Grand Piano

This is going to be a shorter review than normal. However, I caught Grand Piano on in demand last night and wanted to share a few thoughts.

Grand Piano works on the level of sheer tour de force cinematography and nail-biting tension. The plot is somewhat absurd, and the twists that follow are even more so, but the performances are great, and the use of the camera is stunning. Think Brian De Palma meets Argento at his most frenetic, and you have an idea of the mise en scene at work here. Elijah Wood plays a masterful pianist returning to the stage after a lengthy absence following a breakdown while trying to perform a notoriously difficult piece. Already a jagged bundle of nerves, he is sent over the edge by a message  in his sheet music as he begins to perform, telling him that he will die if he misses a note in tonight’s performance.

Grand Piano is insanely tense, yet it is playful at the same time. You will be on the edge of your seat, but you will be enjoying yourself as well. As the plot plays out, there are moments so absurd that I could not help but smile, and yet somehow I never lost the intense suspense at work here. Wood’s performance is excellent, but for me the camera was the star of the show; swooping and gliding and for a stellar moment even split-screening its way into my psyche. Yes this is in many ways a case of style over substance, but when the style is this much fun I won’t complain.

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Byzantium

With Byzantium Neil Jordan weaves a tapestry of vampire lore that is breathtakingly beautiful, darkly haunting, and surprisingly touching. The film focuses on the unending lives of mother and daughter vampires,  Clara and Eleanor. Clara is a seductress, using her sexuality to make her unending way in the world, and daughter Eleanor is weary of her  mother’s lifestyle. By flashing back and forth through time, we not only learn the tragic story of Clara and Eleanor’s origins, but also get a sense of the slow grinding nature of endless time, and how it wears on these eternal souls.

The vampire origins in Byzantium are unique, and regulated by an overseeing vampire brotherhood. The vampires in the world of Byzantium have very specific codes they live by as far as secrecy and who is allowed to “live” as a vampire. For example, women are forbidden to share the secret of the creation of the undead life. In this patriarchal vampire society, Clara is an anomaly, and eventually a target for the brotherhood as she has broken their code by “creating” Eleanor. Clara constantly keeps Eleanor on the move without explaining the true reason–running from the brotherhood. 

There is a pervasive melancholy throughout Byzantium. Eleanor is unable to reconcile her past, and yet it fully shapes the being that she is. This is the films greatest theme, that you cannot escape your past. For as much as Clara imposes on Eleanor to look forward and leave the past behind them, Eleanor is unable to do so. Constantly attempting to write and share her story, Eleanor is consumed by her past. She soon meets Frank, a sickly young  man in college and the two share an attraction that Eleanor struggles against. However when they both take a writing class together, Eleanor finally take the chance to share her story, an act that moves the film towards its final confrontations. It is also an act that leads Eleanor towards some sort of reconciliation; an understanding of her past and its influence on her and a  casting off of the shackles it has around her. After all, what is a life  not shared?

If I am being somewhat vague on details with the plot, it is because I want to leave the film its chance to cast a spell over you. Byzantium is not a briskly paced film, but it burrows into you, enthralling you with lush imagery, fascinating characters, rich lore, and unexpected emotions. There are moments of violence and gore, but they are sprinkled throughout and are not the focus here.  At times I felt as though I were watching a vampiric twist to Les Miserables, other times a Noir crime film, and still others a European horror film.  But the tone is never uneven, the threads all weave together, and in the end Eleanor sees she may not be as different from her mother as she believed. Byzantium is not to be missed.