GRAND PIANO (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language

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Directed by: Eugenio Mira

Written by: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Tamsin Egerton, Kerry Bishe & Alex Winter

This is a film that could have easily become yet another claustrophobic thriller (in the vein of BURIED) or a PHONE BOOTH rip-off. Instead, GRAND PIANO winds up being a solid piece of entertainment. The visuals are beautifully shot. The tension is ratcheted to ridiculous degrees. The story is a lot of fun and the running time is well-paced. GRAND PIANO is the ultimate homage to the work of Hitchcock and De Palma. Despite being crafted like an elegant thriller, the film also plays out like a popcorn munching good-time. It’s crackling entertainment that doesn’t necessarily do anything new, but is executed in such a delightful manner that I really didn’t care that much about the predictable nature of the plot.

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Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is considered to be one of the greatest living pianists. Due to a severe case of stage fright coupled with a few other mishaps, he retired. So his first concert in five years is being greeted with a packed house and much excitement. Tom is to play a group of increasingly difficult pieces that his deceased mentor cherished. To add to the stress, one of these pieces is also considered to be virtually unplayable. It is midway through the first piece that he notices the note scrawled on his music sheet. It reads: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Initially seeing the message as a bad joke, Tom doesn’t take it seriously. Turns out, this is far from a joke and there’s a sniper (John Cusack) in one of the balconies. This unwelcome armed guest is going to make sure Tom will play the most flawless concert of his entire life…or else he won’t live to see another day.

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Professionally crafted in the technical aspects and thoroughly engaging, GRAND PIANO is a hell of a lot of fun! The film could have been primarily set on the stage with Elijah Wood engaging in a verbal duel with John Cusack. While that would have been entertaining in its own right, Eugenio Mira and Damien Chazelle were not so content to keep it at just that. Instead the story of the film goes through the entire concert hall in varying ways. This results in a few scenes that are nothing short of brilliant, including memorable moments involving a shard of broken mirror and an excellent tracking shot through the hallways of the concert hall.

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There’s barely a moment that Elijah isn’t on-screen and for a guy who’s played Hobbits and serial killers, Wood sells you on his character of Tom very well. I gasped in certain moments because I felt so much for this guy. As the sniper, John Cusack remains off-screen for about 90% of the film and we mainly just hear his voice through a small microphone in Tom’s ear. He almost comes off as a less cynical version of Kiefer Sutherland’s (mostly heard) character in PHONE BOOTH. Cusack injects just the right amount of scathing humor and dark threats to keep the viewer on-edge.

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The constant soundtrack in the film, provided by the concert, adds much to the excitement too. It is in the familiarity of it all that I take some issues. As exciting and entertaining as it is, GRAND PIANO isn’t necessarily anything new. Some of the plot feels by-the-numbers and the motivation of Cusack’s sniper character (revealed in the latter half of the film) is silly to say the least. Some people have jokingly said the film is SPEED with a piano or PHONE BOOTH in a concert hall. There’s some accuracy to these descriptions. I never once felt really surprised by where the film went. The conclusion gets a bit over-the-top and certain details are blatantly thrown in the viewer’s face to come back full-circle later. You can pretty much call where most of the story goes and that is a bit of a problem. This doesn’t diminish from how entertaining the film is as a whole.

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There’s nothing majorly wrong with this PIANO. It feels familiar in a lot of areas and the plot is predictable. The excitement lies in the execution though. It’s a blast! This is a very enjoyable popcorn thriller wrapped in the gloss of a Hitchcock film. If that sounds up your alley, then you’re probably going to really like this movie. I don’t get some of the massive critical praise it’s been receiving, but it’s a really cool ride! GRAND PIANO comes recommended. Who knows? You may be afraid to ever touch an instrument or go to a concert hall again!

Grade: B

THE ICE HARVEST (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Richard Russo, Robert Benton

(based on the novel THE ICE HARVEST by Scott Phillips)

Starring: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Platt, Randy Quaid, Mike Starr, Ned Bellamy

When someone brings up the topic of Christmas movies, they usually involve comedies with shenanigans that can be related to in the most wonderful/stressful time of the year (e.g. CHRISTMAS STORY and CHRISTMAS VACATION). My favorite Christmas film is actually a dark crime-comedy set on the night of Christmas Eve. The holiday makes for a interesting backdrop for the bloodshed and thievery being shown on the screen, but the film is also a piece of yuletide noir (which is an unusual combination to say the least).

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Taking place on the night of Christmas Eve and the early morning hours of Christmas, we follow Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) as he attempts to get away with “the perfect crime.” A crooked lawyer for the mob, Charlie has stolen over 2 million dollars from his boss (who happens to be the head of the mob in Kansas) with the assistance of his sly partner in crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton). Weather conditions have left the two with no other option but sticking out Christmas Eve in Kansas and leaving in Christmas morning with the loot. Trying to act normal, Charlie discovers that a hitman is looking for Vic and himself. Running into a drunken former client (currently married to his ex-wife), things become more complicated and the bodies begin piling up.

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THE ICE HARVEST is unlike any other Christmas movie that you’ve ever seen. It’s pitch-black in tone, but at the same time Christmas “cheer” litters the scenery. The film is beautifully and the story sucks you in immediately. This feels like you’re stepping into this increasingly outrageous situation with a cast of interesting characters. Each one of the cast members here delivers a performance that brings their unique character to life. I loved watching all of them and the dialogue is nothing short of brilliant (it feels like some of the greatest Tarantino lines that Tarantino never wrote).

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Charlie is a likable character, even though he admits in the opening narration to not having any real “character.” Billy Bob Thornton plays the dim-witted Vic very well, but doesn’t make the character into the all-out one-dimensional idiot that he could have easily been portrayed as. Speaking of idiots, Oliver Platt gives nothing short of a great performance as the drunken Pete, Charlie’s best friend and former client. Even though he does have moments of dumb slapstick (which don’t feel out-of-place in the slightest), Pete is a lovable moron who drinks far more than he should, but is oddly sympathetic. Meanwhile, Connie Nielsen shows up as Charlie’s love interest. Randy Quaid (known for playing Cousin Eddie in CHRISTMAS VACATION) is the head honcho of the mafia and menacingly evil as the center villain (mainly saved for the intense final third of the film).

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Some scenes that would seem menial in any other crime-caper (such as a dinner scene at Charlie’s ex-wife’s family’s house) feel essential to the story, even if they only provide some of the comic relief (which had me laughing hysterically). The film also doesn’t shy away from some rather graphic violence, but again it’s essential to the story being told. It’s dark, but also loaded with a ton of laughs throughout. This is the best of both worlds that is always seen in Guy Ritchie movies, but it happens to be set on Christmas Eve. For a movie with so many laughs to be had, there’s also some serious tension building throughout the perfectly paced running time. More than a few clever plot twists find their way into the mix and make for a movie that’s just as intelligent as it is entertaining.

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Christmas time is a celebrated and revered season of the year, but it doesn’t mean that the crappy weather doesn’t suck. Nor does it diminish the disgusting commercialism of the latest fads whoring themselves out to gullible consumers. It certainly doesn’t make the interactions with annoying relatives any less uncomfortable. Where most movies show the cheery side of the holiday, THE ICE HARVEST revels in the dark side of it, but does so brilliantly. Personally, this is my absolute favorite Christmas movie of all time! The combination of hilarious moments, tense build-up, and a steadily growing body-count make for a fantastic time for fans of dark comedy, crime thrillers, or a combination of the two.

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Over the years, THE ICE HARVEST has become a hidden gem and remains criminally underrated. This deserves to become an unconventional holiday classic. Even if it never does (and it probably won’t), I will always see it as worth a necessary viewing every December and that’s the highest praise I can give it!

Grade: A+

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