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Fantastic Fest 2013: Nordling Reviews GRAND PIANO!

Published at: Sept. 21, 2013, 4:51 p.m. CST by Nordling

Nordling here.

With GRAND PIANO, Eugenio Mira steps into the upper echelon of thriller directors.  It's a bold statement to make based on one movie, I know.  But GRAND PIANO is a Swiss watch of organization - Mira effortlessly ramps up the tension, getting great performances across the board, including a career best for Elijah Wood.  Sometimes the simplest premises get far more mileage than it looks on paper, and there's not a wasted moment in GRAND PIANO.  There are moments in it that are so meticulously orchestrated that you wonder how Mira pulled it off at all.

The plot, like many of the best Hitchcock films, is simple - Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), a master pianist who left in disgrace after mangling a near impossible piece written by his mentor, returns to the stage five years later.  His wife (Kerry Bishe) urged him for months to return to the concert hall; now wracked with stage fright, Selznick tries to make the best of things.  It doesn't help that he'll be playing on the very grand piano of his mentor, the same piano that he lost his wits on five years before.

But once he takes the stage, the pieces are set into motion.  When he opens his playbook, written in red ink on the page is the simple missive - "Play one wrong note and you're dead."  Then he seens the sniper rifle dot on his arm, and on his wife's head in the balcony.  Through an ear piece, the assassin (John Cusack) informs him that he has no reservations in killing him and his wife if he plays badly.  If he tells anyone, or manages to get a message out, he and his wife are dead.

To say any more would be unwise; but even though GRAND PIANO (like PHONE BOOTH) takes place in one locale, Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle throw enough plot loops to keep the audience riveted and guessing.  The elegant cinematography by Unax Mendia keeps everything visually fresh and arresting, and there is some masterful editing work by Jose Luis Romeu that helps build the tension to almost unbearable amounts.  Mira uses every tool at his disposal to create suspense.  The concert sequences call to mind some of De Palma's best work, especially the use of split-screen. 

The movie wouldn't work without Elijah Wood.  He gives a real performance of empathy and fear, and it also doesn't hurt that he looks like he knows his way around the piano.  Cusack (although offscreen most of the time) gives a performance of realmalice, and as his motivations become clearer throughout the movie, Cusack becomes even more menacing.  But Wood is the audience surrogate throughout GRAND PIANO, and as his fear rises, his and our desperation grows.  Tom Selznick isn't any kind of superhero - he's an ordinary man in a bad situation, and Wood gives it his all.  It's one of those performances that anchors a movie like this, and Wood would be at home with the Master of Suspense himself.

Magnet just picked up GRAND PIANO for distribution, but it's so gloriously shot and edited that I hope it gets a real theatrical release; the audience at Fantastic Fest was on the edge of their seats throughout, and it's an experience that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.  Eugenio Mira has made one of the most effective thrillers in quite some time, and I hope to see much more from him in the future.  GRAND PIANO is amazing.

Nordling, out.

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