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‘Grand Piano’ Is a Virtuosic Instrument

Craft and performance anxiety rule this Fantastic Fest dazzler

By Marjorie Baumgarten, 11:00AM, Tue. Sep. 24, 2013

‘Grand Piano’ Is a Virtuosic Instrument

The suspense is as taut and responsive as piano wire in this Fantastic Fest world-premiering film that stars Elijah Wood and John Cusack and is directed by Fest returnee Eugenio Mira.

In fact, the lineage of Grand Piano can be traced back to a previous Fantastic Fest at which regular attendee Wood and director Mira (Agnosia) first met and bonded. That friendship has yielded fortuitous results.

Grand Piano is a high-concept suspenser that owes obvious debts to such masters as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma, and Dario Argento. Yet it’s infused with originality and so expertly executed that viewers will be stimulated by the comparisons and thrilled by the film’s confident presentation. Elijah Wood plays the film’s central character, Tom Selznick, the best concert pianist of his generation whose career has been sadly handicapped by his crippling stage fright. Selznick is about to perform onstage for the first time in five years at a Chicago concert honoring his deceased mentor, whose vintage piano has been taken out of storage for the occasion. Seated at that piano on a riser above the orchestra, Selznick opens his sheet music and discovers threatening notes written in red ink on the pages. The red dot of a laser beam pointed between his eyes (and later at his beautiful and famous wife watching from a balcony sat) serves as a convincing argument to follow the emphatic commands. Following commands, he scurries offstage to insert an earpiece or abruptly change the program selections, but the conductor and audience chalk up his strange behavior to his uncontrollable stage fright.

Selznick is being held hostage while in plain sight. As his offscreen captor (John Cusack) sneers in his ear: “It’s amazing what you can get away with in a crowded theatre when all eyes are on the stage.” Apart from the film’s prologue introducing the characters and a wrap-up at the end, the film unfolds in real time as concert progresses. Wood can be seen playing the piano rather than faking it with trick camerawork. The camera stylistics are reserved for other treats such as the bowing of a stringed instrument onstage melding with the slicing of a throat offstage. Director Mira, who composed the music for his previous films as well as Nacho Vigalando’s Timecrimes, turns over that essential task in Grand Piano to Victor Reyes, whose contributions are as crucial to this film as Unax Mendia’s cinematography and Damien Chazelle’s screenplay. The suspense builds operatically and it’s not until late in the film that the madman’s objective even comes to light. Onscreen, this is Wood’s show all the way, and he commands our empathy and manages to remain professional and make his fingers do his bidding at the same time Cusack is barking menacing commands into his earpiece. Indeed, Tom Selznick is a man who knows too much.


Grand Piano plays again today at 5:45pm.

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