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Grand Piano
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by Jay Seaver

"Hits many right notes at a quick tempo."
4 stars

"Grand Piano" is evidence that, with enough creativity and energy, a clever filmmaker can make an exciting thriller out of what may seem like unlikely activities and situations. In this case, it's a man playing classical piano before a hushed auditorium, and the very improbability of the situation makes the whole thing exhilaratingly unpredictable.

The pianist in question is Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), arguably the most brilliant of his generation, though he has not played in public for five years after a disastrous recital of one of his mentor's most difficult pieces. Tonight, though, he's giving a special charity/memorial performance, spearheaded by his movie-star wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), with longtime friend Reisinger (Don McManus) conducting and their friends Ashley (Tamsin Egerton) and Wayne (Allen Leach) in the audience, using a special eight-octave piano. And as if that wasn't enough pressure, his sheet music has a message scrawled on it saying that his and Emma's lives are forfeit if he plays one note wrong, with an earpiece so that the mastermind (John Cusack) can make sure Tom doesn't try anything clever.

Seems ridiculous, right? And it is, but writer Damien Chazelle and director Eugenio Mira make sure it's clear from minute one that "Clem" is plenty serious about what he's threatening, even if his motivations and endgame are kept close to the vest for quite a while. And while there is a certain level of incredulity displayed by everyone who becomes involved in the plot, none are ever given much opportunity to actually start poking holes in it on the audience's behalf (well, maybe a henchman played by Alex Winter does, but it's more complaining about how much legwork is on him than questioning the plan's viability). Once things have been set into motion in this way, the audience gets to switch over to problem solving mode along with Tom, and that's fun because not only are the puzzles they have to solve different than the ones that frequently appear in your typical thriller, but the solutions are almost guaranteed to require bold actions on the heroes' parts.

Those are (likely) mostly Chazelle's contributions; Mira and his team are responsible for making them crackle on-screen. This they do very well, from a pair of opening sequences (including the titles) that make the seemingly innocuous instrument of the title more sinister than it has any right to be to a camera that zips around it and Tom while he plays adding extra panic to an already tense situation, while the shots of what Tom is doing emphasize the fact that this is, in fact, really really hard. Every shoot of the stage highlights the extent to which Took must do everything in plain sight, while the shots Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendía choose for the rest of the concert hall seem specifically calculated to make the audience as acutely aware of how visible things are there as the characters. Mira and editor Jose Luis Romeu cut the movie fairly aggressively, seldom lingering on a scene many seconds longer than they need to, and the quick peace generally makes up for the bits that could do with being fleshed out a bit.

And there are bits that could use some fleshing out; while the premise is creative and fun, it may take one turn too many, so that one wondered why Clem goes on for such an elaborate plan when he's not averse to brute-force methods. There's also a backstory or two that are hinted at but never allowed to support enough weight to make the movie a more complete caper or maybe make the piano and performance a better reflection of Tom as a person; in this way, it may just be too focused and unwilling to wedge exposition in. It also sometimes feels like the producers couldn't afford Cusack's full participation, and having him be a more active part of the movie might have helped smooth the other parts over.

Besides, why miss out on the fun that the rest of the cast seems to be having? Wood, for instance, is doing very nice work as Tom, giving quality panicked concentration when the movie need it but also full of anxiety from the start and never quite fitting into any role that the story thrusts the character into: Tom never looks quite as dapper in his tux as he should, for instance, even though there's nothing sloppy about him, and even when he gets a chance to turn some tables, Wood never lets us forget that Tom is in way over his head. Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leach get to play comic relief characters as important parts of the action, though it's a shame that Kerry Bishé doesn't have a while lot to do until later on. Don McManus and Alex Winter give their supporting roles more life than they might otherwise have, and while it would be nice to actually see a little more of John Cusack, there is little denying that he has a great voice and delivery for ranting over a radio connection.

It's kind of a shame that "Grand Piano" is getting a fairly limited release; with a couple of stars whose above-the-title billing doesn't look unearned and some good production values (it looks and sounds very nice indeed), it seems like only its strangeness is in the way. And, sure, being so peculiar may make it a tough sell, it's also the reason to check the movie out - it's as fun as any thriller going even if it's not like many of them.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25557&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/25/14 00:51:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2013 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cinequest Festival For more in the 2014 Cinequest Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  07-Mar-2014 (R)
  DVD: 20-May-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  07-Mar-2014
  DVD: 20-May-2014


Directed by
  Eugenio Mira

Written by
  Damien Chazelle

Cast
  John Cusack
  Elijah Wood
  Tamsin Egerton
  Alex Winter
  Allen Leech
  Kerry Bishé



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