Alfred Hitchcock

March 13, 2014

Grand Piano

IMITATE
Grand Piano – Imitate
I often imagine myself in pitch meetings for films. A bunch of guys, or gals, who think they are the smartest person in the room that has the next best ideas. These are the same meetings where we got bat nipples, thinking Superman can lift an entire Kryptonite island, and a fifth Paranormal Activity would be a great idea. With “Grand Piano”, I’m sure the idea was, “hey, let’s make a version of Phone Booth without the booth and put it in a music hall where the kid from North plays the piano.” As sarcastic as I might sound, I would have said “…..tell me more.” Unfortunately, despite the Hitchcock and Argento influence, “Piano” is much happier trying to imitate their style as opposed to creating a truly suspenseful experience.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t enough suspense to keep you interested.

“Piano” is the tale of Tom Selznick, played by Elijah Wood, a stage fright piano virtuoso still trying to live down one of his greatest failures.  With the help and encouragement of his movie star wife Emma, played by Kerry Bishé, Tom is ready to redeem himself in front of a packed house while playing the iconic piano of his mentor, Patrick Godureaux.  Little does Tom know that he is a pawn in a much bigger game and one wrong note could cost him his life.  I love to get a little melodramatic sometimes.

Overall, the premise of “Piano” is actually quite interesting.  It takes the best parts of films like “Opera,” “Speed,” and “Nick of Time” and gives it the sense of dread that you would feel in, as I mentioned before, an Argento or Hitchcock film.  There are several long shots throughout the film that add to the tension and add scope to the size of the performance that Tom is about to put on; and this brings me to the piano playing scenes, which are excellent.  Apparently Wood has a piano playing background, but I would assume that combining that with his acting ability, and perhaps a little CG and camera trickery made him look like the piano prodigy that he is in the film.

Outside of the look and feel of “Piano” that is where the film takes a bit of a nosedive.  Once the film gets underway there is a certain lack of suspense, and while I really do enjoy the performance of Wood, I never really felt that his life was at risk, and the film turns into a formulaic slasher film once a few people end up getting killed.

My other issue was “the voice.”  For sake of spoilers I won’t disseminate who’s behind “the voice” but for one it’s not Keifer Sutherland (by God I wish it was Jack Bauer on the other line) but the pay-off, again, is lackluster and doesn’t have the same “oomph” as the reveal might have had in the early 90s.

What has surprised me lately are the roles that Wood is continuing to take; he’s become less and less Hollywood and more and more of an Indie Horror Hero.  Since his turn as Kevin in “Sin City” (and that little cameo in “The Hobbit”) Wood has elected to stay away from the harsh light of Hollywood and star in quirkier fare, including the starring role in the underrated remake of “Maniac.”  While I don’t really buy Wood as a piano genius, his performance is still relatively strong and he is starting to remind me more and more of a modern day Peter Lorre.

While “Grand Piano” isn’t perfect, it does create enough tension throughout to hold one’s attention, but at the end of the day, it does a better job imitating then setting itself apart from those that wish to be Hitchcock, and the man who WAS Hitchcock.  Nonetheless, still worth a watch if you’re a fan of the technical merits of filmmaking.  Also, as an aside, kudos to Magnet Releasing for continuing to release interesting thiller/horror/bizarro films that take chances.

Fun Fact: A “custom” Bösendorfer is the piano used in the film, an Austrian manufacturer founded in 1828.

October 19, 2012

31 Nights of Halloween, Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960) – Prodding

Slasher films have been around for a loooooong time, and have had plenty of ups and downs.  Take “Halloween” for instance, it pretty much invented “the formula.” Then you have “Friday the 13th” that perfected “the formula.” After that you had plenty of other slasher fodder, including any holiday being translated into slasher fare.  Let me illustrate.

I digress, I’ll continue this rant in another review, but it does bring me to a point; recent slasher films (and I use that term loosely) are awful.  There is nothing iconic about the sub-genre anymore.  Gone are the days of Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface.  However, it does bring me to the most recent review on the “31 Nights of Halloween” and that is Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher film, 1960’s “Psycho.”

You might think that I’m going to laud “Psycho”and say how great a film it is, well, it’s just okay.  While there are many redeeming aspects, namely the cinematography, music, and the balls Hitchcock had (spoiler alert, c’mon this is a 50 year old movie) to kill off his star, Janet Leigh, “Psycho”doesn’t hold up as well as some people think, and watching it again as an adult with more of a appreciation of the genre and film in general; it’s prodding.

Maybe I’m committing blasphemy (I must be, because there is nothing negative out there about this film).  I’ve besmirched the greatness that is Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense.  Sorry Alfie, no hard feelings I hope, but “Psycho”just seems antiquated in this day and age.  It’s almost a procedural serial killer/cop drama, which wouldn’t work for the genre today.

“Psycho,” based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, and loosely on 1950’s serial killer, Ed Gein, is about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), whose on the run with $40,000, and finds her way to the Bates Hotel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his domineering mother.  Crane is soon murdered by what seems to be a woman while taking the most famous shower in cinema history.  Bates finds the body, and disposes of both it and Crane’s car.  Worried about her sister, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) hires private detective, Milton Aborgast (Martin Balsam), to track down her sister.  The P.I. meets a grisly fate at the hands of the same woman that murdered Marion.  Hearing nothing from their detective, Lila and Marion’s lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), take matters into their own hands and head to the Bates Hotel. Lila, while investigating the Bates’ residence, stumbles upon the basement revealing the skeletal remains of what seems to be Norman Bates’ mother, revealing the twist that Bates was actually acting as his mother, thus committing the murders of both Marion and Aborgast.

When you break the movie down that way it sounds great; simple, effective, and trendsetting.  No one had seen that level of violence from a mainstream film, especially one done by Hitchcock.  The problem with “Psycho” is the pacing.  The interactions between characters seems forced (granted, I’m looking at this from a 2012 perspective as opposed to the 1960s) and it takes a while to move the story along.  I understand that is the point of a suspense film, but “Psycho” comes off as more of a noir, and when you think about it in that sense, it’s an excellent study in noir film making.

What drives “Psycho” lies in the director and the composer.  Hitchcock brings an eeriness unlike any film before it and Bernard Herrmann’s score brings a sense of dread in every scene, and “the shower scene” speaks for itself.

The point I’m trying to get at is this; would “Psycho” make it in today’s horror market?  No, and the proof of that is the 1998 remake.  It’s the same exact movie, only with different actors and in color.  If it didn’t work then, it won’t work now.  You also have to take into account what movies studios are pitching; found footage films.  You might say, “Hey Matt, you just watched “V/H/S” and you said you liked it?!”  Yes, I did enjoy “V/H/S”, but when it comes to the horror genre that’s all you’re going to get.  That, and another “Final Destination” and something else that has something to do with demonic possession.  No matter how bad the film is, people will eat it up, and a relatively smart film like “Psycho” wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Psycho” is a film that you can call timeless in it’s direction, tone, and music, but the way the story is constructed and once the twist ending is out there is little replay value from a shock standpoint.  If you want an education in film study, sure, “Psycho” is great, but it’s a time capsule film what worked then, but doesn’t really work now.

Fun Fact:  John Carpenter named Donald Pleasence’s hero psychiatrist from the “Halloween” series after Sam Loomis from “Psycho.”

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