What to Watch, What to Read and What to Listen to in late January 2023

What to Watch…

Small Axe by the celebrated AcademyAward winner, Black English filmmaker Steve McQueen is five feature length films about the lives of West Indian immigrants – most from the Windrush Generation – to London. This is a brilliant series of high quality movies.  You can watch them– one at a time—on Prime.  Brilliant. Here’s a trailer.

The one season of Roadkill is excellent.  Too bad another one isn’t in the works.  Peter Laurence, a British Tory MP wants to climb in cabinet, and aspires to become prime minister.  Two things stand in the way – a clever PM who discovers she is being pushed out, and the bagmen of the Conservative Party who want nothing but smooth transitions to a leadership that is more malleable. Laurence is corrupt, but he as an acerbic wit, a genial personality, and an insistence he’s a self-made man. Along the way he lives a double life. As Minister of Justice he discovers a daughter who is in prison he never knew existed. It is a great series to watch. It’s on Prime- Masterpiece. Here’s the trailer.

Clockwise from top: Our Miracle Years; Arbitrage; Murina, Emily The Criminal and from Roadkill.

Our Miracle Years is a series with good production values, decent acting and in parts – some depth on Prime.  It’s about the post World War II years from 1948 to 1952 and focuses on a German family – three daughters and a kindly, if domineering, father and angry mother —  who own a steel fabricating plant in the “western” section of Germany.  I found it a bit soap-operatic, but tolerable as each episode is  only 50 minute.  The political bits  (I emphasise bits) are more interesting than the “love story” which is at the heart of the series.  Watch it on and here’s the trailer (ignore the first bit).

Emily the Criminal on Netflix is very much worth watching. It’s a feature film about a young woman in Los Angeles with a lot of student debt.  We find out she has an insignificant criminal record, but it precludes her from getting good jobs and launching a career.  She starts to deliver food for a platform akin to “Skip the Dishes”. There she meets a man who explains how she can make $200 an hour by working in his phoney credit card scheme.  Emily is clever, and knows her own mind.  She figures it’s worth a try.  And therein lies a believable story with suspense and pathos.  I thought it was excellent. The trailer.

Murina, also on Netflix, is excellent.  A young woman on an island off Croatia works with her father to capture eels – a expensive delicacy mainly sold to tourists and restaurants. The young woman is brow-beaten by her father, who is an ogre, and her mother who seems inured to her father’s anger and nastiness.  One day a friend of the family comes from the US to visit which opens some possibilities for Murina to change her situation.  This is a slow film, but fascinating.  You’ll love it.  The trailer is here.

Arbitrage is a feature length film from 2012 on Kanopy.  Again– it’s good!  Richard Gere plays a wealthy hedge fund mogul who is trying to sell his lucrative business.  He employs his very competent daughter as a financial analyst.  She finds that $400 million has gone missing.  But what happens isn’t exactly what you think.  It’s suspenseful, a bit of a mystery and also a good portrayal of the uber-rich of New York.  Trailer is here.

My Old School on CBC-GEM is a brilliant feature length documentary.  Your eyes will never leave the screen, I promise.   In 1995, Brandon Lee enrolled as a fifth year student at a high school in Scotland.  But he was not 17-years-old, as he claimed.  He was a 30-year-old man who enrolled with the goal of getting  excellent grades that would enable him to enter university and go to eventually become a doctor.  Certain things had happened to him almost fifteen years before which meant he never finished school—the same school he returned to years later.  Now he was sure he’d have a chance at becoming a doctor. This is a psychological thriller, a mystery and in a way – a who-dunit.  Spell-binding.  Here is the trailer.

Finally, you could do worse than to watch Death and the Nightingales on CBC-GEM. I warn you it’s slow going – but in three episodes it manages to paint a wonderful and somewhat dismal portrait of rural Ireland in the 1880s.  A young woman comes of age, understanding that her future is to tend the home and be the “unspoken” wife to her well-to-do stepfather –who raised her.  She is desperate to get away.  At first, predictably, we see her fall in love with a handsome and literate tenant on the family’s estate.  But there is something else going on behind the scenes for both the man and with the young woman.  The ending is a surprise – and a stark statement about women’s lot. Here’s the trailer — delightful.

What NOT to watch

The Recruit on Netflix: typical US show and tell about a spy.

Let Him Go on Netflix:  after their grown son dies and his wife remarries, an older couple dedicates themselves to “rescuing” their five year old grandson from the daughter-in-law.  There is revenge, terrible acting, all in the spirit of a B-class of western – what more can I say?  Oh yes: the violence is horrendous and about as valuable as the violence in Grand Theft Auto III.

What to Read…

If there is one book to read, especially if you are over 55 (I can’t afford to date myself) it’s Ian McEwan’s latest novel Lessons Lessons spans nearly sixty years of one man’s life. And if that sounds boring, it is not.  This is not a famous or a brilliant man.  This man, Roland, starts his school career in the early 60s at a state-funded grammar school.  His piano teacher at the school falls in love with him – and he in love with her –as much as a 14-year-old boy can do that.  What we don’t realize is the effect the relationship has on his life – both academically and in terms of his future choices and career. 

The enjoyment in the book is how Roland glides through his life in London.  Politically, he is a centrist and a stalwart member of the British Labour Party for decades.  He’s against war, against killing and in favour of the welfare state which eased his life growing up.   But he sees what has happened in Viet Nam; he understands somethings about freedom, about Berlin before and after the wall falls in 1989, and yet he understands little of British colonialism and racism which has shaped the nation for hundreds of years.  He believes NATO is a force for peace (seriously!)

This is a rich travelogue through to the present day —but rather than observations about foreign countries and cultures Roland skirts the edges of major wars, financial meltdowns and gender wars. 

The book is far greater than I describe.  In a way it’s a mystery.  It opens in the mid-1980s with Roland’s  35-year-old wife walking out on him and their son, Lawrence, aged 7 months.  She never returns.  His small friendship group rallies around him and tries to help – but what he wants to do is to write poetry and raise his son on his own.  Roland vows to read as much philosophy and literature as he can and does just that. He had left school at age 15 — with no O levels (or A levels) and no chance to go on to university.  To earn money, he becomes a tennis teacher by day, and a pianist in a tearoom and bar by night.

He is guileless, resistant to change, yet a very human man. His life unfolds not terribly but not as he could have expected.  Many of his experiences will resonate with the reader.  Read it!!

Anne Ernaux’s book A Man’s Place won the Nobel Prize for Literature in Nov. 2022.  In a scant 100 pages, Ernaux tells the story of her father, a man who farmed and then worked at odd jobs for all of his life.  Anne, her mother and father lived in rural Britanny, barely scraping by after World War II. When times improved for many, they did not get much better for the family.  Her portrayal of her father is dazzling – she paints him as a neither a saint nor a saviour.  Her parents had little formal education; when she went to teacher’s college her parents were a bit ashamed as she was the only girl in the village to pursue a career.  The book is a snapshot of rural France from just after WWI to the Viet Nam era.  And it’s nicely written.

Finding Edward is a new novel by Canadian Shelagh Murray.  A young man from Jamaica is left with a small legacy by a favourite uncle.  The 18-year-old moves to Toronto to attend university.  The first half of the book is the familiar terrain of his loneliness, lack of friends and meagre financial resources.  One day in a window of a church near his rooming house, he spots a display of photographs of Black people who made Toronto their home in the first half of the twentieth century.  As a personal project, he decides to try to trace at least one of the men in the photo. This is a rare novel in which the second half of the book is far deeper and more interesting than the first half – so stick with it. 

John Banville’s The Book of Evidence is a good read.  A privileged young man from an Ango-Irish family travels to Spain and then to the US in the 1960s and 70s.  He drinks and gambles away what money he had and finds himself panicking about a gambling debt.  The account of what he does next is told by him from a prison cell in Dublin.  Banville, a major Irish novelist, published the book in 1989.  Some say it should have won the Booker Prize but it was too controversial.  The book’s protagonist is modelled on a true life situation.  A scion of a well-to-do Dublin family, Malcolm MacArthur ends up murdering a nurse he does not know, when he steals her car.   He finds refuge from the police in none other than the home of the Attorney General of Ireland, who allows him to stay as a sort of houseguest.  I reviewed an excellent podcast about this case, Obscene: The Dublin Scandal here.  Banville’s book is outstanding, eery and believable.

For short stories, I recommend a new book by Clark Blaise.  His new book This Time, That Place is shocking and almost surreal. “How I became a Jew” and “South” are my favourite stories.  The book transports us to the ’60s in the US south, and to poor white families who are trying to get ahead—or at least get their fingers on the ledge to pull themselves up. He locates some of the stories  back in Canada, in the Montreal of the author’s younger days.  An earlier book of his short stories, The Meagre Tarmac (2011), I liked even better.  It was political and quick-witted.  You might try it first.

What Podcasts to listen to…

The Monopoly series on Canadaland is excellent.  Arshy Mann does a great job of investigating why Canadian grocery stores rip off the customers, and a delightful episode about the music industry The Way the Music Died.  My favourite so far is It’s Raining Cats and Dollars.  The episode is billed this way:  “Wen you look at your pet, you probably see an adorable furball that you’d do anything for.  A private equity firm sees dollar signs.”

From Canadaland, Commons “Monopoly” series

Also on Canadaland is the delightful #725 The Rogers Family Compact – it’s very funny and also too true. 

I’m in the middle of listening to the BBC’s The Shamima Begum Story: I’m Not a Monster (series 2). In 2015, three London high school girls, aged 15 to 16, disappeared.  Unbeknownst to their families, they travelled to Syria in the hope of joining ISIS. How they left the UK, where they went and why they did what they did is explored in this series. Of course it is needlessly sensationalistic in parts.  But episode 3: Double Agent? Is astounding. The journalist finds evidence and interviews a woman who worked for CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Service) at the time who confirms that the girls’ entry into ISIS-held territory was organized and masterminded by Rashida dentist turned ISIS operative.  And that Canada agreed to give him citizenship for giving intelligence about ISIS to  Canada (and the “5 Eyes”) But the fact is, he was likely a double agent working for ISIS – since without him, the young women could not have entered Syria and developed relationships with men in ISIS. 

Shamima Begum, photo from BBC

Begum married a young ISIS fighter after ten days in a camp; she had three babies – all of whom died.  Her husband had also died.  Another journalist found her in 2019 in the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria.  But the British Home Secretary refused to allow her to go home and revoked her British citizenship (she was born in the UK).  Despite appeals, Begum is still stateless and is not allowed home.  Now her lawyer is arguing that she was the victim of human trafficking – which is a good point.  You can read more about it here  

All of this has ramifications here in Canada.  Canada’s Federal Court recently ruled that, under the Charter, the government had to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children from northeastern Syria, where they have been held in Kurdish-run detention camps under suspicion of being ISIS members and their families.  Four Canadian men in Syrian jails also must be allowed to return home. None have faced charges.

Noticed: “Julie will be in touch with the notes and any follow-up questions we have.”

A new online feminist magazine for and by women comes out of Halifax. Defy is worth a look and worth a read. I especially liked the letter from the editor about the power of saying “No.” Julie Lawrence writes, “Julie will be in touch with the notes and any follow-up questions we have.” She goes on:

I can’t even count how many times a meeting has been wrapped up by men with some version of these words. It’s something I had no problem with when I was a junior and learning the ropes (that’s not to say that it wasn’t problematic, just that I didn’t have a problem with it).

But what about when you’ve worked for almost 15 years, amassed experience and education, and become, say, the Editor of a magazine? And you are asked to join a sales meeting with a potential advertiser because you are the most senior woman, know the brand best, and can best communicate the value proposition? And then you lead the whole meeting, navigate their questions and garner excitement and interest? What about when THAT meeting ends with that same sentence?

Julie Lawrence, Editor of Defy: Unapologetic Women

Featured Image at the top: a still from Small Axe: Mangrove, a film by Steve McQueen (UK). (credit: Deadline)

One comment

  1. Thanks for all this. I have access to some of the streaming services and will look for these. I’ve also put some of the books on my list of those to look for.
    I appreciate your articles. Much to think about.


    Sent from my iPhone


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