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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Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D

This is a hard review to write. It begs the question of what the goals of this blog, or reviews in general, are. Am I trying to pass on valuable information regarding whether or not you will enjoy the films I write about? Am I just hoping to share the passion I have for film, particularly some of the more obscure genre titles?  I had a blast watching Dracula 3D, but at the same time I can honestly see where many people would not.

So let’s take things back a few steps. Dracula is the latest film by Dario Argento, quite possibly my favorite director, and a figure who I have been obsessed with for quite some time. In the short time that I have been working on Living24FPS, there have already been several references to his work, Suspiria in particular. I have read many books and countless articles on him, written papers on him in college, and re-watched his films countless times. So truthfully I am no longer sure I am able to view his work in any sort of unbiased manner. I am, quite simply, an Argentophile. Meeting the man in person at a Fangoria convention and having him sign my Japanese Suspiria poster was a massive thrill for me, as was visiting his shop in Rome while on vacation in Italy. I could go on about him and his films endlessly, but for now I felt this background was necessary to understand where I am coming from in regards to this film.

This Dracula seems to gather many of the earlier takes on the vampire’s story, throw them in a blender, and then strain the results through Argento’s sensibilities. The major influence seems to be that of the Hammer Dracula films, but there are certainly influences from Nosferatu, Universal, and even the Coppola take on the Count. As I mentioned, these influences are then filtered through Argento, and the results are often off the wall. In this version Dracula can take the form of any animal, and the choice of giant  praying Mantis in one scene  is certainly a bizarre one. This also  leads us to an issue some have had with the film–very lackluster CGI effects. Argento was an early adopter of CGI back when he made the Stendhal Syndrome, and unfortunately it looks like the technology he has access to has not advanced much. Thankfully the notion of choosing to turn into a Mantis is so bizarre and surreal  that the concept overcomes the dodgy effect. Less lucky is a wolf transformation. Having seen many such transformations in films prior, often using wonderful practical effects, it is hard to give this wolf effect a pass. Thankfully it is a rather brief appearance.

If you come to this looking for the dark seriousness of his early giallos or the compelling twisted  fantasy of Suspiria or Inferno you will be disappointed. That does not seem to be the playground Dario is playing in anymore. There is a quirky, self referential quality to his more recent works, almost a wink and nod acknowledgement of his current place in the world of cinema. He often stages homages to his own earlier films, such as a suicide shot in this film that clearly harkens back to a similar CGI bullet scene from the Stendhal Syndrome. It is almost as though he is pointing out that the effect hasn’t been brought up to the modern standard. But perhaps that is the point? Argento has always made films that call attention themselves as being FILM. For example, the stabbing scene at the start of Suspiria shows the knife enter the beating heart, something that the viewer could not really see. The roving camerawork, over the top color scheme, it all shouts “LOOK AT HOW THIS FILM IS MADE!” Wouldn’t seemless CGI be simply another image on the screen, without calling attention to its artifice?

The film does feature wonderful use of 3D (although on the 3D Blu-ray I watched the title scene has the eye reversed from the rest of the film, requiring a quick adjustment while watching if you want to see the 3D effects properly) ,  great cinematography and color, and a wonderful German Expressionistic feel. While it does not touch the heady days of his earlier work in terms of baroque imagery, there are certainly touches present to harken back to those days, including a haunting dream sequence and some creative camera angles and movements. There are some creative bursts of violence, including Dracula’s revenge in a meeting of the townsfolk that is particularly effective. 

Plot wise, this does not stray too far from previous tellings of Dracula. Jonathan Harker here is attending to Dracula’s library, cataloguing his great collection, when he falls victim to the Count’s Vampiress bride and eventually the count himself. Lucy, played by Argento’s daughter and frequent co-worker, Asia Argento, is in this version romantically unattached, not interested in her current suitors. Mina, Harker’s wife, is soon the object of Dracula’s desire, as she seemingly represents the rebirth of the former love of the Count’s life (a notion added to many adaptations that is not found in Bram Stoker’s original novel). Dr. Seward comes across as less sympathetic here to the mad outburts of Renfield, who serves his master by acting as a living food bank for a Vampiress among other roles. Late in the game Rutger Hauer arrives as a steely Van Helsing to help Mina confront the Vampire

The well-worn plot does offer some twists and turns along the way, but primarily the joy here is soaking up the lavish 3d compositions, atmosphere, throwback score from frequent collaborator Claudio Simonetti (replete with old school 50’s sci-fi Theremin sounds), over the top gore, and other worldly feel that an Argento production supplies. This is a fast, fun film, with its own quirky appraoch that works for me. However, as an Argento and Euro Horror fan, I am prepared for some of the baggage that comes with this type of viewing. The odd dubbing choices are at this point expected to me, and in fact add to the surreal feel. Not  everyone would find that to be the case. The same can be said for the way the film wraps itself is an air of artifice, toying with the viewer. To me this was all a hoot, but I am sure most would not have the same reaction.