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A good movie

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 20 January 2017 08:50

To be honest, I had no idea what this movie was actually about but since I kept hearing some really good things about this flick, I thought I might as well check it out. Well, it turned out to be a really daunting story with a really impressive breakthrough performance by Elizabeth Olsen. Furthermore, it has been a while since I have seen a movie which was actually enhanced by such jumps back and forth in time. Still, even though the subject was really interesting, even if the mood was quite fascinating and even though Olsen was really good, the whole thing didn’t completely convinced me though. The main issue I had is that the makers tried too much to remain ambiguous. For example, it is pretty obvious that the sisters did have a conversation at some point about what the hell happened to her but they deliberately decided to not show it which gave the feeling that the sister and her husband didn’t care much about the main character which wasn’t entirely accurate. Furthermore, how did they actually recruit their new members ? I mean, this cult was seriously joyless and even downright nasty and evil so you might wonder why she didn’t take off right from the start. On the other hand, I really liked the fact that the life with her upper-class sister and husband with their big fancy house was not really an improvement. Still, was it really believable that, after only 2 years, she would have already lost touch with what was socially acceptable in our capitalist way of life? I mean, to go swimming naked was not really a big deal but to go lay in bed with her sister and brother-in-law while they were having sex was really pushing it. Another thing that bothered me was that, when they finally came up to the conclusion that she needed some professional help, their 1st option was right away to intern her which was much too drastic in my opinion. I mean, why not try first to talk to a therapist or a psychiatrist? And, of course, you had this open ending which was a perfect example of how ambiguous the whole thing was from the start to finish. Anyway, to conclude, even if it didn’t completely work for me, there was still something quite mesmerizing about the damned thing and it is definitely worth a look, especially if you like the genre. 

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Escaping the Past- Easier Said Than Done

Posted : 5 years, 7 months ago on 23 April 2013 10:41

"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is an amazing cinematic jolt to the nervous system, plain and simple. It stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a girl who escapes to her sister and her brother-in-law's lakeside retreat after involving herself with some scary people.

But this is not the ordinary 'victim escapes near death- victim fights back story.' By intertwining Martha's new life with scenes from her past, we are forced to confront the ambiguities of the situation- is Martha being followed, or does she simply perceive it that way? Was Martha crazy before the events leading to her escape from the cult?

What exactly is Martha's secret? On the surface, she seems like a normal young girl, but inside her subconscious, an inner war rages. Elizabeth Olsen knocks it out of the park as fragile, damaged Martha, running from inner demons and stuck in a constant state of shellshock.

By making her compliant in some of the cult's wrongdoings and philosophies, Martha becomes a puzzling character, with a hint of malice in her doe-like eyes. I almost hated her for what she did to Sarah, another girl in the cult, but at the same time I felt as if I kind of understood her.

Soon up to their eyeballs in responsibilities taking care of Martha, Martha's sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) despair at the direness of their situation. Meanwhile, memories of life in the cult and cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes in an icky, slimy, absolutely brilliant performance) lie just below the surface.

This is a nearly perfect film, fueled by palpable suspense and great stylistic touches, including a shaky cam moment early on, that, surprisingly, works. On a final note, I was surprised that the ideology behind the cult wasn't gone into more.

On the other hand, it kind of makes sense, since, ultimately it doesn't matter if the cult is dedicated to Jesus or free love or the God of tits and wine (to quote the great Tyrion in "Game Of Thrones.) All that matters is the influence of the cult and what cults do to people.

This movie is about what cults do to people. To dwell on the cults ideals would be simply superfluous. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is brilliant filmmaking, and will hopefully stand the test of time in the annals of indie films. Fin.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Posted : 6 years, 10 months ago on 17 January 2012 05:40

Here’s a novelty for you: an Olsen sibling who can act. I mean, really and truly act her ass of. Elizabeth Olsen deserves a major and long-lasting career based purely on the strength of this lone performance. The movie surrounding it should have risen to her level, but what’s there is effective if never transcendent. While the sense of paranoia and time-jumps do realistically place us in the mind of Martha, there are moments and thin characterizations which dwindle and handicap the overall effect of the story.

Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson perform their roles well, but are given limited and thinly plotted roles to work with. We share their sense of frustration and annoyance with Martha and her random outbursts, but aside from being both supportive and vexed about her they aren’t given much to work with. The same goes for most of the members of the cult who merge into a legion without making much of an impression. This could have been a stylistic choice of the director’s to continually ground us in Martha’s perspective, but supporting characters eventually become interchangeable. Naturally, only John Hawkes as the cult leader really makes any kind of lasting impression. He looks like a scarecrow that’s been covered in flesh, and is modulated enough to seem otherworldly. A scene in which he performs his “love” song for Martha is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in some time.

And there’s two moments which the film stumbles over and probably seemed like better ideas on paper than they did when put into motion on screen. One involves a home invasion which quickly turns into something out of a horror film and stands in startling contrast to the film built around it. Don’t misunderstand me, there are true moments of dread throughout the film but this particular one just smells of a desperate, cheap scare. The other is the ending. Martha’s time-jumps are almost too clever, and the constant need to try and put us in her frame of mind lead to an ambiguous ending that the film doesn’t truly feel like it’s earned. My gut reaction was more of an eye roll and shrug of “Of course that’s how it ended….” But one scene in which Martha prepares a new-comer for the ritualistic rape – preparing her drink, soothingly talking to her about it, encouraging her to have fun – is most disturbing for how banally it’s treated. That she wakes up and pees herself lets the mind wonder – dreaming of a memory, or was that not real at all?

Still, Martha Marcy May Marlene is ambitious and well-acted enough for me to have enjoyed it far more than any of its myriad of problems. But, as far as first feature’s go, this is mightily impressive and I look forward to seeing more of what Olsen and the director have to offer.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene

Posted : 7 years ago on 25 October 2011 02:15

Paranoia is one of the most harmful emotional states that one can have the misfortune of falling into. When you're constantly worried about the possibility that something terrible might happen, and you're constantly looking over your shoulder, it's impossible to find any sort of peace. Sure, if you tell someone about your paranoia, the person might tell you "Just chill out, don't worry about it." But you might be so consumed by whatever it is you're worried about, that the advice may prove fruitless. Even worse, what if the thing you're paranoid about is something you just don't feel you can even share with anyone? You might be in desperate need of help and consolation, but some secrets are so dark and disturbing that it's impossible to find the will to tell other people about them, even if you know they'd be able to help assuage the paranoia you're experiencing.

Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) has been living in a commune of sorts, in which she shares one house with several men and women. It's one of those places that they refer to as "cults," as these people are entirely separated from the rest of society and live a pretty unconventional life. We don't immediately find out all the details about what Martha went through during her time in this place. All we see in the film's beginning frames is that the men eat before the women, and that there seems to be a quietly sinister air going on here. Within the first few seconds of the film, Martha is fleeing from the house and running through the woods, with one of the cult members apparently following her. She manages to make it to a phone booth, and calls her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who comes and picks her up. Martha moves in with Lucy and her husband. It soon becomes apparent that Martha's having a difficult time adjusting back to life in the real world. As soon as we notice that, the film starts cutting back and forth between scenes of Martha's re-adjustment to normal life in Lucy's house and scenes of Martha's time at the cult. We discover that, as soon as she arrived at the cult, the group's leader, Patrick (John Hawkes), changed Martha's name to "Marcy May," because he thought it seemed more fitting for her. Of course, since the film's title is Martha Marcy May Marlene, you may be wondering how the "Marlene" fits into all this, but that'd take me into spoiler territory.

Martha Marcy May Marlene continually intercuts between the scenes of Martha's return to an ostensibly normal life with her sister and the eerie scenes of her life at the cult. No, it's not as cut-and-dry as saying that she's happy now that she's back in the "real" world and that suffering is all she did while she was living under Patrick's tacit dictatorship. We find out that Martha and her sister had actually not seen each other for two years, and that they had a lot of unresolved emotional issues with each other. In fact, when Lucy goes to pick Martha up at the phone booth, their reunion isn't of the "Oh my God, I'm so glad you're back safe and sound!" variety. It's a lot more detached than that. It becomes disturbingly evident that Martha's conception of sexuality became severely warped during her time at the cult, which means that she doesn't adhere to social norms when it comes to things such as nudity in front of others and of understanding that sex is something that's supposed to happen in private. The film will often show a particular difficulty that Martha has dealing with something that is "expected" of her in the normal world, and then immediately transition back in time to a scene in the cult that depicts why her mind works the way it does. To make matters more complicated, Martha is constantly paranoid about the possibility that someone from the cult will suddenly appear and try to wrestle her back to the commune. Even worse, we suddenly start wondering about how accurate the scenes of what happened at the cult actually are: "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or a dream?" Suddenly, that line makes us question how much we can rely on the veracity of the flashbacks that we're being exposed to.

The film is naturalistic to a fault, and it touches on highly disturbing subject matters... but I stress the word "touches." You see, as much as I appreciate the film's realistic feel and the seamless editing in the transitions from the scenes in the present to the scenes in the past, I can't help but feel that this film wasted the opportunity it had to be an absolutely devastating piece of cinema. Since it's supposed to be an examination of Martha's coping with what happened to her at the cult, I find it very strange that the cult scenes feel so mechanical. Save for Martha and Patrick, all the other characters who populate the cult feel like robotic stock figures who are there merely to convey an air of eeriness without ever getting even slightly fleshed out as characters. The same can't be said for the scenes between Martha and Lucy, during which the film does a terrific job at examining the difficulties of the relationship between these two sisters, subtly touching on their past without ever revealing absolutely everything. But unfortunately, since the main thrust of the film is supposed to come from the impact of her experiences at the cult, it's hard not to experience a sense of detachment here. This becomes worse when, much to my surprise, in its attempt to exemplify Martha's struggle to adjust to life back in the "real" world, the film chooses to bring to the table the age-old debate as to whether one should be concerned with money/material possessions or whether one should simply live life without any of those preoccupations - of all the cult-related cliches, the film apparently couldn't think of a less obvious one to exploit. The scene at the dinner table in which the issue is discussed doesn't feel organic to the film, but rather, it feels like something that the filmmakers wanted inserted into the running time no matter what. The more serious problem that I have with Martha Marcy May Marlene, though, is that it doesn't go beyond telling us that "She's having a hard time adjusting to life after the cult." The film starts delivering that message 15 minutes into the running time, and when we get to the final scene (effective as the scene may be in terms of the room for interpretation it leaves), it's still delivering that EXACT same message rather than having gone even deeper into the depths of Martha's paranoid psyche. Again, I suspect this is a consequence of the fact that those scenes at the cult are so mechanical - it makes the film incapable of making Martha's fears more specific, and that's a detriment.

As much as I feel like the cult scenes don't go as far into the depths of hell as they should, there's one visual flourish that I did highly appreciate. There are two particular scenes in which a newly-inducted female cult member is being "prepped" to be sexually abused. In both cases, the "prepping" is done by one of the other girls who lives at the commune. Both scenes take place at night in the same dark room in which a few rays of light manage to enter. The face of the girl who's being "prepped" to be abused, who still has her purity intact, is lit entirely by the white light, whereas the face of the girl who's doing the prepping is also lit by the same light, yet there's a streak of dark right across her face, to signify that her innocence has already been dashed. Truly a brilliant touch. If the cult scenes were characterized by more instances of this, if the people who populate the cult had more than one dimension to them, and if the film were less mechanical in terms of depicting the experiences undergone by the characters at the commune, my reaction to the film as a whole would be much more enthusiastic.

Elizabeth Olsen has all the flair of a young Vera Farmiga. It's a quietly raw performance. Those piercing eyes are damn powerful especially in some of the quieter scenes. Olsen is forced to negotiate a lot of emotions here, and she doesn't miss any of the beats. Standing out as well is John Hawkes, who can be menacing without saying a word and without even doing anything. If he earned an Oscar nomination for his work last year in Winter's Bone, I don't see why the Academy wouldn't follow suit here in recognizing him for his work as the cult leader. The fact that his silent killer persona in this film works so well is a sign of how great Martha Marcy May Marlene would've been if all the other cult-related aspects had been handled with just as much grit and expertise. Sarah Paulson is terrific: Lucy never comes across as a simple shrew who wants Martha to adhere to social conventions no matter what. Instead, she's more conflicted about how to deal with a sister with whom she's had no connection for a long time and with whom she has a difficult past. Louisa Krause, who was so great in last year's underseen Toe to Toe, shows similar shades of greatness in this film as one of the girls whom Martha connects with at the cult, but once again, since the cult members aren't as fleshed out as they should be, she doesn't get the opportunity to shine that she deserved.

Despite its missteps in handling the cult scenes, Martha Marcy May Marlene deserves credit for its realism, flawless editing, strong performances, creepy aura, and towards the end, for how nicely it plays with the line between what's real and what isn't real: it's not unwarranted to suspect that Martha's paranoia towards the possibility of being stalked by some of her former cult mates has at least distorted one or two of the events that we've witnessed during the film's running time. The movie has an ambiguous and jarring ending that works well, because people will likely have entirely different interpretations of it. If only the material that came before the ending had managed to exert a more devastating effect, I'd be calling this the Oscar-worthy masterpiece that other people will probably call it. Alas, I can only go as far as saying that it's an effectively eerie piece of cinema, and that I welcome its decision to at least touch on subjects so dark and potentially haunting.

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