1. Grand Piano (Directed by Eugenio Mira. Starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack)
For fans of: Panic Room, early Brian De Palma thrillers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99
You might remember Joel Schumacher's dreadful 2002 thriller Phone Booth, in which a sniper holds a man hostage in a phone booth by calling and telling him there's a gun aimed at his head. At first glance, Grand Piano sounds like a similarly gimmicky reworking: Replace Colin Farrell with Elijah Wood, a phone booth with a grand piano, and call it a day. But while Phone Booth never amounted to anything other than a middling thriller with a tacky premise, director Eugenio Mira manages to turn Grand Piano into a brainy psychological drama.
Wood plays Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who's considered the best of his generation but has disappeared from the public eye ever since a botched performance five years ago. On the day of his big comeback concert, his highly anticipated return to the stage is hijacked by a man (John Cusack) with a secret agenda. After an awful flight and a bad case of stage fright, Tom's nerves are already on the edge — but that's nothing compared to what happens when he sits down at the concert and starts playing.
On his sheet music, a mysterious figure has warned Tom that if he flubs a note, he will die. After being instructed to return to his dressing room during a break, he acquires an earpiece provided by a mysterious sniper who explains that he has a high-powered, silenced rifle aimed at Tom and, should he not follow his exact instructions, he'll be killed. While hammering away at the piano, Tom manages to carry on a conversation with his captor, make one-handed phone calls without being seen, and try to hatch a plan to outsmart the sniper — and all while playing some of the toughest piano parts ever written.
Despite the boundaries of its single-location setting and simple conceit, Grand Piano plays out like a throwback psychological thriller, closely resembling Brian De Palma features of the '70s and '80s, like Blow Out and Obsession. Mira never lets up on the tension and elegantly builds mystery throughout the film's tense 90-minute runtime. Like an orchestra conductor, Mira masterfully pulls together numerous elements — fast-paced editing, a nerve-wracking score, and stellar performances — to create something as grand and thrilling as the title promises.
2. Run & Jump (Directed by Steph Green. Starring Will Forte and Maxine Peake)
For fans of: Nebraska, quiet indie dramedies
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
Who would have thought that the guy who stuck a piece of celery in his butt and pranced around nude in MacGruber would have so much potential as a dramatic actor?
Alexander Payne raised some eyebrows when he cast Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte in this year's Best Picture-nominated Nebraska. But any doubts about his viability as a dramatic actor should officially be cast off with Run & Jump, which features Forte in another terrific performance. Forte plays Ted, an American neuroscience researcher who has been assigned to study Conor (Edward MacLiam). Conor recently suffered a stroke, and while he has physically recovered, he remains incapable of exhibiting any sort of emotional response to the people around him. Though he moves in with Conor's family for round-the-clock study, Ted deliberately keeps a distance from Conor's wife Venetia (Maxine Peake) and his children, interacting with them only as test subjects.
But as Ted becomes more familiar with Vanetia and her kids, the pair begin to strike up a unique friendship. Vanetia is struggling behind the facade of a strong-willed mother able to keep it all together and take care of the family after the husband she married essentially dies, as flashbacks indicated Conor is merely a shell of the fun-loving family man he used to be. As Ted catches on, he becomes more involved with her kids, acting as a sort of surrogate father as he becomes closer with Vanetia.
Run & Jump works so well because it slowly builds up Ted and Vanetia's relationship. There are no big revelations or deftly romantic passes at one another; it's a quiet, subtle friendship that merely hints at a possible attraction. This isn't a love story; instead, Green and screenwriter Alibhe Keogan, present a profile of a woman struggling to keep it all together while asking intriguing questions about whether anyone can continue to love someone who is no longer the same person. This is a quietly moving and heartwarming film, boosted not only by Forte's terrific performance, but by Peake's remarkably controlled one.
3. 24 Exposures (Directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Adam Winguard, Simon Barrett, and Sophia Takal)
For fans of: The Canyons, erotic thrillers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99
When you crank out features as frequently as Joe Swanberg does, it's no surprise that they're not all winners. 24 Exposures — the latest from the prolific mumblecore writer/director/editor/actor — is one of those cases. 24 Exposures, which comes less than a month after Swanberg's much more successfull All the Light in The Sky, is a jarring erotic thriller whose Hitchcockian sensibilities quickly devolve into a sleazy Cinemax After Dark special.
24 Exposures' campy, illicit eroticism is played for seemingly superficial purposes, but there's not enough plot to justify such gratuitous sex. The film stars Billy (You're Next director Adam Winguard) an arty photographer who teams up with his girlfriend (Caroline White) to shoot elaborately staged pictures of nude women in murder crime scenes. It's the kind of fetishized photo sets that could just as easily be passed off as art or porn. But it soon becomes clear that Billy's primary interest in his models is deciding which of them to sleep with.
Early on in the film, Billy and Alex engage in a threesome with his latest model, the curious, eager-to-please Callie (Sophia Takal). But Callie's tenure as Billy's muse of the moment disappears when he meets Callie's friend Rebecca (Helen Rogers). Billy sleazily begins to persuade her into modeling for one of his shoots and, in one of the film's most pointlessly gratuitous scenes, gets her to pose nude with a friend while his girlfriend is away. But Billy's boundary-pushing artwork comes at a price: there's a depressed detective (Simon Barrett) who's investigating a series of homicides that look like they could've been subjects of Billy's "art."
That premise might sound like the recipe for an intriguing erotic thriller, but it never comes together. Instead, the result is a skeevy, self-serving thriller that offers little more than lazy titillation.
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