'Grand Piano' Review

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Magnet Releasing

Renowned pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) comes out of retirement for one night only to play a classical concert in honor of his late mentor. What is already a pressure-filled evening for the stage fright-stricken musician quickly devolves into a nightmare when a mysterious man threatens to murder Selznick's wife if he makes a single mistake. Drawing inspiration from Hitchcock, De Palma and Italian horror, 'Grand Piano' is a surprisingly fun and snappy little thriller.

Director Eugenio Mira (working from a script by Damien Chazelle) takes a generic thriller template and infuses it with energy and black humor in 'Grand Piano,' which is already drawing comparisons to 'Speed' and 'Phone Booth' -- but replace the bus or the phone booth with a piano and cast John Cusack as the enigmatic psychopath.

Mira proves that you don't always have to reinvent the wheel to create a successful film, and 'Grand Piano' succeeds simply by exceeding expectations with a smart, simple script and game performances from Wood and Cusack. Wood's Selznick spends the majority of the film on stage, frantically playing a piano and trying in vain to prevent Cusack's mystery sniper from offing his movie star wife, Emma -- and it seems a bit silly, considering all Selznick has to do is play the classical piece he failed to properly perform five years prior, and no one gets hurt. But it's not that silly. 'Grand Piano' examines insecurity and panic in this not-so-subtle setup, in which Cusack's sniper acts as the voice in Selznick's head, pushing him to perform and tormenting him into submission. The subjective idea that Selznick's life depends on this performance becomes literal, and that's when the fun begins.

Using stylistic cinematography (a De Palma-esque split-screen shot, Wood's reflection in the piano) and an engaging (and original!) score, Mira has made a kinetic and fun little thriller that works non-stop from beginning to end. Where the film perhaps fails is in a diversion involving Emma's snotty friends, who seemingly only exist to die and create the illusion of real stakes. The characters feel extraneous, their acting cartoonish, and the film suffers in those brief moments for it.

Where 'Grand Piano' excels is in embracing the simplicity of what it is, and Mira and his cast aren't afraid to get a little wacky, especially in the third act. It's not a believable scenario, and as such, Mira knows that he can up the ante and pile it on thick; anything becomes possible in a story that has no boundaries, though Mira shows surprising restraint. For instance, a throat-cutting scene delightfully juxtaposed against the playing of a cello. It's the exact sort of visual you might expect, but it's pulled off incredibly well and almost bloodlessly.

Excessive in its simplicity, yet simplistic in its excess, 'Grand Piano' is a sharp thriller that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do -- like any good concert, the goal is to entertain, and it succeeds fairly well. While it doesn't necessarily surprise, Mira's latest film does impress with its ability to take a well-worn framework and hammer it into something pleasurable.

Rating Meter 6

'Grand Piano' made it's world premiere at this year's Fantastic Fest film festival, and aims for a 2014 release. 

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