Saturday, March 1, 2014

GRAND PIANO (2013) movie review

Grand Piano (2013) d. Eugenio Mira (Spain)

Returning to the stage for the first time in five years, former wunderkind concert pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is wrestling with an understandable case of stage fright. But with his glam actress wife (Kerry Bishé) looking on from the opera box, he’s poised to make a grand success (recovering from his last disastrous public appearance, where he blew the crucial climax of the “Unplayable Sonata”) until he turns a page in his musical score mid-concert to find a red-pen-scribbled note: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Soon, the red dot of a laser-sighted rifle is dancing alongside his fingertips, while a menacing voice (John Cusack) via earpiece goads him toward perfection. But why?

Grand Piano isn’t a bad little thriller, per se, but it’s an extremely convenient albeit stylish one that asks viewers to swallow a whole lot of hogslop in terms of plotting, character, etc., assuming that we’ll just give over to the silliness and go for the rollercoaster ride. To that end, director Eugenio Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendia have a high old time sweeping the camera up, down, and all around, with panoramic wide shots swirling down to close-ups of the titular instrument’s innards plunking and vibrating against one another. The dizzying effect is clearly meant to evoke the age-old “Hitchcockian” chestnut, but the cinematic wizardry on display cannot mask the contrivances and sheer silliness of Damien Chazelle’s script, and unfortunately, we’re given just enough time to breathe and consider just how wackadoo it all is.

For example, it’s a mighty strange piano concerto that includes so many extended rests that the star of the piece can leave the stage, run down to his dressing room, and have a prolonged conversation with the prospective assassin before returning just in time to make his cue. Also, Selznick is talking loud enough to be heard on the phone, but the other musicians can’t hear his end of the conversation? Not to mention the fact that the concert itself is an extremely odd duck, with the piano raised high on a platform, the conductor (Don McManus) making congenial chatter between movements, etc. This kind of nitpicking persists throughout, forcing the audience to simply switch off their brains in order to swallow the real-time hokum.

Wood is a capable enough performer, with the former hobbit doing his own impressive ivory tickling, but at no time do we pick up any authentic “tortured genius” vibe. Instead, he comes off as a dime-store neurotic in a tux, more worried about picking up his prom date than any deep-seated pathology. Cusack, who spends 90% of the movie as a disembodied voice, is entirely adequate, although his unmistakable tones considerably dull the mystery. Going along with the overall whimsy is the notion that bland blonde Bishé is “the hottest star of her generation,” while her pals Tamsin Egerton and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech are each given one relentless note to play (entitled rich bitch and whipped slob, respectively) to provide cutaway diversions from the main stage’s action. ’80s fans will rejoice to see Alex Winter (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) back on screen – he’s not given much to do, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Grand Piano is handsomely mounted with great production values, but like many half-baked enterprises, the immaculately manicured exterior can only mask the internal deficits for so long. The somewhat soggy end results still have their appeal, though Chazelle probably should have let his “Phone Booth/Speed at the Concert Hall” high concept cook a little bit longer before presenting to company.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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