The following review of Christmas, Again originally appeared at Cine-file.info last December to coincide with its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film is now available to watch via various on demand platforms.
Charles Poekel’s CHRISTMAS, AGAIN (New American)
Gene Siskel Film Center
A lot of literal-minded folks have trouble with the line “It’s the coldest time of winter” in Merle Haggard’s Christmas song “If We Make It Through December,” unwilling or unable to accept that the Poet of the Common Man is referring to the emotional temperature of the season. Charles Poekel’s CHRISTMAS, AGAIN is a kind of cinematic analog to Haggard’s downbeat holiday classic, following the adventures of a pill-popping Christmas-tree salesman named Noel (Kentucker Audley) as he attempts to survive the last busy nights on the job leading up to December 25th without the aid of his former girlfriend, a crucial off-screen character whose absence from his life is never properly explained (Did she leave him? Did she die?). Filmmaking in a minor key, but by no means a minor film, Poekel’s winning first feature has great specificity of character and place, showing with a documentary-like attention to detail what it must be like for an upstate New Yorker to work a seasonal, blue-collar job in Brooklyn. What little narrative there is concerns Noel’s meeting a stranger named Lydia (Hannah Gross), a young woman passed out on a park-bench and missing a shoe, and giving her a place to sleep for the night. The potential romance between them is wisely kept at the level of possibility, a conceit that will undoubtedly frustrate some viewers while also gratifying those who believe that a little redemption goes a long way. Kentucker Audley’s quietly powerful lead performance offers a master-class in restrained melancholy, a quality aided immeasurably by the handheld 16mm cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who does wonders with nighttime exteriors and colored Christmas lights) and the expert editing of documentary filmmaker Robert Greene (ACTRESS). Poekel in person at the Friday and Saturday evening shows. (2014, 80 min, DCP) MGS
The following review of My Friend Victoria originally appeared at Time Out Chicago in December to coincide with the film’s Chicago premiere at the Siskel Center. It will be released soon on home video via Zeitgeist Films.
Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s My Friend Victoria, opening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a week-long run this Friday, is the first great movie to receive a theatrical release in Chicago in 2016. Adapted from a Doris Lessing short story (but with the action transplanted from London to Paris), this astute slice-of-life drama functions as an uncommonly incisive critique of race, class and gender. The premise: In an emergency, Victoria (Guslagie Malanga), an orphan girl of African descent, spends the night by chance with a wealthy Parisian family, the Staveneys.
As a young adult, Victoria reconnects with the Staveneys, again by chance, and gives birth to a child by Thomas (Pierre Andrau), the family’s youngest son. The cautious way that the friendly, ostensibly liberal Staveneys interact with the alienated Victoria and their new biracial granddaughter, while always unfolding subtly and naturalistically as drama, reveals more about life in contemporary France than what one could find in any sociology textbook. Here, writer and director Civeyrac foregoes the small scale of his previous films—singular chamber dramas noted for their ambiguously supernatural overtones and uniquely dark, naturally lit interiors—in favor of a more expansive and realistic, though no less poetic, societal portrait.