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GRAND PIANO (2013)
Elijah Wood stars as a master pianist, the pupil of an eccentric mentor. Five years ago Wood’s character failed spectacularly in a concert where he attempted to play an "unplayable" piece. And tonight, he is making his fearful return to the public spotlight. But when notes begin to appear on his sheet music along the lines of “Miss a note and you’re dead,” an incredibly tense and entertaining game of cat and mouse begins.
I would say that another thing I like in my thrillers is a high concept premise. But honestly, I’ve started to turn against high concept films recently. I value characters more and more as I get older and can’t help but believe that, more often than not, a high concept comes at the expense of good character work and, perhaps more importantly, any sense of reason or logic. A great example of this is the recent Now You See Me. I had fun while watching the film, but the twists and turns of Now You See Me absolutely undercut any sense of logic or character development.
But you know what? I can get down with a high concept when it is done well. And Grand Piano plays this premise smart. As with ANY film of this type, the third act is where things start to unravel. When bad guys are revealed, motives are explained, and crescendos of violence flourish, you have to be along for the ride already or the whole thing falls apart. But I was so fully engaged, with a big fat smile on my face, that I loved every minute of this film. And to be fair, while the third act of Grand Piano does have to play its hand a little bit and the answers might not be as rewarding as the questions were… this film smartly leaves a couple of questions unanswered and never veers into the patently ridiculous. My suspension of disbelief remained perfectly intact throughout, even right up until the final shot, which I found myself praying would play out exactly as it did.
Wood’s character Tom Selznick was immediately relatable. We meet him as his flight is arriving before the concert. Selznick is terrified to go onstage again, and as an audience participant in a thriller, this couldn’t have been a better set up to give me immediate anxiety and empathy for our lead. Most of us aren’t master pianists, but all of us know that sense of dread. Maybe it is a looming deadline or a hard conversation on the horizon, but we all know Tom Selznick’s fear. Wood’s performance endears us to an extremely talented man who may have some tricks up his sleeve and some secrets as well. It is a fabulously efficient first act.
So once the real conspiracy kicks in, you are already rooting for the lead and hanging off the edge of your seat. And then the music begins. Victor Reyes has composed an incredible score that is integral to this film. Being that the movie takes place almost entirely during a concert, the music had to be a character in the film or the whole thing would fail. Actually, just about every ingredient of this tightly wound thriller needed to work or it would fail… which is precisely why I’m so pleased that it worked. But I digress, the music in this film is wonderful.
Even with great music and a fabulous set up, how do you keep the audience engaged in a thriller set almost entirely inside of one concert hall? That is where director Mira, cinematographer Unax Mendia, and editor Jose Luis Romeu step in to bring you their “A” game. And when I say “A” game, I mean their Brian De Palma homage game. And they have as much fun playing that game as we have watching it. Grand Piano is the kind of film in which certain shots have the power to make you cheer. There is one De Palma-esque split screen shot… that I simply can’t do justice with words. But you’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll smile. The camera work and editing are assured, bold, and inject flourishes of humor and style throughout.
You’ve seen films like this before, from Johnny Depp’s Nick Of Time (1995) to Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002), and Grand Piano succeeds in most of the places where those films failed. Even Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) played with the “real time” thriller story convention, but I’m going to say that yes, Grand Piano takes all the lessons one can learn from Hitchcock and uses them to play with real time in a more successful way than even Rope did. That isn’t to say this is better film than Rope. Apples and oranges, really. But the fact that I’m even referencing Hitchcock and De Palma when discussing Eugenio Mira’s rip roaring thriller Grand Piano should give you an idea of how highly I regard this film.
A welcome reminder that high-concept thrillers needn’t rely on stupid coincidences and even stupider characters in order to succeed, “Grand Piano” turns the unlikeliest of scenarios into a riveting battle of wills. The story of a concert pianist whose comeback performance gets hijacked by a sniper with a secret agenda, director Eugenio Mira’s latest film breathlessly combines artistic anxiety and personal desperation, providing its character with a journey as intense emotionally as it is physically. In fact, probably the best Brian De Palma movie he never made, “Grand Piano” expands the boundaries of single-location, real-time mysteries like “Phone Booth” and “Panic Room” with a brilliantly simple concept and nimble, elegant style.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a master-class pianist set to play in public for the first time in five years. Having famously choked during a performance of a piece by his late mentor, he is understandably nervous about his return to the stage. But shortly after he begins playing, he discovers that someone has marked up his sheet music with threats to murder him and his wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) unless he performs flawlessly. Receiving an earpiece that allows his would-be puppetmaster (John Cusack) to communicate with him, he's confronted with a challenge that has multiple repercussions—namely, in delivering a performance that not only saves his career, but his very life.
As loathe as I am to describe the music in the film as “another character,” the pieces selected by the filmmaker are absolutely essential, providing a (no pun intended) meticulously-orchestrated through line that frames and enhances each new development in the story even as it serves as a ubiquitous reminder of Selznick’s past failures. That it occasionally allows him to depart the stage mid-performance constitutes great planning on Mira’s part, but the fact that it provides a parallel line for Selznick’s emotional state as he embarks on this unexpected roller coaster is truly masterful. There are few modern examples of music being truly integrated into storytelling, certainly as well as this film does, and even without an appreciation for classical composition, there’s much to admire about its use and effectiveness.
As the man behind the keys, Wood carries the film, finding a believable and compelling arc for a character whose default setting might in lesser hands be desperation. Selznick’s paralyzing fears of choking a second time are echoed repeatedly in dialogue in opening scenes, first during a particularly contentious phone interview commemorating the performance, then from virtually everyone he encounters—he’s not allowed to forget how grandly he flopped five years prior, even if he could manage to forgive himself. But through Wood, the character convincingly evolves over the course of the film, initially aiming for perfection out of fear, and then slowly building his confidence as he begins to devise a way to turn the tables on his unseen adversary.
Wood is an ideal casting choice for a role like this—handsome and obviously gifted, but overshadowed physically by the actress who plays his more-successful movie star wife—and he turns an otherwise self-contained journey into an opportunity for personal empowerment and professional redemption. Meanwhile, Cusack has less to do physically as the voice on the other end of Selznick’s earpiece, but he nevertheless communicates a palpable sense of danger that his victim is right to take seriously. Together, they create a psychological duel worthy of the film’s theatrical pitch, cementing its intensity as the final, crucial notes of Selznick’s performance rapidly approach.
Serving as more than a welcome contrast to the handheld, improvisational camerawork of too many other movies these days, Mira’s direction is a marvel of fluidity and poetry. The careful composition of each shot enhances the film’s melodramatic sweep without distracting from the story and performances; whether simply taking inspiration or outright stealing pages from (classic) De Palma’s playbook, Mira distinguishes his film with a classical, muscular visual style that suits its high-society backdrop, and mirrors Selznick’s mental scramble to focus on his performance and his potential murder at the same time.
Although he’s occasionally distracted by expository or plot-lengthening devices such as the sniper’s accomplice and his wife’s obnoxiously self-involved friend, Mira makes a breakthrough here as a storyteller and visual stylist that should pay great dividends, regardless of whether or not he chooses to migrate from Spain to Hollywood. But regardless of his own future, Mira makes Selznick’s comeback a remarkably immediate experience by dropping the audience into the middle of his implausible, heightened concept and then enabling them to identify with the character’s anguish. Ultimately an expertly timed, painstakingly assembled and endlessly engaging game of cat and mouse, “Grand Piano” succeeds as a whole for the same reasons that Selznick does—namely, because Mira brings all of its elements to work together in concert, and then executes them like a virtuoso.
Brian De Palma has spent much of his career imitating Alfred Hitchcock, oftentimes to great effect and success. And now Spanish helmer Eugenio Mira has made a movie that pays homage to both men, crafting a musical thriller that could just as easily have been called The Man Who Played Too Much. And while the script for Grand Piano is highly implausible, it’s hugely compelling, an acting and directing tour de force that holds the viewer in its vice-like grip from the start and doesn’t let go until the hugely entertaining finale.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a piano-playing prodigy possessing the fastest fingers of any musician alive today. But disaster struck five years previous, Selznick suffering a deblilitating bout of stage fright and giving up live performance. Grand Piano kicks off with Tom returning to the hot seat however, for a concert that pays tribute to his former teacher, and one in which he will have to play his most notoriously difficult piece. No pressure then! He starts off well enough, but just when you think Tom is going to sail through the performance, something strange happens. There are words written in his musical score, that all amount to a single and very specific threat: "Play one wrong note and you die."
His unknown assailant is secreted somewhere in the concert hall, and has a rifle – the “quietest and most precise weapon on the market” – trained between Tom’s eyes. And that’s about it in terms of plot, but Damian Chazelle’s script wrings every last drop of suspense and tension out of the premise, with portions of the score going missing, an earpiece employed so that Tom can talk to the villain, and the presence of Tom’s wife in the audience doubling the danger. It’s all quite ridiculous of course, and when the audience is finally let in on the machinations of this plot, it may elicit guffaws. But Grand Piano is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, encouraging the audience to laugh with rather than at it.
And it’s greatly helped by Elijah Wood's grandstanding performance. When he first appears onscreen it’s hard to take him seriously as the new Rachmaninoff. But as soon as he sits at that instrument, you believe, the actor’s real-life piano skills hugely impressive, especially during the film’s final few scenes. He’s well supported by the ever-excellent Don McManus as his conductor, Kerry Bishe as his wife, and Alex Winter as an old friend. Plus, John Cusack is on marvelously malevolent form as the voice on the other end of the earpiece, torturing and toying with his prey.
But Grand Piano really is a director’s film, and Eugenio Mira delivers on the promise he showed with Agnosia by delivering a tight and hugely tense thriller. His direction is inspired at times, the camera prowling around the piano; the combination of sound and composition making for some jaw-dropping moments of cinema.
At times it’s a little over-the-top, at others verging on the melodramatic. Yet somehow Grand Piano works, and by the time Tom is turning the tables on his puppet-master, you can’t helped but get swept away by the brave and audacious nature of proceedings, the film an adrenalin-fuelled blast of fun. The best movie that Alfred Hitchcock never made, Grand Piano is a wild ride that features several enjoyably silly twists and turns and a grandstanding central performance from Elijah Wood.