Friday, May 14, 2021

Stalwart women steer 'Dead,' smart divorce film, and the heavy 'Gunda'

Patience might pay dividends in watching a redemption tale called "Those Who Wish Me Dead," the book-based, Taylor Sheridan thriller that starts slowly but eventually carries some big kicks.

With his serious connections to such legitimate gems as "Sicario," "Hell or High Water" and "Wind River," the director/co-screenwriter certainly has earned a little leeway here until this chase film, which begins a bit wobbly in Florida, gains footing among Sheridan's more familiar western landscapes.

Besides, we don't meet the real star of the piece until the plot gets us out there. That would be Angelina Jolie, the only female face among a group of smoke-jumping firefighters and the one still dealing with a major blaze-related tragedy she couldn't stop. Enter a lost and frightened lad (the fab Finn Little), who has experienced even worse trauma while trying to outrun a mean pair of corruption-inspired hit men (Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen).

Also memorable is Medina Senghore, making her major movie debut as a capably heroic -- and quite pregnant -- survivalist. One quick, bad-guy cameo from a much bigger name also might stir the emotions.

("Those Who Wish Me Dead" opens today in theaters everywhere and on HBO Max.)

 Rated "R" by MPAA; strong violence and language throughout; 1:40; $ $ $ out of $5

Steeves' stage actress eyes single life in the Big Apple.
Speaking of emotions, "Before/During/After" says it all in summing up how a seemingly happy 15-year marriage disintegrates during a quick, sad and often funny 83 minutes of screen time.

Such tidy filmmaking features a wise portrayal by Jeremy Davidson, as the unfaithful husband, but there's no denying that this picture belongs to the exceptional Finnerty Steeves. Her caught-by-surprise wife Jennie, suddenly dealing with the urgency of the future, talks to as many as five therapists and gets advice from both neurotic and stable friends. Whether any of it sinks in, though, ultimately depends on Jennie's own standing with herself, which evolves through reflections and memories stimulated by daily occurrences.

Her successful work as an actress, especially the audition process, not only helps Jennie figure it out but likely gave Steeves immense insights into such an impressive screenwriting debut. Co-directors Stephen Kunken and Jack Lewars probably deserve some credit, too, for the movie's nifty narrative structure, with the former also contributing a scene as "therapist No. 5."

Kunken, now seen on "The Handmaid's Tale" and "Billions," is one of numerous familiar New York acting names and faces dotting a crowded ensemble that includes John Pankow, Kate Burton, Richard Masur, Marin Hinkle, Austin Pendleton, and Kristine Sutherland, to name just a few of the credited many.

(Star, writer and producer Finnerty Steeves receives the "Emerging Artist Award" tonight at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., where her film not only concludes a long, prize-winning festival schedule, but also will enjoy a special outdoors screening. Otherwise, "Before/During/After" is streaming now on Amazon Prime and a few pay-to-view outlets.) 

Not Rated by MPAA: (but with mature divorce themes, content and some language); 1:23; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

The titled Gunda in all her glory.
Nothing speaks except the wonders of quaint farm life in "Gunda," a sparkling, black-and-white documentary named after the giant sow that steals the show along with her ever-appealing piglets.

About a dozen of the little devils come sneaking out of their huge Mom at the beginning of this slow, if rare adventure from Viktor Kossakovsky, a director whose films, including 2018's energizing "Aquarela," always graze the senses. A herd of fly-swatting cows, in one segment actually shown running out to pasture, do some introspective grazing of their own, and a one-legged chicken also entertains.

Of course, even animals never should simply expect a bed of hay, a coop filled with corn, or an inviting field of grass. There's always some heartache, which the discombobulated Gunda sadly learns when an unsettling climax literally comes out of nowhere. Fascinating stuff. 

("Gunda" is now making her theatrical run everywhere, including at the Cedar-Lee Theater in northeast Ohio. Just remember that those wonderful dogs from "The Truffle Hunters" (reviewed here last week) also are still running around there. Hence, you might consider treading lightly in the theater's lobby.)

Rated "G" by MPAA: for audiences of all ages (but I'm not sure I'd bring restless kiddies); 1:33; $ $ $ and 1/2 out of $5

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