Judge Clark Douglas' piano skills are limited to "Chopsticks."
Play or die.
"A surprise change to the program!"
Facts of the Case
Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is an esteemed classical pianist making his return to the world of live performing after a five-year hiatus. By all accounts, his last performance ended horribly, as he had a meltdown of sorts while attempting to perform one of the world's most challenging compositions. The prospect of performing in front of people once again is terrifying enough, but Tom's stress is taken to a whole new level when he sees something written on his sheet music, "Play one wrong note and you die."
Soon, Tom finds himself equipped with an earpiece which permits him to receive instructions from a mysterious killer (John Cusack, Say Anything) lurking somewhere within the concert hall. The killer seems intent on making Tom deliver the finest performance of his life, but what is the motivation behind this mysterious plan? Will Tom conjure up the skills required to survive the evening?
At its best, Grand Piano is the sort of film Brian De Palma would have made during his prime. The premise (preposterous though it may be) is an immensely entertaining one, and the scenes in which Elijah Wood sweats bullets while frantically playing his way through lush, complex, minor-key concert pieces (as a sinister John Cusack hisses threats in his ear) are nothing short of terrific. Director Eugenio Mira clearly knows his way around a tension-filled set piece, and the film manages to live up to its pulpy potential for a pretty significant portion of its running time. Alas, things fall apart during the third act, as we're handed a disappointing climax, some clunky character development and a bonkers plot twist.
Wood is perfectly cast in the central role, as the actor is better than anyone else in the business at looking very, very concerned about things. Wood nails Tom's sweaty terror with ease, and he proves a likable, engaging protagonist from start to finish. Though Cusack is essentially treated as an equal co-star by the disc artwork (which features Wood's image on one side of the case and Cusack's on the other), the actor only appears onscreen for a few minutes. For most of the film, Cusack's low, gravelly, increasingly threatening voice (it's unnerving how easily Cusack slips into these nasty roles these days) is all we hear. Unfortunately, once he finally turns up he suddenly becomes vastly less interesting, losing all of his even-handed iciness and turning into yet another raging psychopath.
The performances also prove strangely hit-and-miss. Though the leads do solid work, Alex Winter (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) is permitted to go way too far over the top as Cusack's henchman, and a pair of actors playing obnoxious patrons feel weirdly out-of-sync with the reality in which the rest of the film is taking place. On the positive side, Don McManus (The Shawshank Redemption) has a weathered charm as the conductor who regards Tom with fascination and bewilderment, and Kerry Bishe (Argo) fares well enough in the thankless role of Tom's wife.
For my money, the film's biggest, most enthralling element is the original score by Victor Reyes. The spine-tingling original selections he penned play a major role in the film's effectiveness, and the supposedly "unplayable" piece Tom is required to play late in the film certainly sounds convincingly difficult (though Reyes obviously found someone who could play it). The film offers one of the boldest and most effective fusions of image and music in recent memory. It's refreshing to see a talented composer given such a terrific opportunity to strut his stuff. It's certainly a score I'll be returning to on a regular basis, even if the film as a whole is a bit too messy to warrant many repeat viewings.
Grand Piano (Blu-ray) looks excellent, sporting a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which highlights the film's lush, vivid cinematography and bold color palette. The whole film has an elegant, classical look which perfectly suits the concert hall setting, and it's great to see a modern horror film aiming for stylish polish rather than cheap, gritty grubbiness (the aesthetic extends to the film's violence, which is relatively bloodless in contrast to many modern thrillers—excessive gore would simply feel out of place in a flick like this). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is fantastic, allowing Reyes' score to shine and presenting the dialogue with clarity. There are some noisier moments which are handled very effectively, but this is a musically-driven film through and through. Supplements include a handful of featurettes ("The Making of Grand Piano," "Stunts," "Wayne's Shot," "Soundtrack," "Coaches," "Following Eugenio" and "Visual Effects"), extended interviews with Wood and Mira, a disposable AXS TV promo. A pretty stellar batch of stuff, I have to say.
Grand Piano is fun enough long enough to merit a watch, but it falls apart before it reaches the finish line.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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