CAPSULE REVIEWS: 13th Beloit International Film Festival
Now entering its thirteenth year, the Beloit International Film Festival, hosted across the “Cheddar Curtain” border in Wisconsin, is no slouch of a gathering for film lovers. For ten days, the organizers, backers, and lucky audience members have the pleasure of discovering over 100 national and international films of all genres. The visiting filmmakers are welcomed by full venues and eager audiences looking to share the love of independent filmmaking. I honored to have absentee press access to the BIFF and it’s my pleasure to share reviews of its highlighted films. For now, they will start as these collected capsules with potential full reviews in the near future. Enjoy!
Many situations can cause desperation. For Angie in Beauty Mark, played by emerging TV actress Auden Thornton, the burdensome weights around her neck are overbearing. When they all pile on at the same time, the stress of her situation becomes overwhelming in this excellent and hardscrabble family drama from writer-director Harris Doran.
Angie is the only working breadwinner, a lowly convenience store clerk, raising her mixed-race son with the father long gone. The two live with Angie’s surly and depressed mother Ruth Ann (Catherine Curtin of Stranger Things) only to have their ramshackle Louisville area house declared condemned because of mold. Faced with a sheriff’s order of eviction, it’s up to Angie to pull together the money to find a new home. The lengths which she will go revisits and opens up old wounds of the abuses she was subjected to as a child.
Gilded with effective empathy and bracing honesty, Beauty Mark won the Audience Award from the 2017 Austin Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance by Auden Thornton. The accolades are well deserved. Every part of this film that goes to an unsettling place or, on the other side, each one that shows glimmers of hope in disparity hinge on light shining out of Thornton’s extraordinary performance.
Weaving a modern spin on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, Carl Bessai’s The Lears is a demolition derby of upper-class ugliness. Each revealed flaw from this well-heeled ensemble cast, which includes Anthony Michael Hall, Sean Astin, Aly Michalka, Victoria Smurfit, and more, expose deep-seeded emotions that clash when the chemistries are mixed together.
Looming large is the family patriarch, a famous architect named Davenport Lear, played by the incomparable Bruce Dern. His assistant (Smurfit) has summoned his extended family to his lavish Malibu retreat for an important announcement. Most of them assume the grave worst, and that necessary succession of his empire is going to be decided.
Everyone together under the same roof recollecting personal ties and sharing romantic rivalries brings out caustic takes and perspectives, tests of patience, over-speculation, and selfish posturing. The acting from all involved commit to the bold and brash brushstrokes required of them with Hall and Smurfit leading the way. The profanity-laced diatribes and monologues in this single-setting collision pierce well. Dern may only be in the film for the third act, but, boy does he slay it. Trainwrecks like this can be dark pleasure and The Lears reaches that very close to that.
My Country relays a very personal story of family history that connects two continents. Lucky (writer-director Giancarlo Ianotta, calling his own number) is a Chicagoan raised in a devoted and loyal Italian household. On this deathbed, Lucky’s father reveals that he sired a son in Italy before he met his wife and mother when he permanently moved to the United States. He implores Lucky to find his older stepbrother and make things right.
That urging sets Lucky off on a trip to his ancestral homeland to deliver his father ashes and seek out the brother he never knew he had. The brother he finds is the crude and off-putting Francesco (Antonio Palumbo), a Roman lawyer who thinks he’s slick. Francesco dismisses Lucky at first, citing the displeasure of growing up without his biological father. Guilt and kinship win over as the two embark on a journey to their father’s old hometown of rural Molise.
My Country fashions itself as a road movie with quirks and conundrums mixed together. The ups and downs are haphazard, but the film’s heart is in the right place. For a blend of heavy and light, My Country comes together just as good family should