Grand Piano (2013)

2016 #34
Eugenio Mira | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Spain & USA / English | 15 / R

Written by Damien “Whiplash” Chazelle, Grand Piano is “Phone Booth with a piano”. Elijah Wood plays a nerve-ridden musical wunderkind about to make his comeback when he receives a phone call ordering him to play an impossible piece of music perfectly or else his loved ones get it. Is he up to the challenge? Can he uncover and defeat his telephonic terroriser whilst also giving a piano performance to a packed house?

Running under 80 minutes before the credits roll, Grand Piano is a brisk thriller that barely has time to be anything less than engrossing. It relies on keeping you entertained with its series of quick reveals, twists, and sequences of tension, rather than meaningful themes or considered characters (though look out for some perhaps-familiar faces in supporting roles nonetheless). Director Eugenio Mira keeps things relatively classy, rather than descending into meaningless shaky-cam antics — this is a movie set at a classical music recital, after all.

The storyline is utterly preposterous, of course, though it amuses me that some people criticise it for that. I mean, it’s a genre picture — no genre picture is not preposterous. The veneer of truth they present varies, but rare is the genre movie that crafts a genuinely plausible version of real life. Die Hard would never, ever happen, but it’s still a great action movie. I’m not claiming Grand Piano is of Die Hard quality, but criticising its plot for being preposterous? It’s not so preposterous that it breaks the ‘rules’ of the thriller genre. Either you’re on board with that, or maybe you shouldn’t watch this kind of movie.

Really, there’s not much more to Grand Piano than its well-made creation of tension and thrills, and so I don’t find myself with much more to say about it. I enjoyed it very much, though.

4 out of 5

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

2015 #39
George Ermitage | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Grosse Pointe BlankAction comedy starring John Cusack as a hitman who has to face the life he left behind when he’s assigned a job in his hometown on the same weekend as his high school reunion.

In particular, he has to face the girl he abandoned on prom night. She’s played by Minnie Driver, when she was still kinda cute and indie rather than annoying and kinda diva-ish (see also: Good Will Hunting). Other delights: a hilarious supporting cast, including Dan Akroyd, Hank Azaria and Alan Arkin, and a fantastic ’80s-derived soundtrack.

Immensely entertaining, I was this close to giving full marks.

4 out of 5

Grosse Pointe Blank placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

2015 #33
Clint Eastwood | 146 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilSent to write “500 words on a Christmas party” in Savannah, Georgia, journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) instead finds himself covering a murder trial where he’s become friendly with the accused (Kevin Spacey).

Based on the bestselling book of a true story, Midnight in the Garden (as my TV’s EPG would have it) benefits from that reality to guide it through the quirky locals and unusual turns of its true-crime plot — there’s no doubt that Spacey killed the man, but the exact circumstances of the act are disputed. There’s been some movieisation in the telling of the events (the shooting happened in May; there were four trials, here condensed to one; a romantic subplot for Kelso is a (clichéd) addition), but the sense that enough of the truth remains keeps the film inherently captivating.

That’s handy for the film, which almost leans on the “it’s all true!” angle as a crutch to help the viewer through its own production. Eastwood’s direction might kindly be described as “workmanlike” — it’s strikingly unremarkable. Cusack is as blank as he ever seems to be (have I missed his Good Films that once marked him out? I say “once” because he’s only a leading man in shit no one notices these days). He’s fine, just borderline unnoticeable, which is why the romance subplot feels so misplaced — he’s an audience cipher to access this interesting location and set of events, not a character in his own right. Apparently Ed Norton turned down the role — now he might’ve brought some personality to it. Spacey is worth watching, at least.

What's in the jar? WHAT'S IN THE JAR?Like many an “adapted from a bestseller!” movies, I guess Midnight in the Garden was a big deal in its day that’s faded to semi-obscurity since (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, increasingly The Da Vinci Code, and on and on). It’s no forgotten masterpiece, but has enough going for it to merit a rediscovery by the right people who’ll enjoy it. Like me. For that, much thanks to Mike at Films on the Box, whose insightful review I naturally recommend.

4 out of 5

The Raven (2012)

2013 #30
James McTeigue | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Hungary & Spain / English | 15 / R

The RavenJohn Cusack stars as literary giant (figuratively) Edgar Allan Poe in this wannabe-Victorian-Se7en from the director of V for Vendetta.

Set in the days leading up to Poe’s death (a period in the author’s life which is apparently shrouded in mystery), the film sees a serial killer recreating horrendous scenes from Poe’s tales, leading the police to rope in the author in the hope he can help solve the case. A game develops between the killer and the writer, as they race against time to stop more deaths and all that palaver.

Dark and gruesome with the killer having a clear line to follow in his murders? Wannabe Se7en, see. Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow up on that notion too well. Screenwriters Hannah Shakespeare (helluva name to live up to) and Ben Livingston don’t seem to know what to do with Poe’s tales, so there’s no rhyme nor reason to the killings — they’re plucked at random, possibly from the killer’s most favouritest stories, possibly just the ones someone thought would be the most cinematic. And whereas Se7en’s gore is shocking because it’s used sparingly, is kind of plausible, and is set very much in the real world, here we get a kind of gothic horror feel, complete with copious CGI blood at points.

That said, I got the feeling that The Raven is sort of an R by default. (Note that it received a 15 over here, which is also the stomping ground of harder-edged PG-13s.) There’s gore and the odd swear word, but none of it is lingered on. Most of the obvious blood ‘n’ guts is constrained to one scene, and I believe I counted the PG-13’s requisite single use of the F-word. Holmes and Watson...That they didn’t tone it all down just a smidge to match, and so go for the box office-friendly PG-13, is a surprise in these days.

Setting aside comparisons to Fincher’s masterpiece, I’ve read that one critic described The Raven as “Saw meets Sherlock Holmes”. Obviously I maintain that my allusion is better, but I can see where they’re coming from. However, apart from one murder inspired by The Pit and the Pendulum and someone being (temporarily) buried alive, it’s not that Saw-like; and it lacks the humour or action of Ritchie’s Holmes, or the deductive reasoning of any version. But, y’know, aside from that… Additionally, the climax is somewhat reminiscent of A Study in Pink. Might be coincidence, but on the other hand that episode did go out nearly two years before this was released…

I don’t know how historically accurate this tale is, but I imagine not very — I expect we’d know if Poe had been involved in a headline-making murder investigation that led to his death. But that’s fine — it’s the embodiment of the notion that a fiction film is an entertainment, not a history lesson. As for the author’s characterisation, I don’t know much about Poe, but can’t imagine Cusack is an accurate interpretation. He’s solid as this interpretation, though: a charming, roguish figure, living hand-to-mouth through his fondness for alcohol and dramatic wooing of a woman whose father hates him.

A right pair of BritsThe rest of the cast are from Hollywood’s usual go-to for period tales: Brits; if not entirely then mostly so. (The film was shot in Hungary and Serbia, so I suppose our thesps have the additional advantage of being geographically favourable to Americans.) You know you’re getting a level of quality there, then, though for me Kevin R. McNally lets the side down (again). He’s only a supporting character and is fine most of the time, but there’s one bit when he’s talking to the lead detective and just rattles off his line… It’s not the world’s greatest speech, but you can hear there was meant to be more nuance and quiet in there.

That could be the fault of the director, of course. A first assistant director for the Wachowskis in the days of The Matrix trilogy, James McTeigue graduated to feature directing with the adaptation of V for Vendetta, which I think is a very good film. He followed it with Ninja Assassin, which by all accounts is dreadful (I have, by one way or another, wound up with the BD, so someday I’ll find out). I think The Raven suggests his first film may have been fluke, or was at least aided by his mentors (who were also writers and producers on V). The actual direction-y directing here is mostly fine, although on the whole the film is too dark; sometimes literally too dark to see what’s going on, and that’s not aided by occasionally clunky editing.

I’ve not even mentioned the inappropriately modern title sequence (doubly bad as it comes after a rather sombre ending), or that the neat use of a raven in the film’s logo on the poster remains the entire project’s strongest aspect.

Bad review?Se7en is probably my favourite film ever made, but criticisms that it’s quite a standard detective mystery are not invalid. It’s enlivened by Andrew Kevin Walker’s writing (great dialogue, engrossing structure, etc), some top-drawer performances (Freeman, Pitt, a loopy-calm Spacey), and, probably most of all, David Fincher’s inestimable touch. In making such a comparison it’s easy to see that The Raven lacks any of these, which renders it a solid period mystery, but no more.

3 out of 5

The Raven is on Sky Movies Premiere at various times this week.

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

2007 #125
Woody Allen | 95 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Bullets Over BroadwayThe final Woody Allen film of this little ‘season’ is that rare thing: one that doesn’t star him!

This is its biggest flaw, as John Cusack spends the entire film doing a blatant and middling impression of the writer/director. But he nonetheless does OK, and when the rest of the cast are note-perfect, the script pacy and funny, the photography gorgeous, and the long takes never more appropriate, it’s hard not to be impressed. Special mention for the final scene, a four-way shouted conversation between two high windows and the street — it’s beautifully written and executed.

Another underrated Allen film, and probably the most down-right entertaining of his I’ve seen so far.

4 out of 5