4 stars

REVIEW: Playing with Sharks: The Valerie Taylor Story (2021)

Documentary on pioneering scuba diver Valerie Taylor, who has dedicated her life to exposing the myth surrounding our fear of sharks.

Valerie Taylor isn’t a name or a person I knew of before watching this documentary. In fact, I was reading through a “Best Documentaries of 2021” list and Playing with Sharks appeared and as someone who enjoys nature documentaries, I thought I’d give it a go. As a Brit the two most famous nature/conservationist people I immediately think of are David Attenborough and Jane Goodall so it was interesting to learn about Australian Valerie Taylor and her husband Ron, their lives and their work with sharks and all marine life.

The fascinating thing to me that was mentioned by one of the scientists featured in Playing with Sharks is that it’s not uncommon for people who were hunters to become conservationists. It’s like those who can see the worst in how people treat nature can then strive to change that as they deeply know both sides of it. In the 1950s Valerie would go spearfishing and she, like everyone else at that time, just believed you could take what you wanted from the ocean as there would always be plenty there. Over time she changed her mind about that and killing creatures and from that she became passionate about learning all she could about them.

Using her camera rather than her spear Valerie captured amazing footage and the fact that she, a young pretty blonde woman, would be in these images too, touching sharks and swimming with them made the images all the more striking. It’s impressive that pretty much all the things we know today about sharks and their behaviour came from Valerie’s work with them.

Playing with Sharks is a bit formulaic with talking heads from different scientists and fellow divers but there’s something so wonderful about a female marine biologist saying that Valerie Taylor was her idol. The use of archival footage of Valerie and Rod going out to sea to take pictures and videos of sharks as well as the interviews they did after the release of Jaws follow the timeline of their lives while the Valerie today recounts what she remembers and how she felt about things.

Playing with Sharks is a really interesting and hopeful documentary. It shows how people wrongly fear these magnificent creatures and all the work Valerie Taylor has done in order to protect them and make people put aside their misconceptions about them. What she’s achieved in her life is inspiring and the footage they captured, in the 1960s and 70s especially is wonderful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tajikistan: The City Where Dreams Come True by Gulsifat Shakhidi

A collection of four short stories from the perspective of three generations provides insight into the impact which Tajikistan’s terrible civil war had on its people and its culture during the early ’90s.

Each of the four stories is from a different family members point of view. This is something I didn’t realise before starting the book and instead picked up as I read it and noticed different characters cropping up or that some events were now being shown from a different perspective. The first is Ali who rescued his teacher’s daughter Nekbaht during the violence and the two of them found their way to his uncle. Then Horosho who is revealed to be Nekbaht’s grandfather and one of her only living relatives. There’s a story from Nekbaht’s perspective which picks up after Ali’s story does so you see how both of their lives turned out. The final story is focused on Shernazar who is Ali’s youngest cousin.

I found the way the stories intertwined and fleshed out the characters or events we’d seen in previous stories really well done and interesting. On their own each story is heartfelt and has themes of loss, injustice and hope, but when read back-to-back these themes are even more prominent and it makes each story more compelling and thoughtful.

I had barely even heard of Tajikistan as a country, never mind the civil war and turmoil its people have faced and I think that The City Where Dreams Come True shows the culture and how the people’s lives were affected by the conflict really well. Ali’s life sounds especially normal and almost idyllic before tragedy strikes. All the characters have their own issues but one thing that they have in common is their strong work ethic. Ali, Nekbaht and Shernazar learn that for them to succeed in life and in order for them to have a chance of a better life, for themselves and their families, they need to get a good education as that’s one of the only things that can lead to opportunities.

The City Where Dreams Come True is a very short collection of short stories, the kind that can easily be read in one sitting. That doesn’t make them any less impactful though and the language used, incorporating Russian, Uzbek and Tajik words for objects or in dialogue helps make these stories feel more real. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) and her husband Jim (Andrew Garfield), rise from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. However, financial improprieties, scheming rivals and a scandal soon threaten to topple their carefully constructed empire.

Personally, I had never heard of evangelicals Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker before hearing about this film. It is about people and events that were before my time and I’m pretty sure we didn’t have any kind of religious broadcasting channels here in the UK – personally my family didn’t get Sky and therefore more than the standard four channels until I was about fourteen and that was in the mid-2000s. But I like Jessica Chastain a lot and got the chance to see The Eyes of Tammy Faye at a local film festival months before it’s released in the UK so thought why not.

I’m very glad I gave this film ago. It is a bit unsure at times whether it wants to be a standard biopic or lean into the over-the-top almost satire of these people’s situation but Chastain’s performance guides you through any shaky moments. It also works best when it leans into the absurdity.

The costumes are stunning and are so very ‘80s and it’s hard not to get swept up in the glamour of it all. The religious songs Chastain sings are also super catchy as well and the whole package that Tammy Faye presents to their audience is bold and energetic. How this then contrasts to her at home, when she feels neglected by her husband makes events even more affecting.

Truly Chastain is fantastic in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Often, she’s unrecognisable thanks to the hair, makeup and prosthetic work she has going on but equally her performance is stunning too. Over the course of the film, she goes from being bubbly and full of life to disconnected and close to depressed as all her hopes and dreams come crashing down around her. She plays all the aspects of Tammy’s personality so well and it’s kind of sad sometimes because Tammy appears to be a woman who loves people, loves God, and to her detriment, loves her husband. She is full of love and is far more accepting than any other evangelical preacher seen in The Eyes of Tammy Faye – Vincent D’Onofrio plays Pastor Jerry Falwell who is the most pious of the religious figures that surround her.

While Chastain and Garfield are both great, Cherry Jones who plays Tammy’s mother Rachel steals just about every scene she’s in. Her scathing line delivery is hilarious and her presence is felt even when she’s not on screen. She’s the one person Tammy wants to impress and be proud of her, while Rachel is more suspicious of her daughter and son-in-law’s careers. Rachel is a religious woman but doesn’t see how people sending their money to the network is something God would condone.

Honestly Andrew Garfield is great as the weaselly Jim Bakker. He can be both cruel and charismatic and as the viewer you can see the things that Tammy is oblivious to and how while she did things with often the best intentions, he did them to further his life. Like honestly, the man was awful and both Garfield and Chastain did such good jobs in their roles that I was mad at him for hurting her – even though if she’d been a little more present in the running of the network, she wouldn’t have been so blindsided by her husband’s lies.

Speaking of Garfield, at the beginning in the 1960s when Jim and Tammy meet at college there is some weirdness going on with Andrew Garfield’s face. I’m not sure if it is the de-aging CGI that we’re often seeing in films nowadays, the makeup or a combination of the two but I’ve never seen a man with such a smooth face. He looked like a Ken doll in those scenes. Once the narrative had moved on so he was playing a Jim that was closer to his age (Garfield is 38) this stopped and he looked a lot more normal.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a funny and at times almost surreal biopic. The performances are all fantastic and it’s hard not to feel sympathy for Tammy Faye as it really does seem like she was an enthusiastic and caring woman. But, due to her trusting nature and her faith she was easily led and betrayed. 4/5.

REVIEW: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

After getting high together, best friends Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) embark on an epic quest to satisfy their desire for White Castle burgers.

I always thought that the Harold & Kumar films wouldn’t be for me as that kind of stoner American humour has never been my kind of thing. But I’ve been listening to You Can’t Be Serious, Kal Penn’s memoir, and the way he talks about these films, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle especially, made me want to check them out. Sure, I had Penn’s love for them and his fun anecdotes about filming in mind when pressing play but he was right; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is something special and he has every right to be proud of it.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is very funny. There are the stupid jokes that you can see coming from miles away but they still mostly land thanks to the two leads, but there are also jokes that play with racial stereotypes in a really fun and clever way. Even though Penn had talked about how much he liked the script and how it wasn’t anything he’d experienced before as an Asian American actor, I still wasn’t expecting the racial politics of a stoner comedy to be so perceptive and for it to still, for the most part, hold up seventeen years later.

With a tight 90-minute runtime, the jokes and the escapades never stop coming. Honestly, it’s impressive how there is never a dull moment. Things just keep happening to Harold and Kumar that stops them from getting to White Castle, instead they get a flat tyre or get carjacked or end up in hospital. Anything that could go wrong for them does and it manages to be funny and unrepetitive.

The chemistry between Cho and Penn is what helps elevate what could’ve been a generic stoner movie. The two of them bounce off one another perfectly, feel like real friends and the juxtaposition between straightlaced officer worker Harold and slacker Kumar works because it never goes too far in either direction. They both are funny and neither are vilified for caring about work or not caring about work.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle really was an unexpected delight. It’s laugh out loud funny and even when a joke doesn’t land or is too cringey for today’s standards, something else soon happens to make you forget any misfires. 4/5.

REVIEW: Eternals (2021)

The Eternals, a race of immortal and powerful beings, have lived on Earth for centuries. Their mission was to protect its people from creatures called Deviants but when a new danger threatens Earth and its people, they decide to take a stand to protect the place they’ve learnt to call home.

Eternals is the latest instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in some ways it’s different to what has come before, but in others it falls into the general tropes of the MCU. The scope of Eternals is huge and there’s a lot of information to take in about these characters and their history. They are all pretty much demigods with different powers and how they fight together, using those different powers is really fun to watch. And while they are all from the same place originally, they each have experienced different things in their thousands of years on Earth and that along with their general core beliefs make them different to one another.

There are ten Eternals so natural some characters get more development than others but each character gets at least one very cool moment, whether it’s a quiet, dramatic moment or something in a big fight scene. Sersi (Gemma Chan) could be considered the lead in this ensemble cast. She, along with Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), is the one who sets out to find the others and bring them all together to stop this new threat. Sersi is a character whose core values are really love and kindness. She’s always liked and cared for the people of Earth even when some of her companions thought them to be not worth saving or a danger to themselves.

A lot of the comedic moments come from Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and his human valet Karun (Harish Patel). With Karun, he could’ve easily become an annoying comedic side character but the film knows exactly when to use him to its advantage and he actually has a really heartfelt moment which I did not expect. Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos also has some funny moments but his humour is a lot more subtle and dry and having that kind of humour balances out the more typical MCU-type humour which was nice.

The cast and the characters are what made Eternals for me. These characters have all lived different lives but they all still care about one another. They do often seem like a dysfunctional family and no dynamic between two characters is the same. There are friendships or maybe even romantic relationships between various characters that are stronger than between others but that’s true to life in any kind of friendship group or family. It doesn’t make any of the relationships lesser and instead adds something to the various characters motivations. The chemistry between certain actors was great if unexpected – Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari were a standout.

The cinematography in Eternals is often stunning and that has to be at least in part due to director Chloé Zhao and her love of natural lighting and filming in real locations. At times this does make the CGI a bit more noticeable when it is used as the blend of the real and computer-generated doesn’t always hit the mark.

Eternals is a bit more of a serious MCU film as it presents lofty ideas and themes about humanity and the value of life of one species vs another. It’s the kind of film where even though you see the worst of humanity, you can also see the best and its potential. But with all these serious discussions, there’s also spectacular fight sequences where it’s really fun to see these characters work together.

There’s a lot to take in, but overall Eternals manages to be an engaging and hopeful story with fun action sequences and a lot of mythology to get your teeth into – and there’s enough in the film itself and its two post-credit scenes to get you interested in a sequel. 4/5.

REVIEW: Flee (2021)

Animated documentary telling the true story of Amin, who arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and there’s talk of marriage between him and his long-time boyfriend. In a series of conversations with a close school friend, Amin finally tells his secrets that he has been hiding for over 20 years.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated documentary before and I think the two elements really complimented each other. The animation is so good that when there is a little real news footage scattered throughout the film it’s almost jarring, though it does help to drive home certain points or atrocities, giving the real news story to back up Amin’s accounts. What’s really striking about the animation is how the style changes when Amin is deep in a memory or is thinking what could’ve happened. Instead of the colours and neat lines it becomes dark and almost as if it’s in charcoal. These abstract and often faceless images highlighted the fear and darkness Amin and his family faced.

With the music and the animation, Flee manages to be bother beautiful and haunting at the same time. The things Amin saw and went through are more often horrible than not, but there are some moments of fun for him in his childhood, even when things look bleak. The animation and music captures that duality of life incredibly well.

I think Flee is the kind of film that would be a good way to show children what a lot of refugees can go through in the hopes of keeping with their family and being safe. The corruption of the police and greed of the traffickers are clear – at one point it is heavily hinted at that a young woman would be raped by Russian police as she didn’t have any money or valuables for them to take, so they had to make her pay for not having the correct papers somehow.

Flee shows how quickly a person’s life can change. Amin and his family were all normal, living happy lives until things changed in Afghanistan. His father was arrested, never seen again, and eventually he, his mother and older brother and sisters had to flee to Moscow, with the hope of making it to Sweden where another older sibling lived.

Flee is thought-provoking and equally devastating and hopeful. Amin has gone through so much but has managed to make a life for himself, with a man he loves. That’s another aspect of Amin’s life that he struggled with, being gay and from a culture where it was not talked about or even seen to be a thing. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir by Sophia Al-Maria

A funny and wry coming-of-age memoir about growing up in between American and Gulf Arab cultures as Al-Maria shares the struggles of being raised by an American mother and Bedouin father while shuttling between homes in the Pacific Northwest and the Middle East.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth begins with the story of Al-Maria’s parents. Of how her father came to America and how they met, fell in love and were happy for a while. Then in goes to Al-Maria’s childhood and the start of feeling like she belonged in two places and none at all. Growing up she and her young sister spent years with her mother and grandmother in her home on a small farm, then they moved with their mother to Doha to live in a large apartment their father had though they rarely saw him, instead spending time with all the women on their dad’s side of the family; aunts and cousins.

Al-Maria in part doesn’t seem to know who she is because she moves between America and the Middle East at major milestones in her life. As a young teen in America, she tries to express herself but the things she’s interested in (fashion and music) disappoint and sometimes anger her mother. When she goes back to the Middle East as a teen she discovers new restrictions on her life, especially once she starts her period and she’s no longer allowed to go to certain parts of the house where the men are.

Al-Maria grows up in the 80s and 90s and she’s at university in Egypt when 9/11 happens. Her university is an international school with a whole mixture of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs from different countries, so after the attacks you feel the repercussions on all these people in a different way that white Western people did.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is really interesting because it seems like Al-Maria not only has a culture clash but a personality clash with her parents, her mother especially. It’s like she’s expected to know how to act in both societies but there are things she’s never taught and neither side of the family rarely think they should – she’s just expected to know things. Her not knowing where she belongs, how she feels like an alien when people can’t easily classify “what” she is based on her looks or her level of English or Arabic, comes out in anger, confusion and just general teenage angst.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth doesn’t offer any simple or easy answers to Al-Maria’s turmoil. Her childhood and upbringing weren’t easy and while as an outside perspective you can think of what you’d have done differently in her position, or even in her parent’s position, these were the choices she made. Sometimes they were reckless or thoughtless while sometimes they were a conscious decision.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is told with a wry sense of humour. There are things that happen in Al-Maria’s life that are sad or shocking but they are told with a degree of distance to them. It’s is as because she doesn’t feel connected to either part of her heritage, it’s difficult for the reader to connect with what she experienced. 4/5.

REVIEW: Schumacher (2021)

Documentary about seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1 is not a sport I follow or know a lot about but it’s hard to not have at least heard of Michael Schumacher. It’s a name and person I was always aware of growing up as he first raced in the F1 a month before I was born and I remember seeing his ski accident featured in the news. Really that sums up my knowledge of Michael Schumacher before watching this documentary.

I found Schumacher to be really interesting and engaging. The balance between talking heads, voiceovers from various industry professionals and those who know Michael Schumacher, and archival footage was great. The filmmakers had a good understanding of when to let the footage speak for itself; whether that was a montage of photos and clips of Schumacher with his family, or letting key races play out.

The documentary seemed to balance the story of Schumacher the man outside of F1 and Schumacher the driver. It’s clear that they were very different people and while he was focused and put his all into both aspects of his life, his competitiveness when it came to racing was almost unparalleled. You get to see the highs and lows of his racing career and included are the times where he was probably in the wrong when it came to altercations with some of his opponents but it was clear that he’d never apologise for such things as in some ways it was almost like anything goes when on the track. Hearing David Coulthard talk about their relationship on and off the track especially highlighted Schumacher’s competitive-streak.

The documentary shows how Schumacher got into racing from humble beginnings of go-kart racing to almost pure chance that got him into his first F1 race. From there you see how talented he really was and how he loved a challenge. It was like as well as winning Championship titles, what he wanted to do was win them in ways other drivers hadn’t. Sometimes that meant going with teams and cars that were the underdogs – proving that while others may have a faster car, if Michael Schumacher was behind the wheel of a bad car it didn’t mean all was lost.

The skiing accident is mentioned briefly towards the end of the documentary and while you can make assumptions on Schumacher’s condition based on the thing’s family members say, it’s clear that the family is firm in keeping their private life private and the filmmakers respect that. At one point his wife Corrina says how before the accident and during the height of his fame Michael kept his private life private and now his family are committed to do the same.

I feel that Schumacher is one of those great documentaries that is enjoyable and interesting to both those who are fans of or are knowledgeable about the subject matter, and for complete novices (like me). It’s an engaging and thoughtful documentary about both Michael Schumacher the family man and Michael Schumacher the F1 driver and seems to cover both sides of his life with respect. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Sweetest Thing (2002)

Christina (Cameron Diaz) is more than happy to flirt, have one-night stands, and leave men in the dust. That is until she meets Peter (Thomas Jane) in a club and with the help of her best friends Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair) she decides to follow her heart and to gatecrash his brother’s wedding.

While The Sweetest Thing is built on romance and the driving force behind Christina’s motivations is the fact she wants to see Peter again, it’s really about the friendship between these three women. Christina only meets Peter because she’s trying to help Jane get over her ex and it’s Courtney that drives them for hours in order to get to the wedding on time. All three of them are very funny people and they feel like they are great friends. They have in-jokes and do their best to cheer each other up while also being totally open with one another.

The Sweetest Thing has the crude humour also seen in Bridesmaids so if you like that, there’s a good chance you’ll like this too, and it should probably be talked about as much as Bridesmaids is to be honest. There’s a whole song and dance number about how to make a man feel good about his penis (sounds weird but it does work) and all three friends are very open about talking about their sex lives. There’s another musical moment featuring Aerosmith’s Don’t Want to Miss a Thing which I found hilarious and there’s a montage like any self-respecting romcom should have.

Cameron Diaz is just a delight in this film. She’s funny and sweet and while their first meeting is pretty short, she and Thomas Jane have enough chemistry to make you believe that she’d make the unexpected choice to travel for hundreds of miles just on the chance that there’s something between them. But really all her best moments are with Christina Applegate and Selma Blair, they all have great friendship-chemistry and each feel equal parts weird and real.

The Sweetest Thing is funny and at times outlandish and ridiculous but it never stops being fun. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath their school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other.

I’ve been getting the book-only Illumicrate subscription for the past six months and this is the first book I’ve actually read from them. That’s not necessarily anything against the books from previous months (especially as I’m just generally not reading as much as I used to) but as soon as I read the blurb for The Devil Makes Three and looked at that beautiful but dark cover, I really wanted to read it as soon as possible. Thankfully, for a book I’d never heard of before and had just piqued my interest – I really did enjoy The Devil Makes Three.

The atmosphere in The Devil Makes Three is incredibly vivid. Even before the devil makes an appearance there’s a sense of foreboding and bleakness to both Tess and Eliot’s lives. As the story progresses you learn more about the two of them and how their relationships with their parents are strained for different reasons. Each of them are going through tough times and with Tess especially it’s made her hard and prickly. She’s been betrayed by the people (her parents) who are supposed to care about her and put her and her younger sister Nat first so she now finds it incredibly difficult to trust and rely on other people. This means that she tries to deal with what’s going on with the devil on her own before opening up to Eliot about what’s been happening to her.

The things Tess ad Eliot experience after the accidentally release the devil are truly creepy and terrible. Things they experience blur the line between dream and reality, making events even more unsettling as they (and you as the reader) are never entirely sure what’s real. There is a bit of gore in The Devil Makes Three but it’s not over the top and instead it’s ink that’s used to give you nightmares. Honestly never thought of ink as creepy/evil but the way it’s described here, how it moves and bleeds from pages and almost devours people, it’s really quite disturbing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a creepy/horror story and The Devil Makes Three was really very good. The ending was a little sudden and I’d have liked to see more of the consequences of Tess and Eliot’s actions on people in their wider sphere who were affected, but overall, it’s a gripping and atmospheric read. 4/5.