Grand Piano (2013) - by Eugenio Mira
Grand Piano is a film that tends to deny its own strengths, thus depriving itself from being a truly ingenious, clever, and memorable thriller. The premise alone sells the tale quite well, though in execution, slow tendencies drag down the greater parts of the whole piece. Director Eugenio Mira had a great handle on the high concept at hand, especially visually, and in capturing 2/3 of Damien Chazelle’s clever script, but outside of that, he has issues getting to the juicy core of it all. The build up is unbearably slow and doesn’t leave a good impression, and outside of Elijah Wood and especially John Cusak, the performances range from stale to embarrassing. The saving grace of the film, other than the music and well-crafted dialogue from Chazelle, comes from Grand Piano’s overall beautiful look from Cinematographer Unax Mendia. Mendia’s clever eye makes this thriller exciting and an overall gorgeous piece worth admiring alone for his craft, from the second act and onwards. The good manages to balance with the bad for Grand Piano, making it a serviceable thriller with B movie tendencies. If you can look past its unfortunate missteps as a film, when you see it at its best, you’ll be glad you’ve seen it at all.
The concept is simple: Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is one of the world’s greatest pianists, despite having a meltdown on stage some years ago. In making his return, someone named Clem (John Cusak) has a gun focused on him and his wife Emma (Kerry Bishe.) Clem will shoot the two of them is Tom does not play all of the correct notes on tonight’s playbill, thus instilling a stake-raising, somewhat absurd and yet intense scenario that plays out mostly in real time. Screenwriter Damien Chazelle, whose film “Whiplash” excited audiences at Sundance this year, took this clever concept and wrote it well. The dialogue between Tom and Clem creates a fascinating rift between two smart, highly emotional people at hectic odds with one another. The action between the two cleverly replaces standard action film intensity with classical music orchestration and performance. Looking back on the film’s finest moments, it really does have something special under its sleeves, and delivers well upon it about 2/3rds of the time.
Where Grand Piano loses me is at a very poorly timed place, which is in its opening moments. The set up to this whole event takes about 22 minutes, including a pretty yet unnecessary opening credits sequence, and plot/character exposition that could’ve been better delivered in a shorter amount of time. Considering the rest of the film’s fast and furious pace and energy, the first act of the film feels like a complete wash without purpose. It feels quite sloppy overall, and doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of the film. The film starts out ringing toward the melodramatic in a campy sense. The thriller aspects at hand are lightly touched upon, though feel weak through bad foreshadowing, forced exposition delivery, and the meeting of key characters, even if they’re stiff or annoying for the most part.
It doesn’t help that the performances outside of the leads don’t really impress. A friendly couple to Tom and Emma, played by Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech, feel like they’re playing a goofy odd-couple straight out of Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” Their inclusion in the story adds tension, but otherwise, their presence is more annoying than entertaining. The excellent Bill Preston himself, Alex Winter, makes an appearance as a security guard who assists Clem on the ground floor. Winter isn’t exactly menacing, but he tries his best with intense dialogue and action, so it’s merely a partial treat seeing him in the film. Kerry Bishe, god love her, doesn’t do much in this movie other than provide a loving presence for Elijah Wood’s sweaty, nervous Tom. She does just fine, but her character is basically a device. Save for her and Don McManus as a friendly conductor, everyone and everything other than the dilemma between Wood and Cusak (both of whom pull off anxiety and intensity with a lovely dynamic between them) feels like a distraction from what Grand Piano is best with.
I feel like I’ve maybe been harping on Grand Piano a bit much here. There are parts that just don’t work for me, sure, but as mentioned before, they’re only at certain points and can easily be shrugged off as cheesy if you’ve got the patience. My last point I want to touch upon is how absolutely well made the movie is, especially once things start going with the piano, sniper, etc. Unax Mendia’s camera is lively and crafty, practically zooming around the main location that is a concert hall. The usage of reflections, specific framing, and movement that takes the storytelling into its own hands with ease, the visual style is practically the star of the movie here. There’s a new visual trick and surprise at each cut, which helps set the mood concerning the tone of music being performed, as well as the high stakes situation going on in the background. Suddenly, the performers aren’t so crappy under this excited lens and tonal shift, and the film begins to shine under a new, very unique limelight, full of genuine excitement and surprising craft.
By its end, after the fun and games, the film scrapes by with its plot actually feeling somewhat unearned, and unfinished. There is some character resolution in a very small, unspoken way, but Grand Piano sneaks away with my enjoyment by developing a very good thriller concept and making it as exciting as it deserves. The best moments can easily be boiled down to the film’s middle hour, driven by beautiful cinematography, intense music, and strong thriller writing. That alone impresses in a way that most mainstream cinema has failed to on standard occasion. It’s not an amazing film, but a fun experiment that feels fitting on something like Netflix’s Instant Streaming catalog. It should make a lovely home for itself there, where it’s absolutely worth checking out once, and enjoying once. Grand Piano seems to love what it sets out to do. In terms of working with a thriller concept and trappings, when it is in the prime of its work, it works the best and actually is quite good. In looking past the goofier, borderline mediocre aspects of cinematic bookending, and just having an open mind in general, Grand Piano offers up quite a good time.
Grand Piano is now available on Video on Demand…
also it’s streaming on a site like Putlocker or something, if you’re a scumbag like me. Yay movies.