Review: Decent Vietnam-era miniseries, America wages war with itself and Oscar winner finally hits streaming

What we’re watching – and what you should skip on screen now

What We’re Watching

The Sympathizer

Where: Crave
What: Miniseries, 7 episodes, 58 mins
When: Sun., April 14, new episodes weekly
Genre: Historical drama
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Based on a powerful, sometimes brutal novel of the same name about a North Vietnamese spy and double agent, The Captain (Hoa Xuande), who comes to America post-Vietnam War to keep an eye on a South Vietnamese general whose entourage he has infiltrated. The novel and the series also flash forward to the Captain’s interment in a Vietnamese “re-education” camp upon his return as well as flashbacks to life during the war.

The miniseries is running in Crave/HBO’s prestigious Sunday night slot, former home of streaming royalty Succession and Game of Thrones, so the streamer has big hopes for The Sympathizer. Unfortunately, it’s not quite in their league; the filmmakers, including Canadian showrunner Don McKeller, have opted to tell the tough tale in an awkwardly quirky manner. From campy soundtrack choices to some over-the-top performances, it feels like self-conscious filmmaking, impressed with its own cleverness. Robert Downey Jr. plays four roles in the series, and the whole exercise just feels like stunt casting ­— “Look what I can do,” the filmmakers seem to scream, often.

The quadruple roles for Downey might have been intended to shake our faith in reality in a series filled with confusing allegiances, but it simply seems contrived and gimmicky and pulls us out of the story. Sandra Oh does a good job as the Captain’s “mature” Stateside girlfriend Sofia Mori, though she feels kind of wasted in the series.

The ’70s art direction is cool and there is plenty of plot to munch on in a decent though not stellar series that pales in comparison to its predecessors in the prestigious time slot.

Wicked Little Letters

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 100 mins.
When: Now
Genre: Mystery
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: What initially seems like a deceptively “quaint” tale proves to be complex and compelling with all the propulsive energy of a riveting whodunit, powered by a magnificent cast.

Set in a working-class community in a seaside British town after the First World War, The Crown’s Olivia Colman — she played the Queen from 2019 through 2023 — is perfect as Edith Swan, a seemingly profoundly innocent, dour Church-going spinster who lives with her parents in a tiny flat. The film opens with Edith and her family examining the latest of a series of poison pen letters Edith regularly receives that contain an astounding amount of profanity and accusations.

Very quickly, Edith’s Irish neighbour — a quirky, scandalous, younger, single mother — Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) is tabbed as the main suspect and is launched into the British justice system taking the film to a darker place and Gooding eventually to jail.

There isn’t a weak performance from a compelling cast that includes Edith’s icily controlling father, Edward Swan (Timothy Spall), and female police officer Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), whose gender is a constant source of controversy and who eventually comes to the imprisoned Gooding’s aid.

Like the town in the film, Wicked Little Letters is filled with secrets and littered with unspoken rules and assumptions that give actions momentum of their own. While the title might suggest a small, quirky film, Wicked Little Letters is, in fact, a big story told with massive performances.

The Zone of Interest

Where: Prime Video
What: Movie, 105 mins.
When: Now
Genre: Drama
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: This Oscar winner for Best International Film finally comes to a streamer and remains a must-see film as it powerfully explores how easily even holocaust horrors can be normalized by the oppressors. Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin), who also co-wrote the film, is understated in his approach. The normalcy with which the comandante Rudolph Hoss (Christian Friedel) and his family go about their routine lives as people — Jewish, Romani and others the Nazis deemed undesirable — are murdered daily just steps from their carefully maintained home is the horror revealed in this film. Glazer was the only filmmaker to speak out against the genocide in Gaza at the Oscars, and he has drawn both applause and anger for making the connection between his film and the horrors of today.

Review: ‘Civil War’ a disturbingly believable look at American polarization | NEXT Magazine

Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in Civil War

Civil War

Where: In theatres
What: Movie, 109 minutes.
When: Fri., April 12
Genre: Thriller
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Alex Garland’s dystopian vision of America is a compelling, effective but ultimately shallow look at the end of an empire. Get your IMAX fix with this loud, edgy exercise in paranoia and blowing up stuff without a lot of meaning to madness. Read the full review.

Sugar

Where: AppleTV+
What: Miniseries, 8 episodes, 40 mins.
When: Now, new episodes Fridays
Genre: Detective
Rating: NNN
Why you should watch: We initially loved this series as Colin Farrell plays John Sugar, a classic Philip Marlowe-esque private dick helping super-rich Hollywood clean up its personal messes. The attitude, the art direction, the wise-assed banter, everything is perfect until an upcoming, totally fucked plot twist that will leave you fuming. Enjoy the series while you can; it’s seriously great until they mess the whole thing up.

And what we’re not…

Franklin

Where: AppleTV+
What: Miniseries, 8 episodes,49 mins
When: Two episodes, Fri., April 12; new episodes weekly
Genre: Historical drama
Rating: NN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Shameless American myth-building designed to add to the deification of the country’s crackpot founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin gets canonized as Michael Douglas plays Michael Douglas playing Benjamin Franklin in a scene-munching performance that begs us to celebrate it. Douglas’s Franklin delivers bon mots with a dimple-twisting coyness that leaves no room for nuance from a series that demands we stand up and salute more historical hagiography. If you want a great, flag-waving free historical drama, check out the excellent Manhunt, also on AppleTV+, a riveting look at the Lincoln assassination, which airs its final episode on Fri., April 19.

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