Movie Review: Dafoe morphs into Abel Ferrara’s alter ego again as “Tommaso”

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You can search the Internet, high and low, for a profile of filmmaker Abel Ferrara that doesn’t use the word “maverick.” He’s made it his brand, probably using it about himself and in press releases like the late U.S. Senator who so coveted that label.

I’ve always thought “indulged” was more suitable. He came to fame in his native New York with thrillers like “The King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant” decades ago. But in the years since, Ferrara’s turned out increasingly iconoclastic indie films. With an exception, here and there, he’s been on something akin to a deeper and deeper gaze into his own navel, or some other bodily orifice.

And even though these movies make barely a peep outside of his tiny cult following, he continues to find financing and stars — OK, a star — willing to take these unprofitable, obscure journeys with him.

Willem Dafoe has become his muse, his alter ego, for half a dozen films now including the upcoming “Siberia” and most famously in his Ferrara-esque portrait of Italian novelist, poet, intellectual, political gadfly and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.

“Tommaso” has the collaborators teaming up for a story about an ageing, insecure filmmaker struggling to to polish a symbolic quasi-religious script (story-boarded) in Rome, obsessing over his little girl, fretting over his very young wife’s possible infidelity, as he cheats with students in his acting class and a shapely server at his favorite cafe, in between long “sharing” sessions with an English language AA group.

The young wife is played by Cristina Chiriac, the model-actress-wife of Ferrara, less than half his age. The toddler is Anna Ferrara, their daughter. Dafoe is like a slightly-younger, somewhat more handsome version of Ferrara, who now makes his family’s home in Rome.

The sum of which begs the question, “Wait, Ferrara’s in Alcoholics Anonymous?”

The semi-autobiographical Tomasso is being tutored in Italian and teaching Italian actors (almost all women) movement, “finding the gesture” via games that look like conga lines. It feels very 1970s, and Dafoe shines brightest in these scenes where one can leap to the conclusion “This is how a Willem Dafoe acting school might look.”

“For me, performing is always somewhere between control and imbalance,” he lectures, a student translating for the gathered Italians. Acting is “not to show, but to DO.”

Tommaso has his freedom and his routine, teaching, learning Italian, attending meetings, having dalliances, writing (in voice-over, in his head) a screenplay with Eskimos and a bear and taking his child to the park.

There is stress in the marriage, which he vents in his AA meetings, or afterword with sponsors and the like.

“She’s 29,” he grouses/brags. “You’d think she’d appreciate my experience.”

No, you clueless old cradle robber. She’d appreciate a little freedom herself, not being on child-care duty 24-7, not having to be at your beck and call, the chance to discover the city (she is Moldavian-Russian) and life for herself.

Neither the character nor the filmmaker seem to get this.

The usual surreal Ferrara touches decorate the tale — documentary footage of Indian and Moldovan musicians and Buddhist teachers, a graphic bear attack, a little Sophia Loren Italian film dance scene, and a “flashback” to a Dafoe interrogation scene that could have been in Ferrara’s “Pasolini.”

And the excesses are here — lots of female nudity, sex, screaming jags, violence, a moment where the angst-ridden artist literally yanks out his own heart.

Still, it’s not Ferrara’s most “out there” film, and Dafoe is always a riveting presence. He is mesmerizing in the AA scenes, amusing in the acting classes and convincingly “at home” in Rome.

No, the pondering of “What is truth?” and the nature of those things that “elicit pleasure in your mind” isn’t solved. Ferrara, at 69, still comes off more a poseur than the deep thinker he’s trying to attach to that “maverick” label.

It’s pretentious and indulgent. But as with most Ferrara films, “Tommaso” makes for an interesting trip into a seriously unconventional mind visualized by an always unconventional storyteller.

And if European money lenders are still indulging Woody Allen, why not Ferrara?

2stars1

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac Ferrara, Anna Ferrara

Credits: Written and directed by Abel Ferrara.  A Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:53

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Aaron Sorkin as a judge of character?

Charlotte Clymer 🏳️‍🌈 (@cmclymer) Tweeted: Aaron Sorkin writing Mark Zuckerberg as a power hungry, morally bankrupt sociopath in “The Social Network” is probably the best thing he ever did. https://twitter.com/cmclymer/status/1265825677401624578?s=20

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Documentary Review: No lemurs, no animated penguins, the “real” Madagascar is “Madagasikara”

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The world’s fourth largest island, a country famed for its beauty, its wildlife and a series of animated films about zoo animals making their way there, “has an image problem” a UNICEF official says in the early moments of the documentary “Madagasikara.”

Those popular images, of lemurs and striking landscapes, greenery and baobab trees, aren’t the real Madagascar. The truth about the place is that without any civil war, drought or other obvious external threat, it has plunged from impoverished to dire.

The real Madagascar, the natives, non-governmental aid workers and activists in “Madagasikara” declare, is more Dickensian than Dreamworks.

People are so poor that a generation is growing up physically and intellectually stunted, a byproduct of starvation.

The government was no picnic before 2002, but then a local oligarch seized the presidency after an election he lost, and proceeded to loot the place. When he schemed to sell off half the arable land to South Korean interests, in 2009 the people marched, in spite of massacres by government troops, and chased him away. American sanctions under the Obama Administration cut off aid and embargoed international help.

The aid is trickling back, but poverty seems endemic without a lot of help.

Cam Cowan’s film profiles several Malagasy women, and through them lays out the dire circumstances of the place, the source of some of its problems and the search for solutions.

Lin is in her early 40s when we meet her, raising her six children and a grandchild on almost nothing. The occasional bit of laundry work might give them a couple of cups of rice on a given day. It may come off as judgmental of Cowan to let her name the babies she lost (one is buried under the front stoop) and mention that she had each child with a different man.

Her desperation is visited much earlier in life when we meet Deborah, a former sex worker who is about 16 when we meet her. She weeps recalling how she had to take up this work at 12, how she often wouldn’t get paid or would be beaten by men or their enraged wives. She wanted to study the law, but had a child at 13 and is doing what she can to get them beyond subsistence and into a better situation.

Can she do that without a man?

And we meet 32 year-old Tina as she brings her toddler with her to the quarry where she, like her parents before her, makes gravel by hand.

“The stones are our bread of life,” she sighs, worrying that even this grinding, starvation-wage work will disappear.

Father Pedro Opeka (the island is largely Catholic) complains that the poverty rate has gone from about 30% when he got there in 1970, and rose steadily until 2009, when it spiked and reached as high as 90%.

Punishing the people by cutting off aid when it is the crooks looking to finish looting the land of everything of value, as elected officials, who have demolished democracy and rendered the island an Indian Ocean version of Haiti is almost genocidal, several argue.

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Seeing “Madagasikara” in the middle of a pandemic, where elected American officials are using cold calculus about who gets to live and who gets to die, with a government referring to its people as “human capital,” and openly corrupt officials seemingly set on looting the national patrimony before everyone catches on, is sobering. This is what a “one-percent” oligarchy’s end game looks like. Yes, it can happen anywhere the rich grab power and impose their priorities on the rest of us.

The tiny glimmers of hope that “Madagasikara” offers — people with so little can be impacted by even the slightest charity — can’t obscure either the humanitarian catastrophe being visited on one of the most gorgeous lands on Earth, or the cautionary nature of showing what a malevolent and illegitimate government can do to create that.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, disturbing subject matter, child sex worker content

Cast: Lin, Deborah, Tina, Father Pedro Opeka

Credits: Directed by Cam Cowan. A Global Digital release.

Running time: 1:24

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The lowly Chevy Nova finally has its (movie, TV) moment?

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Every now and then in various corners of the South, I’ll see a guy taking his fully-restored 1969-72 Chevrolet Nova out for a Saturday AM spin, maybe a run to a car show.

And I’m not going to lie. I always feel a little sorry for these men. Of all the cars to pour money into fixing up, of all the “first car I ever owned” nostalgia to be misplaced, they’re clinging to this?

This was one of the ugliest big “little” cars from an age that some Internet wags (and Facebook groups) dub, “Malaise Motors.”

In college marketing classes, Hell, even in Spanish classes, the story of how Chevrolet pitched this model (which dates from earlier in the ’60s) to the Americas and the world, how they didn’t realize “No va” is Spanish for “Won’t go.”

But damned if these things aren’t turning up every couple of days in something I’m watching or reviewing. Thanks to “Stranger Things” and “Peanut Butter Falcon” and “Snowfall” and “Cry Havoc” and “The High Note” and the upcoming “Fast & Furious 9,” this butt-ugly (especially the butt) Detroit “compact” is having a moment.

“Stumptown,” “The Evil Down the Street,” even the animated “Bojack Horseman” features a Nova, here and there.

Go figure. Am I being too harsh? Look at the pictures above and tell me I’m wrong.

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Movie Review: Tracee, Dakota, Kelvin and Cube aim to leave us on “The High Note”

THE HIGH NOTE

There are worse sins than leaning into the cute if you’re making a diva-and-her-assistant romantic comedy, especially if you’ve cast sitcom star Tracee Ellis Ross (“black-ish”) as the diva, and Dakota Johnson as the assistant.

Ross, the daughter of that diva’s diva, Miss Diana Ross, gives her 45-and-counting singer, Grace Davis, a sitcom rhythm to her punchlines and plays “nice” when the caricature of the “type” is arrogant, needy and cruel.

And Johnson, daughter of divas Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, is always helped when she’s surrounded by funnier people than herself.

That makes for an agreeable dramedy about music, showbiz dreams and family legacy, a movie that amuses and occasionally even surprises, sometimes when it hits “The High Note.”

The relationship set up here seems more a product of chemistry and the dynamics established on the set than the requirements of the first-produced-script of its screenwriter.

Johnson, as Margaret “Maggie” Sherwood, is a bit old to be an assistant. But she’s been with Grace three years because, more than anything else, she’s a fan. And being 30ish, she’s inclined to speak her mind.

Grace is being talked into taking a Vegas residency at Caesar’s Palace. Maggie is appalled and thinks it’s time for that first new record in ten years because “the fans want one.”

And then Ice Cube, as Grace’s grumpy lifelong manager Jack, comes in and steals the damn movie from these two glamour pusses.

Jack is all about “Play it safe, STACK that money.” And “new material?” Don’t get him started.

“Don’t nobody wanna go to no Yankee Doodle Springsteen concert and hear him play that wrecking ball folksy bull-s–t! People want ‘THUNDER ROAD,’ Ok? And that’s what we’re gonna give’em — ‘Thunder Road!'”

Grace is almost a passive presence in her own career, rarely getting her back up about her “11 Grammys,” her due respect, HER ideas.

Maggie? She wants to be a producer. She’s secretly befriended an engineer who helped her remix cuts for Grace’s concert album. And then she meets this apparently well-off aspiring singer-guitarist-songwriter (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves” and TV’s “Godfather of Harlem”).

He may think he’s just “some douche-bag who thought he could be a singer.” To Maggie, “You’re just self-sabotaging. And I can work with that.”

It’s a perfectly pleasant movie to sit through, although there’s more sitting than the material warrants, and “pleasant” shouldn’t be the highest note you’re reaching for — not with this many “names” in the cast (Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman show up later).

Director Nisha Ganatra got her second chance at feature film glory with last year’s “Late Night,” and still has trouble getting out of her own way. Her first crack was a Heather Graham bomb, “Cake.” “High Note” should sing and just zip by, and she’s made 113 minutes that show off Ross’s voice (thinner than her mother’s, not bad), frequent rides in Grace’s McLaren 570s, an abortive “No Scrubs” sing along, a movie that bogs down in Maggie’s machinations and romantic pitfalls and delays, as long as it can, some pretty corny third act surprises.

Like “Late Night,” this plays as soft, no edge. Even the arguments are squishy. Until Ice Cube’s Jack pipes up.

“Who the Hell you think you are, Missy Elliott? GO to Starbucks!”

That’s how a diva talks to an assistant, dears. Make a note of it.

stars2

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, and suggestive references

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Bill Pullman, June Diane Raphael and Ice Cube.

Credits: Directed by Nisha Ganatra, script by Flora Greeson. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 1:53

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Documentary Review — Mexican cuisine’s first foreign champion, “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy”

She rumbles down a dirt path in a remote corner of Mexico in the Nissan pickup she’s put many hard miles on. The road’s so bumpy her ever-present straw hat drops over her eyes, not that this stops her.

Diana Kennedy doesn’t bother to adjust it in front of the camera operator. She pumps the clutch, shifts to a lower gear and waits for the next bump to give her back her clear view of the rutted road ahead.

She doesn’t look it or act it, but she’s well over 90. You’d never think it, but this 90something British expat is the doyenne of Mexican cuisine, a towering figure in the popularization of the “authentic” foods that have spread worldwide, and all but taken over the American palate. And you’d never guess it, but this tiny dynamo is still scouring her adoptive land for new flavors, new foods, new recipes.

“Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” is an adorable and adoring portrait of the outspoken foodie, chef, cooking teacher and cookbook author whose 1972 book “Cuisine of Mexico” put salsa and ceviche, Pozole and mole on the culinary map and on the road to global popularity.

First-time documentarian Elizabeth Carroll lets the TV-seasoned Kennedy, whose cooking-on-the-tele days are decades behind her, just be her charming, blunt and bawdy self for a film portrait that is the next best thing to being declared a walking, talking, cursing and cooking U.N. Heritage Site.

If your first thought on hearing of an Englishwoman’s role in making Mexican cuisine popular is “cultural appropriation,” you might be surprised how that came up with her publishers, way back in 1970. She’s keenly aware of it, still.

“An Englishwoman making GUACAMOLE,” she fusses and chuckles. What matters is making it authentic, she huffs. “Do it RIGHT,” the way they do in the provinces. “No, you don’t put garlic in. You don’t use kosher salt!”

Use a mortar and pestle, “not a food processor.” And Madre de DIOS don’t turn it into a cream. “Leave it LUMPY!”

Carroll sits in on a cooking class where just that sound of brutally frank instruction is what well-heeled cooks and restaurateurs can expect. “I have five restaurants in Portland” and “I have three in Manhattan” may carry water there. Not with Kennedy, and not if you’re doing it wrong.

“You never stir the rice. NEVER.” “I cannot BEAR this ‘salt-less cooking,'” she says, and that’s before she corrects some hapless cook who has dared sub in garlic when SALT is what is called for.

José Andrés calls her “an Indiana Jones of food,” thanks to her expeditions (sampled here) in search of this or that. Mexican chef and TV show hostess Pati Jinich calls her “a prophet for Mexican food.”

“If her enthusiasm were not beautiful, it would border on mania,” longtime New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, an early champion, wrote in the foreword to that epochal first cookbook (she’s written eight).

She smiles and stalks through village markets, enthusing for traditional dishes prepared “traditional ways,” sneering at a stall where the cook has used “food coloring.”

Carroll’s film takes Kennedy and us through her life story, “propelled by lots and lots of hormones” to be a world traveler, meeting her future husband, New York Times Caribbean correspondent Paul Kennedy in Haiti in the middle of a revolution.

Her enthusiasm for the food at their Mexican stop on Kennedy’s career-travels may be surprising. She had Mexican cookbooks to consult (by Josina Velasquez de Leon), but preferred exploring and finding recipes on her on. Cooking for visiting journalists and Times editors were her ticket to fame, recreating classic Mexican dishes for New York naifs, guided into publishing by a friendly ear, Times editor Claiborne.

As she fusses that “There’s so much more that I’d love to do,” about others “plagiarizing my recipes,” as she jokes “Thank God my black panties don’t show” at a photo shoot, you can’t help but fall for this twinkling spitfire, this Earth Mother (she’s big on “organic” ingredients and green landscapes) of  Michoacan.

And as she tastes the foods of the country, delighting in this old favorite or that new regional wrinkle on a traditional recipe, you may find yourself fretting that you’re watching this on an empty stomach.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Diana Kennedy, José Andrés, Gabriela Camara, Alice Waters, Abigail Mendoza

Credits: Directed by Elizabeth Carroll. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

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Movie Review: A Ride Share nightmare of comic/demonic consequence — “Driven”

“Driven” is the sort of comic thriller you root for, but one you’re hoping turns out better than it does.

It’s “Collateral” in a ride-share, “Collateral” meets oh — “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” even though the supernatural menace isn’t vampires. They are “‘demons,’ for lack of a better term.”

That’s a running gag in a movie that has a few of those, a few passable jolts and a couple of decent laughs. It’s almost enjoyable enough on its own merits. But the slack pacing, general lack of urgency or any sense of suspense do it in.

Casey Dillard, who was in James Franco’s adaptation of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” wrote and co-stars in this as Emerson, a broke would-be stand-up comic who tries out new material in the rear-view mirror between customers. She’s driving a Ferry ride-share car nights just to make ends meet.

We’re starting to figure out it’ll be a cold night in Tupelo (where they filmed this) before she ever gets a Comedy Central special when she picks up the customer from hell. Almost literally.

He (Richard Speight, Jr. of “Supernatural”) is menace incarnate, a testy customer of few words, in town to “visit a few old friends.”

He’s got assorted addresses, several stops. And Emerson, gay and fresh off a break up and trying to turn that into “material” (“Your hair is so beautiful…I want to RIP it out. Then it wouldn’t be YOUR hair anymore, would it?”) is oblivious as he makes his stops and awful shadow violence plays out behind the curtains of his “stops.”

She’s slow on the uptake. Then he gets into the car, bloodied. Then he shows her his big honking knife.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“I’m not going to.”

“Please don’t hurt ANYbody.”

“I won’t…really.”

As “Roger” starts to speak, to explain himself and his errands, two things happen. One, we can’t help but notice that this scary guy is a lot less scary because he sounds just like funnyman Will Forte. And secondly, all this palaver about “demons, for lack of a better term” has just turned “Driven” into “Parked, and about to get towed away.”

Dillard’s written herself a colorful character to play, made her a comic and who loves language (“You have a LOT of ‘Word War’ notifications!”), a lovelorn lesbian obsessed with filling the air around her (in a CAR) with “essential oils.”

“What was that?”

“Mint.”

“Smells like Satan’s ANUS.”

There are a few funny lines.

“So, you’re a comic?”

“Not judging from your reactions.”

But as “Collateral” and assorted other thrillers confined to a car promise, the claustrophobia should make tension and suspense spike. And they don’t. We never fear for anybody’s safety, never connect with a single villain worth rooting against.

The more explaining that Roger does, the more flailing one-liners Emerson trots out, the duller “Driven” is. The stars are agreeable, even if they’re underplaying everything so much that they lower the stakes into “Who cares?” territory.

It’s likeable and worth rooting for. But in the end, it just isn’t all that.

2stars1

Cast: Casey Dillard, Richard Speight Jr.

Credits: Directed by Glenn Payne, script by Casey Dillard. An Uncork’d release.

Running time: 1:30

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“Labyrinth” Sequel now in the hands of “Doctor Strange” director

Hard to believe Scott Derrickson got his start with “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I mean, it was a fine film, but who knew he’d be an effects driven blockbuster king?

This sequel idea has been around for years. Jim Henson’s movie came out 36 years ago, but in recent years talk of reviving it has grown louder.

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/labyrinth-sequel-works-scott-derrickson-1295924

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Netflixable? “Mutiny of the Worker Bees (Rebelion de los Godinez)”

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Here are the two jokes that work in “Rebelión de los Godínez (Mutiny of the Worker Bees),” an antic piñata colored-workplace farce from Mexico.

The hero, played by Gustavo Egelhaaf, has just asked a pretty office mate (Anna Carreiro) to the movies.

“What’s that one with the guy everybody loves?” he wonders (in Spanish with English subtitles).

“Eugenio Derbez?” she guesses.

“I said a GUY.”

The other gag involves a squeaky toy and its role in a riot.

Aside from those two giggles, a slap at the manhood of Mexico’s most popular comic export and a Picachu, “Rebelión/Mutiny” is a comedy that tries to make up for the lack of laughs with manic patter, mugging for the camera and quick cutting.

Not a bad instinct on writer-director Carlos Morett’s part. Comedy is close-up and quick, after all. But here, it’s no help. But he’s a veteran producer making his directing debut with a genre he has no feel for.

It’s about clever, ambitious Omar (Egelhaaf), something of a technology savant who shifts his dreams of making a costumed mascot he’s created for the family’s cell-phone repair business a viral sensation and joins the “white collar” world.

Whatever that phrase means in North America, in Mexico or in this film at least it’s treated as a term of derision – office drones, powerless in the face of bullying credit-thieves in mid-level management.

That’s Relo Tech, the place Omar finds work. Somehow, siblings Tania and Roberto (Bárbara de Regil, Mauricio Argüelles) rule two major departments there, lording it over the app makers, salespeople, accountants and clerical staff under them.

Omar is wised-up to the company’s soul-crushing ways by two colleagues, who teach him “the rules” which are hilarious only in how dull and generic they are.

“Rule #5, the less you work, the fewer mistakes…Rule #6, your boss is always ALWAYS right!”

Mischief is afoot at ReloTech, something Omar stumbles into as he’s binge-drinking with his podmates, prepping for the big karaoke-off with their rivals, KreaTech and dreaming up his “project,” an app idea to save them all.

Backs are stabbed, figuratively, and chests (literally, with scissors). Love is in the air, and treachery.

And the worker bees? They mutiny. It’s a riot. For real.

But the movie? You have your two laughs. I mentioned them at the top. Be content with them or find yourself something else to Netflix.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex, innuendo, profanity

Cast: Gustavo Egelhaaf, Bárbara de Regil, Anna Carreiro, Mauricio Argüelles and Alejandro Suárez

Credits:Written and directed by Carlos Morett. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:34

 

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Movie Review: “The Accompanist” hits one wrong note after another

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Broadly-acted, brutally boring and downright bizarre, “The Accompanist” lands like a 7-chord pounded with a sledgehammer.

It’s a romantic mystery that ineptly blends ballet, an abusive relationship and the supernatural, often with groan-out-loud effect.

Writer-director and star Frederick Keeve is introduced to us, weeping at the keyboard in the opening scene. It won’t be long before he isn’t crying alone.

He plays Jason, the accomplished but grieving accompanist for an L.A. (Venice Beach) ballet school, a sad loner who has to be bullied into taking a goldfish a colleague at the office gives him to cheer him up.

Jason has a past. Jason has a secret. And the pushy-flirty dancer Brandon (Ricky Palomino) seems to know its existence, even as he arm-twists Jason into working nights so that Brandon can dazzle at an upcoming New York ballet audition.

“Will you trust me?” he pleads. “Whatever this big secret is, I can handle it!”

Him? Sure. Us? Not so much.

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There’s an attraction, and complications. Brandon’s getting smacked around by his raging lover (Aaron Cavette). Jason’s “big secret” has something to do with all these car accident flashbacks and nightmares, the wife and kids in the car, and “the music of the spheres.”

Everything about this is just as clumsy as can be. Brandon’s instant belief “Did YOU do that?” after that an earthquake that interrupts a rehearsal, Jason’s cavalier way with his “gift,” even with the violent Adam, the long LONG rehearsal sequences (with the pianist off camera) interrupted by pretty scenic shots of the Hollywood Hills and the coast. Nothing blends together.

The mystery isn’t all that mysterious, the acting is borderline primitive with dialogue that suggests everybody just wants to rush through it in a monotone, with as little expression as possible.

Brandon: “What did you lie to me?”

Jason: “Lie to you I was trying to help you…”

Let me help you. Don’t bother with “The Accompanist.”

1star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, sex, nudity, profanity

Cast:  Frederick Keeve, Ricky Palomino, Aaron Cavette

Credits: Written and directed by  Frederick Keeve A Dark Star release.

Running time: 1:31

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