The Cynical Optimist is back with a look at two newies : Martha Marcy Mae Marlene and Like Crazy

Director Sean Durkin’s latest film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a young woman who escapes from a cult in the Catskill Mountains led by a charismatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”).

To avoid being discovered by Patrick and his followers, Martha moves in with her sister Lucy, (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) in Connecticut. As Martha slowly makes the transition to a cult-free lifestyle, her increasing paranoia leads her to believe that Patrick and his followers may be watching her.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is a career-making film for Elizabeth Olsen, who is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. As the psychologically damaged Martha, Olsen provides a mesmerizing debut performance that is both subtle and fearless.

As Patrick, Hawkes channels David Koresh, the enigmatic leader of the Branch Davidians Sect. Patrick holds a power over his followers, a magnetism that pulls them close and refuses to let go. Throughout the film, male members of the cult can be seen playing guitar and singing songs for their female companions, however, they never sing actually words – they just make noises. Only Patrick is allowed to sing songs using actual language. It’s this kind of discreet distinction that truly makes “Martha Marcy May Marlene” so memorable.

The film is reminiscent of “Funny Games,” Michael Haneke’s 1997 film about torture and sadism — a dark, haunting cinematic experience that builds slowly, ratcheting the tension higher with each passing moment.

As viewers, we are assaulted — forced to relive the atrocities Martha suffered at Patrick’s farm — the rape, the senseless violence — the utter hopelessness of it all. Like Martha, we grow increasingly paranoid as the film reaches its rather unclimactic climax – and if I have one point of criticism with Durkin’s film, it’s the ending.

Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the whole thing for you – but I do want to talk about this recent trend in storytelling – or rather, lack of storytelling. Lately, it seems like filmmakers wish to deny the audience the excitement and satisfaction of seeing a story carried to conclusion – giving us the climax we were promised.

It’s nothing more than an effort to appear artsy, indie and refined — a work of higher quality that refuses to pander to its audience. It’s a bit of a cop-out to spin such a powerful yarn and have viewers truly invest in your characters only to end the film without a hint of resolution.

And sadly, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” just simply ends – a character study that spends 102 minutes slowly building suspense, allowing the drama to reach a terrifying level – without the conviction in its own storytelling to explore the brutal (or hopeful) outcome of said events. It’s provocative to end the film in such an open-ended way, but at the end of the day it’s completely unfair – not only to the audience but to the characters, who deserve a fate – whether it be pain and suffering or freedom.

In any case, the film remains a powerful work thanks to the incredible work of Olsen and Hawkes, who will no doubt receive award nominations for their performances. My only wish is that the film would have delivered on what filmmakers like Haneke and Darren Aronofsky don’t shy away from – the inevitable tragedy of existence.

Drake Doremus’ latest film features Felicity Jones as Anna, a British college student who falls for Jacob (Anton Yelchin), an American student, only to be separated from him when she’s banned from the U.S. after overstaying her visa.

“Like Crazy” is not a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, nor is it the vacuous, cookie-cutter love story you’ve come to expect from a Nicholas Sparks novel. Simply put, “Like Crazy” is a realistic, heartfelt discourse on young love and the modern relationship.

There’s a real chemistry at work in Doremus’ film, and that’s thanks in large part to amazing performances by Yelchin and Jones, who improvised the entire film. The two actors were provided only with a 50-page outline, which detailed plot points but ultimately allowed the actors freedom to make each scene their own.

Every interaction feels authentic, from an awkward first date at a coffee shop to Jacob’s first time meeting Anna’s parents, to fights in the kitchen stemming from text message jealousy.

Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”) and Charlie Bewley (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1”) co-star as romantic distractions to Jacob and Anna, who drift apart as the distance between them grows. Ultimately, “Like Crazy” reminds us that nothing can be flawless. There is no happy ending – nothing is ever perfect – we make mistakes – situations arise that put strain and stress on relationships and pull us apart.

Though the film is realistic in its portrayal of young love, the whole premise hinges on the idea that someone would actually overstay their visa and simply ignore the laws and rules that come with that decision.

If Anna would have acted rationally and went to the airport and traveled back to the UK, none of this ever would have happened. Upon arriving back home, Anna and Jacob would have broken up after a couple months of long-distance phone tag.

But that’s love isn’t it, people doing crazy things that set off a chain of illogical, absurd events — and once you’re invested, you feel as if you have to carry on the craziness to completion.

Overall, “Like Crazy” is a touching, serene effort by Doremus that excels more so on the improvised performances of Yelchin and Jones than on the story itself.

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