So once again we have survived.

Grand Piano

tn_grandpianoGRAND PIANO is a tight little thriller, the kind of thing I would have to call snappy, crackling, popping or perhaps krispy if I had the vocabulary. It’s a cool premise, well-executed, and then it gets the fuck out in around 80 minutes not including credits. And get this: it’s THE PIANO on speed! Picture that. Great idea, right?

Oh, I’m sorry, no, I meant it’s SPEED on a piano! Elijah Wood (FLIPPER) plays a disgraced world’s-greatest-concert-pianist, reluctantly pushed by his movie star wife (Kerry Bishé, ARGO, RED STATE) into a high profile, high pressure performance in tribute to his eccentric, recently deceased mentor. He’s already ready to shit out all his insides on stage and then in the middle of the performance he finds threatening notes on his sheet music and a crazy sniper starts threatening him over a headset. (The credits tipped me off that it was [SPOILER?] John Cusack, but the voice is immediately recognizable anyway. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve seen him play an evil mastermind before, and he’s a natural. Usually you’re supposed to love him for his asshole qualities, in this one he’s just being more honest.)

mp_grandpianoAnyway, Wood’s character Thomas is told if he plays a single note wrong then he and/or his wife are gonna get shot. That’s tough because this is notoriously difficult music he’s playing, and now this madman wants to switch it up and have him also play his mentor’s “unplayable piece,” which Thomas infamously flubbed five years ago, destroying his career, life and confidence. And this time he has the added pressure of impending death. Oh, and he doesn’t have the sheet music.

The reason for the threat is a nice piece of absurdity: the piano contains the key to a fortune, locked inside a mechanism that can only be unlocked by playing the last four bars of this piece that only the dead owner and possibly this student could ever pull off. There’s a line of dialogue implying that the villain is a pianist in his own right, but he knows he could never do it himself.

Not that these are a similar type of movie or anything, but I think the filmatists may have studied DIE HARD. It has a very efficient DIE HARD type set up period with Wood’s character Thomas coming in to Chicago on a plane, getting picked up by a limo (sadly not driven by Argyle or anyone of his stature) and talking to his wife on the phone, the middle of an ongoing discussion where we can guess the earlier parts. We quickly and organically get info or hints about his worries, his backstory, his relationship with his wife, his wife’s relationship with her visiting sister (Tamsin Egerton) and brother-in-law/sister’s-boyfriend/I-wasn’t-sure (Allen Leech), his conductor (Don McManus, Justified, KILLSHOT, THE 6TH DAY) and a security guy (Alex Winter), so while he’s dealing with this hostage situation alone on stage we’ve got a cast of characters and different subplots subtly woven in.

At first I was wondering why the guy has to threaten Thomas. Isn’t that just gonna make him more likely to screw up? But then I realized he needs to scare him into doing that “unplayable” piece, not originally on the docket. If he’d already planned to play it nobody would’ve been hurt, it could’ve been a movie about a guy playing piano and then at the end John Cusack runs out on stage and grabs the key that falls out of the piano. It would’ve been less suspenseful and more of a puzzler.

The whole thing reminds me of my thriller NATIONAL PASTIME. It’s about a disgraced pitcher who has to throw a perfect game or they’ll kill the president. Or to stop a nuclear war. I’m still working on it. Call me, Hollywood.

Hats off to Wood for finding these small, interesting movies to do. You got a guy who was a child star, then was the lead in that huge fantasy trilogy, then where do you go from there? He’s still small and young looking, he’s not gonna get the roles Chris Hemsworth or Chris Pine or Chris Evans are up for. Although, with these trainers and hormones they have in Hollywood now, who the fuck knows. But he finds movies like this and MANIAC and he puts his own spin on them. He seems like a guy with good taste.

Director Eugenio Mira is a Spaniard, only a few years older than Wood. He’s directed a handful of other small movies since 2000 but also worked as a composer, most notably on TIMECRIMES. The writer, Damien Chazelle, wrote and directed WHIPLASH, the Miles Teller/J.K. Simmons drummer movie that everybody loved at Sundance or one of those festivals this year. I’ll have to keep an eye out for both of them.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 at 1:58 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Grand Piano”

  1. That reminds me of the idea for a fake trailer, that I had a while ago, in which a DJ is forced to play a perfect DJ set for a whole night, or else a bomb is blowing the club up. Obstacles include drunk patrons, who either start randomly pushing buttons on his mixer while asking “what does this do?” or start fights once he denies to play their request, a groupie who climbs underneath the booth to give him a BJ and some angry old school DJ, who constantly yells at him for using a laptop and accuses him of not mixing for real. (He is secretly one of the bomb guys.)

    Yeah, basically it was more meant to be a parody of DJ problems, myths and tropes than a real action/thriller movie (parody), which means that this is the wrong site to talk about it, but I thought this time it was appropriate.

  2. Jareth Cutestory

    May 21st, 2014 at 8:46 am

    And the tagline? Tonight a DJ saves your life.

  3. This review makes it seem similar to that movie PHONE BOOTH even down to the blatantly obvious movie title and casting an 80’s movie staple as the sniper.

  4. This is encouraging to read, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed anything Cusack has appeared in since 2005’s THE ICE HARVEST. It just seemed like he was resigned to sleepwalk through these nondescript thrillers. Not that I care too much about his career anymore, after reading about his behavior towards Savage Steve Holland after BETTER OFF DEAD.

  5. Vern – Do make sure to check out Timecrimes. I got to meet the director years ago and I’ll always remember him saying that he couldn’t afford special effects so his screenplay had to be the special effect. It’s a smart and fun little movie and probably one of the better time travel films I’ve ever seen.

  6. The Original Paul

    May 21st, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Speed on a piano?

    Speed… on a piano?

    Speed on… a piano.

    SPEED! On a piano!

    Nope, still doesn’t work.

    Why doesn’t Cusack just drop the piano on top of a caravan or something? That always works on “Top Gear”.

  7. Al T — it does seem like Cusak is doing about 4 crap movies for every decent one he’s in. But then again, he also does about four movies a year, so he’s had some wins. I think he’s pretty good in the OK 1408, a good fit for the silly, lightweight HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, quite good in the deeply flawed but also fitfully great WAR INC, quite good in the microbudget thriller NUMBERS STATION. He plays Richard Nixon in THE BUTLER, so I definitely gotta see that. And holy crap, he’s in Cronenberg’s new one? Wow.

  8. One more thing about this movie and DIE HARD: I always thought that John Cusack kiiiiiiiiiinda looks like Alan Rickman.

  9. Wow Vern, that’s a great idea for a movie (throw a perfect game or else terrorism or whatever). I only wish I’d thought of it first. I hope you do end up writing it!

  10. Sensing some negative Cusack vibes in this review and thread. Hmm…

  11. Chazelle’s directorial debut was GUY & MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, and I liked it a lot.

  12. I just watched this. It’s awesome. Cusack fucking tears it up. People who enjoy good movies will enjoy this, in my opinion.

  13. Oh my god, NATIONAL PASTTIME has franchise written all over it. The next one can be a basketball game, then the Super Bowl and then hockey. Finally, the franchise goes to England for a soccer match… INTERNATIONAL PASTTIME!

  14. Mr. S: MAPS TO THE STARS looks pretty good, people are saying it’s Cronenberg channeling David Lynch. Besides the pretty solid cast, Mia Wasikowska’s leather gloves have me sold on it.

    NATIONAL PASTTIME sounds like how crazy Tony Scott’s THE FAN should have been.

  15. So Cusack was a bit of a jerk to Savage S. Holland after he saw the final cut of BETTER OFF DEAD –

    http://www.thesneeze.com/mt-archives/000134.php

    Understandable that SS Holland would have hurt feelings, when it seems he championed Cusack as a talent, to then be slapped in the face. In Cusack’s defense he was only 17 at the time, and from other stuff I’ve read he maybe took himself a bit too seriously. But he seems to have grown out of that. Look at THE PAPERBOY for pete’s sake. If he can dry hump himself in front of an orgasming slutty Nicole Kidman he’s not going for highbrow respectability or the Laurence Olivier Award. I’ve always liked most of his movies and persona.

    There are some actors who can’t really be faulted on their public image. Eastwood for example always seemed congenial and respectful of people he worked with. Young-ish Clint Eastwood, Mr Hugh Jackman is an all-round gentleman. Well, at least, we don’t hear any bad stories.

    I’m not fussed about people’s past sins, especially when we’re talking 30 odd years ago when they were maybe young and arrogant. Life has a way of humbling us. Pride comes before a fall, all that stuff. In another article, Curtis ‘Booger’ Armstrong, who was in BOD, talks about the Cusack/Holland thing, and how Cusack, a few years ago ended up in jail briefly for some minor drug offence, and cons would come up to him and shout ” I want my 2 dollars!” Humbling, in my opinion.

  16. I really enjoyed this film. It is great mix of DePalma influenced skilled filmatism and absurd concept that makes for a very fun thriller. The film also functions as a clever way to get someone that might not be into classic music to sit through a classical music concert without realizing it.

  17. Vern, I really like your NATIONAL PASTIME idea. I vote for Kevin Costner to play the old pitcher trying to make a comeback that is forced to try and pitch a perfect game.

    Speaking of DIE HARD influenced films, I was thinking what if they made an EXPENDABLES type film featuring the stars of the DIE HARD franchise and other DIE HARD style influenced hostage thrillers. It would feature Bruce, Keanu (SPEED), Seagal (UNDER SEIGE) and various other stars of the genre trying to save the plant from some sort of catastrophe. It could have a tag line like “They are all in the wrong place at the wrong time again, but this time they are not alone”.

  18. I like this a lot but I’d like to see the slower more psychological version too; where the sniper is just obsessed with this piece and only wants to see it done perfectly. Wood would never leave the piano, just play, and it would delve deeper into his resentment toward his wife and he’d survive the piece but leave her.

    But I loved the hidden piano treasure too

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