Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Grand Piano": The movie

We are fortunate to live near a fantastic movie theater that shows old and new films and hosts several film festivals every year. They are currently doing a "European Union Film Showcase," with more than 50 movies of all types. My husband noticed that one of the films was titled "Grand Piano" and had an interesting premise:

Lured out of retirement, disgraced pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) attempts to conquer his nerves and rejuvenate his career with a tribute performance to his mentor. But when he sits down at the piano in front of a sold-out crowd, he finds a terrifying message: "Play a wrong note and you die." Now Tom must overcome the ultimate case of stage fright, and discover who has it in for him. This spine-tingling thriller from Spanish filmmaker and rising star Eugenio Mira provides a fresh take on its Hitchcockian setup, and was a sensation at the 2013 Fantastic Fest. With John Cusack and Kerry Bishé.

So my husband and I went to see it last night.

The first bad sign was that during the stylish credits, with a soundtrack of an orchestra tuning up and then some rather creepy piano music featuring nontraditional techniques (plucking strings, etc.), a Bösendorfer piano was shown in bits and pieces that made it look like a torture device.

Next came the movie's exposition. The protagonist, Tom, was shown having nervous sweats on a bumpy plane ride, followed by a muffled and mostly incoherent cell phone conversation with a woman while he was getting off the plane and walking through an airport and finding his limousine driver. It was somehow conveyed that the city he had just traveled to was Chicago and that he was on his way to perform in a concert. While he's riding in the limo, there is a ludicrous sequence where he's being interviewed live on the radio via his cell phone, with the interviewer asking questions like, "So, Tom, you're about to play your big comeback concert with the most difficult piece ever written after your disgrace five years ago. Are you nervous?"; at the same time, he changes into his tuxedo, which emerges, along with his dress shoes, bow tie, and cummerbund, completely unwrinkled from the little backpack he is carrying (which was actually the only believable event in the film).

The "concert hall" at which they arrive looks suspiciously like an office building with a marquee stuck on the front and a lot of people in evening dress milling around on the sidewalk. When Tom goes in, he walks through -- the musical instrument museum I visited in Barcelona a couple of years ago! See, this film was made in Spain, even though it's set in the United States and is entirely in English with American actors. I'm assuming they stuck the museum in there to make the joint look a little classier without having to spend money on a set.

The orchestra conductor greets him -- and hands him a folder with his music! What? One could argue that a world-class pianist wouldn't be using music to play a concerto, but it's plausible. However, we are to believe that this is a famous musician with terrible stage fright who is about to play his first public concert in five years, yet he's arriving only minutes before it starts, with no rehearsal with the orchestra, with no chance to warm up, and without his own copy of the music? And why is it in Chicago? And where did he fly in from? And why is it night time when he arrives but daylight in subsequent scenes in the lobby just before the concert is supposed to start? Questions, questions . . .  and no answers.

The entire plot (hope I'm not ruining this for anyone) hinges on the fact that an evil sniper has gotten hold of the music in the folder and written nasty notes in red explaining that Tom and his beautiful actress wife, who is sitting in a box seat in the hall (which, btw, looks  more like a run-down old movie theater than a fancy-pants concert hall in one of the largest U.S. cities) will both be shot if he misses a single note.* The notes then explain that "at the next rest, go to your dressing room." Um, excuse me? In the  middle of a piano concerto, the pianist is supposed to leave the stage for some inexplicable reason?  This was made easier here because the orchestra (never named, and suspiciously sparse) was placed in the front of the stage, and the piano (supposedly the treasured instrument of Tom's late teacher, who was also fabulously wealthy [a fabulously wealthy piano teacher??!!], though it looked like an ordinary 7-foot Bösendorfer to me) was on a raised platform at the very back of the stage, with steps conveniently leading up to it from backstage.

When Tom does make the trip to his dressing room (somewhat reminiscent of a similar trip made by the band Spinal Tap), he finds text messages on his cell phone instructing him to look in a pocket of his backpack and extract an earpiece, through which the villain then spends the next hour hissing evil messages at him -- and somehow, Tom is able to speak back to the guy even though there's no obvious microphone (though I may not be up on wireless technology these days), which he does while he's playing the rest of the concert, and, despite his supposed stage fright, not missing a note. Though it's hard to tell, actually, with the piece being a mishmash of ersatz Rachmaninoff and bad movie music.

Another thing about that music: in addition to the fact that it is completely untouched by fingerings or markings of any kind except for the killer's notes in red, in capital letters, which look like they were painted in with nail polish, it in no way matches anything that is coming out of the piano. And judging from the pianist's hand position, it would seem his real problem might have been not stage fright but tendonitis.

Oh, I could go on -- that the trip to the dressing room was only the first of many during rests in the music, after which the pianist enters perfectly in time without missing a beat; the pianist attempting to get help by texting on his phone through the music on the piano with his left hand while continuing to play with his right; the villain's creepy sidekick who manages to murder two people without anyone noticing (one of them by bashing her head against a mirror and then slashing her throat with a piece of the glass -- the film maker using this moment as an excuse for a cool cut to a cello bow slashing across the strings); the conductor stopping after the first movement of the concerto to make a speech;  the pianist attempting to retrieve the score for the difficult piece, which the villain requires him to play on pain of death, that he has inconveniently tossed on the floor and that the theater janitor immediately picks up and for some reason tosses into a blazing incinerator that is conveniently placed backstage -- of course, doesn't every theater have a janitor who burns trash during orchestra concerts? -- and then remembering that his wife has somehow gifted him a tablet computer while he was away (where, and why?) and had it placed in has backpack (how? -- and this is the same backpack that contained his tuxedo, shoes, etc.), so he runs back to the dressing room yet again, pulls it out of the box and is instantly surfing the Web, finding his recording of the piece, and jotting down notes on a copy of the program while he taps it out with his fingers on the dressing room table (all while the orchestra is playing what must be the world's longest tutti section way back there on the stage); the climactic scene when the pianist and the villain (a complete waste of the talents of John Cusack) end up grappling together in the rigging above the stage and crashing into the Bosie while the conductor is accompanying the pianist's wife in "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" as she sings from her seat in the box (without any amplification, of course; this makes it sound way better than it is).

I had a brief moment of hope when Tom is lying on the stage after his fall from the rafters and starts to stir that maybe it was all a dream while he was passed out from terror at having to perform . . . but unfortunately, no.

I am writing this as a public service in case anyone searches around for reviews to this movie. It is making the rounds of film festivals now, so hasn't been reviewed except for in a few trade papers, blogs, and reader comments on websites. All the reviews we found when we got home, sputtering in amazement at the badness of this thing, were -- positive? "Slick, stylish, and admirably fast-paced thriller" . . . "Hitchcock-inspired" . . . "the best Brian de Palma movie he never made" . . . sigh. Is the general public really that ignorant? No, on second thought, don't answer that.

Well, folks, you read it here, at least IMHO, in one word: fail. Unless you need a good laugh. (We seemed to be the only people in the theater laughing, however.)

*Additional spoilers: Late in the movie, the villain reveals that the reason for this request for perfectionism is not sadism but financial: that the fabulously wealthy piano teacher has hidden his vast fortune in a Swiss safety deposit box and that the key (get it, key?) is hidden in the Bosie and can only be retrieved if one plays the last four measures of "the most difficult piano piece ever written." Why this had to be done by the pianist, at tempo, and in a public concert, and why the villain knows this, and how he is supposed to get the key after it pops out of the piano, is not explained. Among many other things.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

What next?

These past couple of weeks have been a little rough. It took me most of this time to get over my cold, and then I got an eye infection, and I've just generally been feeling out of sorts. I have some musical projects to work on, but nothing as absorbing as the Schumann concerto.

It is still strange for me that I don't have to go to work every day. Because of this, I have the issue that I find myself saying about various tasks, "Oh, I can do that tomorrow." So things get put off. My practice time feels like it's falling victim to this: I'll do an hour or two, feel tired or frustrated or like I'm losing my concentration, and then pack it up with the thought that tomorrow is another day.

But the thing about practicing is that it's like a river -- it keeps rolling along, and you do it every day if you can, but there's no end to it. You can set goals for specific pieces, so that on such-and-such a date you will perform it or record it or call it done, but the potential for improvement and work that could be done never closes. This is both stimulating and frustrating.

So the musical things coming up:

This weekend, I'm playing Scandinavian folk dances for an annual Luciafest. This is with a large group  and I tend to get lost in the mix, but it's kind of fun in its own way.

Next week, I'm meeting with a flutist and a pianist to read through some trios. The idea is to eventually perform if the group gels well enough. Both players are very good, so it should be enjoyable.

In January, I scheduled myself to play the piano on an AMSF recital. I haven't decided what to play; it's a toss-up between the opening movement of the Bach C minor partita and the Brahms Rhapsody No. 1 in B minor. When I attempted the latter for my piano teacher this morning, I had a total breakdown about a half minute in, which doesn't augur well. After I got over that hump, the next student arrived while I was wailing away on some big chords, really getting into it, and my teacher came over and touched my hands to stop me and said, "Softer ..." Oops. So we'll see how that goes. I do have over a month until the recital.