Olsen Sister Flees Sadistic Cult; Nuns Cheer Hoop Stars: Movies

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Olsen makes her film debut as a cult survivor struggling to adjust to mainstream life. Photographer: Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight via Bloomberg

Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of celebrity twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, makes a stunning film debut in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as a cult survivor struggling to adjust to mainstream life.

The 22-year-old senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts has already completed five movies, but “Martha Marcy” is the first to be released.

The doe-eyed actress gives a mature, nuanced performance as Martha, who escapes from a cult in upstate New York and finds refuge with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) at their posh lakeside vacation home in Connecticut.

The first feature by writer/director Sean Durkin is a dark journey into the mind of a young woman who has been physically and psychologically abused by a charismatic cult leader, played with chilling intensity by John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”).

Martha is so traumatized by the experience that she shuts down emotionally and can’t even tell her sister and brother-in-law what happened to her. The couple becomes increasingly frustrated by Martha’s eccentric behavior -- she climbs into bed with them while they’re having sex -- and the tension leads to ugly arguments and accusations.

Manson Murders

The film, whose title refers to Martha’s various aliases, alternates between scenes in Connecticut and flashbacks to her time at the cult’s farm, where Patrick treats the women as a harem and makes them complicit in his rape of newcomers.

Durkin generally steers clear of sensationalism, preferring to show the subtle ways that a cult leader can control his flock. However, there is one terrifying scene that brings back memories of the Manson Family’s murderous rampage in 1969.

Durkin uses inventive lighting, editing and music to underscore the pervasive gloom. Toward the end, Martha experiences what seem to be paranoid delusions and agrees to get psychological treatment.

But there’s one more shock to come -- an ending that leaves more questions than answers in this unforgettable film.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ***1/2

‘The Mighty Macs’

“The Mighty Macs” is a female version of “Hoosiers,” the true tale of an underdog basketball team from a tiny school that becomes a champion under the leadership of a hard-driving but caring coach.

Hokeyness aside, “The Mighty Macs” is an enjoyable movie with special appeal to women who grew up in an era when female athletes had few opportunities to showcase their skills.

The film begins in the early 1970s when Cathy Rush takes over as coach of Immaculata College, an all-girls school near Philadelphia with serious financial problems. The team has no gym, no uniforms and one beat-up basketball.

Rush, engagingly played by Carla Gugino, quickly turns the school’s ragtag squad into contenders with her constant preaching about fundamentals and team play. She even overcomes the resistance of the icy Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn) and recruits a feisty young nun (Marley Shelton) as her assistant.

The script pretty much sticks to the formula for inspirational sports movies: corny speeches, improbable victories and a star player who almost leaves the team. But writer/director Tim Chambers, a veteran entertainment executive, pulls it off with likable characters and a cozy, low-budget vibe.

Rush, then married to an NBA referee, led Immaculata to three straight collegiate championships and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. The film is a warmhearted tribute to this hoops pioneer.

“The Mighty Macs,” from Quaker Media, opens tomorrow across the U.S. Rating: **1/2

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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