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“Challengers” Is a Feast of Sensual Pleasures

April 23, 202410 Mins Read


Late in Challengers, flailing tennis player Art (Mike Faist) begs for the unconditional love of his wife and coach, Tashi (Zendaya). “What am I, Jesus?” she snaps. Art’s reply? “Yeah!” Zendaya is perfectly cast as an athletic deity. Yet the film is pointedly uninterested in Tashi, preferring to aim its obsessive gaze at Art and Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a smug, smirking fellow tennis player and frenemy. With Luca Guadagnino (director of the deliciously seductive Call Me by Your Name) in command, Challengers is less a film than a feast of sensual pleasures: alluringly crisp polo shirts, sweat dripping across masculine brows, muscles so taut they threaten to snap. On and off the court, Art and Patrick battle for Tashi’s attention and affection, but she’s mostly a conduit through which they negotiate their repressed desires (any moviegoer missing the sexual tension will be enlightened by the scene in which the two men munch on the same churro). It’s disappointing that Tashi is portrayed as more of a mythical being than a complex woman, but it’s moving to watch Guadagnino subvert a seemingly conventional male rivalry in ways that should shock Björn Borg and John McEnroe. If Tashi really is Art and Patrick’s lord and savior, the message of Challengers is clear: Disciples have all the fun. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. AMC, Cedar Hills, Cinema 21, City Center, Clackamas, Division Street, Eastport, Evergreen Parkway, Hilltop, Lake Theater, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Regal Fox, Vancouver Plaza.


The 21st century has been described as a “post-truth” era: a time when bad actors can use the levers of modern media to proliferate misinformation and inflate extremist ideologies. In these times, it often seems impossible that these grifters will be held to account for the damage their lies cause. The Truth vs. Alex Jones succeeds in providing some catharsis, though it’s a harrowing journey to get there. If you’re unfamiliar with Alex Jones, he’s the creator and host of the alt-right conspiracy show InfoWars who spent years insisting that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a “false flag operation” to create a pretext for the government to crack down on the 2nd Amendment. Despite the obvious ridiculousness of his claims, Jones’ reach was enough that families of the victims became inundated with harassment from Jones’ fans and employees, leading to two separate defamation lawsuits, documented by HBO, against the man and his company. While there’s some satisfaction to be found in Jones’ inevitable losses, director Dan Reed succeeds in making the families’ pain real and palpable, particularly a sequence in which lead investigator Daniel Jewiss solemnly recounts the events of Dec. 14, 2012, and lists the names of all 26 victims. It’s powerful stuff and serves to highlight how base and craven Jones was to twist this senseless tragedy into a vehicle for hawking brain pills and overpriced gold. The Truth vs. Alex Jones doesn’t do a full dive into the host’s abhorrent views (his bigotry, his religious zealotry, the abusive relationship he has with his audience), but it does get to the core of who he is: a delusional narcissist incapable of facing a reality that doesn’t match his beliefs or acknowledging the harm his actions have caused. The movie reminds us that there’s no reasoning with or giving the benefit of the doubt to a man like Jones. Exposing his lies might seem like a never-ending battle, but the truth is worth fighting for. R. MORGAN SHAUNETTE. Max.


It’s honestly quite astounding to see the level of intimacy captured in Spermworld, a documentary so under the radar that there was no homepage promotion the day it dropped on Hulu. Focusing on the lives of three online sperm donors and their various clients, director Lance Oppenheim demonstrates a high level of respect for his subjects, something many docs fail to convey. He knows not to dramatize these stories through editing or manipulative music, instead allowing individuals simply to exist and interact with one another. Throughout the film, we see the existential nature of this industry and how it almost takes a toll on the donors and the people around them (the visual style also is far more cinematic than you’d typically find in a film like this, with a lush palette of blues and greens that bring you closer to a world most people are unfamiliar with). Spermworld may be devoid of easy answers, but it’s easily one of the best and most important films so far this year. R. MAX FAINARU-WADA. Hulu.


Millie Bobby Brown faces off against a ferocious dragon in this well-polished fantasy adventure from director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later). Elodie (Brown), daughter of Lord Bayford (Ray Winstone), agrees to marry a wealthy prince (Nick Robinson), whose mother (Robin Wright) has other, more sinister plans for her (soon, Elodie is fighting to survive against the aforementioned fire-breather in a dark cave system). Damsel mostly operates as a showcase for Brown’s star power, but the production values surrounding her are first rate: Larry Fong’s cinematography is satisfyingly sweeping, and David Fleming’s score swells impressively. The second half of Damsel grows repetitive, but Brown is a physically and dramatically compelling presence—and the dragon, menacingly voiced by Shohreh Aghdashloo, is frightening enough to make Smaug’s scales tingle. PG-13. DANIEL RESTER. Netflix.


On its face, this Oregon-made debut from director Jeff Rutherford is a family reconciliation drama. An estranged father, Herman (played by Portland’s Jeb Berrier), and his son Nate (Charlie Plummer, who starred in Lean on Pete) meet for a long-awaited chat and are forced into a movie-long excavatory conversation as they search for a lost child. Yet on nonplot levels, A Perfect Day for Caribou is intentionally, sometimes stiflingly disquieting—with the visual palette of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and elliptical, nature-bound dialogues reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (maybe it doesn’t bode well that Herman and Nate choose to reunite in a Gilliam County cemetery). It’s interestingly subversive that Caribou opens with a 10-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue by Herman. Matter-of-factly performed by Berrier, that prologue reveals a man capable of reflection and communication that he can’t muster for the rest of the movie. When Herman and Nate do come together, they seize up emotionally even as they range across prairie, high desert and forest in search of the child. This hunt includes one unforgettable slow zoom, which lasts a full minute as Herman and Nate jog out toward the horizon, bodies appearing to shrink as they run. Love is hard for men like this, but they’re good at disappearing. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube Movies.


Georges Arnaud’s 1950 novel The Wages of Fear has already inspired two famous adaptations: the 1953 French-Italian film of the same name by Henri-Georges Clouzot, one of the greatest thrillers ever made, and the excellent 1977 Hollywood version Sorcerer by William Friedkin. Now arrives a new take from Julien Leclercq, which tells the same basic story of a group transporting nitroglycerin via heavy trucks to the site of an oil well fire in order to extinguish it. Leclercq’s update moves the action to an unnamed desert (implied to be somewhere in the Middle East) where the drivers have to fight local hostiles while traversing the bumpy terrain. This Wages of Fear is a slick but unremarkable rendering of Arnaud’s premise, mostly sacrificing tense situations with the nitro in favor of clunky flashbacks and boring shootouts. Gone are the thematic underpinnings of economic struggle and cowardice with the characters, replaced by a half-baked sibling rivalry between two brothers. Leclercq’s remake does have a decent cast and a handful of exciting scenes found in the final thirty minutes. The film is never terrible, but it is a pale imitation of the two previous adaptations. NR. DANIEL RESTER. Netflix.


For all the curiosity leading up to Civil War’s theatrical release, the result is a depressingly underwhelming experience. The thematic intentions of America crumbling as a society and a democracy start with scenes of protest (the end credits thank right-wing author Andy Ngo for footage, though there’s no current confirmation on whether that footage depicts Portland protests, or “Portland Maoists”), then become largely a backdrop for the arcs of our four main characters. Conceivably, that could have worked. A photojournalist is the perfect visual vehicle for a story this cinematic, and there are many times when you can see Alex Garland as the director trying to convey that as effectively as possible. Unfortunately, Garland as the writer is here to spoil it all, presenting the most clichéd individuals, characters who walk us through a vague and nondescript war with no real message. The film would work eons better without these boring four. All the people they meet on their journey have more compelling personalities, but we see them far too briefly or they become expendable pawns leading to the next plot point. Garland does his best with the technical aspects, with some decent camerawork and a fantastic soundtrack (shout-out to music supervisor Simon Astall), but it feels like he misjudged how much substance he had in the end. Civil War wants to be a whole cake, but ends up being a lot of icing on a piece of toast. R. MAX FAINARU-WADA. AMC, Bagdad, City Center, Cinema 21, Clackamas, Cinemagic, Cinemark, Eastport Plaza, Hollywood Theatre, Living Room, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, Regal Fox, Studio One, St. John’s Theater, Twin Cinemas.

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