Grand Piano

Grand Piano takes the simplest of plots and turns it into a taut thriller that is worthy of widespread praise. Eugenio Mira directs with an authority and flourish that is sadly lacking from the majority of genre entries, especially of recent vintage, and is savvy enough to know how to let his technique serve the story. While it would be simple enough to dismiss Grand Piano as a knockoff of Phone Booth or any number of Brian De Palma films, this movie elevates itself above the riff-raff and stands as a technical thriller that manages to create a gripping tension for the entire running time.

Elijah Wood stars as Tom Selznick, a gifted pianist that has been away from the concert stage for five years following a disastrous performance that frazzled his nerves and left him with a debilitating case of stage fright. At the behest of his movie star wife Tom is taking the stage again for a special performance in honor of his late mentor and instructor. As he sits in front of the piano and the concert begins he notices the red dot of a rifle scope and that someone has written on his sheet music, “Play one wrong note and you’re dead.”

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There is very little to discuss about the plot that isn’t covered in the synopsis. This is as straightforward as it gets with no fluff or filler to pad the run time any longer than it needs to be. Elijah Wood is remarkable in that he plays Selznick as both emotionally out of control while still being physically competent to play the piano. It is a delicate balance and Wood does a fine job throughout. There is also something to be said for Wood’s ability to portray the crippling nervousness of the character without being showy or histrionic. Emotionally unhinged and low-key are two traits that require skill to portray together without the performance swinging wildly one way and then the other, to which Wood manages nicely.

John Cusack costars, in a sense, as the mostly unseen puppet master behind the scenes. The brilliance of Cusack’s casting is the weight he can bring to a role that is merely the voice on the other end of the line. He conveys menace in all the right ways and still manages to be charismatic while he’s at it. There are few actors who could fill this role and still manage to bring it such high regard.

Grand Piano is the third feature film and first I’ve seen from Spanish director Eugenio Mira and based on this I wholeheartedly look forward to his future endeavors. I was amazed at the way Mira keeps the camera constantly moving and still frames exquisite compositions in the frame. There are very few static shots in the film and the consistent motion serves the story well. Not only does the motion ramp up the underlying unease, but when he does settle in on a static shot it really pops. It is meticulous camerawork and both Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendia deserve to be lauded for it.

Grand Piano is a first rate thriller with top notch performances, dazzling camerawork, and wonderful music. Both the score and the onscreen concert performances are quite good with an opening credit sequence that is haunting and beautiful. Eugenio Mira directs a gem here that I hope finds the audience it deserves. Grade: A-

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Divergent

There is definitely an audience for Divergent. Fourteen year old girls, in particular, will likely adore the entire two and a half hour running time. Everyone else will fall into two distinct camps: those who recognize the lunacy of the premise and quickly start mentally balancing their checkbooks, and those who recognize the lunacy of the premise and quickly start sending mental hate mail to the screenwriter. I found myself shocked and dismayed for vast portions of the film due to the utter ridiculousness of the world Divergent inhabits. There is nothing that anyone with a basic grasp of logic will be able to cling on to and the filmmakers make no effort to elevate the material above the very young audience they are aiming to please.

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The story of Divergent takes place sometime in the unspecified future after a war of some kind has apparently wiped out most of civilization. After this war society has divided up into five factions: Abnegation- the selfless humanitarians, Erudite- the smart people, Amity- farmers, Candor- people compelled to speak the truth at all times, and Dauntless- goth-lite parkour experts who serve as security. There is a giant ceremony where teenagers must decide which faction they are going to live with for the rest of their lives. If a child decides to join a faction other than the one in which they were raised they will never be able to see their family again. It is not explained why. To help in their decision a test is administered that will tell them what faction for which they are best suited. This is where our lead character Tris encounters a problem. She tests as having more than one personality trait. She is a divergent and must hide that fact because if people find out they will immediately kill her.

Tris decides to join the Dauntless because no one would want to watch a movie about the other factions. It is there that she is trained with the worst fighting style known to man and is basically bullied and abused for a good hour of the film’s running time. The movie would like you to believe that being beaten will make you brave. I do not share that belief. During the training and Dauntless initiation Tris falls madly in love with her instructor Four. Yes, his name is Four. The latter part of the film revolves around Tris trying to survive initiation, while hiding the fact that she is divergent, while coyly trying to entice Four, while uncovering a super-secret plot to possibly kill an entire faction. If you’re still following along I applaud your resolve. If this plot sounds interesting you may wish to reexamine the levels of masochism you enjoy.

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It is an immense credit to both Shailene Woodley and Theo James, as Tris and Four respectively, that they deliver performances that are not cringe worthy. The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast. Miles Teller does pop up for a few moments at the beginning to play an annoying bully and then disappears until the plot requires him again at the end. Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Mekhi Phifer, and Kate Winslet all show up in varying degrees in this film in what I can only assume is a plan to stay culturally relevant. The direction from Neil Burger is mediocre to competent and at the very least isn’t distracting, although he brings very little to the table in terms of style. There is also a soundtrack that heavily features Ellie Goulding which may be the highlight of the film.

I’m finding very little else to say about the film because every time I try to think back to the visual elements I am reminded of how they relate to the plot and I am back to mentally berating the script. The most effective dystopian future movies all feature plots that seem like logical extensions of some version of our world. Whether it be Blade Runner or Mad Max it is possible to see how events could have changed the world we know into the world depicted on screen. Divergent asks us to forget what we know about the world we live in and then go ahead and forget what we know about human behavior as well. I would like to forget what I know about this movie. Grade: D+

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300:Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire is dreadful from beginning to end and lacks anything that could even remotely be considered creative. There is no sense of a coherent story and the filmmakers do their best to muddy the waters even further. Whatever may be said about Zack Snyder’s original 300 it cannot be denied that he had a unique eye and a visual style that hadn’t been seen on that scale before. This film chooses to try and copy that style and does so in a woefully inferior manner. It is a film that fails on all fronts.

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300: Rise of an Empire weaves its plot in and around the events from the first film. The film follows the charisma less Themistokles as he leads a charge against the Persian army. He adopts a wide eyed look of disbelief as his go-to facial expression for all occurrences both happy and sad, which seems all the more out of place seeing as the film appears to take place over the course of many years. I say appears because the timetable is less than distinct. I won’t worry about the plot any more seeing as the film spends the first twenty minutes or so narrating the events much as the prologue for The Fellowship of the Ring did, except that in Lord of the Rings it served as backstory and lead in for a plot. Here it serves as the plot in whole.

The actors serve as visual stand-ins seeing as they have no actual characters to play and any dialogue they have would have been better served as inter-title cards. In fact, not only would making this a silent film have been a bold creative choice, but it would have made it a better film overall. Eva Green, as Persian army leader Artemisia, is the only cast member to even attempt anything that could be considered acting, but even her vamping it up isn’t enough to save even one scene.

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All of this brings me to the visual style and effects. The original 300 was stark and unique. The sequel has no creative life to it at all. There is no visual flair that isn’t a direct copy of Zack Snyder’s original and it gets old about 30 seconds into the film. There are all the geysers of stylized blood (that just looks like black oil), rippling male abs, and super slo-mo long takes that were present in the original film but here are done with less skill and artistry. Which begs the question: Why? Why see 300: Rise of an Empire? I have come up with no possible answer for that question. This film fails to deliver even a semblance of a story and contains completely wooden and uninspired acting. The special effects are badly done and in the case of the dust and fire embers that fly everywhere are actually distracting to the film. For the fans of the first film that may be excited to see more of the same I would recommend rewatching the original. Grade: F

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Non-Stop

Non-Stop employs the traditional three act structure as follows: one act of manipulative tedium, one act that is clearly lifted from a different movie, and one act of mind-boggling lunacy. The result is a decisive meh. It is almost fun until your brain kicks in with a “hey wait a minute! moment” and what is left is a wonderment that you didn’t either fall asleep or throw something at the screen in anger. I give full credit to the film makers for trying to keep the film rolling along fast enough to keep that moment at bay and their success will depend fully on your ability to suspend disbelief.

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Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, an alcoholic Air Marshal who is afraid of flying. Just after take-off for a trans-atlantic flight Marks receives a text message stating that someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes until 150 million dollars are wired to a bank account. It is then a race against time as Marks tries to uncover the terrorist. He is hindered by the fact that everyone is a suspect, the fact that the bank account is listed in his name, the fact that no one believes him, the fact that he appears to have no supervisors that know him, and the fact the he is drunk at the time. Other than that, things go swimmingly.

Liam Neeson has phoned in a paycheck and there is little else to be said for the rest of the cast with the exception of Julianne Moore. Moore does what she does best, which is elevate her material beyond the quality of the script. Everyone else plays a stereotype, caricature, or characteristic. 12 Years a Slave standout Lupita Nyong’o evens shows up for two lines. I don’t believe the fault necessarily lies with the actors given that there is no serviceable script to work with.

Non-Stop is blah at best. I felt manipulated by the insistence that everyone is a suspect because the film says they are, the ultimate motivations by the bad guy are beyond ridiculous, and the last act is possible only in movieland. This isn’t the type of bad film that insults the intelligence. This is the type of bad film that is just disappointing. It is mediocre even in its badness. Grade: C-

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The Grandmaster

I am torn with The Grandmaster. On one hand, legendary director Wong Kar Wai has crafted a visual masterwork with style to spare. On the other hand, The Grandmaster lacks any narrative through line and muddles any possibility of a compelling story. The story of Ip Man has been told before, and while it has never been covered with such visual flair, other versions were far more effective at presenting his life in concise ways. I say all of this with a full admission that I watched the American version of The Grandmaster that was controversially and significantly cut from the original Chinese release. I do not know how many of the problems I had with the film are addressed in the full release, but I am reviewing the film as I saw it.

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The Grandmaster is the story of Ip Man, who made Wing Chun accessible and, perhaps most famously, taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man lived, studied, and taught during incredibly tumultuous times in China. If you are unfamiliar with Ip Man’s life history The Grandmaster is not the film to start with. The story is confusing and disjointed with much of the exposition merely being loose threads to string together the visual action pieces. However, those visual action pieces are a wonder to behold.

From the very beginning Wong Kar Wai makes his style felt and the opening fight scene in the rain is gloriously staged and shot. Fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping brings his extensive expertise to this style-fest and all of the martial arts are immaculate. The juxtaposition of crisp and sharp movements with the overall fluidity of motion is highlighted throughout, but the beauty of the action is not enough to hide the narrative problems forever. The story comes to a near halt about three quarters through with the main character fading into the background for much of the final act. It is a confusing choice and no matter how gorgeous the scenes are in the final act, one must wonder why they are being shown. The focus of the plot seems to shift back and forth for no reason which makes any overall theme cloudy at best. The ending of the film does not seem to belong to the beginning.

The acting from all major characters maintain a flat lined level of competency. This is not necessarily a negative, but further promotes the idea that The Grandmaster is Wong Kar Wai’s vision above all else. The martial arts fight scenes are breathtaking with a graceful and vibrant style and left me bordering on hyperbole trying to describe them. The story lacks any cohesiveness and is confusing at best. Two sides to the same film. One side is brilliant, the other is lacking. The fault lies in the storytelling and editing. Whether the blame is on Wong Kar Wai or Harvey Weinstein I am not sure. Grade: B-

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