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FilmWatch Weekly: Zendaya in ‘Challengers,’ Brooklyn gays in ‘Stress Positions,’ and Indonesian horror ‘Dancing Village’

Beautiful people play tennis beautifully in the latest film from Luca Guadagnino.

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(Left to right) Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in “Challengers”, directed by Luca Guadagnino, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures ©2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Two things that have always seemed true are confirmed definitively by Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, Challengers. One: Zendaya is a legitimate movie star. Two: Tennis is the sexiest of all sports.

Let’s take perhaps the more controversial and inherently subjective of these assertions first: Professional tennis features physically fit (but neither steroidal or waifish) athletes, clad in finely tailored, moderately revealing attire (including very nice shoes), running back and forth while sweating profusely and emitting grunts of release that echo through the riveted crowd. At least, that’s how it’s depicted in Challengers, which doesn’t seem that far off from the smattering of Grand Slam events I’ve watched on TV. I don’t recall seeing any male players sprawl shirtless courtside between sets in quite the manner Josh O’Connor does in this movie, but there were limits to what you could show on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

O’Connor plays Patrick Zweig, one leg of a very acute love triangle, in the latest of Guadagnino’s portraits of attraction that, at the very least, hovers in the vicinity of obsession. (Others include Call Me by Your Name and Bones and All, both of which feature Zendaya’s Dune 2 costar and fellow icon Timothée Chalamet.) As teens, Patrick and best pal Art Donaldson are inseparable, aspiring tennis pros who each worship, from afar and then close up, Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), the scion of a wealthy family and prodigy of grass-court prodigies. All three exude the corporeal confidence and innate charisma that comes (reports say) from being a stunningly attractive, successful young person. If the movie’s saucy trailer prompts expectations of a three-set match with love serving love serving love, the reality is more heteronormative, and these adorable bros engage in an initially good-spirited rivalry for the affections of the untouchable Tashi.

The story hops back and forth in time, and in the present day Art and Tashi are married. She’s his manager, her own career having been curtailed by injury, and he’s struggling to reboot his once-promising career. Having entered a low-stakes tournament as a tune-up for a major one, Art learns that Patrick, who’s been reduced to sleeping in his car and is clearly estranged from his former besties, has registered for the same event.

How did this thrilling threesome get here? Will the onetime rivals end up facing off in the final? Will Zendaya be more compelling than their racketing just by sitting courtside and watching them? Will Guadagnino linger, just shy of excessively, on the spectacle of beautiful bodies moving with grace and strength through space? Well, duh.

The screenplay by Justin Kuritzkes, the sensual direction of Guadagnino, and most of all the playfully melodramatic performances of the three leads combine to make Challengers more than the sum of its parts. It’s a delicious spring soap opera and an almost perfect antidote for the gray, chilly days that surely still await.

(Oh, and getting back to assertion number one: If you need more convincing by now, you haven’t been paying attention.) (Opens Thursday, Apr. 26, at Cinema 21, Regal Fox Tower, and all over.)

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

ALSO OPENING

Stress Positions: Set during the early days of COVID lockdown, this Brooklyn-on-wry comedy from Portland-raised writer-director-actor Thea Hammel centers on the anxious, thirtysomething Terry (John Early of Search Party) who is attempting to maintain strict quarantine in his ex-husband’s apartment while hosting his nephew, a teenaged Moroccan male model (Qaher Harhash) with a broken leg, as an unexpected house guest. Terry’s fellow neurotic gays all attempt to weasel their way into meeting this exotic jewel, and each of them are (intentionally) more annoying and superficial than the last. The performances of Early and the deadpan Harhash are solid, and there’s some nicely taboo humor about Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, but the self-hating yet self-absorbed Brooklyn hipster is too much of a cliché at this point for Stress Positions to feel fully original. Hammel, co-host of the podcast NymphoWars, has a way with sharp dialogue, but the moments that reach for true emotion tend to fall short. (Living Room Theaters)

Boy Kills World: It’s kind of astonishing that this juvenile, cartoonish, blood-splattered action flick isn’t actually based on a comic book or video game. It just seems to have been made by people who’ve consumed far too much of both. Bill Skarsgård, sans his Pennywise the Clown makeup, plays a deaf-mute orphan in a dystopian future who’s trained by a stereotypically-cast shaman to get revenge on the corporate villains (led by Famke Janssen) who killed his parents. Cue the endless, over-edited, unoriginal fight scenes that fail to exploit the unique perspective of Skarsgård’s sensory situation, mostly thanks to an ongoing voiceover (courtesy of Archer’s H. Jon Benjamin) that somehow makes you wish he would, despite being speechless, just shut up. Bret Gelman (Fleabag, Stranger Things) and his slimy schlub vibe produce about the only sparks. (numerous locations)

Dancing Village: The Curse Begins: Recent decades have seen the arrival on American screens of distinct varieties of Asian horror movies from Korea, Japan, and Thailand. But apparently there has also been a thriving Indonesian horror industry since the repressive Suharto regime came to an end in the 1990s. Thanks to streaming services such as Shudder, international horror has a wider audience in this country than ever, so it’s notable that Lionsgate Films has opted to theatrically release this prequel to the highest-grossing film in Indonesian history. There’s no need to have seen the 2022 hit KKN Curse of the Dancing Village to understand this folk horror tale from director Kimo Stamboel. All you need to know is that if you’re planning on curing your mother’s mystery illness by transporting a creepy piece of jewelry to a remote forest village, you shouldn’t be surprised if dangerous complications arise. This one starts off slow but culminates in a Busby Berkeley-meets-Sam Raimi bloodbath that makes the trip worthwhile. (Lloyd Cinemas, Eastport Plaza)

Humane: There are dark comedies, and then there’s this laughing-into-the-abyss feature directing debut from Caitlin Cronenberg, David’s daughter and the creator of the one-minute 2021 short film The Death of David Cronenberg. So, as with brother Brandon (Infinity Pool, etc.), it runs in the family. An ecological apocalypse has forced the reduction of Earth’s human population by 20%, leading the government to offer a quarter million in cash to (the survivors of) those willing to shuffle off this mortal coil. When a wealthy former TV newsman (Peter Gallagher) announces to his four grown kids (including Jay Baruchel and Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire) that he and their stepmother have opted for state-sanctioned euthanasia, they’re shocked—but not as shocked as they are when the feds (led by the treasure that is Veronica Mars’ Enrico Colantoni) roll up and the stepmom bolts, which means that they have until sunrise to decide which one of them will take her place. Needless to say, sibling rivalry takes a turn for the worse. (Streaming on Shudder)

We Grown Now: Over a decade after the last of its high-rise apartments was razed, Cabrini-Green remains a byword for the nadir of public housing. The massive development on Chicago’s North Side was infamous for its shoddy living conditions and violent crime in the 1990s. But that’s not how director Minhal Baig (Hala) wants us to remember Cabrini-Green. Rather, she wants to show the experience of two boys, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez), who’ve only ever known the place as their home. Malik lives with his mother (Jurnee Smollett), father (Lil Rel Howery), and grandmother (S. Epatha Merkerson), the latter of whom arrived in Chicago from Tupelo as part of the Great Migration. This multigenerational unit struggles but survives, and the two best friends get their juvenile kicks by piling up abandoned mattresses and seeing who can make the biggest jump into them. When violence does inevitably, if indirectly, affect their lives, that friendship is challenged when Malik’s family looks for a way out. Shot in glowing color, and saddled with an overly manipulative score, the film squanders well-directed, composed performances from its young leads for a perhaps too rosy-hued remembrance of what was not, by most accounts, a paradise lost. (Regal Fox Tower, Salem Cinema, and other locations)

ALSO THIS WEEK

Cinderella’s Revenge: Everyone’s favorite social climber decides that her evil stepsisters deserve more punishment than just seeing her marry the prince in this gory, tongue-in-cheek take on the fairy tale. (opens Friday, Apr. 26, Regal Fox Tower)

Unsung Hero: Christian-themed drama that tells the backstory of Joel and Luke Smallbone, brothers who moved from America to Australia as children after their father’s Nashville music career ended, only to become best-selling Christian recording artists. (opens Friday, Apr. 26, at numerous locations)

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust

That Happened: A Story About Do Jump: The story of Portland’s venerable acrobatic dance company from its founding in 1977 until the present day, including its resourceful responses to the challenges of the pandemic, is told in this documentary. Members of the troupe will entertain before the show. (Tomorrow, Friday)

My Animal: Lesbian coming-of-age movie meets werewolf movie in director Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut, which had its world premiere at Sundance in 2023. (Tomorrow, Saturday)

Hollywood 90028: This rediscovered 1974 thriller directed by Chrstina Hornisher follows a disillusioned cameraman who aspires to a Hollywood career but is reduced to working on porn. Eventually his frustrations reach the boiling point in a film that has been praised for its unconventional pacing and unvarnished look at how Tinseltown makes its sausage. (Tomorrow, Saturday)

Bye Bye Tiberias: Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass counts, among her many roles, that of Marcia Roy on Succession. Her family was among those displaced during the founding of the nation of Israel, and in this documentary, Abbass’ daughter accompanies her back to her home village, where the implications of that exile are revisited and family history is mined. (Tomorrow, Sunday)

REVIVALS

Friday

  • Alien [1979] (Eastport Plaza, Bridgeport Village, and other locations, through Thursday)
  • Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Commando [1985] (Cinemagic, part of their ten-day celebration of 1985 movies, also Sunday)
  • The Frisco Kid [1979] (Eugene Art House, through Sunday)
  • The Mummy [1999] (Eastport Plaza, Clackamas Town Center, Bridgeport Village, and other locations, through Thursday)
  • Night Shift [1982] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984] (Eugene Art House, through Sunday)
  • Rebels of the Neon God [1992] (5th Avenue, through Sunday)
  • Stargate [1994] (Hollywood, Sense of Wonder series)
  • The Stuff [1985] (Cinemagic, part of their ten-day celebration of 1985 movies, also Monday)
  • Young Frankenstein [1974] (Kiggins, through Monday)

Saturday

  • Desperately Seeking Susan [1985] (Cinemagic, part of their ten-day celebration of 1985 movies, also Sunday)
  • Diner [1982] (Cinema 21)
  • Jawbreaker [1999] (Hollywood, Isn’t She Great? Series)
  • Re-Animator [1985] (Cinemagic, part of their ten-day celebration of 1985 movies, also Wednesday)
  • Return of the Living Dead III [1993] (Clinton Street, presented by Portland Horror Film Festival)
  • RRR [2022] (Hollywood)
  • Spirited Away [2001] (Lloyd Center, Regal Fox Tower, and other locations, through Wednesday)
  • Stop Making Sense [1984] (Hollywood)

Sunday

Sponsor

Washougal Art & Music Festival

  • Hellboy [2004] (Hollywood, benefit for Northwest Museum of Comic Art, followed by panel discussion)
  • Kung Fu Hustle [2004] (Hollywood, S.I.N. Sunday series)

Tuesday

  • Alison’s Birthday [1981] (Hollywood, Wyrd War series)
  • Blacula [1972] (Clinton Street)
  • Up in Smoke [1980] (Cinemagic, Paracinema series

Wednesday

  • Indigo Girls: It’s Only Life After All [2024] (Hollywood, Sonic Cinema series)

Thursday

  • Day of the Dead [1985] (Hollywood)
  • Drunken Master II [1994] (Cinemagic, Cinema City series)
  • Fantastic Fungi [2019] (Cinema 21)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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