SCREEN TIME: Game, Sex, and Match

‘Challengers’ brings sexy back to the big screen

# 1   Challengers
Photo credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
LOVE MEANS NOTHING: Tennis players work up a sweat on and off the court in ‘Challengers’ starring (from left) Mike Faist, Zendaya, and Josh O’Connor.

Mainstream movies aren’t sexy enough these days, or so goes a popular argument on social media. The big, IP-driven films that make up most Hollywood product show much more interest in computer-generated special effects than the heat generated between actors. With Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino shows how to explore desire and celebrate bodies without being pornographic.

Depicting a romantic triangle between professional tennis players on the courts and in their bedrooms, Challengers plays like a master class in cinematic chemistry, showing the overly chaste movies how to strike sparks.

Challengers introduces Art and Tashi Donaldson (Mike Faist and Zendaya), a power couple at the height of their fame. Tashi, a former player permanently sidelined due to an injury, has become Art’s wife, coach and business partner. The film captures the elevated lifestyle of celebrity athletes, living in a series of luxury hotels with their daughter and her caregiver — presumably they have a home, but we never see it.

Years of championship play have taken a toll on Art’s body and spirit, so Tashi hopes to build his confidence by placing him at a modest U.S. Open qualifying tournament sponsored by “Phil’s Tire Town.” It’s slumming for Art but the last chance for Patrick (Josh O’Connor), a broke tennis pro sleeping in his car and existing paycheck to paycheck on the lower-level tennis circuit.

The film quickly flashes back 13 years to reveal that as college students, Patrick and Art were inseparable friends and champion doubles players. At a swanky party sponsored by Adidas they meet gorgeous, glamorous Tashi, her accident years away. Like any college kids, they go back to a seedy motel room, where they sit on the floor, drink beers and one thing leads to another. Art and Patrick have both fallen hard for her, but Tashi also clocks that the friends have an attraction to each other.

Challengers volleys back and forth between Art and Patrick’s present-day match and the trio’s complicated history. Tashi’s less interested in love than someone with passion and drive to match hers, but Art and Patrick both have different priorities in different points in their lives. The three performers are marvelously in sync, their body language and attentiveness to one another conveying magnetism that often runs counter to their spoken dialogue.

Guadagnino established himself as a keen observer in on-screen passion in his bittersweet masterpiece Call Me By Your Name. Challengers finds him a bit more playful, and while the sex scenes steam up the action, they’re not as explicit as you’d expect. (Oscar-winner Poor Things, for comparison, is much more graphic.) One sequence features male frontal nudity, but just involving randos in a locker room.

If the hook-ups build tension, the tennis matches release it, at least for the audience. Reminiscent of the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, the tennis sequences use so many techniques, it’s as if no two are alike. At times it’s like Guadagnino has put GoPro cameras on the players, on their rackets and even the tennis balls rocketing back and forth. If the rest of the film weren’t so well-grounded, they’d be borderline laughable, but as is, the tennis matches scenes show-off technique in a delightful way.

Between this and Dune Part Two, Zendaya stars in far and away the best two films of 2024 so far. Despite the compelling techno-score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Challengers plays like a shaggy character study from the 1970s, less interested in tight screenplay construction than the nuances of people’s wants and needs. Thoughtful, heartfelt and sexy, Challengers is a grand slam.

Now – Sun., May 5

Atlanta Film Festival — The latest ATLFF will present more than 140 films (24% from Georgia filmmakers), drawing from 7,500 submissions from more than 100 countries. Films already announced at press time include the documentaries African Giants, Naked Ambition and The Body Politic as well as the moody Latvian feature Dragoons and the tense character study We Strangers.
Through Sun., May 5. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Fri., May 3


PULL A STUNT: Ryan Gosling’s stunt man takes direction from Emily Blunt in ‘The Fall Guy.’ Photo Credit: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Fall Guy   Ryan Gosling brings the Kenergy from Barbie to the role of an aging stuntman working on a film directed by his ex-girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and getting involved in a kidnapping plot. John Wick director David Leitch oversees massive practical stunts to this adaptation of the 1980s Lee Majors TV series.
Opens Fri., May 3. Atlanta area theaters


Sat., May 4


CAGED BIRD SINGS: Colman Domingo (to left of Clarence Maclin) plays a prison inmates who discovers the liberating power of art in ‘Sing Sing,’ the closing night film of the 2024 Atlanta Film Festival. Photo Credit: Courtesy of A24

Sing Sing — Rustin Oscar-nominee Colman Domingo plays a prison inmate who discovers the liberating power of art in the closing night film of the Atlanta Film Festival.
7 p.m., Sat., May 4. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.




Sun., May 5 and Wed., May 8


Steel Magnolias — “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” The phony Southern accents drip like molasses in this Oscar-nominated 1989 comedy-drama about a group of female friends in a small town. The cast includes Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah.
Sun., May 5 and Wed., May 8. Atlanta area theaters.


Tue., May 7


Black Coal, Thin Ice This acclaimed 2014 thriller from Chinese director Diao Yinan depicts a pair of former detectives drawn into a murder investigation.
7:30 p.m. Tue., May 7. Tara Theatre, 2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd. NE, Atlanta, 30324.



Fri., May 10


KONG, KING: Kevin Durand plays ape king Proxima Caesar in ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.’ Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes — The primate-based epic continues centuries after its predecessor War of the Planet of the Apes as a heroic chimp (Owen Teague) and a feral woman (Freya Allen) go on a quest to stop a bonobo tyrant. Director Wes Ball, a newcomer to the franchise, helmed the three Maze Runner movies.
Opens Fri., May 10. Atlanta area theaters



Tue., May 14


The Crow — Brandon Lee was tragically killed on the set of this stylish 1994 comic book adaptation about a musician who returns from the dead to seek revenge on a murderous gang. This 30th anniversary screening features a guest appearance from co-star Rochelle Davis.
8 p.m. Mon, May 14. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.


Fri., May 24


REVERSE GEAR: Anya Taylor-Joy plays the post-apocalyptic driver in ‘Furiosa,’ a prequel to ‘Mad Max: Fury Road.’ Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga — In 2015, director George Miller delivered one of the best action/sci-fi films of the 21stcentury, Mad Max: Fury Road. Almost a decade later, Miller returns with a prequel about Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, played by Anya Taylor-Joy as a younger woman in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Fury Road is a tough act to follow, but the new installment features Chris Hemsworth as a demented warlord.
Fri., Apr. 26. At area theaters.


FAT CAT: Chris Pratt voices comic strip star Garfield in ‘The Garfield Movie.’ Photo Credit: Sony Pictures

The Garfield Movie — The lazy, lasagna-loving tabby gets involved in an unlikely heist in a cartoon family feature. Chris Pratt provides the voice for the titular character, as is apparently required by law for big-screen animation. The cast includes Samuel L. Jackson, Bowen Yang, Hannah Waddingham and Harvey Guillén as the dog Odie.
Fri., Apr. 26. At area theaters.


Sat., May 25


Eat Drink Man Woman — One of the classic “foodie” movies and an international breakthrough film from Taiwanese director Ang Lee, this comedy-drama involves an aging chef and his relationships with his three adult daughters. This 30th anniversary screening is presented in partnership with “We Love Buford Highway”.
2 p.m. Sat., May 25. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta, 30306.