What’s it About?
Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a note written on his music sheet.
Directed by Eugenio Mira
7 out of 10
“Grand Piano” is the latest effort from Spanish Composer and director, Eugenio Mira, who brought us “The Birthday” and the surreal thriller, “Fade.” This go around, Mira delivers a polished and suspenseful thriller that flows with overt theatricality and purpose. The film stars Elijah Wood (Radio Flyer, Maniac) as a nervous and agitated classical pianist named Tom Selznick. Tom is to play once again after a long hiatus from the spotlight to support his actress wife, named Emma (Kerry Bishe of “Argo”). A few years earlier, Tom suffered a breakdown due to elevated stage fright and caused quite a spectacle, and as a result, Tom withdraws into reclusive-ness.
Tom, who was once a learned pupil of a great deceased composer named Godereaux, is edgy and skittish about the whole affair because of the high profile attention the gala, in Chicago, is getting. Mira supllies a solid set up and peers into the mind and actions of Tom who, while changing into his Tux in a limo, cannot even function or articulate well, during a phone interview. To Wood’s credit, he gives Tom an air of uncertainty and dread but inwardly, Tom cares deeply for music and for his wife.
Mira beautifully keeps the movie flowing with a very refreshing regality that is not very common to see in thrillers these days. The Conducter (Don McManus) of the evening tries stalwartly to ease Tom for the evening even dedicating the concert to Godereaux, himself. In his dresing room, Tom unpacks a cell phone (in a bit of foreshadwing) gift from his wife and it is established that Tom even shuns technology. When the concert eventually starts, and after throwing away sheet notes of a broad number, named “La Cinquette” (which is another plot device that is foreshadowed), Tom makes it on stage to start the concert.
By this time, Mira has delivered the goods with well placed pacing, artful composition and thought provoking camera work, by Unax Mendia (No Rest for the Wicked) and good performances by his leads. Now, it’s pretty much crunch time for both the movie and for us as viewers. Does Mira deliver a film that is more than just some classical Pianist who tries to not wet his pants during his comeback concert? Yes and unfortunately, no. It is a movie that is truly a bit schizoid.
As Tom bravely plays on, he sees cryptic messages written in bold red ink on his sheet music from someone who appears to be at the concert. Someone with demands. As Tom reads and plays (every so often running off stage) he eventually places an earpiece into his left ear (away from the audience) in order to listen to the demands of a sniper in the crowd, who has a gun trained on his wife, Emma, sitting in the balcony. Once contact is made then we know the motive behind the stranges messages: For Tom to play the best he ever has and to play the piece note perfect. In essence, he has to play the best concert of his life. If he doesn’t then Emma dies.
Ultimately, we find out there is more to all of this. The journey to the final act, when all is revealed, is typical thriller fare but the film remains ambitious even though preposterous in places. What really makes “Grand Piano” work is the visual and musical flair. The camera angles, the elegant sets, split screens and the high concept B flick pulp helps to swallow that implausibility pill. Mira’s musical dynamic is very impressive as he amps up the scores in places to establish fright, fear, wonder and surprise.
“Grand Piano” harkens back to old fashioned suspenseful thrillers of the 40’s and early 50’s with a broad sense of style and great dramactic flourishes. The movie remains very reminiscent, in tone and mood, of older Hitchcock classics by the way of Brian De Palma. And that is not an easy feat and is indeed a credit to the craftsmanship.
But I must admit the movie does suffer from some strange sequences and turns that do not really fit into the grand scheme of things. One being, Wood is always rushing off stage every chance he gets and then returning right back in time to play his music. Another, is a low brow sub-plot involving friends of Emma’s who seem to get shafted from sitting with her in the balcony and eventually run afoul of an associate (played by Alex Winter of “the Lost Boys”) of the sniper. Then, in a weird turn from Tom, Emma is pushed into performing a song from the balcony to the concert audience. These little bits of uneven drama and hokum turns the movie into a distracting joke that depressurizes the otherwise taut story that Mira and writer Damien Chazelle have been successfully delivering.
All is not lost and even when we only hear the sniper Clem (John Cusack), we get a very cool sense of urgency that works in the movie’s favor. Cusack gets very little screen time but he is quite effective as a very threatening and perilous individual looking to destroy Tom for his own personal and psychotic satisfaction. The final act is a bit formulaic and rushed but not unforgivable, in my opinion. The theatricality remains in constant flow and Mira’s film is worth a look for it’s smart build up of tension and characterizations.
One can be reminded, in parts of “Phone Booth” but Mira’s movie easily differentiates itself with smooth and ostentatious flourishes that are not overly gaudy or flamboyant. Also, Victor Reyes’ score is worthy of note here as well. It is solid and operatic in places and fits the precarious and showy camp through-out. Wood, Cusack and Mira’s effortless work in “Grand Piano” merit a recommendation and even if the ending may leave a bit of a sour taste in your mouth, do stay for the very final scene that proves once the conventions are over, Mira still has one classic number up his sleeve.