What to Watch: Hitmen & Hard Women

Reviews of "Challengers," "Anyone But You," "Boy Kills World," "Stress Positions" and more theatrical and VOD choices.

What to Watch: Hitmen & Hard Women

Reviews of "Challengers," "Anyone But You," "Boy Kills World," "Stress Positions" and more theatrical and VOD choices.

“Love Lies Bleeding” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2), which tore ‘em up at Sundance in January, comes to streaming today at premium rental prices; I wrote about it when it was in theaters in March.

Classic of the Week: “Le Samouraï” (1967, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐), Jean-Pierre Melville’s icy, enormously influential French neo-noir, with a superb Alain Delon (above) as the lone-wolf hitman of the title. It’s playing in a 4K restored print at the Coolidge Corner in the Boston area and is rolling out to independent theaters nationwide: Further information at Janus Films website. (It’s also streaming on Max and the Criterion Channel and for rent from the usual suspects, but if you can see this on the big screen, go for it.)

Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in "Challengers"

The big new theatrical release of the week is “Challengers” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) a smart and sensuous romantic triangle set in the world of tennis, with Zendaya, Mike Faist, and Josh O’Connor all playing at the absolute top of their games. Paid Watch List subscribers can read my Washington Post review of the film below, but if you want a taste:

 “‘Challengers’ is as close to a melodramatic three-way as you can legally get, with all concerned parties simultaneously and interchangeably loving, hating, schtupping, gaslighting, goading and manipulating one another. Think ‘Jules and Jim’ with a wicked backhand and a soupçon of homoeroticism. The movie’s true to the world of professional sports in that tennis doesn’t function here as a metaphor for sex — the sex is a metaphor for tennis. Everything is.”

Also in theaters this week is the absurdist fight flick “Boy Kills World” (⭐ ⭐), which in my WaPo review (or see below) I called “self-consciously merry mayhem, with more exploding blood-bags than a Red Cross reserve bank in a hurricane…. Star Bill Skarsgård (above) – one of a seemingly endless horde of acting Skarsgårds loosed upon the world by patriarch Stellan – is a gaunt, wide-eyed presence throughout, able to absorb a surreal amount of punishment while doling out just enough to win fight sequence after bludgeoning fight sequence.” The film-bro crowd will eat this up; others beware.

Qaher Harhash and John Early in "Stress Positions"

Rolling out to local art-house theaters after debuting in New York last week, “Stress Positions” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2) is a very rough-edged indie from first-time director/co-writer Theda Hammel with a heart of gold, a great sense of humor, and a tank of gas that runs dry about halfway through. It’s set in Park Slope, Brooklyn – my own stomping grounds in the 1990s, after the pioneers but before the hedge fund managers – during a high-anxiety week for Terry Goon (John Early), who’s living in a brownstone owned by his soon-to-be-ex-husband (John Roberts) while caring for his nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a 19-year-old Moroccan male model with a broken leg. Filmmaker Hammel plays Karla, a trans woman who, when not arguing with her lesbian girlfriend (a dryly amusing Amy Zimmer), is busy plotting ways to meet the nephew, despite Terry’s efforts to forestall same. The movie’s a hectic, slaphappy farce before it turns the corner into a larger poetic meditation on identity and rootlessness that slows “Stress Positions” to a crawl. But the cast is enthusiastic and often very funny, and, as a filmmaker, Hammel is one to watch. (In the Boston area, the movie’s playing at the Landmark Kendall Square.)

Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney in "Anyone But You"

“Stress Positions” isn’t for moviegoers who prefer their narratives and gender roles traditional, obviously, but for them there’s “Anyone But You” (2024, ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Netflix), which strains hard to seem like a carefree and caustic romantic comedy from the “When Harry Met Sally” era and maybe even the screwball comedies that came before. It’s in the “Couple That Are Perfect For Each Other But Think They Hate Each Other” subgenre, which we know goes back to Shakespeare because filmmaker Will Gluck drops references to “Much Ado About Nothing” throughout. It’s half of “Much Ado,” I guess, since the business with Claudio and Hero and the villainous Don John has been jettisoned, leaving the heartsore banter of the Beatrice and Benedick subplot surrounded by a ton of prefabricated Hollywood plastic.

Why am I even bothering to bring this movie to your attention? Because it’s on Netflix, the service everyone has, so it’s more or less free and the equivalent of an airplane watch. And because the two stars are easy on the eyes and, on a scene-by-scene basis, as charming as you want from a big jar of marshmallow fluff. Sydney Sweeney, current pop-culture It Girl, plays Bea and soon-to-be It Guy Glen Powell plays Ben; they meet cute at a New York coffee shop and share a night of extended non-sexual meet-cute before pointless misunderstandings convince them they should detest each other. Fast forward to a family destination wedding in Australia, where Bea is sister of the bride (Hadley Robinson) and Ben is best friends with the other bride (Alexandra Shipp) and the sniping and pining alternate until someone (the audience) cries uncle. You’ve seen it before, many times, except maybe for the two sequences that do, in fact, click: A broad comic bit involving a scorpion in Ben’s cargo pants and a surprisingly sweet scene where the two are clinging to a buoy in Sydney Harbor at night.

Even when modern romcoms are bad – and this one isn’t bad, just a very mixed bag – I find them fascinating exercises in screen chemistry, which (you may be surprised to find out) has little to do with actual acting ability. Sweeney and Powell do have chemistry here, despite the fact that she has a ways to go before she can sling repartee with the zing of Irene Dunne or even Meg Ryan – Sweeney still has that bored “Euphoria”/“White Lotus” drone to her voice, which just won’t do when you’re playing a purported grown-up. Powell, by contrast, can do just about anything with finesse, based on his motormouthed college baseball player in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016), his John Glenn in “Hidden Figures” (2016)  and his performance as a professor-turned-fake-assassin in Linklater’s “Hit Man,” a festival smash that comes to theaters and Netflix in early June. “Hit Man” will turn Powell into a very big star if the streaming giant does right by the movie, and his chemistry with co-star Adria Arjona, who is a grown-up, is off the charts. So consider “Anyone But You” a brainless but painless way to say “I knew him when.”

Returning to Amazon Video (and aside from public-library streamer Kanopy, only on Amazon) after some time away is one of my all-time favorite unknown rock documentaries, “New York Doll” (2005, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐), the hilarious and heartbreaking story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the early-70s proto-punk band the New York Dolls. Despite lighting the fuse for an entire musical revolution, the Dolls were cursed by bad timing and bad fortune: Collapsing venue ceilings, a drummer who didn’t survive their first tour, heroin addictions that took two more members, and so forth. Kane, a big galoot of a guy, partied hard until he fell out a window and broke both legs; bored in the hospital, he sent off for a book about the Church of Latter Day Saints and, as he puts it in “New York Doll,” “they don’t send the book – they bring the book.” The movie finds him at the dawn of the 21st century a converted Mormon, working in the Church’s Family History Center in Los Angeles and surrounded by elders who have no idea that their hulking, soft-spoken co-worker was once a rock star. And maybe will be again: David Johanson is tired of pretending to be Buster Poindexter and is reforming the group for a one-off gig, and Arthur has to decide whether he’s in or out. As I wrote in 2006,

The ensuing concert is both a triumph and the occasion for a deeper sadness, that of boys who thought they'd never die and men glad to just have one more shot. Kane's encounter with a modern hotel suite is played for sweetfaced comedy, and his explanation of the finer points of Mormonism to a straight-faced Johansen is a stitch (on tithing: “It's like an agent's fee”).
You're left, though, with the bewilderment and joy on Kane's face as he plays the old songs, and the sense of ghosts just behind his back. There are three surviving Dolls, but as Arthur says, “the other three are onstage, too.” Perhaps he has reason to know. The late Johnny Thunders didn't write “You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory” until after the Dolls had broken up, but this lovely little heartbreaker of a movie takes the sentiment as its own.

One more streaming recommendation, but only for connoisseurs of truly terrible cinema – I know you’re out there. “Serena” (2013, ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, for rental elsewhere) is probably the worst movie either Jennifer Lawrence (above) or Bradley Cooper have ever made, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad in it. Well, Cooper is, or maybe he’s just wholly confused by this demented Depression Era melodrama about a corrupt logging baron (Cooper) and his tempestuous bride. Lawrence? She’s just batshit-crazy over-the-top watch-through-your-fingers wonderful/awful as the title character. Reviewing the movie in 2013, I called “Serena”

a soapy mess that even Joan Crawford in her delusional late-period prime couldn't save. The film is sneaking into town at around the time it appears on pay-per-view; seen in the right frame of mind — a stiff drink wouldn't hurt — it's a guilty-pleasure hoot.
Cooper plays George Pemberton, a Boston rich kid out to prove his manhood by stripping the Great Smoky Mountains of their timber, no matter that activists and the local sheriff (Toby Jones) are pressing the case for a national park. On a visit back to his silver-spoon roots, George meets Serena Shaw (Lawrence), the wild-child heiress of a Colorado logging dynasty, all of whose members died in a fire when she was 12.
"She's beautiful . . . wounded . . . mad for trees," says someone about the flaxen-haired Serena, first seen wearing fiery red while galloping in slow-motion on an alabaster steed. Later, after George has wooed, married, and brought Serena to his struggling timber concern down south, she imports a golden eagle to deal with the rattlesnake problem. It arrives accompanied by turbaned bearers, after which she sets about bending the bird, as well as the scornful loggers, to her will. "They need to know it was a woman who tamed this eagle," she vows.
Maybe you'll need two drinks.

Reviews for “Challengers” and “Boy Kills World” follow below the paywall below.

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