Grand Piano [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Magnolia Pictures
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (8th May 2014).
The Film

"Play one wrong note and you die."

Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), the greatest concert pianist of his generation, sits on stage at an eight octave Bösendorfer grand piano, anxiously awaiting the moment where he'll close out the night with a solo performance of “La Cinquette”, a piece composed by his now deceased mentor. It’s supposedly one of most complex classical works ever written, and near impossible to perform without fault. There’s something particularly challenging about the final four notes that makes a flub an inevitability, even for someone as skilled as Selznick reportedly is. It will be the performance of the pianist’s life. Quite literally, in fact, as Tom has been told—a message surreptitiously scrawled by some unknown onto the pages of his score—that he’s had a sniper rifle pointed at his head from the moment he walked on stage. As informed by his potential assassin—communicating to him through notes on the page, and later as the disembodied voice in a wireless earpiece delivered to him backstage—Tom will live or die based on how well he plays tonight. John Cusack provides the voice of the killer, but stays off screen for most of the runtime, basically Kiefer-Sutherland-in-“Phone Booth”-ing it (2002), with a cold and calculating menace that’s greatly diminished once Cusack finally shows his face.

5 years ago, Tom attempted to perform “La Cinquette” and failed so miserably (dubbed “failnick” by his detractors, because apparently celebrated instrumentalists are as skilled in music as they are unskilled at making up insulting nicknames) that he retreated from the limelight, and hasn’t publicly played a note since. Coaxed out of retirement by a conductor friend (Don McManus) for a benefit concert where his mentor’s prized piano will be auctioned off to charity, the player finds himself in fact battling two demons—his crippling self doubt, which has manifest in severe stage fright, and that pesky sniper, a sadist who’s ever so critical of even the tiniest mistake. (Critics are just the worst, amirite?) To make matters even more complicated, the pianist’s pretty movie star wife (Kerry Bishé) sitting in the audience is also in the crosshairs. If Tom makes an attempt to alert anyone of his predicament, she’s dead, too. The treats don’t quite stop him from trying though, and Selznick somewhat successfully solicits the aid of his wife’s ill-equipped friends sitting in a lesser section of the auditorium, Ashley and Wayne (Tamsin Egerton and Allen Leech), which ultimately leads to disastrous ends.

To say the least, Eugenio Mira’s “Grand Piano” doesn’t strive for realism, although it does largely unfold in real time, like a musically-minded episode of “24” (2001-2010) or, in perhaps a more appropriate comparison, the final act of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) stretched to the length of “Rope” (1948) as shot by Brian De Palma. The picture’s plot is preposterous, and the story asks viewers to not just suspend disbelief, but to willingly embrace a contrivance so ridiculous even the prim and proper audience occupying the film’s concert hall setting might aggressively roll their eyes—if not outright boo as it crescendos towards an increasingly illogical climax. The film will no doubt infuriate music majors, prickly pianists, and even casual curators of classical composition for all the minutia the film gets wrong, and they’ll surely scoff at the absurdity of rests so long a performer can scamper off stage, unmissed, for an extended period of time only to reappear precisely as the tutti retreats for a piano solo.

And yet, accepting the simple setup and the inconceivably intricate why the conceit at the core of “Grand Piano” unfolds is an incredibly easy task—one far easier than what Tom Selznick is asked to do. Or at least it was for me; although I did’t have the foreseeable issues that arise from Tom’s predicament when no one, it seems not even the man himself, can be trusted. The why is a rather simple answer. I was so swept up by the craftsmanship in the film’s bravura camerawork and seamless editing; the elaborately staged single-take scenes that run for minutes and sustain tension to ever perfectly timed cut. Yes, it’s silly and a little messy, but it looks and sounds amazing—and proves an impressive enough showing as a whole to distract from the flaws awkwardly fumbled through, like missed notes not noticed, lost in the pure spectacle of watching a master at work.

I’m not sure Mira’s a master, although he does a fairly conceiving job of miming the men who clearly influenced him: the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, and his one-time disciple, De Palma. If not particularly original, or innovative, the director adeptly reaches back into the past to pull from the greats, and manages to make “Grand Piano” an entertaining slice of single-location pulp fiction. A borderline B-movie, both in style and definitely in budget (it was filmed and financed in Spain), the—for lack of a better classification—murder-musical is never quite as classy as its superficial dressings, and Damien Chazelle’s structurally interesting but underdeveloped script doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, particularly in the underwhelming revelations of the sniper’s true motivation in the the third act. The script is clearly the weak point of the production, and its strongest element, the character of Tom, is really only elevated and brought to fuller life by an effective lead performance from Wood, falling somewhere on the actor’s scale between the earnestness of Frodo Baggins and the possibly schizophrenic weirdness of “Wilfred’s” (2011-present) Ryan Newman. That is, he’s likable—and certainly not a, heh-heh, “Maniac” (2012)—but just a little odd. Through careful mimic of his own—and some skillful CGI hand doubling, and cue dubbing—Wood’s not actually playing the piano, but only someone in the know could really tell.

But it’s the technique that’s really the star of the show. “Grand Piano” is directed with wild and bizarre abandon. From what he puts on screen (and what can be seen in the supplements included on this Blu-ray) Mira has energy to spare, and the filmmaker (also a composer in his own right) conducts a truly thrilling orchestra, which gleefully cuts through the offal of Chazelle’s sinewy screenplay with sharp dutch angles and swinging, spinning camera moves. Together with his cinematographer, visual effects team and production designer, Mira whips up stunning sequences of seeming spontaneity that are in fact carefully choreographed set pieces, in which the camera rotates 360 degrees on both axes on steadicam, dolly, and technocranes, sometimes through the entire concert hall without a single apparent cut (while, of course, actually employing several, stitched together with some CG assisted trickery). The film is good, if kinda dumb, and fun all the same. It works as a call back to Golden Age suspense films. And for a simple, single-location thriller that unfolds in real time, it has surprising and impressive scope.

Video

Magnet’s excellent if slightly imperfect 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p high definition AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer makes it easy to marvel at “Grand Piano’s” truly miraculous visuals. Director Eugenio Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendía employ a number of technical tricks—beyond the constantly roving camera on steadicam and crane, and seamless edits—including deep focus photography, and even split screen effects and diopter lenses, which reveal almost limitless detail in frames even in wide staging. Compositions are erratic and often insane, skillfully creating a disorientating sense of space—numerous shots begin on the side and move to a flatter angle; likewise the reverse; at least a few sequences feature the camera flipping the world upside down. Through it all, clarity remains strong, with only a few instances of isolating shallow-focus “softness”, including an a moment—when Tom fears the worst—that's an intense close up and has a drastic lighting change to a saturated but stuffy red filter. Although shot on 35mm film, and despite the fact the disc retains a natural layer of fine film grain, the supplements prove “Piano” was a very digital production, with extensive blue and green screen work, and an immense amount of tweaking via the DI. Color correction brings in some dark shadows and heavy contrast, often countered by blooming highlights from stage lights, which often induce lens flare. Even with the DI, color appears mostly natural—save for the blood red sequence—and skin tones are lifelike, although Wood is a little pasty (but when isn’t he, really?). The one minor but unfortunately noticeable issue with the disc is faint but bothersome banding, usually around stark shadows and highlights, especially when the moving camera passes from one to the next, triply so if through a flare. Otherwise, the disc looks excellent, and it's a testament to the creative crew that the effects and overall production value are’t cheapened by the at times staggering sharpness of the Blu-ray transfer.

Audio

The delights of “Grand Piano’s” truly, well, grand English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track begin before even the film properly does, with a concert warm-up playing over the opening credits. The orchestral strings sing a room-sweeping song, building with increasing volume before suddenly cutting to complete silence, followed by the abrupt introduction of a piano—two ominous diminished notes—that builds slowly, in a cacophony of runs, to a dark brooding piece that meshes with the overall sense of foreboding and permeates the elaborate title sequence. The titles immediately turn to an intricately layered scene of Tom aboard a landing plane, with rattling overhead cargo compartments, straining engines and rickety bits of aviation machinery, not to mention the drone of cabin noise, all filling the soundscape effectively. The film eventually settles into the concert, never dropping the pretense that sound is equal to the visuals, with gentle—and sometimes vigorous—atmosphere to support the sweeping camera as it moves around a busy backstage, through the audience at intermission, etc. Music is derived diegetically (although the end credits also include some popular tunes, including quite humorously “Ten Little Fingers” from “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.” (1953), written by none other than Theodore Geisel, the one and only Dr. Seuss). Víctor Reyes’ score, a blend of repurposed classical pieces and a few of his own compositions, is marvelous, offering a rich sound that does double duty: it is both timed to further the narrative—sometimes in the place of dialogue—and to set tempo, thus the pace and tone. What the soundtrack doesn’t have are any standout moments of explosive bombast, and without them, there’s only modest LFE. Still, the mix has heft, and the picture’s relentless, enthusiastic energy is supported throughout. Dialogue is clean and intelligible precisely until the moment it isn’t by design, like late in the film when Cusack’s voice in the earpiece becomes garbled by crossed signals. The disc also includes optional subtitles in English and Spanish.

Extras

“Grand Piano’s” collection of extras—clocking in at near 90 minutes—is comprehensive, if sometimes a little redundant. Comprised of excerpts from the film’s electronic press kit and a behind-the-scenes documentary that’s been chopped up into individual featurettes for the Blu-ray, the material is always above average (if sometimes only just). Most of the on screen titles and graphics are in Spanish, so I assume the content is coming from a European distributor and has been licensed by Magnolia, not produced in-house.

The Blu-ray is authored with optional bookmarks and the resume playback function. A few bonus trailers auto-play before the main menu, and are accessible from the “Also From Magnolia” submenu.

"The Making of 'Grand Piano'" (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 16 minutes 50 seconds) is a slightly above average EPK featurette. It offers an overview of the film’s production—covering the origins of the script, Elijah Wood and director Eugenio Mira’s interest in the project, the stunts, music, and more. Compiled from canned interviews with the actors and crew, behind the scenes footage, and film clips. The piece is like a short form, "best of" version of the featurettes below. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

More in-depth, generic interviews (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 34 minutes 24 seconds, play all) have also been included. Culled from the same sessions as many of the other comments included in the brief making of, director Eugenio Mira (speaking in English) and star Elijah Wood discuss several aspects of the project, including Mira’s love of musicals, Golden Age films in general, and the Hitchcock and De Palma influence. The 2 clips can be played as one piece, or individually in the following self-titled chapters:

- Director Eugenio Mira.
- Actor Elijah Wood.

The rest of the bonus material—a series of featurettes completely shed of EPK superficialities—appears to have been part of a larger behind-the-scenes documentary that’s (sadly) chopped into smaller pieces for the Blu-ray release.

Mira and composer Víctor Reyes discuss the film’s music in a featurette titled "Soundtrack" (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 3 minutes 28 seconds), with particular attention to how the film is like a musical, without lyrics, and how the motifs and tonalities function like dialog. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

In the next featurette, “Coaches" (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 5 minutes 1 second), Wood and his piano teacher Hector Marquez and actor Don McManus and his conductor instructor Tobias Gossmann, discuss the sort of crash-course music school Mira put them through in pre-production. The footage of each actor learning to convincingly mime their teacher is kind of fascinating. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

"Following Eugenio" (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 4 minutes 56 seconds) is a slightly less serious featurette in which lots of BTS material of Mira goofing off with the cast and crew is jokingly juxtaposed with the cast and crew offering platitudes about their director. Clearly, there wasn't a live-birds-attacking-Tippi-Hedren level of torture on this set. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

A “Stunts" (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 4 minutes 7 seconds) featurette puts the spotlight on stunt coordinator Ignacio Carreño, and the film’s scaffolding fight climax. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

One of the most interesting pieces on the disc is “Visual Effects" (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 3 minutes 26 seconds), an all too brief featurette with visual effects supervisor Àlex Villagrasa, who discusses the often invisible digital trickery used to expand the scope of the set, achieve seamless edits, etc. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

The featurette “Wayne's Shot" (1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 4 minutes 33 seconds), is a continuation of the visual effects breakdown, focused on the conception, staging, and CG-assisted camerawork in one of the film’s most impressive sequences—a minutes-long, unbroken take that follows a character through two entire floors of the theater, and finishes with a fantastic split diopter two shot. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles.

Although the film’s trailer has not been included, the “AXS TV: A Look at 'Grand Piano'" (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 2 minutes 52 seconds) promo featurette is effectively a long preview—with a smattering of innocuous interview snippets intermixed with the more expected, trailer-y film clips.

Pre-menu bonus trailers are for:

- "Nymphomaniac" (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p; 1 minutes 53 seconds).
- "Stage Fright" (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p; 2 minutes 3 seconds).
- "The Protector 2" (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p; 1 minutes 40 seconds).
- "Chideo" promo (1080i; 1 minute 14 seconds).
- "AXS.tv" promo (1080i; 32 seconds).

Packaging

Magnet Releasing, an imprint of Magnolia Home Entertainment, brings “Grand Piano” to Blu-ray packaged in an Elite keep case. The dual layered BD-50 is Region A locked.

Overall

Accepting the ludicrous plot of “Grand Piano” is a relatively easy task—one far easier than the predicament grand pianist Tom Selznick is faced with—because the film’s direction, particularly virtuoso camerawork and seamless editing, buries the occasional missed note in a dizzying display of dazzling style. As the conductor assures Tom before taking the stage, “If you’re going to play music this dense, you’re going to hit a wrong note, and they won’t know. They never do.” Director Eugenio Mira might be, as one of the film’s characters labels the lead, “a puppet”, because he’s basically “playing the score” “written" by others before him—Alfred Hitchcock and his greatest imitator, Brian De Palma especially— but he’s definitely a “genius puppet.” As a glorious throwback to Golden Age filmmaking, “Grand Piano” works, and better, as a suspenseful single location thriller, it works, too. There’s something to be said about a film where the craftsmanship is so seamless it’s almost unnoticeable. Even if its a little dumb when you really stop and think about it, “Grand Piano” is good fun, and it looks great and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray. The disc also has some interesting extras. Recommended.

The Film: B Video: A- Audio: A Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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