Tom Selznick, the most talented pianist of his generation, stopped performing in public because of his stage fright. Years after a catastrophic performance, he reappears in public in a long awaited concert in Chicago. In a packed theater, in front of the expectant audience, Tom finds a message written on the score: "Play one wrong note and you die". Without leaving the piano, Tom must discover the anonymous sniper's motives and look for help without anyone realizing...
Like a wild mix between 'Phone Booth' and Brian De Palma's 'Snake Eyes,' 'Grand Piano' is a taught thriller, with an unmistakable visual style. It never attempts to be anything more than it is, but it never dumbs itself down either. The story of piano prodigy Tom Selznick's (Elijah Wood) return to the stage is interrupted by an unseen sniper, voiced by John Cusack, who tells Tom he's going to kill him unless he does exactly as he says.
The story is patently absurd, but 'Grand Piano,' elicits a performance from Wood that sells the entire premise. If not for his presence 'Grand Piano' might have fallen completely flat. Like Nic Cage in 'Snake Eyes,' it's the manic energy bubbling under the surface that keeps us enthralled. It helps matters that this story about a pianist held hostage in front of an expectant and adoring crowd, is a quick-paced, just-the-right-length thriller. The movie's editing and screenplay follow right along with the quick-fingered classic pieces Tom cranks out on his piano. It bustles along at a dizzying pace, all the while director Eugenio Mira ('Agnosia') adds a unique visual style that borrows from Hitchcock's toolbox, using stark, bold colors to portray mood and suspense.
The moment Tom Selznick enters the picture we're only given a few tidbits of information about his past. His life-long mentor died. He's been away from the world of concert performing for a long time. He's the only one who can play La Cinquette, “the unplayable piece,” but the last time he tried, he failed, which sent him into self-imposed seclusion.
We really don't know much more about him. He's an introvert without many friends. Once he sits down at his piano to play for the crowd he sees a note scrawled on his sheet music: "Play one wrong note and you die." Oh, it's so ludicrous I know, but that's half the fun. It's a closed-room mystery that doesn't need to make much sense to be suspenseful.
Tom is immediately filled with dread, an emotion that Wood could patent if one could patent acting emotions. He's so good at conveying complete and utter terror. His facial expressions harken back to his stint in 'Lord of the Rings' where he was asked to look depressed about ninety-percent of the time. Here he's absolutely paralyzed by the fear of an unseen assassin. His fingers and hands move independently around the ivory, while he communicates with a sadistic would-be killer on the other end of a tiny radio.
It almost has the feeling of a vignette. A short story instead of a novel. It's perfectly paced to deliver first-rate chills. There's never a wasted moment. Never a time where you're wondering if the story is going to progress. Sure, there's not much in the way of character development. This is a movie fully devoted to its idea, the characters simply orbit around it.
'Grand Piano' is a stylish, unique thriller. A dizzying series of scenes, some great classical music, superb acting, all packed tightly into a near-perfect package. I was surprised how much I liked 'Grand Piano.' I admired its originality and simplicity. It didn't need a whole lot of special effects to get its point across. Some clever camerawork and a return to editing tricks of cinema's yesteryear were enough to give the movie its own memorable aesthetic. Yes, the ending might be a tad underwhelming considering the explosive build up, though getting there is where most of the fun is anyway.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Brought to Blu-ray by Magnet Releasing, 'Grand Piano' is offered up on Blu-ray with a single 50GB disc. This is as barebones as releases come. Magnet and Magnolia rarely, if ever, offer combo packs. The case indicates this being a Region A release.
'Grand Piano' has a great cinematic look to it. The 1080p HD image is both sharp and richly detailed. With its unique visual style, including the use of bright colors, and a variety of tracking and zoom shots, it would've been easy for the HD presentation to go off the rails. There are so many variables present here in its initial filming, that could've caused problems. Yet, every zoom, every pan, every tracking shot looks great.
Close-ups on faces reveal tons of detail. Everything from individual strands of hairs to small freckles and lip lines. We can see the sweat forming on Tom's brow as he listens intently to the sniper on the other end of the line. Being a movie centered on its visuals and its color, we've got a pretty decent presentation. Reds are lush. Blacks are deep and only exhibit banding on a couple rare occasions. Aliasing wasn't present at all. Crushing appeared once or twice, but was never egregious enough to warrant much more than a cursory mention. All in all, a fine presentation from a distributor that is hit and miss when it comes to video quality.
The audio here is extremely important. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has a depth and richness to it that isn't found in many lower budget, more obscure titles. Having a great sounding audio mix for this movie in particular is paramount to just about anything else. We need to hear the beautiful classical music emanating from the piano, all the while hear and understand Tom's continuously ongoing conversation with the sniper spying on him.
Dialogue is clear and comes through with excellent resonance through the front channels. Tom's voice is never muffled and never gets lost amidst the piano playing and the constant threats from the killer talking to him. Cusack's voice is also clearly intelligible. The mix gives it a certain weight, that makes it feel omnipresent. Now, it's nowhere near the Kiefer Sutherland's performance in 'Phone Booth' but it holds its own.
The piano solos are piped throughout the soundfield offering an in-the-audience feel. Like you're sitting there in the theater, listening to Tom play the unplayable piece. For a Magnet movie this is one of the best audio mixes they've ever released.
'Grand Piano' may not be widely known, but it should be. It's a very competent thriller. It wastes no time getting started and proceeds to tell a tightly paced tale until the end. It's a movie that grabs you from the outset, takes you on a quick journey, and drops you out the other side before you know what happened. With great audio and video 'Grand Piano' is recommended for everyone.