March 25, 2014

Grand Piano

Grand Piano is a simple, elegant little thriller about a celebrated classical pianist named Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) who is terrorized by a madman (John Cusack) when he makes a comeback five years after freezing on stage. The hot young musician sits down at the piano before a packed house and unfolds his sheet music only to discover a threat: "Play one wrong note and you die." Soon there are more directions via an ear-piece that's been planted for Tom. The taunting would-be killer is after something (I won't reveal what), and is willing to murder Tom in front of the entire audience to get it. He also threatens the life of Tom's wife, herself a famous singer, who's sitting in one of the boxes during the show.

There's not much to Grand Piano, which is why I enjoyed it. The director, Eugenio Mira, exhibits the same kind of lush, sensationalistic style as Brian De Palma did in the 70s and 80s. Mira is obviously happy to show us a good time without any self-serious subtext. I don't want to suggest that we completely ditch character development and depth in movies, but it's certainly a welcome sight when a film comes along that just wants to be a simple thriller. And it's also true that the film is deceptively simple: Wood gives a credible performance, both as a brilliant musician and as a tormented one. But viewers may be disappointed with Grand Piano just because of its simplicity. We're so used to big plot twists and complicated explanations for the villain's motive that I began anticipating surprise endings myself. But thankfully, Grand Piano knows when to quit, and also knows not to pander to the expectations of the audience. It's much better than that.

Mira's camera--the cinematography is by Unax Mendía--makes this an exciting, visually fluid film, never jerky or ADD the way so many films are these days, but certainly not stagnant, as though this were a real concert being filmed for posterity. The camera swirls around the lavish concert hall, giving us a sense of tense, nail-biting pleasure as we watch poor Elijah Wood playing as though his life depended upon it. (And indeed it does.) The music is lovely and intensifies the film, and the voice of the increasingly hostile John Cusack pounds away at Selznick, quickly sounding like the inner-critic of any nervous performer, shouting myriad accusations of incompetence and prophesies of impending failure. It's in moments like these--where what's happening on screen becomes analogous with more internal artistic struggles--that Grand Piano really succeeds.

With Kerry Bishé as Tom's wife, Alex Winter as Cusack's henchman, and Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech as a befuddled friend attending the concert.

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