8 Contributions by: Farah Cheded On Hulu

Staff & contributors

You don’t have to be a theater kid to enjoy this feel-good mockumentary set in a summer camp for junior thespians. While there are plenty of in-jokes here for those who might have spent a summer or two somewhere like AdirondACTS, Theater Camp also good-naturedly lampoons every instantly recognizable stereotype of theater kids and the classic failed-performer-turned-teacher. 

Amongst the note-perfect ensemble, particularly hilarious standouts include co-writer Ben Platt and co-director Molly Gordon as camp instructors and best friends Amos and Rebecca-Diane. Both are Juilliard rejects with codependency issues and a classic case of actorly self-indulgence — as encapsulated in the moment they accuse a young attendee of “doping” for using artificial tears during a performance (“Do you want to be the Lance Armstrong of theater?”). But even seasoned performers like Platt and Gordon can’t pull the spotlight away from the film’s absurdly talented young ensemble, who are just as game for poking fun at their passion: standouts include Luke Islam, Alexander Bello, and Minari’s Alan Kim as a pint-sized “aspiring agent” who skips dance class to make business calls. All this self-satirising never obscures the movie’s heart, though; what begins as a self-deprecating ribbing of theater-heads ultimately becomes a rousing love letter to those very same misfits.

Genre: Comedy, Music

Actor: Alan Kim, Alexander Bello, Amy Sedaris, Ayo Edebiri, Ben Platt, Caroline Aaron, David Rasche, Dean Scott Vazquez, Donovan Colan, Jimmy Tatro, Kyndra Sanchez, Luke Islam, Max Sheldon, Molly Gordon, Nathan Lee Graham, Noah Galvin, Owen Thiele, Patti Harrison, Priscilla Lopez, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson

Director: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman

Rating: PG-13

At 80 minutes, Smoking Causes Coughing is another slice of perfectly paced absurdist fun from Quentin Dupieux, the zany mind behind Rubber (in which a car tire turns serial killer) and Deerskin, the tale of a motorcycle jacket that wants to rule the world. This time around, the protagonists aren’t inanimate objects: they’re Tobacco Force, a Power Rangers-style band of lightly idiotic superheroes who harness the toxic power of cigarettes to defeat Earth’s enemies, and are each named after one of their harmful components (Benzene, Nicotine, Mercury, Ammonia, and Methanol). They’re led by Chief Didier, a rat who inexplicably dribbles green goo — and, even more inexplicably, casts an intense erotic spell over Tobacco Force’s female members.

Smoking Causes Coughing leans deliriously, hilariously far into its absurdist premise. Citing a lack of “group cohesion,” Chief Didier sends the Force to the woods on a team-building retreat. While they swap “scary” stories over a campfire, however, a reptilian galactic supervillain plots to put Earth “out of its misery” because it’s a “sick planet” (can’t really argue with that). Full of insane plot twists and without a tired trope in sight, Smoking Causes Coughing never approaches the realm of predictability — no small achievement in this era of superhero fatigue.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Alain Chabat, Anaïs Demoustier, Anthony Sonigo, Benoît Poelvoorde, Blanche Gardin, Charlotte Laemmel, David Marsais, Doria Tillier, Gilles Lellouche, Grégoire Ludig, Jean-Pascal Zadi, Jérôme Niel, Julia Faure, Marie Bunel, Oulaya Amamra, Raphaël Quenard, Sava Lolov, Vincent Lacoste

Director: Quentin Dupieux

Science Fair is simultaneously a feel-good documentary and a feel-bad one: while inspiring and reassuring for all the brilliant young minds it spotlights, it also has the potential to make your own life accomplishments look paltry in comparison. The former effect is the strongest, though — because you can’t watch high schoolers as young as 14 present pioneering, disease-curing research and inventions and not feel like the future is in good hands.

Science Fair is light on the actual science, which makes it an accessible watch and prevents the film’s focus from mimicking the cutthroat nature of ISEF, the international competition it follows. With a grand prize of $75k and lots of college application-boosting medals up for grabs, the competition amongst the kids is fierce, but Science Fair instead takes an empathetic, celebratory approach so that all of the kids feel like deserved winners. That’s especially true of the more disadvantaged teens: though the competition itself might not take into account all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome even just to get in the room, this compassionate doc definitely does. Even if the science is all Greek to you, it’s impossible not to appreciate and be moved by the determination and resilience of these kids.

Genre: Documentary

Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Rating: PG

Strange things are happening in the sleepy cul-de-sac where Cameron Edwin (comic Jim Gaffigan) lives: cars are falling from the sky, space rockets are crash-landing in his backyard, and his doppelgänger has just moved in next door and stolen his job. Unnerved by all these weird occurrences and feeling like a failure in light of his looming divorce, Cameron goes full midlife crisis and decides to rebuild the damaged rocket as a last-ditch attempt to fulfill his lifelong dream of being an astronaut. It’d be giving too much away to say anything more about the plot, but suffice it to say that the uncanniness lurking under Linoleum’s surface comes to mind-bending fruition as the rational and the fantastic meld into one. Though it’s already deeply affecting on first watch, this is the kind of movie you’ll immediately want to rewind to absorb the full weight of.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction

Actor: Amy Hargreaves, Gabriel Rush, Jay Walker, Jim Gaffigan, Katelyn Nacon, Michael Ian Black, Rhea Seehorn, Tony Shalhoub, West Duchovny, Willoughby Pyle

Director: Colin West

Kenneth Branagh’s third Hercule Poirot movie does everything it can to divorce itself from the quaintness of a typical Agatha Christie adaptation. Loosely based on the novel Hallowe’en Party, this outing swaps exotic locales for the claustrophobic confines of a gothic Venetian palazzo and flirts outright with horror. The film, shot through more Dutch angles than an Amsterdam maths class has ever seen, uses the genre's visual language to credibly suggest that this mystery might actually have paranormal undertones. Forcing Poirot to reconsider his die-hard loyalty to rational explanations is an interesting twist — it punctures the idea of him as a mystery-solving god and gives the film bigger questions to chew on than whodunnit.

What that does, however, is sap the satisfaction of watching him expertly crack the puzzle, because the movie spends so much time centering Poirot’s crisis of confidence. A Haunting in Venice’s tone switch to serious horror is also at odds with the campily bad accents and mostly overwrought acting from the (much less starry than usual) cast. It’s not the same kind of reliable guilty pleasure we expect these vehicles to be, then, but this outing of Branagh’s Poirot is at least an interesting experiment in expanding these stories' usual limits.

Genre: Crime, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ali Khan, Amir El-Masry, Camille Cottin, David Menkin, Emma Laird, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly, Kenneth Branagh, Kyle Allen, Lorenzo Acquaviva, Michelle Yeoh, Riccardo Scamarcio, Tina Fey

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rating: PG-13

Despite what its title suggests, the real thrill of this documentary isn’t the mysterious 1998 robbery of a royal Austrian jewel, but the many other criminal escapades of Gerald Blanchard’s that are chronicled here. Blanchard, who appears on camera for much of the doc, remains cagey (for legal reasons) about how exactly he orchestrated the titular crime, but even if he divulged his secrets, the jewel theft pales in comparison to his earlier exploits: his ballsy teenage shoplifting, slippery escapes from police custody, and subsequent spree of audacious bank heists.

The Jewel Thief benefits from a wealth of remarkable footage thanks to Blanchard's penchant for videotaping his criminal antics. This exhibitionist tendency is corroborated by testimonies from the many other interviewees featured here, including the two policemen who received taunting photos of Blanchard’s loot during their years-long cat-and-mouse chase. As indicated by the opening titles — “This is a true story… Mostly” — Blanchard also has a tendency to embellish his stories, which makes the fact-checking provided by these other participants a wise inclusion by the filmmakers. Ultimately, though, having such an unreliable subject isn’t a handicap — it’s a blessing, giving the documentary a winkingly ludicrous edge that helps it stand out in an overstuffed genre.

Genre: Crime, Documentary

Director: Landon Van Soest

Rating: R

Susie Searches begins intriguingly for two reasons: first, there’s the strange disappearance of popular college student Jesse Wilcox (Alex Wolff), and then there’s the fact that that mystery is solved in the film's first 20-ish minutes. With over an hour left of its runtime at this point, Susie Searches seems to suggest Jesse’s disappearance was only a red herring, and that we’re in for something juicier now.

Alas, the rest of the movie — which stars Kiersey Clemons as the titular socially awkward student sleuth who finds Jesse — never lives up to this promise. An encouraging cast list is let down by thin characters; this isn’t true just for the supporting parts played by Rachel Sennott, Jim Gaffigan, Ken Marino, Dolly Wells, and Wolff, but, far more detrimentally to the film, Susie herself. Her motivations are complicated by more than just a desire for the truth, but, despite Clemons’ best efforts, this not-quite Nancy Drew is never all that psychologically compelling or believable. In a film that hinges on big twists revolving around its protagonist, that’s a fatal flaw, because we’re only ever half-invested. Though it may play better with younger audiences, anyone else will likely find its promising cast to be the biggest red herring of all.

Genre: Comedy, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Alex Wolff, Ana Kayne, Chris Sheffield, David Walton, Dolly Wells, Geoffrey Owens, Jammie Patton, Jared Gilman, Jim Gaffigan, Juliette Goglia, Kat Foster, Ken Marino, Kiersey Clemons, Neal Bledsoe, Rachel Sennott

Director: Sophie Kargman

An interesting premise quickly sputters out in Fool’s Paradise, writer-star Charlie Day’s misfire of a directorial debut. Day plays a down-and-out Charlie Chaplin-esque mute who happens to be a dead ringer for a difficult method actor (also Day) who’s stalling production on a Billy the Kid remake — and so he’s brought in by the movie’s producer (Ray Liotta) to star instead. 

The rest of Fool’s Paradise follows in this vein, as things just happen to Latte Pronto (as he comes to be named). There’s wry satirical potential in this set-up: a lot can be revealed about someone (in this case, the self-serving stars, agents, and directors of Hollywood) by what they project onto a blank slate like Latte. The problem, however, is twofold: Fool’s Paradise doesn’t have anything especially sharp to say about the biz — and, in the absence of clever or indeed funny writing, the film’s weak center is exposed. Day’s wordless performance is understated to a fatal degree; presumably designed to highlight the ridiculousness of the Hollywood players he’s surrounded by, it only shows up the weakness of the material and the unfocusedness of some of the key supporting performances. Maybe the movie would’ve fared better had some of its other characters been silent instead.

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Adrien Brody, Alanna Ubach, Allison Paige, Andre Hyland, Andrew Leeds, Andrew Santino, Artemis Pebdani, Austin Zajur, Benito Martinez, Brett Wagner, Charlie Day, Christine Horn, Common, David Hornsby, Dean Norris, Drew Droege, Edie Falco, Eliza Coleman, George Lopez, Glenn Howerton, Harry Yi, Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Chu, Jillian Bell, Jimmi Simpson, John Ales, John Malkovich, Julia Cho, June Carryl, Kate Beckinsale, Katherine McNamara, Ken Jeong, Lance Barber, Leandra Terrazzano, Leonora Pitts, Lindsay Musil, Lisa Schwartz, Luvh Rakhe, Lyndon Smith, Marilyn Giacomazzi, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Moses Storm, Peter MacKenzie, Ray Liotta, Robert Belushi, Roy Jenkins, Shane Paul McGhie, Steve Coulter, Steve DeCastro, Tom Beyer

Director: Charlie Day

Rating: R