(Spain/US - 2013; US release 2014)
Directed by Eugenio Mira. Written by Damian Chazelle. Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Tamsin Egerton, Alex Winter, Don McManus, Allen Leach, Dee Wallace, Jack Taylor. (R, 90 mins).
Damian Chazelle's drama WHIPLASH earned some significant buzz and the audience and jury awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, just in time for the US release of the Chazelle-scripted high-concept thriller GRAND PIANO, several months after it debuted in Europe. Both films--WHIPLASH was acquired by Sony and will be released later this year--deal with psychological pressures on a music prodigy, though GRAND PIANO takes a decidedly different approach in the hands of director Eugenio Mira. The term "Hitchcockian" has been bandied about for decades, but it applies here. Unfortunately, the longer GRAND PIANO goes on, the more silly and nonsensical it gets, and despite his background in music, Chazelle seems to have no idea how classical and orchestral performances go down. Do conductors kibitz with the audience in between movements? Does the featured pianist get up and wander around for long stretches of time while the rest of the orchestra carries on? As a suspense piece, GRAND PIANO has a doozy of an idea that ultimately collapses once the villain's motivations are revealed. It's fun while it's happening, but even before the movie's over, you'll be scratching your head and listing all the ludicrous lapses in logic. If you want to make it Hitchcockian, then go for it. Sure, not every Hitchcock thriller is airtight, but Chazelle and Mira are pretty much jamming a funnel down your throat to make you swallow the absurdities that they keep piling on.
that Alex Winter), who's posing as a stage assistant, are spelled out, you start thinking "There has to be an easier way." Where is the stage manager? Why does Tom just arrive at the hall to play a highly-publicized concert on a piano he's never used with an orchestra with whom he's never played...and no practice, nothing. Five years since he's played and he's just winging it? Mira's direction is so stylish, enthusiastic, and brimming with a love of cinema that GRAND PIANO almost pulls it off. Aside from the Hitchcock influences--particularly the Royal Albert Hall sequence in 1956's THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH--there's the constant classical music, the rich, lush colors, the long tracking shots and widescreen shot compositions of cinematographer Unax Mendia (who did similarly memorable work on Kolda Serra's little-seen 2006 film THE BACKWOODS), and the sweeping camera in constant motion, telling us Mira has obviously spent a lot of time watching Brian De Palma and Dario Argento movies. There's even a vintage De Palma split screen at one point, and parts of "The Unplayable Piece" sound like something Claudio Simonetti would've written for an Italian horror film. There's also one brilliant bit where Mira pulls a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY "bone to spaceship" match cut with a glass shard about to slit a throat seamlessly becoming a bow sliding across the strings of a cello. Stuff like that will put a smile on the face of anyone who loves cinema. What Chazelle doesn't seem to understand, and what Mira is forced to work around, is that with high-concept thrillers of this sort--be it Keanu Reeves on a speeding bus in SPEED or Colin Farrell trapped in a phone booth in PHONE BOOTH--the key is to keep them in that spot to maximize the suspense. PHONE BOOTH is by no means a great movie but it understands why it's called PHONE BOOTH. GRAND PIANO works best when Tom is at the grand piano being harangued by an endlessly taunting Clem. It's too much that he's constantly getting up from the piano, is having loud conversations with Clem while playing, and is actually texting for help at one point...all the while never flubbing a single note.
Wood turns in a credibly frazzled performance when he's at the piano, and though he's mostly heard and only briefly seen, Cusack is a formidably intimidating bad guy. But Clem's ultimate motivation is hardly worth the effort, the climax is weak, and the film ends with an abrupt whimper. There's hints that there's more going on between Clem and Godureaux and Taylor's presence in the closing credits without actually acting in the movie might be an indication that he shot some scenes that were cut, even though the film doesn't run long (this is the second movie I've seen this week where the closing credits sloooowly crawl over ten minutes to pad the film to 90). Still, there's no denying GRAND PIANO has its moments. Mira's made a few films prior to this, none very noteworthy (he did serve as second unit director on THE IMPOSSIBLE), and he sported a fake mole and mugged shamelessly as the young version of Robert De Niro's character in the forgettable RED LIGHTS. But GRAND PIANO is irrefutable proof that the guy's got something...and just needs a better script to take it to the next level.