Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O'Connor in Challengers


In the 1982 pilot episode of Cheers, our barflies are engaged in a friendly argument over the sweatiest movie ever made, the nominees including Rocky II, Ben-Hur, Alien, and Body Heat – the latter a terrific in-joke, as that film's co-star Ted Danson is the guy serving up drinks. The agreed-upon victor turns out to be Cool Hand Luke. But if (God forbid) anyone ever decides that Cheers is in need of a reboot, I pray they'll update that scene for the present, and that Luca Guadagnino's Challengers deservedly takes the sweat-filled cup.

It's not merely the characters that are overheated in the director's and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes' sports-romance melodrama. It's the staging, the plotting, the dialogue, the music, the subtext … . With one critical, not-entirely-detrimental exception, everything here feels amped up to an 11, and then to a 16 or 17; you half-expect the images to melt off the screen. (In a moment of repose, one of the leads actually perspires on us – or, rather, on the camera lens.) You can easily see how all this presentational and performative Sturm und Drang might've been exhausting, especially with Guadagnino's latest clocking in at 130 minutes, and there will certainly be viewers who'll roll their eyes with every burst of slow-motion angst and blast of Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' techno-heavy score. I, however, found Challengers almost obscenely entertaining – a deep dive into competitive and sexual power dynamics so overflowing with passion that your admission ticket should come with a complimentary mini-fan. When characters here spend belated time in an actual sauna, the setting seems almost redundant, as does the erection sported in the wake of an interrupted three-way. Guadagnino's entire movie is one massive hard-on.

As you likely know, the sport under consideration is tennis, and Kuritzkes' script opens at the end, with gifted pros and onetime best friends Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) squaring off in a Challenger (i.e. second-tier) tournament in New Rochelle, New York. The reason for their rift is sitting in the stands: the world-famous former tennis prodigy Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who took to coaching after a debilitating knee injury ended her career. Trouble is, Tashi took to coaching Art, as well as marrying and having a child with him, leaving her previous lover Patrick on the sidelines. Most of this, by the way, is information eventually gleaned through flashbacks, as the New Rochelle match takes place in 2019, and the film subsequently fills in much of the 13 years before, beginning with Patrick's and Art's mutual crush – by which I mean their crush on Tashi. Mostly.

Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor in Challengers

Because Guadagnino and Kuritzkes spend so much of their narrative time backing up, I may as well do the same. While we don't have full knowledge of the characters' backstories in Challengers' opening scene, and won't receive it until perhaps 15 minutes before the end credits, we are given a rather telling visual detail right off the bat. If you scan the oversize check that Patrick and Art are competing for, you'll notice the prize-money amount is just over seven grand. Seven grand. In the realm of sports movies, this would appear to be an almost embarrassingly low form of high stakes. Although it's immediately evident that Patrick could use the cash (one of our first sights of him finds the man having his credit card rejected, forcing him to sleep in his car), a player of his reported caliber could certainly be competing for more. And with Art's face, alongside his wife's, plastered on building-sized bunting advertisements, Tashi's husband has obviously played, and won, pro tournaments far more prestigious than New Rochelle's. So what, precisely, are these tennis champs doing there?

The answer lies in Kuritzkes' slow, canny, clever release of exposition, and while I won't necessarily argue with those who find the flashback structure somewhat awkward, I think Challengers would've been a lesser achievement without it. During the New Rochelle match, each player's triumphs and setbacks blend seamlessly into a relevant life event from the past, be it a decade, a few years, or even a few hours ago. As an audience, we'd likely have remembered these moments if the film played out chronologically, and the players' face-off had been delivered in full at the finale. But we also would've been deprived the juicy, soap-opera thrill of watching the past recreated, as memory, in the characters' 2019 present, each of Patrick's knowing smirks and Art's glare-daggers demonstrating that what happened in 2006 or 2009 or last night burns just as hot now as it did then. These two aren't sweating it out on the court for seven thousand and change. For increasingly clear reasons, Patrick and Art aren't there for anything so much as against each other, which makes their game play riveting even if you don't give a damn about tennis.

Given Guadagnino's elaborately playful choreography and visual conceits, though, don't be surprised if tennis suddenly become your new favorite cinematic sport. Initially, the director's staging of the New Rochelle tournament is pretty standard. (Interestingly, there isn't a lot of tennis in the movie beyond this match.) We get numerous long shots of full bodies in motion along with some P.O.V. on the court, causing our heads to move in back-and-forth unison much like those of patrons sitting in the stands. Yet as the film progresses and the flashback emotions become increasingly raw, the perspective changes. I wasn't the only one in my auditorium who reflexively flinched the first time a tennis ball whizzed directly directly toward the screen as if on a collision course with the camera. And as the melodrama mounts, with that thunderous Reznor/Ross score suggesting the most relentless dance-club night of your life, so does the hyper-imagination of the match. Long volleys are reenacted as mere floating images of sweat-covered arms and legs. Patrick and Art are filmed from beneath as though they were playing on a court made of glass. Frequently, to quote Chevy Chase in Caddyshack, we're required to be the ball, getting a first-person (-object?) view of spinning in the air and into a racket and, at one point, bouncing off a net. It's all destabilizing and insane and about as much fun as I've had at the cineplex all year. It's also so over-the-top that it somehow seems perfectly fitting for whatever roiling emotional subtext is transpiring between Patrick and Art.

Not that Guadagnino, O'Connor, and Faist don't offer hints. Forget hints: They're waving big, unmissable semaphore flags. From the first flashback of the players at 18, tumbling into each other's arms and falling on the ground after winning the boys' junior doubles at the U.S. Open, these dudes are obviously close. Precisely how close if left to our imaginations, though we do learn that, as 12-year-olds in boarding school, Patrick taught Art how to masturbate, and their near-tryst with Tashi comes to an early end when the guys can't stop making out with one another, leading the amused girl to state, for the second time, “I'm not a homewrecker.” (I was reminded of Jenna Maroney's classic 30 Rock quote when she calls herself unnecessary and adds, “The last time I said that, I was in a three-way with two of the Backstreet Boys.”)

Josh O'Connor, Zendaya, and Mike Faist in Challengers

Yet whether the guys are sharing secretive glances or Patrick is hungrily devouring a banana, a churro, or a pornographically huge hot dog without breaking eye contact with his pal (when he's not using his foot to scoot Art's chair closer to his), Guadagnino and his actors appear happily willing to let us think that what might be going on actually is going on. Most of Patrick's and Art's rivalry stems from their mutual desire for Tashi, with their game play a close second, and I'm not convinced that either character is gay. (Both actors exude nearly as much ardor for Zendaya as rhey do for each other.) But O'Connor and Faist seem to relish playing the “maybe” behind their relationship, and there's so much love and loathing and, yes, sweat built into their interactions that just about every scene involving the two, particularly when together, is electrifying. Whatever else you think of it, Challengers is definitely one of the horniest of modern (non-porn) movies, and that in itself feels like something to celebrate in these cinematically prudish times.

You may have noticed that I haven't spent much wordage on Zendaya, which may seem surprising given that her involvement is likely the reason we're seeing the film at all. That's mainly because Tashi is more of a catalyst than a character. Make no mistake: Zendaya is every inch a star in Challengers. Even when you don't quite believe her in the role (and in her few scenes on-court, I never once bought her as a tennis pro), she floods the screen with magnetism and drive, and has clearly given dedicated thought to her line readings. It's just that she doesn't have much to do – beyond, that is, micro-managing one boy, and then the other, into being the greatest tennis player in the world, and if that can only happen by toying with their affections, so be it. I admire both Zendaya and Kuritzkes for not making Tashi generically likable; she may, in truth, be the one figure you wind up disliking above all others. Yet based on her purpose in the story, the character remains frustratingly vague. What was her initial transition from player to coach like? Was she resentful or angry? How did she feel when she got pregnant? How does she even feel about being a mother? (On the rare occasions we see Tashi's and Art's five-year-old, the child is either an afterthought or being sweetly hustled off-screen.) Zendaya plays the part with authority and snap, but there are no true dimensions of Tashi to explore, and consequently, it becomes shockingly easy to forget she's around. And not for nothing? Zendaya may glisten, but even on the court, as the surest sign of her Star Power, she never sweats.

Still, Zendaya's radiant presence when cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's camera focuses on her can't be ignored, and if the performer inadvertently lowers the emotional heat on much of the film, her co-stars and director appear absolutely delighted to continue cranking it up. I had a fantastic time at Challengers, which, although also his least subtle, might be the most purely pleasurable outing on Guadagnino's résumé. (It's light years more engaging than the two that came before: 2022's Bones & All and 2018's remake of Suspiria.) And if you're one of likely many viewers either confused or enraged by the movie's ending, remember that this is the rare sports flick that doesn't much care about the final score. Not when there's so much drama to be found in scoring.

ensemble members in Unsung Hero


There isn't a long list of actors who have played their own parents on TV and in film – which isn't the same thing as, say, Zoe Perry playing the mother of Young Sheldon's lead after Perry's real-life mom Laurie Metcalf played Sheldon's mom on The Big Bang Theory. Offhand, I can only think of O'Shea Jackson portraying his dad Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, and ma-a-aybe Shia LaBeouf offering an alias-ed take on his own dad in Honey Boy. But in the biographical drama Unsung Hero, Joel Smallbone, who directed the film alongside Richard Ramsey, is tasked with playing his actual father David before their stacked clan exploded onto the contemporary-Christian music scene. Attempting to channel one's own parent is a task I think few of us would have the constitution for, and it's to the younger Smallbone's credit that he makes David a touching, believable figure. It's also to his and the movie's considerable credit that this David, despite his fundamental decency, is a bit of a fool and a bit of an asshole, character descriptions you don't ordinarily find in formulaic, inspirational pro-faith dramas.

An origin story, of sorts, for the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Rebecca St. James and her Grammy-winning siblings Joel and Luke Smallbone of For King & Country, Unsung Hero is more principally involved with their parents David and Helen (Daisy Betts) as they leave their native Australia following music promoter David's unforeseen marketing blunder involving Amy Grant. Off the family goes to Nashville, in the fall of 1991, with two parents, six kids, and a seventh on the way, and the film subsequently details the many hardships and unexpected kindnesses of strangers that follow before Rebecca, at least, hits it big.

It's hardly reason to bitch (much) when an entertainment provides precisely what you expect from it, and that's certainly the case with Ramsey's and Joel Smallbone's feature, rife as it is with gentle humor, nudging – if not downright pushy – music cues, and a significant amount of let's-pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps pluck. Would I have preferred it if the rags-to-riches design weren't quite so baldly telegraphed, and if the Smallbone kids didn't boast the benign interchangeability of the von Trapp brood in The Sound of Music? Sure. Yet it's still a perfectly pleasant time, watchable and harmless and safe … until, in a wonderfully unexpected development, it suddenly isn't.

Joel Smallbone and Daisy Betts in Unsung Hero

For most of the running length, patriarch David is aggrieved but moderately hopeful, enduring cramped living conditions and humiliating part-time work – he basically sells his family out as a house-cleaning service – but never outright despondent. Then, after the latest in a series of well-meaning, exorbitantly pricey gestures on behalf of his church-going community, he snaps, telling off the head of the unofficial “Save the Smallbone” movement that he doesn't want or need their pity, and even telling Rebecca (the lovely Kirrilee Berger) that, like the rest of the family, she'll never amount to anything. That's when David's wife Helen slaps him – and, honest to God, I flinched. This was the sort of ugly, recognizable family outburst that movies almost never give us anymore (it's more the province of 21st-century TV), and it was startling to see it employed for a genre that generally prefers as much emotional tidiness as possible. David takes to his bed for days or weeks, the Smallbones struggle on, and it took all my will not to applaud this ballsy veer from formula, because even though it was evident that good times lay ahead, the bad ones on display were refreshingly, realistically dark.

Needless to say, the dour mood doesn't last, nor should it; the Smallbones and their audience are entirely deserving of Happily Ever Afters. But given that so many works of this sort feel predictable to a fault even from their first trailers, I was thoroughly grateful for the unanticipated character complexity of Unsung Hero – the title for which, I should mention, is in reference to the rock of support that is Helen Smallbone, whom Betts portrays with sensational charm and warmth, and with interior struggles of her own. While giving birth to her seventh child, the directors briefly make it look as though Helen won't survive the delivery, causing a patron a couple rows behind me to audibly cry, “Oh no!” I presume this was the same patron who audibly, routinely sniffled through the hour of movie yet to come. It was hard to tell, though. To my ears, my own attempts at silent sniffling sounded mighty loud.

Bill Skarsgård in Boy Kills World


The worst things about director Moritz Mohr's über-violent revenge fantasy Boy Kills World are its action scenes, and that's hardly a minor complaint, as the movie is almost wall-to-wall action scenes. As this is Moritz's directorial debut, I guess we should let him off on a pass. Yet apart from every gore-soaked melee running about twice as long as necessary – this 110-minute offering cries for a presentation a half-hour shorter – the camera always seems way too close to the physical contact to deliver the stunt-fueled amazement and gruesome laughs promised. Perhaps, as a people, we've all been spoiled by the John Wick franchise, which routinely made sequences of mass carnage as suave and elegant as the centerpiece numbers in Fred-and-Ginger musicals. Still, while I can understand Moritz's (and producer Sam Raimi's) interest in getting our faces as close to the viscera as possible, I was nearly bored senseless by the geysers of blood, protruding bones, and shrieks of agony that landed every time the titular character and his infrequent allies went to town in extreme closeup. How Mohr's movie could cast The Raid's martial-arts master Yayan Ruhian in a pivotal role and then waylay his physical talents through lousy camera placement is beyond me. So that's the downside to my Boy Kills World experience. The upside? I enjoyed just about everything else.

As indicated, there isn't a lot of room for “everything else.” But while Mohr's first feature is, by rough count, our zillionth entertainment concerning a kid who witnesses his family's brutal murders and spends his life training to annihilate the perpetrators, there was a lot about it I very much liked. Chiefly, I dug the conceit that finds our unnamed Boy unable to hear or speak, which inspires some incredibly witty silent comedy from star Bill Skarsgård, who's now so (humanely) charismatic, empathetic, and shredded that he's effectively obliterated all traces of Pennywise. Just as amusingly, this plot device allows for consistent commentary from H. Jon Benjamin as Boy's inner voice, and his unmistakable manly-man cadences delightfully lighten the film's very heavy load. (Is there too much voice-over? Probably. But as someone who once happily watched seven straight hours of Archer, I didn't much mind.) The plot boasts a few admirably unanticipated twists; there are impressively committed comic performances by Michelle Dockery, Isaiah Mustafa, and MVP Andrew Koji; Jessica Rothe and Famke Janssen reveal more layers than expected; the eternal obnoxiousness of Sharlto Copley and Brett Gelman is made largely bearable. The specifics behind the film's totalitarian environment may be confounding and its combat tiresome beyond measure, yet Boy Kills World boasts just enough invention to not make me leery about whatever Moritz Mohr comes up with next. If he opts for an updating of All of Me with Skarsgård and Benjamin in the Martin and Tomlin roles, so much the better.

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