Salty Air

Despite Zendaya, ‘Challengers’ double faults; ‘Ministry’ and ‘Abigail’ amuse — Play It Again, Tim

“Challengers” stars, from left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
Written by Tim Miller

Zendaya’s new movie, about a tennis-world love triangle, stumbles in the last set.

That’s not to say that “Challengers” (R, 131 minutes, in theaters), directed by Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”), doesn’t have a lot going for it.

Guadagnino captures the intensity, drive and obsession that – along with talent, of course – presumably goes into becoming a successful, high-level athlete. Even the way the director captures the film’s tennis matches – with quick cuts and close-ups of the ball batted back and forth, extreme focus and dripping sweat on the players’ faces – provides an idea of what it might be like to be in the heat of competition.

“Challengers” stars, from left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

“Challengers” stars, from left, Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O’Connor. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

“Challengers,” in fact, could be more about the nature and impact of competition – in sports, in romance, in other areas of life – than anything else. It certainly seems to be the great motivator of the three central characters, Tashi (Zendaya) and former best buds Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor).

The film goes back and forth (and back and forth, and back and forth) in time to show the history of this trio, all talented players who have had different levels of success. Tashi, a tennis prodigy, suffers a serious on-court injury that ends her dreams of tennis stardom. She’s lost none of her competitive edge, though, which comes into play with her relationships with Art, a formerly successful pro trying to make a comeback, and Patrick, a hustler still trying to live up to his potential.

This is no romantic tug-of-war in which the woman is simply the prize in the middle, getting yanked back and forth by two competing lovers. If anyone is in control, it’s Tashi, who essentially sets the ground rules: “You win on the court, you could just win me. The main thing is, I decide.”

It’s refreshing, as my great friend and colleague Dana Barbuto mentioned to me after a critics’ screening, that it’s the woman who’s put in the position of power in this situation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized she was right. And Zendaya is outstanding in projecting the competitive ferocity, athleticism and confidence (and, yes, magnetic sexiness) that make Tashi the dominant character in the film.

Faist, as the relatively passive Art, and O’Connor, as cockier, more assertive Patrick, also are convincing as the estranged friends whose past, present and future are strongly tied to Tashi.

But, for a film that in so many ways gets competition right, it takes a few turns that get it so wrong. These plot contrivances – one involving a decision by Tashi to affect a tennis match’s outcome, the other the outcome itself – can certainly be justified by a sympathetic moviegoer. But for, say, a former high school jock (ahem), or anyone who has embraced competition, for good or bad, these twists just don’t ring true.

It’s as if the movie is playing its own tennis match. It’s cruising along, and looks to be on its way to victory. But then along come some unforced errors – caused by bad decisions – and the tide turns. Game, set, match. Better luck next time.

Still, I have to emphasize, Zendaya is pretty great. **½ (out of four)

Superman saves the day

Wait! Where’s Errol Flynn?

Henry Cavill, center foreground, appears in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” with, from left, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Ritchson, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Henry Golding. (Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

Henry Cavill, center foreground, appears in “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” with, from left, Alex Pettyfer, Alan Ritchson, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Henry Golding. (Dan Smith/Lionsgate)

Guy Ritchie’s new WWII action-spy thriller, “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” (R, 120 minutes, in theaters), seems like a throwback to ’40s war movies, the kind in which Flynn would play the charismatic leader of allies taking on the Germans behind enemy lines.

I’m thinking specifically of Raoul Walsh’s “Desperate Journey” (1942), co-starring a wise-cracking Ronald Reagan (!), Arthur Kennedy and Alan Hale Sr. (real-life dad of the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island”), with Raymond Massey as the main Nazi.

Of course, it’s more than 80 years later, and Flynn and company are long dead. So instead we have Superman/Clark Kent himself, Henry Cavill, very much in Flynn mode as real-life hero Gus March-Phillips, who leads a rebellious team on a black ops mission ordered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Ritchie’s film is based on the Damien Lewis nonfiction book “Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII,” and the fact that it’s based (however loosely) on a true story gives an interesting spin to a film that otherwise seems like it sprung solely from a screenwriter’s imagination. Then again, the mission, called Operation Postmaster, reportedly inspired by spy novels featuring James Bond, whose creator, author Ian Fleming, appears briefly as a character in the film (and introduces himself as “Fleming; Ian Fleming”). So maybe fact is stranger (or more colorful) than fiction.

Either way, Ritchie has fun with the story.

It’s set in 1941, before the United States entered the war. While Germany’s Luftwaffe bombs London, its U-boats are sinking ships with supplies and other aid for England. Hoping to loosen the German subs’ grip on the Atlantic, Churchill (Rory Kinnear) enlists March-Phillips to put together an elite team of talented loose cannons (played by Alan Ritchson, Henry Golding, Alex Pettyfer and Hero Fiennes Tiffin) to destroy an Italian ship – located off Spanish-controlled island Fernando Po – that supplies the U-boats. Meanwhile, British spies Marjorie Stewart (Eiza Gonzalez) and Richard Heron (Babs Olusanmokun) also head to the island to help, with Stewart tasked with seducing the SS officer (Til Schweiger) overseeing the island.

Yes, there’s a lot going on, but it’s reasonably easy to follow. The heroes are nonchalant, whether getting tortured or slaughtering countless enemies – it all seems a lark to them, and to Ritchie.

“Ministry” lacks the stylistic flourishes, the exuberance and the edginess of the director’s best films – “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (his first and, still, best feature film), “Snatch,” “RocknRolla” and “The Gentlemen” – but if you’re looking for war-flick escapism, it does the trick. ***

Please, tell me less

It’s no secret that trailers can ruin the movies they’re promoting.

They give away too much. They reveal surprises, the best lines, sometimes pretty much the whole plot.

“Great,” you think. “Now I don’t have to go see the film.”

Melissa Barrera, left, and Alisha Weir share a moment in “Abigail.” (Universal)

Melissa Barrera, left, and Alisha Weir share a moment in “Abigail.” (Universal)

That’s the case with the trailer for “Abigail” (R, 109 minutes, in theaters). The film was directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett – the same duo that gave us “Scream” (2022), “Scream 6” (2023) and “Ready or Not” (2019), all entertaining horror thrillers. Taken on its own merits, “Abigail” – about six kidnappers who abduct a young ballerina – also is good, bloody fun, with colorful characters, amusing performances from a good cast and funny dialogue.

The best thing about it, though, is a terrific twist that comes about a third of the way into the movie. And that twist (along with the film’s best lines) is given away in the trailer.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, and you don’t know what the surprise is, and you think you’re going to see the film (if you’re a horror fan, do it), I’d recommend you stop reading the rest of this review. Move on to the next one below, then come back (please) to read this after you’ve seen “Abigail.” OK, see you later.

As for those still here (thanks for sticking around), I’m going to reveal the twist – YES, SPOILER ALERT! – since it’s already out of the bag. After kidnapping the girl, Abigail (Alisha Weir), the criminals (Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens – a long way from “Downton Abbey”, Kathryn Newton, Kevin Durand, William Catlett and, in his last screen role, Angus Cloud of HBO’s “Euphoria”) take her to a mansion, where they plan to wait for her father to pay a hefty ransom.

They’re in for an unpleasant surprise or two. They’re trapped in the mansion. But, worse – and here’s the clincher – the ballerina is a vampire! And she’s hungry for victims. But she toys with them first: “What can I say? I like playing with my food,” Abigail says. (It’s my favorite line – and it’s in the trailer, of course).

The result is a variation of “House of Haunted Hill,” with vampires subbing for ghosts.

Barrera’s Joey, a mom with a drug problem, is the most sympathetic of the otherwise ruthless gang, with Stevens’ Frank, the leader, the nastiest. But all of the characters – including Newton as thrill-seeking rich girl Sammy, and Durand as dimwitted muscle Peter – have distinct personalities. It’s bittersweet watching the always compelling Cloud, who died last July at age 25. He plays rough-around-the-edges Dean, who seems more interested in making Sammy his girlfriend (lots of luck there, Dean-o) than the ransom money.

I’d seen the trailer and still enjoyed the movie. But I would have liked it a lot more if I knew a lot less going in. ***

Alien high jinks

Humans must be good eatin’.

Whether you’re Hannibal Lector, a zombie or an alien, critters of the human persuasion can make for a tasty treat. Or so it seems.

Nicolas Cage plays a dad battling aliens in “Arcadian.” (RLJE Films)

Nicolas Cage plays a dad battling aliens in “Arcadian.” (RLJE Films)

Arcadian” (R, 92 minutes, in theaters) involves a father, Paul (Nicolas Cage), and his twin teenage sons, Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins), who barricade themselves in their remote farmhouse at night. Why? That’s when aliens come scratching at the door – and if they get in, it won’t be pretty.

As the film begins, the world has changed. It’s not clear exactly what happened, but aliens apparently attacked Earth, destroyed most of humanity, and what pockets of people still exist are pretty much on their own.

As a result, Paul and sons have little contact with the outside world. Thomas has been spending time helping out at a distant farm owned by the parents of a teen girl, Charlotte (Sadie Soverall), he likes, but he and Joseph, a loner more interested in intellectual pursuits, are expected home before nightfall.

Naturally (otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story), the boys are delayed one night, leading to close encounters of the horrific kind.

The farmhouse-under-siege scenario, reminiscent of George Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead,” offers some suspense, but the film offers little else – especially once the focus shifts from the Cage character to the boys. (The film’s director, Benjamin Brewer, also helmed the 2016 Cage cop film “The Trust.”) A hokey ending doesn’t help.

There is, though, one gem of a scene. Early on, Thomas and Charlotte finally take awkward teenage steps toward acknowledging their romantic interest in each other. It’s getting late, and Thomas is about to rush home, when Charlotte shyly asks, “Do you have 10 more seconds to spare?” He does, and they just hold each other, and for these 10 seconds a movie about aliens and bloodshed and horror becomes something else, something subtle and tender and moving.

Then the film goes back to business as usual. **½

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and a Tomatometer-approved critic. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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