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Knight Movies: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me; Grand Piano
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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It's rather appropriate that Chiemi Karasawa's glorious documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me begins with the legendary "Stritchie" performing a portion of Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" on the soundtrack. The legendary song—with its acerbic, world-weary tone ( written for Follies in 1971 ) and inspired by the long career of Joan Crawford—is the perfect match for Stritch's inestimable talents. Famously contrarian, profane, foghorn-loud and gloriously funny in her brutally frank assessments that take no prisoners ( including herself ), the diva, now 89, is nothing less than the walking, talking embodiment of Sondheim's theatrical classic.

Good times and bum times—she, indeed, has seen 'em all. Throughout Karasawa's movie we look back with her ( via archival photos and vintage footage ) as she contemplates a lifelong performer's version of retirement ( fewer gigs and a move out of town ), rehearses for those shows with her patient ( really patient ) musical director Rob Bowman, tapes an episode of 30 Rock, and examines, without a trace of sentimentality, her own mortality. "Gettin' old ain't for sissies," she quotes Bette Davis as she deals with diabetes, memory issues and various other senior-related infirmities that increasingly work against her body and test her resolve.

However, nothing keeps Stritch down for long or from keeping her professional commitments. ( Only Mother Nature—in the form of a hurricane—seems to have the power to do that. ) The candid observations from this sometime holy terror about her lifelong battle with the bottle, stage nerves ( though she is never less than commanding once the lights come up ) and the occasional vulnerability are augmented by tributes from a host of familiar faces, including Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, James Galdofini, Paul Iacono and Nathan Lane.

As this feisty old broad of Broadway with the showgirl legs that won't quit goes about the business of opening a cabaret revue of all Sondheim songs with the challenge inherent in his brain-teaser lyrics ( which she often forgets ) at the Cafe Carlyle to a roomful of adoring acolytes; takes a peek at a rehearsal space being dedicated in her honor ( hence the review of all the old photos and clippings, gathered together by her assistant ); and strolls around Manhattan, accepting ( as her due ) the nonstop greetings from fans, Stritch is in her element. She also knows that for her—after decades of career triumphs mixed with plenty of setbacks—the party's over and the time has come to "go home" to Michigan more than 50 years after arriving in her adopted New York City. You can bet she doesn't go quietly.

Through richly revealing anecdotes and many of the artfully constructed songs she made her own ( "The Ladies Who Lunch" from Company the most famous ), Stritch provided a telling overview of her remarkable career and sometimes tempestuous offstage life in her fantastic 2001 Tony-winning one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Karasawa's sensationally entertaining movie—which, at times, seems a kindred spirit to Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's warts-and-all Joan Rivers documentary—updates Stritch's story, and the ensuing years can't help but add a layer of poignancy. The film, which debuted here last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival ( at a memorable screening that Stritch attended ), is in theaters this Friday and available now On Demand.

Also On Demand—for a few more days at any rate—is a nifty little thriller in the Hitchcock or DePalma mode from Spanish director Eugenio Mira called Grand Piano. Elijah Wood stars as Tom Selznick, a classical superstar whose concert pianist career was cut short by a bad case of stage fright. Now, thanks to the support of his movie star wife Emma ( played by Kerry Bishe ), he's attempting a comeback via a performance in Chicago ( one presumes at Symphony Center—though the faÞade of the Civic Opera House takes its place ).

Tom is set to play the specially made grand piano ( a Boesendorfer ) of his former mentor, a musical genius who has just died in what are hinted at were mysterious circumstances. As Tom takes to the stage and begins to play, flipping open a page in his piano score, he discovers a note that tells him if he hits one wrong note he will be assassinated—and so will his wife, who is sitting prominently in a box seat just above the stage.

As the orchestra thunders away, Tom's fingers effortlessly skitter up and down the keyboard, while he just as frantically tries to figure out if this is a joke and how to make it stop. During a break in the music, he follows instructions and races offstage, finds an earpiece and gets back to the keyboard just in time to continue. ( The audience, naturally, think he's wrestling with a return of the stage fright. )

Now he has the malevolent voice of his would-be assassin Clem ( John Cusack, in high dungeon archvillain mode ) issuing ever-more terse "or else" instructions to accompany his tempo crazed playing. As the concert draws to a close, Mira, working from a script by Damien Chazelle, ratchets up the tension as Tom becomes increasingly desperate, trying to figure out the assassin's real agenda—which involves the one-of-a-kind piano that is outfitted with extra keys.

The plot of Grand Piano is admittedly over-the-top, but Mira's swooping camera, endless dolly shots and other visual tricks keep it aloft ( at times we even see the inner workings of the piano ). There's also the committed performance of Wood, whose edginess never lets up. ( His hysteria is nearly palpable and there are moments he convinces you he's playing the tricky classical pieces. ) Naturally, Victor Reyes' piano-based score—which has equal parts menace and florid flourishes—needs to be singled out as well ( as it reminds one, in a good way ,of Bernard Herrmann's "Concerto Macabre" from Hangover Square ).

Grand Piano is grand fun—stylish, highly entertaining hokum in the old-fashioned way of other "sophisticated" concert pianist thrillers like the high-faultin' 1946 Bette Davis-Claude Rains-Paul Henreid programmer Deception, the aforementioned masterful Victorian set classic Hangover Square ( with gay actor Laird Cregar's final performance in the lead as the mad pianist ) and a little-known but terrifying episode of Boris Karloff's 1961 TV program Thriller called "Terror in Teakwood."

Film note:

—Cinema Q IV, the fourth annual LGBT-themed movie series, kicks off tonight with Rodney Evans' 2004 film Brother to Brother, which gave Anthony Mackie his breakthrough performance. The series continues each Wednesday in March at 6:30 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington St.

Emily Blunt's debut starring role in the lesbian romance My Summer of Love plays March 12; the sexy, sports-themed German teen coming-of-age dramedy Summer Storm ( sponsored by the Goethe-Institut ) shows March 19; and Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd star in the musical biopic De-Lovely, about gay composer Cole Porter, on March 26.

The Queer Film Society ( of which I'm president ), the Legacy Project, Reeling Film Festival and Affinity Community Services are presenting the series in partnership with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Windy City Times, ChicagoPride and the Reader are media sponsors. The four movies in this year's Cinema QIV line-up are celebrating their 10th anniversary. The screenings are free. .

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