Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is considered the most gifted concert pianist in the world ever since his mentor, Patrick Godureaux's, death. There is one major differentiation between the two - Godureaux could play 'La Cinquette,' a piece considered unplayable because of its technical demands, but Tom choked when he attempted it in his last public performance five long years earlier. Nudged by his singer/arts patron wife Emma (Kerry Bishé, "Argo," "Red State"), Tom is now tackling stage fright before his latest appearance, but he'll endure a fright far more lethal when he opens the sheet music atop his "Grand Piano."
This droll genre concoction from writer Damien Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," "The Last Exorcism: Part II") is directed by Eugenio Mira as if Brian DePalma and Dario Argento just watched the climax of Alfred Hitchock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" with a chaser of "Stage Fright." Director of Photography Unax Mendía uses long tracking shots, grand sweeping crane shots, cutaways and closeups to achieve a sense of both oblivious grandeur and intimate desperation.
Mira lends an air of foreboding to the instrument itself as we see it being moved from Godureaux's estate to the concert hall, a delicate operation with its own tension, before heaping on more with Tom's turbulence plagued flight. Shifting to Emma, whom Mendía tracks from suite preparations to adoring lobby patrons, Mira and his actress imbed doubts as to her and Tom's relationship in the way she handles his jitters via cell phone, preoccupied with the event itself.
Tom's anxiety is counter pointed by conductor William Reisinger's (Don McManus, "Magnolia") levity, a nice device to alleviate tension, but once Tom begins to play, he spies a red arrow drawn at the bottom of the page and when he turns it he's given a message - 'Play one wrong note and you die.' Further notes lead Tom to his dressing room where he will speak to his potential assassin (John Cusack). He's warned that an assistant is watching not only his every move, but his wife's.
Things escalate with an almost goofy, overheated quality. Tom gets a call off to a friend in the audience, and Wayne (Allen Leech, 'Downton Abbey'), alarmed, proves Tom's tormentor correct when he tries to help. Mira uses his space (the concert hall is digitally composited) well, with friends in the orchestra, Emma in a balcony, scuffles in the rafters and a room plastic-sheeted for construction - the better to protect it from blood splatter and dead bodies. Composer Víctor Reyes's music dramatically ties the whole together.
The why of the proceedings is almost a pun and the revelation of just what Cusack's Clem is after in getting Tom to play a perfect concert calls his prior behavior into question, but "Grand Piano" doesn't seem to be taking itself too seriously. It's an amusing lark wrapped up in a stylish Giallo.
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) was once a world-class concert pianist but he flubbed badly while playing what should have been his greatest performance. Five years later, he is about to perform his comeback concert of “La Cinquette, a near impossible piece to play, but is still shaky over his stage fright. This fright is heightened as he begins playing, turns the page of the music and reads, in red, “one wrong note and you die.” Can Tom pull off the flawless feat or will he die playing the “Grand Piano”?
This is a decent, taut psychological drama and one that uses the threat of death to maintain the intensity of the drama. Tom, and only Tom, knows, while he tries to maintain his cool and continue playing without error, that there is a deadly accurate, totally silenced rifle pointed at his head. All the while, he is in contact with the killer who ups the ante when he tells the pianist that he is also watching, in her box seat, Tom’s movie star wife Emma (Kerry Bishe). This double threat of death forces Tom to think on two levels – playing the complicated music without error while trying to figure how to thwart the killer’s unknown plans.
Director Eugenio Mira keeps “Grand Piano” moving at a fast clip, with rapid-fire editing, majestic music and good cinematography helping to mask the “you gotta be kidding me” moments of implausibility. Elijah Wood is center stage (unintended pun) for most of the film and he shows the range of facial expressions needed to convey Tom’s emotions. John Cusack as the killer appears only in voice for most of the film, where any good voice would work, and is given no real depth of character. Just that he is pissed off about something. Kerry Bishe is lovely as Emma but her role is more as a pawn in a deadly game of chess between Tom and the killer than a 3D character. Stealing the show for his brief time on screen is the chow hound orchestra conductor, Wayne (Allen Leech).
The cat-and-mouse suspense is evenly handled with Damien Chazelle’s tight script – except for the killer’s fuzzy motivation. Of course, a film titled “Grand Piano” had better have some fine music and it does, adding another element that keeps it entertaining. I give it a B.
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