Saturday, March 8, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: GRAND PIANO (2014)

(Spain/US - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Eugenio Mira.  Written by Damian Chazelle.  Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Tamsin Egerton, Alex Winter, Don McManus, Allen Leach, Dee Wallace, Jack Taylor.  (R, 90 mins).

Damian Chazelle's drama WHIPLASH earned some significant buzz and the audience and jury awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, just in time for the US release of the Chazelle-scripted high-concept thriller GRAND PIANO, several months after it debuted in Europe.  Both films--WHIPLASH was acquired by Sony and will be released later this year--deal with psychological pressures on a music prodigy, though GRAND PIANO takes a decidedly different approach in the hands of director Eugenio Mira.  The term "Hitchcockian" has been bandied about for decades, but it applies here.  Unfortunately, the longer GRAND PIANO goes on, the more silly and nonsensical it gets, and despite his background in music, Chazelle seems to have no idea how classical and orchestral performances go down.  Do conductors kibitz with the audience in between movements?  Does the featured pianist get up and wander around for long stretches of time while the rest of the orchestra carries on?  As a suspense piece, GRAND PIANO has a doozy of an idea that ultimately collapses once the villain's motivations are revealed.  It's fun while it's happening, but even before the movie's over, you'll be scratching your head and listing all the ludicrous lapses in logic.  If you want to make it Hitchcockian, then go for it.  Sure, not every Hitchcock thriller is airtight, but Chazelle and Mira are pretty much jamming a funnel down your throat to make you swallow the absurdities that they keep piling on.

Five years after suffering a breakdown in mid-performance and becoming a recluse, stage-fright-prone classical pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is set to make his comeback appearance.  He's not eager to do so, but his glamorous movie-star wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) insists he re-enter public life.  He's set to play the priceless grand piano that belonged to his late mentor Patrick Godureaux (played in photos and lobby posters by American expat Spanish exploitation icon Jack Taylor), and is visibly nervous about his return to live performance but, as the gregarious conductor (Don McManus) reassures him, "You play music this dense, you're gonna hit a wrong note.  The audience never knows."  Things quickly head south when Tom sits at the piano and notices some writing in his score:  "Play one wrong note and you and your wife die."  There's a laser pointed at Emma and at Tom's hand.  He turns the page: "During the next break, go back to your dressing room."

OK, how many breaks does a star pianist get?  It's his comeback performance and he's chosen a composition that seemingly involves as little piano as possible?  Tom makes his way to his dressing room and finds an earpiece radio transmitter waiting for him.  "Get back on stage!" orders the unseen sniper with the voice of John Cusack, perhaps calling from the set of one of the other two new movies he's had dumped on VOD in the last two weeks. "Call for help and I will hear it.  Get a guard involved and I will know it.  Play a wrong note, you will die." What does the sniper--named "Clem"--want?  "I don't want your money.  I want you to play the most flawless concert of your life."  And what's the concluding piece for this comeback concert?  An extraordinarily complex original composition by Godureaux known ominously in the world of classical music as "The Unplayable Piece"...the very piece that caused Tom's public meltdown five years earlier.

This should be a can't-miss nail-biter, and sometimes, it is.  It's hard to get around the gaping breakdowns in logic in Chazelle's script (WHIPLASH may be great, but it's worth noting that he also wrote THE LAST EXORCISM PART II). and as the plot gets dumber and the motivations of Clem and his accomplice (Alex Winter--yes, that Alex Winter), who's posing as a stage assistant, are spelled out, you start thinking "There has to be an easier way."  Where is the stage manager?  Why does Tom just arrive at the hall to play a highly-publicized concert on a piano he's never used with an orchestra with whom he's never played...and no practice, nothing.  Five years since he's played and he's just winging it?  Mira's direction is so stylish, enthusiastic, and brimming with a love of cinema that GRAND PIANO almost pulls it off.  Aside from the Hitchcock influences--particularly the Royal Albert Hall sequence in 1956's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH--there's the constant classical music, the rich, lush colors, the long tracking shots and widescreen shot compositions of cinematographer Unax Mendia (who did similarly memorable work on Kolda Serra's little-seen 2006 film THE BACKWOODS), and the sweeping camera in constant motion, telling us Mira has obviously spent a lot of time watching Brian De Palma and Dario Argento movies.  There's even a vintage De Palma split screen at one point, and parts of "The Unplayable Piece" sound like something Claudio Simonetti would've written for an Italian horror film.  There's also one brilliant bit where Mira pulls a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY "bone to spaceship" match cut with a glass shard about to slit a throat seamlessly becoming a bow sliding across the strings of a cello.  Stuff like that will put a smile on the face of anyone who loves cinema.  What Chazelle doesn't seem to understand, and what Mira is forced to work around, is that with high-concept thrillers of this sort--be it Keanu Reeves on a speeding bus in SPEED or Colin Farrell trapped in a phone booth in PHONE BOOTH--the key is to keep them in that spot to maximize the suspense.  PHONE BOOTH is by no means a great movie but it understands why it's called PHONE BOOTH.  GRAND PIANO works best when Tom is at the grand piano being harangued by an endlessly taunting Clem.  It's too much that he's constantly getting up from the piano, is having loud conversations with Clem while playing, and is actually texting for help at one point...all the while never flubbing a single note.

Wood turns in a credibly frazzled performance when he's at the piano, and though he's mostly heard and only briefly seen, Cusack is a formidably intimidating bad guy.  But Clem's ultimate motivation is hardly worth the effort, the climax is weak, and the film ends with an abrupt whimper. There's hints that there's more going on between Clem and Godureaux and Taylor's presence in the closing credits without actually acting in the movie might be an indication that he shot some scenes that were cut, even though the film doesn't run long (this is the second movie I've seen this week where the closing credits sloooowly crawl over ten minutes to pad the film to 90).  Still, there's no denying GRAND PIANO has its moments.  Mira's made a few films prior to this, none very noteworthy (he did serve as second unit director on THE IMPOSSIBLE), and he sported a fake mole and mugged shamelessly as the young version of Robert De Niro's character in the forgettable RED LIGHTS.  But GRAND PIANO is irrefutable proof that the guy's got something...and just needs a better script to take it to the next level.

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