Thursday, August 21, 2014

Movie Review: Grand Piano

Grand Piano
Directed by: Eugenio Mira.
Written by: Damien Chazelle.
Starring: Elijah Wood (Tom Selznick), John Cusack (Clem), Kerry Bishé (Emma Selznick), Tamsin Egerton (Ashley), Allen Leech (Wayne), Don McManus (Reisinger), Alex Winter (Assistant).

Grand Piano is a nifty little thriller – the type that Hollywood shows little interest in making anymore. It’s no pretentions, no delusions of grandeur – it’s just a stylish, well-made thriller with two excellent performances. The official runtime is 89 minutes, but that includes 12 minutes of end credits (for some reason) – so really it’s just a taut thriller for 77 minutes, that only loses its way a little bit at the end, when the motivations of the bad guy finally become clear, and hence far less interesting. Until then though, this is a wonderful little film.

Elijah Wood stars as Tom Selznick, one of the greatest pianists in the world, who has not performed on stage in five years – following a choke job at an important concert. But he’s been lured back for one night only – to play on his late mentor’s piano, in front of a packed house in Chicago. His beautiful, movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) has made most of the arrangements herself – so all Tom has to do is get on stage with the orchestra and play. He’s petrified that he’ll make another mistake, and humiliate himself again. But, the concert starts, and things seem to be going okay. And then he sees a strange note written on his sheet music saying simply – “Play one wrong note and you die”. Eventually, he’ll get an earpiece, and be in contact with the person who wrote that note. A seemingly all-knowing voice, Clem (John Cusack) tells him what the deal is. Tom is not to let anyone know what’s going on, or else Clem will shoot his wife. And he’s not to play a wrong note, or he’ll shoot him. And he’s to change the final piece music – a solo – from the simpler piece he was supposed to play to the so-called “Unplayable Piece” written by Tom’s mentor – which of course, was the piece Tom choked on all those years ago.

The film was directed by Eugenio Mira –a director unknown to me before this – and it’s almost all style. Yes, the premise is farfetched in the extreme, but Mira sells it. He knows in the early scenes there is a lot of explanatory dialogue that needs to be gotten out of the way quickly, and he does that, but he also makes these scenes interesting visually – a lot of tracking shots, etc. He is aided by Wood’s  fine, sweaty, increasingly nervous and terrified performance. Cusack, who for the most part is simply a voice, does a fine job as well – lowering his voice to a more menacing tone than I would thought he was capable of. The two play a verbal game of cat and mouse – private, but in front of thousands of people. We know it’s ridiculous, but it works.

The screenplay, by Damien Chazelle (who we’ll be hearing more about later this year when his Sundance hit Whiplash opens) is interesting – and has a few amusing moments that play with the conventions of the genre. Best of all may be Alex Winter (the other guy from Bill and Ted) who plays Clem’s sidekick, who like the audience thinks that Clem is an asshole, with a ridiculously complicated plan, and not some criminal genius (and when the reason Clem is doing this becomes clear, it’s even more ridiculous).

Grand Piano is not a great movie, but it’s a neat little thriller. Hollywood used to call these B movies, and made dozens of them a year. Now everything has to be bigger, with huge budgets, explosions and fight sequences. Grand Piano is nothing like that. It’s precisely what it seems like it is – and it works amazingly well.

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