Fantastic Fest 2013 Review: Grand Piano


Forget one ring to rule them all, it’s one piano key to save Frodo’s life.

Grand Piano is a film that shouldn’t work. Its premise is preposterous. In the tradition of Colin Farrell not being able to hang up the phone in Phone Booth (or else the man on the other end of the line, Jack Bauer, would kill him), Eugenio Mira’s third feature film is like that only in this case Elijah Wood takes the place of Colin Farrell and the setting is a piano concert hall. As for the man threatening his life it’s none other than Grosse Pointe Blank‘s John Cusack. He may tell Wood’s character that he makes his living as a locksmith, but fans of that high school reunion movie know better. Methinks this is a pseudo spin-off for Cusack’s Martin Blank character, after Minnie Driver broke up with him once their “honeymoon ending” met an impasse and it caused him to take on assignments without consulting sister Joan. Also, with the setting of Piano being Chicago, look out for the occasional John Hughes/’80s movie reference.

Now that you know the set-up you’re probably thinking why even watch. Yes, it has a laundry list of faults. The villain’s plan; Wood’s ability to multitask while on stage; and that’s just for starters. The reason why Grand Piano works so well as a film is because of Mira’s commitment in making the ridiculous into something fantastic. His artistic flair, not Damien Chazelle’s screenplay, is what makes it a plausible thriller. With impressive camera work, shot selection, and a killer score (pun firmly intended), he does his best to sell the thriller for audiences. All we have to do is buy it. Let’s just say that this reviewer is now penniless as a result.

Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a promising pianist who hasn’t tickled the ivories in the past five years. A spectacular flameout during a performance led him to retirement. This once great pianist, maybe the best of his generation, has resigned himself to now being the arm candy for his superstar actress wife (Kerry Bishe). But when Tom’s piano mentor passes away he takes the stage to play a few pieces in his memory. Tom doesn’t get much of a vote of confidence from old colleagues upon his arrival to the concert hall. Signs like “Tom Failsnick” doesn’t help – as if he wasn’t already nervous.

Grand Piano is not heavy on characters. Besides Tom and his wife, other important characters include a pair of the wife’s yammering friends (Allen Leech and Tamsin Egerton) and a member of the security detail (Alex Winter) who is there to ensure that Tom is in good hands. Seeing as how these supporting characters are introduced you can bet they become integral to the film as the story moves along.

Seated in front of his master’s favorite Bösendorfer piano Tom begins to play as if he’d never been away from the stage for five years. As he continues with the first music piece, Tom turns the page to see small red marks. Figuring it’s his colleagues playing tricks, Tom flips ahead a few more pages to read some words written in the margins. The long and short of the message is that a sniper will shoot him and his wife if he stops playing or tries to alert his wife, or the authorities. Here’s where some will start to think about the movie Speed. Though in the case of Grand Piano, speed isn’t the issue. Accuracy is. Play the last four bars of the last piece of music incorrectly and it’s bye bye Frodo. Obtaining an earpiece during a quick break between the first and second set allows Tom and us to hear the villain (the dulcet voice of John Cusack). The earpiece is the gateway for Cusack to instruct and to taunt Wood’s character. While he may have been away from the piano for five years Tom still shows that his muscle memory is still sound. He can engage in conversation and play complicated music pieces, sometimes without the need to look at the sheet music or the keys. His encore is what he can do with a Blackberry while performing.

That’s pretty much the core concept to the story. Even with a stupid premise, similar to the recent Ethan Hawke starring vehicle Getaway, also featuring a menacing voice dictating actions for the unwilling protagonist, Grand Piano succeeds beyond its concept to be a thriller that appeals to those with an affinity towards directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma.

During the Q&A after the second screening at Fantastic Fest Elijah Wood introduced his childhood piano teacher to the front stage and gave her a hug of thanks. Wood hadn’t played piano since his teenage years and in a three-week span he had to refresh his piano skills with his old mentor for this upcoming film. The refresher worked because Mira made sure to emphasize Wood’s skill set to a large degree. Rather than have one master shot and shoot coverage, which would have stifled the great work of the orchestra accompanying Wood’s piano playing, Mira instead goes for unbroken takes to get plenty of unobstructed views of Wood on the piano.

The amount of technical precision on display by Mira and his cinematographer, Unax Mendia, is laudable. The camera pulls and zooms definitely have a Brian De Palma influence. Thankfully, Grand Piano is better than the last few De Palma flicks (yes, I’m looking at you Snake Eyes). If you can overlook the laughable premise and are attentive to Mira’s crazy energy and confidence, you may enjoy this fantastically good thriller.

Director(s): Eugenio Mira
Writer(s): Damien Chazelle
Notable Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Alex Winter, Kerry Bische, Allen Leech, Tamsin Egerton

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