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Indie Snapshot: <i>Martha Marcy May Marlene</i>, <i>Margin Call</i> and <I>The Swell Season</i>

A young girl escapes from a cult, a Wall Street financial firm goes into meltdown and a charming real-life love story comes to an unhappy end in this weekend's batch of indie movies.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Paranormal Activity 3 is a perfectly enjoyable horror movie, but if you want to see something genuinely disturbing, keep your eyes peeled for Martha Marcy May Marlene when it arrives in your neck of the woods. Written and directed by Sean Durkin, this psychological drama opens with a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen in a star-making turn... and yes, she is a relation to a certain pair of twins with the same name) sneaking out of a dilapidated house and making a beeline for the nearby woods, pursued by a man that repeatedly calls her name. Making her way to town, she phones her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who picks her up and whisks her away to her beautiful lakeside home in Connecticut. As the two siblings struggle to reconnect after years apart, we learn in flashbacks exactly what happened to our multi-monikered title character.

An orphan with abandonment issues, Martha (which is the name her dead mother gave her) drifted around for a time, before moving in to the farm house we saw her escape from in the first scene. The farm is run by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) who heads up a "family" that consists of several younger men and the girls -- most of whom are troubled runaways like Martha -- that they have brainwashed into servicing all their needs, from food to sex. Rechristened by her new father/lover as Marcy May, the girl quickly adapts to being a happy, productive member of this cult, finding the kind of stability here that her life in the outside world lacked. (Just for the record, her final name "Marlene" is the handle all of the girls are required to use if they happen to answer the house's communal phone.) Eventually, Martha/Marcy May/Marlene is shocked out of her dreamy stasis when she unexpectedly witnesses Patrick's dark side and makes the decision to leave and return to her real family. But her new surroundings provide little refuge from the memories that haunt her and cause her to act out in ways that frighten Lucy and her husband (Hugh Dancy). Even worse, she comes to think that she's been found by Patrick's henchmen and that they're just waiting for the right opportunity to reclaim their missing Marcy May.

Thoughtfully conceived and executed with clockwork precision, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a sustained exercise in high tension that grows even richer the more you think on it. Durkin avoids much in the way of standard exposition, instead imparting all of the relevant details through seemingly throwaway lines of dialogue, specific objects deliberately placed in the frame and, most of all, the juxtaposition of past and present. In its own distinct way, Martha is a puzzle movie in the tradition of Memento where the tragedy (and horror) of the main character's plight only becomes fully clear once the viewer fits the various pieces together. It all culminates in a terrific final shot that's at once both completely ordinary and positively chilling.

Margin Call
The ongoing financial crisis has inspired numerous documentaries and narrative features chronicling the wicked ways of Wall Street, from Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning Inside Job to Oliver Stone's botched sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. For his debut feature Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor attempts a fresh take on this oft-told tale, offering up an inside-the-boardroom depiction of the 2008 meltdown that actually tries to -- gasp! -- humanize some of the members of the widely maligned 1 percent. Chandor's narrative spans a roughly 24-hour period in the life and sudden death of a fictional financial firm that's clearly been modeled after Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns.

As the movie opens, the firm is laying off a sizeable batch of its employees, including a higher-up in the risk management department (Stanley Tucci) who has been putting together a file with some explosive information about his former employer's financial situation. Before exiting the building for good, he hands the files off to junior analyst Peter (Zachary Quinto) who finishes crunching the numbers and is shocked by what he sees. (In keeping with the film's attempts at complete authenticity, the exact nature of the problem is discussed almost entirely in financial jargon, so here's the simplified version: The firm has been dealing in questionable futures and they're now left with a bunch of worthless assets that they need to unload immediately or go entirely out of business.) He brings the information to his higher-ups (Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany), who in turn kick it upstairs to their superiors (Simon Baker, Demi Moore), and then they call in the firm's top dog (Jeremy Irons) for an emergency 3 AM meeting. Meanwhile, Peter and fellow subordinate Seth (Penn Badgley) hover around the margins, waiting to find out what their future, if any, with the firm will be.

Most movies about Wall Street lavish attention on the benefits that come with the job, from enormous, well-appointed apartments, to alcohol and cash-fueled nights on the town to ready access to private jets. Those films try to have it both ways -- the audience is invited to at first envy and then loath the characters for their privileged lifestyles; it's no accident that the hero is always required to walk away from Wall Street in order to make a more "honest" -- but still lucrative -- living in another industry. So it's refreshing to see a depiction of The Street populated by ordinary working stiffs just trying to do their jobs. (Of course, Chandor can't resist giving us one financial baron viewers can direct their anger towards, which is why he has Irons show up doing his best Gordon Gekko impression.) If only the movie's cast of ordinary working stiffs weren't quite so bland and, frankly, dull. Margin Call probably offers a far more realistic portrayal of how a financial firm operates than, say, Boiler Room, but both films ultimately wind up making many of the same points about the personal and professional perils that come with a Wall Street gig. And Boiler Room is a heck of a lot more fun to watch.

The Swell Season
In 2006, musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová starred in the super-low budget Irish musical Once and embarked on the kind of journey that sounds more like a fairy tale than real life. The movie premiered at Sundance in 2007 and instantly became one of the festival's most buzzed-about titles. Acquired by Fox Searchlight, Once arrived in theaters a few months later to rapturous reviews and wound up earning almost $10 million at the box office... not a bad figure for a film that cost roughly $150,000 to make. Meanwhile, the soundtrack moved plenty of units and, the following year, the movie's standout tune "Falling Slowly" won an Oscar for Best Original Song. To cap it all off, somewhere in the middle of all this, Hansard and Irglová fell in love, which served as the perfect happy ending to their rags-to-riches story.

The new documentary The Swell Season (named after Hansard and Irglová's band) picks up the narrative after the post-Oscar glow has faded and the two lovers are back to being working musicians, about to embark on a lengthy tour. It's here that the first cracks in their relationship start to appear. While Hansard has plenty of experience with life on the road, the much-younger Irglová (she was only 20 at the time the documentary was filmed) has a hard time adjusting to the grueling pace and the crowds of people that swarm them asking for autographs and pictures. As the tour progresses, she becomes more and more withdrawn, which frustrates her bandmate and boyfriend. Meanwhile, Hansard is wrestling with some internal demons of his own and comes to almost resent the success and attention that the film has brought him. The tension between them inevitably boils over and by the time the tour wraps, they've effectively ended their off-stage partnership. So much for happy endings, eh?

Filmed in lovely black-and-white and scored to the band's ear-pleasing brand of folk-rock, The Swell Season is a modest, mostly engaging behind-the-scenes documentary that nevertheless winds up feeling somehow incomplete. While directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis appear to have been granted full access to the tour, it often seems as though they've missed crucial moments in their subjects' lives. Not that Hansard and Irglová seem like the type of people who would engage in wild Jersey Shore-like screaming matches about the state of their relationship, but, apart from one charged encounter in a restaurant, whatever drama was going on between them mostly happens off-screen. They're even guarded in their on-camera interviews, often speaking in vague generalities about the arc of their love story; indeed, Hansard seems more at ease talking about (and to) his mother and father than his lover. (It's hard not to compare this film to the similarly themed Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, which offers a more complete portrait of an entertainer's life on the road, as well as the tortured psychology of its central star.) In the end, The Swell Season is little more than a small memento left over from a love story that was always too good to be true.

Check out ten ways to know you've joined a cult, at least according to the movies.

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