their sharp, hilarious lyrics on working class problems. Hot on the heels of their official debut last year Are You Satisfied?, Slaves’ second album Take Control came out at the end of this September, sporting a florescent cover painted by the guitarist.

Their previous album was a hard act to follow. Catchy, exhilarating and ballsy, it was surely the Never Mind the Bollocks of 2015. I was a little worried therefore that Slaves would fall into the pattern that ensnares a lot of noisy bands and just spend their careers replicating their first album over and over. Thankfully, while the style of the new album is still very much Slaves, it is a bit of a different creature.

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For one thing, there’s more songs. Some admittedly are random skits, but Take Control also has a greater range of styles and thus feels like a bigger project. Are You Satisfied was a compact burst of shout-along joy rides, while Take Control boasts a little more sophistication, musically and lyrically.

That still doesn’t mean it isn’t fun though. Take opening track ‘Spit it Out’. It may not be a cover of Slipknot’s awesome single but it is a contender for best single of the year, mainly because it’s such a perfect punk anthem. Making brilliant use of the quiet/loud song dynamic that made bands like Nirvana sound great, repetitive jabbing guitar builds up to a roaring chorus, where the singer screams the song title over and over. The other lyrics reflect themes Slaves have raged about on several songs, namely getting lads off their arses and doing something with their lives.

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Other current topics Slaves attack on Take Control include mundane media (on such rollercoaster tracks as ‘Hypnotised’) and material wealth (see the blistering ‘Rich Man’). Once again Slaves prove themselves masters of the punk rock formula: fast, simple topical bullets of humorous anger. However, there is more of the sophisticated side that peeked through the energetic blast of Are You Satisfied.

Half of the tracks are as post-punk as Public Image. Songs like ‘Lies’ sound like catchy but creepy pop hits, with slow, menacing riffs. Even the vocal mix sounds more post-punk. While Isaac was shouting in your face before, now his charismatic voice sounds like it was recorded in an empty concrete room, giving it a spooky echo while losing none of its edge.

Beastie Boy Mike D of all people even supplies rap on the thundering ‘Consume or be Consumed’. Joined by Baxter Dury, Slaves also reveal a sensitive side on the tender ‘Steer Clear’, where the singer begs someone he cares about not to go drink driving after an argument. Once again, Slaves have produced a winning combination of subtlety and savage bluntness while upping their game.

Images from gigslutz.co.uk, greatescapefestival.com and theguardian.com.

Fashion Pearls of Wisdom: It’s Not Always Regret

Our columnist Natalie McCreesh aka Pearl, is a fashion lecturer, freelance writer and creator of Fashion Pearls of Wisdom. In this post she’ll be talking about covering old tattoos and the idea of tattoo regret…

‘You’ll regret that when you’re older’ the charming phrase often uttered to those of us having decided to ink our skin. No longer in my reckless youth I am still choosing to cover my skin in tattoos and still being asked if I will regret that when I am older. Is there a defining age when you are considered old enough to be able to judge what your future self will and will not regret?

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After laser and finished cover up by Paul Goss

Having laser removal and tattoo cover ups are often used as ammunition to back up warnings of regret, however removal and regret are not mutually exclusive. I have chosen to have both laser removal and cover ups. All of the six tattoos I gained in my teens and twenties have now been concealed underneath tattoos I have had in my thirties. When I am in my forties, fifties, sixties, hell even my nineties will I have covered up any of those I have now? Who can say, I certainly don’t claim to know what my future holds. The thing that most people presume is that I regret having the tattoos I now have covered up, this couldn’t be further from the truth. At the time I got the tattoos I could afford, I got the tattoos available to me at that time, I got the tattoos that I wanted. At seventeen I marched down to the local tattoo shop with a shaky sketch I had drawn and had it tattooed around my wrist. The drawing was crap and the tattoo was worse, but none of that mattered I had finally gotten the tattoo I had wanted for as long I could remember.

Cover up in progress by Kelly Smith

I’ve always known I would become tattooed from early on and it was just a case of waiting until I could pass for old enough. Whilst that was the tattoo for me then, it wasn’t the tattoo for me now. I’m not especially sentimental, the memories will always be with me, and so I didn’t think too much about having that tattoo covered over with a bold, black snake. My tattoos have changed as I have changed. I am no longer the teenage version of myself, I have grown and changed as a person. My clothes, hair style and body shape have all changed so why not my tattoos?

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Given the choice I’d still rather have all my old tattoos than have no tattoos at all. Tattoos are so much more than pretty pictures on our skin, they are the experience, memories and emotions attached.

Film Review: Julieta

Hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward has taken a dip in the ocean of grief and guilt that is Pedro Almodovar’s latest melodramatic epic Julieta.

Julieta, 2016, cert 15, dir Pedro Almodovar, 4/5

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To say that Pedro Almodovar is an interesting director is a bit of an understatement. Each one of his films boast extraordinarily complex plots that manage to pick at the dark drama and desires seething under the surface of everyday life.

The director’s latest movie Julieta sees him returning to the themes of his revered 1999 classic All About My Mother. Subjects such as motherhood, grief and guilt are once again dissected, making for a compelling and gripping drama. I will try to give a small summary of the plot without giving away too much, since this film’s greatest power is its mystery. Almodovar captivates you from the start with a character who we know nothing about but is immediately fascinating.

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The film opens in Madrid, where a woman named Julieta is packing up her belongings, ready to move away to Portugal with her partner. She goes out shopping and bumps into an old family friend. This chance meeting brings a drastic change over Julieta’s priorities. She decides to stay in Madrid and moves back into her old apartment. Something is clearly troubling her and it’s when she starts writing a letter to her absent daughter that her whole sorry story comes out: a story where tragedy, secrets and the inability to talk about such matters have torn Julieta’s old family apart.

Despite the Pandora’s box of emotions this move is, it’s also beguiling to watch. Every setting has its own character and looks stunning, from the bustling streets of Madrid to the gorgeous shots of the ocean near which Julieta’s family used to live. There’s one important flashback scene set on a night train, where the intimate drama playing in the well-lit, comfortable carriages is contrasted with the wild, snow-bound night outside, where a stag fearlessly runs in slow motion beside the train.

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The events and themes of the plot are all connected. Overall, this film focuses on the shared experiences of each female character. Although they feel they are isolated, all are affected by similar tragic circumstances of death, disease and depression that ultimately bring them together.

As heavy as the film sounds, there’s plenty of typical Almodovar playfulness for contrast, whether it’s in some of the more charming and romantic scenes of the film or the playful way he directs. For example, there are two separate actresses playing the character of Julieta, one for a younger version (Adriana Ugarte) and one of an older version (Emma Suarez). In one striking scene, he seamlessly switches between the two.

It is incredible that over the past forty years Almodovar has been directing, his films remain so daring and deep. In fact, I would even go so far as to say Julieta is a powerful summary of everything great about Almodovar’s films and may well be his best, a masterful combination of beautiful filmmaking and incredible performances.

Interview with artist Anna Volpi

Our Italian contributor Ilaria Pauletti chatted to Italian-American artist Anna Volpi about her photographic series Skin… 

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When did the Skin project come about and what is the idea behind these shots? Skin was created for a competition that I didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter now. I met so many wonderful people through the project which is more important that any prize.  The title of the competition was simply ‘Skin’. I began to think of the various interpretations of skin, what you can do with it, the way we can see and feel it. The skin is the largest organ of our body and we can not live without it. One thing all human beings have in common is their skin and how it can cause a variety of relationships and reactions among people. Love, hate, contempt, worship and much more. ‘Skin’ is more than just aesthetics it explores how we live in it and how people really are inside their own body.

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How did you select the personal stories of each one of the subjects? To select the people I searched the internet and I spread the word among my acquaintances. I only chose people who had interesting experiences or felt connected to their skin in some way.  I listened to the story of each of them and the ones I chose were those that struck me the most. In each photo there is a summarising sentence, that encapsulates them as a person.

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What did you like the most about this experience, both personally and professionally? What I liked the most was meeting extraordinary people that I would like to keep in my life. From a more professional side, this is the most methodical project I’ve done so far. From the start I already had an idea of how the aesthetics would be. However when photographing people I didn’t ask for them to pose, I took every picture naturally during our long talks. But I knew that I wanted clean, balanced and strong images. I usually get dragged a little more by improvisation and variety, but here I had to work within certain limits, and it was a great experience.

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What are your thoughts about tattoo art?  I have two tattoos, but I’ve never studied the history of tattooing. I don’t like how stereotyped people with tattoo are, and I don’t like them as a fashion trend. Saying that, not every tattoo should have a deep moral significance. My tattoos act as reminders for me. The words ‘here now’ remind me not to be anxious about the future, or decay in the past. ‘Write’, instead, reminds me to finish my novel. I chose Evelyn Hays, the tattooed girl in the Skin project, because she totally believes in this form of artistic expression. And I would have chosen her even if she hadn’t had tattoos, because she believes deeply in this art form.

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Evelyn Hays

Can you see a relationship between tattoos and photography? In a photographic portrait a tattoo can be a point of interest or it can be seen as a disturbance. I really like to photograph the naked body, and for some shots I look for women without tattoos, because the tattoo is somehow distracting. Tattoos attract the eye, and can disturb the lines of the body that I want to create. Other times, they accentuate the body.

Five Inspiring Film Characters with Disabilities

Inspired by this year’s Paralympics, hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward lists a few of his favourite film characters with disabilities.

Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) 

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Charlize Theron certainly surprised me with her portrayal of a tough-as-nails war commander in this post-apocalyptic road rage. The fact that she’s missing an arm doesn’t stop her fighting tooth and claw to save some slave girls from the clutches of a vile warlord.

Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) 

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In every spy movie the villain needs a badass henchman and none come more badass than hench-woman Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella. Having replaced her missing legs with spikes, she slices up foes with a deadly combo of speed and acrobatics.

Stephanie in Rust and Bone (2012) 

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On a more serious note, Marion Cotillard gave a powerful performance as a killer whale trainer who loses both legs in a horrific accident. In this moving French drama, Stephanie strives for dignity with the help of her friend and lover Alain.

Phillippe in Untouchable (2011) 

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Another French drama for you now, in which an aristocrat becomes a quadriplegic and hires a reluctant young man from the projects to be his carer. His unprofessional but fun-loving new carer is a breath of fresh air in Philippe’s life.

Cherry Darling in Planet Terror (2007) 

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I felt I had to mention this character, since she’s the most iconic element of director Robert Rodriguez‘s zombie splatter-fest. Rose McGowan plays a stripper who loses a leg during a zombie attack and sticks a machine gun in its place to get her own back on those infected nasties. An aspiring attitude for a zombie epidemic at least.

Images from nerdist.com, comicvine.gamespot.com, cinematiccorner.blogspot.co.uk, Odysseypictures.co.uk and fanpop.com.

5 Great Food-Based Films

With the release of the animated comedy Sausage Party (definitely not for kids), film and food lover Harry Casey-Woodward discusses five movies based on things we love to eat.

Ratatouille (2007) 

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When I first saw this in the cinema, I thought this was one of Pixar’s best. The story is charming enough, with a rat fulfilling his dream to be a chef in one of the most esteemed restaurants in Paris. However, the film also invited us to share in his passion for food and cooking, even the simple dish of the title. Let’s just forget the fact that everyone in Paris has American accents.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) 

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I’m not a huge fan of this movie, but it’s such a celebration of our food lust I couldn’t afford to miss it off the list. An ambitious young scientist, trapped in a small town where all there is to eat is sardines, achieves surely everybody’s greatest wish and invents a machine that makes food rain from the sky. The film goes one step further, showing yet again how such a fantastic scientific achievement can get dangerous very quickly.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) 

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In honour of the late, great Gene Wilder this musical chocolate banquet surely earns a place here. Based on one of Roald Dahl‘s most imaginative and celebrated children’s books, the film follows a little blond angel named Charlie who wins one of the fabled golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Although I’m sickened slightly by the Americanised sappiness thrust into the story, the filmmakers did a great job of recreating Wonka’s factory with the finest of 70s effects, as well as keeping Dahl’s dark streak of humour intact.

Chocolat (2000) 

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Let’s keep up the literary-inspired choc fests shall we? Based on the novel by Joanne Harris, a mysterious woman arrives in a small French town during Lent and promptly sets up a chocolate shop. When she starts awakening the townspeoples’ repressed desires, this does not sit well with the local priest and he and the woman begin a battle of ideologies. This is an exploration of the emotional power of food and Johnny Depp is dishy as a guitar-playing gypsy pirate.

Delicatessen (1991)  

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Let’s stay in France, except we’ll travel into the future a bit. From visionary director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Alien: Resurrection) came this dystopian romantic comedy about an ex-circus performer moving into a flat. Unfortunately, in post-apocalyptic France food is scarce and the landlord, who happens to be a butcher, is eyeing up his tenant. But his daughter is nice. Cue a lot of comic action about human desperation for food, including some vegetarian revolutionaries.

Images from themovieman, amazon, space538.org, snoskred.org and fact.co.uk.

Five Best Disney Films

The new Jungle Book is out on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, so in celebration movie-consumer Harry Casey-Woodward is going to tell you his five favourite Disney films.

5. Pinocchio (1940) 

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This makes the list for being possibly the scariest Disney film. There’s child kidnappers, the most monstrous whale ever put on screen and one truly horrific scene where a boy transforms into a donkey. All this somehow went over my head when I was a kid. Maybe I was too distracted by the cricket.

4. The Jungle Book, (1967) 

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The one Disney film with jazz music! Sadly this was the last movie Mr. Disney produced while he was alive, but it was a genius stroke to mix Rudyard Kipling‘s story of a boy raised in the jungle by animals with foot-tappin’ tunes. I have yet to see the 2016 remake and in my opinion it’s going to be hard to beat this original feast of songs and great characters.

3. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) 

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This film is a breath of fresh air in the Disney canon. It has one of the most original plots (an ancient emperor gets turned into a llama by the fiendish Yzma and the loveable Kronk, possibly the best villainous duo ever) and thus this is definitely the funniest and breeziest of the Disney animations. There’s also no forced songs or romance either, unless you count the growing bromance between the emperor and the peasant Pacha.

2. Finding Nemo (2003) 

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Pixar have surely saved Disney and this has to be their best effort. Inspired by the oceans’s beauty and variety of life, Pixar made a truly epic Odyssey that’s still funny and charming, of a clownfish facing down the dangers of the deep to find his son. I am just a little excited about Finding Dory.

1. The Lion King (1994) 

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Another nature-inspired epic, this time set on the African plains and with a more Shakespearean plot, where Simba the lion has to avenge his father’s death at the paws of his sly uncle Scar and fulfil his destiny as King of the pride. Why is this my favourite? Maybe I just like African wildlife, but everything about this film is damn near perfect: the songs, the animation, the equal amounts of humour and tragedy. There’s also hyenas, and Timon and Pumbaa. All together now, ‘hakuna matata…’.

Images from amazonplaybuzz.com, and movies.disney.com.au.