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US actors (from left), Sylvester Stallone, Ronda Rousey and Arnold Schwarzenegger chat on the red carpet for the Macau premiere of their movie ‘The Expandables 3’ in Macau on Aug 22
‘Possession’ wobbly thriller ‘Christmas’ looks lot less jolly

As Yuletide offerings go, Charles Poekel’s “Christmas, Again” might as well be called “It’s a So-So Life” — a downbeat but never outright depressing reminder that the holidays tend to look a lot less jolly from the vantage of those peddling Christmas cheer. Whereas David Sedaris made the same point with considerably more wit in “The Santaland Diaries,” this quiet, observational portrait of a taciturn young Christmas tree salesman stuck spending another December camping out on the streets of New York offers modest, VOD-scale pleasures, but is probably best viewed in the warmer months as the curious indie-movie anthropology study that it is.
 
In the tradition of such DIY day-job dramas as “The Happy Poet” and “Beeswax,” Poekel’s debut was inspired by three years its writer-director spent hustling evergreens to hipsters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — a job that transformed the normally festive month of December into a surreal state of semi-homelessness, as Poekel (and the dozens of other tree sellers doing the same thing) passed their nights in trailers and cars near the lots where they worked. Poekel barely bothers to invent a plot (not that such a slender film overtly needs one), focusing instead on the funk his sullen protag, Noel (Kentucker Audley), feels working the stand by himself. Technically, he splits the job with two young lovebirds who handle the dayshift, though being confronted with their inseparability only makes it worse, since Noel associates the job with his unseen ex-g.f., who opted to spend her holidays doing something else this year.
 
It’s impossible to say how serious they were as a couple (if the label even applies, since it might have been entirely one-sided). Offering no flashbacks and precious few clues, Poekel relies on the underspoken character to convey this sense of absence through a series of prickly, passive-aggressive interactions with his two co-workers and a variety of briefly glimpsed customers. Taking out his heartbreak on others, Noel is curt and surprisingly unhelpful with clients, though never in a snide “Bad Santa” sense. Audley makes him sympathetic, and at times, he’s even capable of kindness, as when he rescues a drunken girl from a park bench and allowing her to sleep it off in his camper.
 
Characters
If the New Yorkers around him can be divided into white-collar and blue-collar types, Noel belongs to a third category: an underspoken flannel-collar guy from upstate who feels out of place in the big city. Such characters rarely serve as the focus of an entire feature, and that novelty provides a zen-like calm at the center of the stress the Gothamites around him bring to the Christmas season. (An interaction with one douchebag glued to his smartphone underscores how different he is from the locals.) Shot on grainy Super 16 and accompanied by unexpectedly mellow music (as opposed to traditional Christmas jingles), the film itself feels like a throwback to the kind of New York character study someone like Jerry Schatzberg (“Panic in Needle Park”) or Hal Ashby (“The Landlord”) might have dreamt up back in the ‘70s, though it manages only the minimal threshold of dramatic tension to sustain its 79-minute running time. Poekel either never asked himself what the character wants, or he decided not to yield to such conventional screenwriting tactics. (A subplot about overusing pain pills hardly registers.) That’s fine for Euro fest auds at a place like Locarno, where the pic premiered, but could frustrate Americans expecting something to happen.
 
Customers mostly come and go, though one flirty young lady requests a Christmas Eve delivery that sounds more enticing that it turns out, and the girl from the park bench resurfaces — as does her jealous boyfriend — to break up the routine. Efficiently trimmed by editor Robert Greene (“Listen Up Philip”), the pic’s charm comes from its moments of unforced naturalism: little observations about the way people behave, paired with details and anecdotes that Poekel himself lived during his years operating McGrolick Trees, the same stand where the film was shot. Poekel describes this approach as “Method writing,” though most people would call it research. This specificity gives the film texture, from the way Noel wraps and prepares the trees for sale to the night a synthetic blanket catches fire and nearly burns down his caravan, while an almost allergic resistance to melodrama keeps the experience feeling real, rather than sappy — which is more than can be said of the hundreds of dead trees he sold to get this movie made.
 
 
 
The seven stages of grief don’t allow for the sort of madness afflicting the title character in “The Possession of Michael King,” who responds to his wife’s tragic death by inviting demonic spirits to enter his body and shooting an ill-advised documentary about his experience. It’s a wacky premise for this otherwise woefully cliche-ridden, conceptually wobbly indie thriller, the latest of many shoddy attempts to mine a found-footage conceit for grisly supernatural shocks. Nowhere near as rigorous as the “Paranormal Activity” movies it superficially resembles, writer-director David Jung’s increasingly unpleasant, rarely frightening debut feature won’t possess screens for long.
 
As Michael (Shane Johnson, impressively committed) informs us at the outset, he’s an atheist, a condition that movies like this exist to rectify. By the next scene, his wife (Cara Pifko) is dead, partly due to advice she received from a psychic (Dale Dickey, seen too briefly), and Michael has waged a bitter one-man war on all religion, superstition and belief in the paranormal. Oddly, his campaign entails dabbling in the dark arts, participating in satanic rituals and attempting to summon the most diabolical forces known to man — all of which he captures on camera, in hopes that the demons’ non-activity will definitively disprove the existence of either God or the Devil. To say that his plan backfires would be an understatement, and understatement has no place in this silly, dunderheaded movie.
 
The kooky early scenes in which Michael interviews necromancers and demonologists, submitting his body and soul to their most outlandish suggestions, afford the story’s most intriguingly offbeat moments. But things go to hell pretty quickly, and not in a good way, as Michael begins to manifest every symptom of possession in the horror playbook: His eyes turn bloodshot; his mood, temper and hygiene decline precipitously; bugs start crawling all over his body; and he begins terrorizing his young daughter (Ella Anderson), who of course exists for the express purpose of being terrorized. Needless to say, don’t get too attached to the family dog.
 
That Jung and his collaborators haven’t found any new angles to explore in this endlessly overworked religio-horror claptrap would matter far less if they had a firmer grasp of form and technique. But unlike the recent and far more effective found-footage thriller “Afflicted,” “The Possession of Michael King” gains virtually nothing from mimicking the cheap, murky look and jumpy syntax of an underfunded documentary. That Michael chooses to keep the camera running when he’s in the full throes of a massive spiritual-psychological meltdown makes about as much sense as some of the editing and lensing choices, as the film keeps shifting between handheld shakycam and coolly composed master shots. Still, the special-effects work, especially when Michael starts vomiting blood and carving pentagrams into his chest, is impressively nauseating. (RTRS)
 
 By Peter Debruge

By: Peter Debruge

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