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Challengers Rises to the Challenge 

click to enlarge Wrapping up the semester/watching the world burn.


Wrapping up the semester/watching the world burn.

CHALLENGERS. Although never a proper tennis fan, I would, in my younger, dumber years, have considered myself something of a casual appreciator. As country kids, old tennis rackets were useful indeed for seeing how high into the air one could drive small rocks. And a case of tennis balls might as well have been a lottery win, for all the potential enjoyment and enrichment within. But the sport, with its arcane institutions and anachronistic sense of propriety, always seemed a little alien. Even as marketing tried feverishly to drive the MTV audience toward the game in the 1990s, professional tennis seemed distinctly other, a Continental throwback that felt, in form and function, like a relic.

Time hasn't necessarily changed my view: Tennis is, by and large, almost as culturally white a sport as golf. Over time, I would come to better appreciate the athleticism and specific physical and mental skills required to excel competitively, but it has only been in the last handful of years that I have understood the solitary, internal, often lonely aspects of the game as it is played at the highest levels. Elite tennis players are often groomed from an early age, shipped off to boarding academies and cultivated as solo operatives in an arena with (manufactured) life-or-death stakes. Even at the highest level of the sport, I would argue that the percentage of players with a true killer instinct, the innate drive to dominate the competition, alone, is nearly infinitesimal. To my mind, that cadre must share a gene, or at least a series of neural pathways, with special operations soldiers — once they've entered their natural habitat, they may not be fit for reintroduction to society.

Challengers posits as much, though it does so in a much sexier way and without being so fatalistic about it. Although the story ostensibly centers on two friends, doubles partners, would-be lovers and rivals played by Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor, it is really about the dominant force in both of their lives, the former on-court killer and force of nature with the acumen and will to determine the course of their personal and professional lives.

The movie opens in 2019, at which point she, Tashi (Zendaya), has been married to Art Donaldson (Faist) long enough for the relationship to have become, perhaps, a little tiresome. They have a young daughter; he has become a touring tennis pro and she his coach and manager. They live a one-percent life, living in hotels because the child likes them, negotiating endorsement deals with luxury brands and signing autographs. Beneath the exquisitely appointed veneer of lifestyle, though, Art is becoming a loser. His confidence shaken, he can no longer win matches. With his ranking still intact, he may be able to recover and take a run at a final, glorious year, but that outcome is anything but assured. To attempt to shore up his self-esteem, Tashi decides to enter him into a challenger, a tournament for aspirants that should be beneath his talents. Things get sticky, though, when Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) rolls in, destitute and reliant on Tinder hook-ups for a roof to sleep under.

Through flashbacks and forward, we come to learn that Art and Patrick were once inseparable, roommates and partners since childhood, their mutual erotic connection thinly veiled, unspoken and unconsummated until the mid-aughts when, preparing to transition to college (Art) and the professional circuit (Patrick), they encounter Tashi at a tournament. Each justifiably fascinated, they make a desperate play for her affections. Based on the premise of earlier scenes, the outcome is not what we might expect, and a tense triangle of sex, friendship and competition is (*clears throat, voice breaks*) erected.

As the two former friends/not-quite-rivals meet to vie for the championship in a tournament that should mean nothing to either of them, but feels like a life-or-death struggle, the narrative hustles forward and back across the intervening 13 years since their introduction to their muse and mistress.

To call it surprising that Luca Guadagnino (Bones and All, 2022; Call Me by Your Name, 2017) has made a tennis movie is a little fatuous, if still accurate. I suppose I should have known he could do it. But in doing it, he has made an incandescent, incomparable sport movie that manifests the same breathless tension and excitement in its dialogue scenes as in the tennis matches. It is, without hyperbole, unlike anything I have ever seen and easily one of the most exciting movies about athletes ever made. That it is also sexy in a sometimes brutalist, beyond-modern key almost feels like an incidental, because the thing as a whole produces such an overwhelming, enveloping, experiential effect.

With the best score Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have yet produced — a series of early-2000s techno anthems — gorgeous, surprising cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and electrifying editing by Marco Costa, Challengers represents the coming together of technicians working as if their lives depended on it and rendering championship level work as a result.

But really, and this is burying the lede, this is a statement by and about Zendaya, who gives one of the most memorable, composed, sometimes terrifying performances in cinema history; she is so good that Faist and O'Connor, giving lights-out performances themselves, look like the freshman that, in context, they truly are. R. 131M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


ABIGAIL. Kidnappers (Kathryn Newton, Dan Stevens) find themselves trapped with a vampire ballerina (Alisha Weir). R. 109M. BROADWAY.

BOY KILLS WORLD. Bill Skarsgård as a deaf fighter and Famke Janssen as dystopian villain in a wacky, bloody action-comedy. With Yayan Ruhian. R. 115M. BROADWAY.

CIVIL WAR. Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura play a photographer and writer travel from New York to Washington, D.C. to interview the president (Nick Offerman) amid a future American conflict. R. 109M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE FALL GUY. Ryan Gosling shoots a macho thumbs up in a comedy take on the 1980s TV show about a stuntman embroiled in real action. With Emily Blunt. PG13. 114M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE. Remaining original cast members (Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts) team up with a new generation. With Paul Rudd. PG13. 115M. BROADWAY.

GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE. Bring back the Mothra twins, you cowards. BROADWAY.

KUNG FU PANDA 4. Jack Black returns to voice the roly-poly warrior with legend James Hong, Awkwafina and Viola Davis. PG. 94M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE MINISTRY OF UNGENTLEMANLY WARFARE. Guy Ritchie directs World War II action starring Henry Cavill and Alan Ritchson. R. 120M. BROADWAY.

SASQUATCH SUNSET. Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keogh star in the Humboldt-shot Bigfoot comedy adventure people already hate. R. 189M. MINOR.


TAROT. A cursed deck raises heck in this horror. PG13. 92M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

UNSUNG HERO. Big Christian music family biopic about the Smallbones. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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