Veronica Mars and Grand Piano

Kristen Bell back on the case, Elijah Wood playing for his life.


Warner Bros.

Having napped through her three seasons on TV, I came to Veronica Mars, the movie, as something of a newbie. The picture is a serviceable extension of the original teen-detective series, which ran from 2004 to 2007 (when the CW dumped it for insufficiently impressive ratings), and it has a sweet backstory. Encouraged by by the show's loyal audience, creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell mounted a Kickstarter campaign last year to fund a VM movie. Their goal was to raise $2-million; in one month, fans kicked in more than $5-million.

The result is better-looking than you might expect of a film that was shot in about 30 days. It reunites several key actors from the old show, and it has an easy-going, happy-to-be-back amiability. Bell's Veronica, who started out as a California PI's daughter with a sideline in high-school sleuthing, is now a law-school grad relocated in New York City, where she lives with her snoozy boyfriend, Stosh Piznarski (Chris Lowell—call him Piz, I'm afraid). Veronica is about to take her bar exam, and already has a good job lined up. Then comes a cross-country call from her (fictitious) hometown of Neptune. It seems her ex-boyfriend, hunky rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), has been arrested for murder (not for the first time, I gather), and needs her help. Veronica, whose feelings for Logan are unresolved, bids Piz goodbye for a bit and flies home, where she'll also get to see her lovable dad (Enrico Colantoni) and do everything possible to avoid her 10-year high-school reunion.

The case that awaits her in Neptune involves the death-by-bathtub-electrocution of Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella), a onetime classmate now better known as pop star Bonnie DeVille. Logan was found at the scene of the crime. He naturally proclaims his innocence. Veronica hauls out her old crime-solving kit (long-lens camera, sheaf of fake IDs) and starts digging around for clues to exonerate him.

Fans will be happy to note that Bell's Veronica is still a tough cookie with a nice line in deadpan wisecracks (and now an Internet sex tape, too, about which she's blithely unfazed). And the plot mostly makes sense—there's a mysterious disappearance, some missing awards-show swag, a modest array of red herrings, a sadistic killer. Oh, and James Franco. Yes, there is an occurrence of James Franco in this movie. Nowadays, as Veronica says, "You're never more than six degrees from James Franco." Okay. But why is that? Somebody should investigate.

Grand Piano

Acclaimed pianist walks out on concert stage, sits down at piano, opens his score and finds a stark message written therein: "Play one wrong note and you die." Talk about tough rooms.

It's a Hitchcock setup, of course—a crisp elevator pitch with lots of space for witty elaboration. And in Grand Piano, Spanish director Eugenio Mira builds it into a great-looking film, with stylish lighting and restless camerawork that also recall Brian De Palma. The Chicago concert hall in which most of the story unfolds is rich with velvety reds, gleaming blacks and backlit panels of glowing ivory, and Mira swoops around in it with birdlike abandon.

Elijah Wood is the piano man, Tom Selznick. Five years ago, Tom humiliated himself by choking up in a concert performance of "La Cinquette," a modern composition so complex that it's said to be "unplayable" (which makes you wonder how anyone has ever managed to hear it). Now, wracked with stage fright, Tom is attempting a comeback concert at the behest of his supportive movie-star wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé, a classic Hitchcock blonde). Also on hand are a comic-relief married couple (Allen Leech and Tamsin Egerton), a loquacious orchestra conductor (Don McManus), a hovering factotum of some sort (Alex Winter), and of course the lunatic behind the messages, who turns out to be John Cusack.

With all of these sturdy characters in place, the script then kicks in. Unfortunately, the movie never recovers. We're prepared to accept a certain number of implausibilities in this sort of high-concept thriller. Impossibilities are something else, though, and Damien Chazelle's script is thick with them.

There's another message in Tom's score. It directs him to get up—in mid-performance, during a "rest" in the concerto he's embarked upon—and return to his backstage dressing room, where a Bluetooth headset is waiting for him. Back onstage, earpiece in place, he now begins an unlikely verbal duet with his tormentor. Things get ridiculous pretty quickly. After all, this is Tom's big comeback night; he has to reestablish himself with a flawless performance of some very challenging music (Beethoven, etc.)—and now he also has to bicker and plead with the madman in his ear, who has a laser-sighted sniper rifle trained on him.

Mira edits all of this with great skill, cutting from Tom's hands dancing across the keyboard to his panicked face, lips moving in constant negotiation with the disembodied voice in his ear, to the ominous laser dot dancing around on his body. There are more trips backstage, as the worried conductor keeps the orchestra chugging away. Eventually, back at the piano—still playing, still talking—Tom manages to fumble a phone out of his pocket. Not only that, he also manages to send out a text message. It's unbelievable, and not in a good way.

So what is Cusack's character up to? What does he want? Let's just say the answer to that question defies all rules of human ratiocination. The final scene of the movie—following a notably silly catwalk slugfest up above the stage—left me slouched in a fog of slack-jawed incomprehension. And in no mood for an encore.