Grand Piano (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Grand Piano (2014)

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Tom Selznick has a problem with stage fright, a condition that doesn't help his career as a classical symphony pianist.  So when he's forced to come out of a self-imposed retirement to play once again he is already in a precarious position made much worse when he sees that his score has been scribbled on with violent threats and an ominous red dot appears on his hands.  "Play perfectly or die" is not what he wants to hear.

DauntingBecause the line between performance and crowd is nearly erased in consumption, cinema holds the greatest promise out of all the arts to engage the audience.  The most absurd scenarios can make the best films so long as they are presented in the right way.  A neo-noir about a high schooler investigating the death of his once girlfriend succeeds because it commits so thoroughly to its detective mentality.  Then on the opposite end, a low-key family drama fails because of an overabundance of sentimentality and intruding pop soundtrack.

The balance is precarious, and it requires a careful touch.  Or, in the case of Grand Piano, the creative and performative minds behind the film can throw any sense of nuance and caution to the wind and create as crazy and implausible a scenario as they can manage and then rely on their individual strengths to carry the film through.  I admire careful, studied, craft when making a film.  After all, Under the Skin would not have been nearly as unsettling if not for its measured and carefully crafted tone.

Grand Piano is rich in its virtuosity, a thrilling blend of music and cinema with just the right amount of flop sweat from Elijah Wood to bring the thing together.  It has the restless energy of a young director's project and I was not surprised to learn that this is only Eugenio Mira's third feature, and that at the age of 37 he has plenty of time to expand his vision to other projects.  Grand Piano moves in real-time, harvesting the pleasures of classical music in a visual approach, simultaneously recalling the great Merrie Melodies that treasured the symphony, and playing slight homage to stylists like Brian De Palma at the same time.

The De Palma odes extend to a couple of nasty, but breathtaking, murder sequences.

The De Palma odes extend to a couple of nasty, but breathtaking, murder sequences.

What's most impressive about Grand Piano is that Mira constructs these long takes, that must have been hell to set up blocking for, and syncs the entrances of each character to the emotional queues in the music like an emotional metronome.  In the case of melodrama and pop this can be a disaster, underlining the emotion so broadly that it's obvious presentation fails to make much of an effect.  But Mira also scored the film, and his compositions come with surprising bursts of energy and violent playing that they never settle on an obvious emotional tone.  The music instead is just one facet of a multi-conducting spree as he expertly guides the music, hurried crowd of characters, and grand camera movements.

It's those grand visuals that got me panting.  The early complex blocking synchronized to the crescendos of the soundtrack were superb, but when the camera begins floating in space and swirling around Woods hands and appreciative, if potentially deadly, audience I started to swoon.  The camera becomes a full extension of the symphony at that point with lightning to match, pulling away in hilarious in moments that signal the high-class crowd gasping at Wood's lack of playing etiquette at points, and then descending along with him into a swirling red nightmare when he realizes just how much trouble he's in.  One moment had me gasping at Mira's command of the screen as a murder in what looks to be plain sight turns out to be hidden from prying eyes by a spectacular use of split screen that only becomes evident when one of the cameras starts to move toward the piano.  It's a delicious, seamless moment of pure craft that left me positively thrilled.

The figures move between the two cameras so imperceptibly that I gasped when the visuals on the right began zooming in closer.

The figures move between the two cameras so imperceptibly that I gasped when the visuals on the right began zooming in closer.

This is one of those films where the screenplay takes a backseat to the presentation, but I have to give Damien Chazelle a lot of credit for creating such a tight scenario.  There are many moments where the pianist seems on the verge of notifying someone about his predicament that end in an escalation of danger thanks to intruding elements that are a natural part of the scenario, instead of a cheat.  I also appreciated the scripts occasional dark sense of humor, as it hands out quick and brutal punishments for people who dare to violate the quiet manner expected of those taking in the symphony.  It ratchets up the tension beautifully, always playing off of the pianists fear of playing in front of a crowd again, and lays the foundation for Mira's feverish work.

The performances are also calibrated to the film at a slightly exaggerated level, once again recalling Merrie Melodies.  I like that the hitman, as played by John Cusack, reveals himself as both murderous stalker and sincere fan of the pianist's work as time goes on.  Then there's Wood, playing this whole situation with wide-eyed fear, but never giving into it so much that his later bursts of heroism seem out of place.  Even the tiny roles have their fun, as the two annoying meddlers in the performance who are quietly dispatched are just annoying enough that it's a slight relief when they're gone.

There's a MacGuffin in Grand Piano, as there must considering its reworking of De Palma (who reworked Alfred Hitchcock), but as is the case for many MacGuffin's it is of no real concern.  In fact, it pads the film out another few minutes when it was set to end so brilliantly at the hour mark.  But that's a small issue with an otherwise tremendously entertaining film.  Grand Piano works cinema with great skill, and I hope that Mira continues his blend of musical virtuosity and visual acumen well into the future.

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Tail - Grand PianoGrand Piano (2014)

Directed by Eugenio Mira.
Screenplay written by Damien Chazelle.
Starring Elijah Wood.

Posted by Andrew

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