Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: "Grand Piano"

Director: Eugenio Mira
Runtime: 90 minutes

Style over substance is the name of the game in Eugenio Mira's Grand Piano, which only makes its moderate success more surprising. A modern attempt at Hitchcockian thrills, with a dash of Mario Bava, this music-driven thriller is a flawed but ultimately engrossing experience. Despite a frustrating lack of depth (or even an attempt at depth), Grand Piano makes the most out of its modest budget to deliver a polished visual and sonic experience. The suspense will never have you clutching your armrest, but it will be just enough to keep you engaged in the loopy set up (some suspension of disbelief and/or alcohol may be required).  

At the very least, Mira's film, written by Damien Chazelle, doesn't waste any time. Once the title sequence concludes, it's not long before Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is rushing from the airport to make a concert. And it's not just any concert. As we learn over the course of the narrative, Tom suffered a breakdown after a spectacular screw-up during a particularly difficult piano piece. His big night in Chicago is his chance at redemption, five years after his viral video-spawning flub.

Of course, if the sinister opening hasn't already clued you in, Tom's night is about to take a rather extreme turn. During the first movement of the concierto, Tom discovers a series of notes on his sheet music. Among the more important points: if Tom plays one false note, he'll be taken out by a silenced sniper rifle by an assassin hiding somewhere in the concert hall. 

As over the top as the premise is, Mira and company play it just straight enough to keep one invested, even though there's not much to be invested in. The particulars of Tom's background are parsed out over the first two acts, which means there isn't a whole lot to grab onto when the threatening messages first appear. Mira compensates by working with cinematographer Unax Mendia to stage and choreograph the central concert with copious style. The camera often glides over the sections of the orchestra, opening up the relatively constrained space where most of the action occurs. Coupled with the concert, which acts as the film's own soundtrack, the photography helps lift Grand Piano far above its pedestrian scripting.

Yet although Mira knows how to work the visual elements of his film, he does a puzzlingly mixed job with his actors. Wood is perfectly fine, and just the right sort to play such a meek, emotionally fragile man. A pity that he never has the time to express Tom's inner turmoil over the enormous pressure he's face, and that's before the sniper's dot lands on him. Kerry Bishe and a mostly hidden John Cusack are also perfectly adequate in their roles as Tom's wife Emma and tormentor, respectively. 

More disappointing is how Mira and his cast handle the bit players. From its opening scene, Grand Piano is filled with shoddy, albeit brief, performances in the simplest of roles (Tom's seat mate on the plane, a stagehand, etc...). The biggest offender, however is the film's use of Ashley and Wayne (Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech). The duo's crude idiocy (they're not keen on classical music, you see....) is used for bad comic relief that's mostly just frustrating. Mira keeps the pace nice and tight, so the pair are never overbearing, yet they still stick out from the pack of poorly performed supporting roles. 

Thankfully, Mira knows how to get maximum mileage out of the concert, which saves Grand Piano by the skin of its teeth as it heads into act three. Some may find the conclusion (and the motive for Cusack's character) underwhelming, but I found that it acted as a nice escalation of an already over the top set up. Rather than try and play games with audience in regards to who the villain is, the big question is what he's after and how he's trying to obtain it. Unlike Non-Stop, another recent release that felt like a Hitchcock-lite thriller, Grand Piano turns its villain's motivation into a revelation worth waiting for. Grand Piano hits its share of false or missed notes along the way, but its effective atmosphere and over the top plot are enjoyable enough, even if it's but a pale imitation of its iconic influences. 

Grade: B/B-

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