Whiplash @ The Ross

Andrew (Miles Teller) in practice

Andrew (Miles Teller) in practice

Some of you reading this review right now have a regret over not learning that instrument–be it the trumpet, flute, guitar, or the piano. I regret not learning the piano, and I blame myself for not having applied myself through practice nor, I resolve, not having the talent nor skill to learn it. If we were to dig deep into our memories, I’ll bet most of us would find that we abandoned our music lessons because of that one teacher who whacked our knuckles with a ruler or called us stupid for missing a note on a scale. These approaches to learning crushed our spirits; after all, we practiced and practiced until our fingers cramped from the discipline.

Jim Neimann (Paul Reiser) comforts son Andrew

Jim Neimann (Paul Reiser) comforts son Andrew

If you resonate with this anecdote, then Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a film you will appreciate. Whiplash stars Miles Teller, who plays Andrew Neimann, a talented drummer who aspires to become a great artist like legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich. He is accepted into Schaffer, a most prestigious east coast conservatory of music. There, Neimann gives himself over to his drums and to every minute required to develop his skill as a drummer. He wants to become a member of the school’s esteemed Jazz band and, with discipline and dedication, he believes he can make it. He does, and falls under the tutelage of the sadistic conductor, Terence Fletcher, played with estimable skill by J. K. Simmons. Once Neimann is selected as a core drummer for the band, Fletcher inflicts cruel and unusual punishment on his nineteen-year-old progeny. It’s not that Fletcher hates Neimann. No. It’s that Fletcher wants Neimann to be all that he can be; to realize the artistic genius that is lying dormant inside of him; and, to pull from his feet through the pelvic through the rib cage and branch off into the hands that hold the sticks that beat the drums in Fletcher’s jazz band. But … Neimann must endure Fletcher’s verbal and physical abuse to get into those places.

Fletcher (JK Simmons) the 'Angel' of Jazz

Fletcher (JK Simmons) the ‘Angel’ of Jazz

Miles Teller is genius as Andrew Neimann. He takes the audience into the vein of a psycho yearning to not only belong, but to master both his instrument and his emotions in the presence of a vicious taskmaster. The anticipation of that final jazz concert, however, keeps the adrenalin flowing, and we push with Neimann through his personal challenges to make it to the stage. Paul Reiser plays Neimann’s devoted father, Jim, who keeps the confidence for his son as he faces humiliation. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a riveting film that will leave you emotionally spent but feeling victorious!

We may have put away our instruments, but Andrew Neimann’s victory will direct us to the dark recesses of our closet and pull out the flute or trumpet or clarinet; or, to raise the piano’s cover and play those keys!

Whiplash plays through December 4 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue @ The Ross

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) heckled by his past, Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) heckled by his past, Birdman

What happens, then, when that yearning for artistic accomplishment has manifested beyond your wildest dreams but begins its nadir once the fickle public considers it passe and overdone? I will tell you what happens: that previous success will haunt you to such an extent, that plain old living will begin to ache all through your being. It will cause you to act in all kinds of uncomplimentary ways; it even will kill you. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue explores this evil that stalks every celebrity has been: the chase of the will ‘o’ the wisp called the comeback! The film stars Michael Keaton, who plays Riggan Thomson, an actor who became famous for portraying the superhero Birdman three times two decades earlier. Riggan is going for the comeback not in film but on New York’s Broadway stage in a play he adapts for theater from a collection of short stories by American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. The play is called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Here, Riggan anticipates revitalizing his career and receiving respectability among his fellow colleagues.

Riggan and Mike (Ed Norton) disagree backstage

Riggan and Mike (Ed Norton) disagree backstage

Much of Birdman is shot in the bowels of the St. James Theater on West 44th Street, where we experience the director’s angst over the audience reception of the play, an egomaniac co-star, the make or break review from the theater critic, masterfully handled by Lindsay Duncan, and … of course … rehearsals. Iñárritu flawlessly folds within the narrative a critique of society’s preoccupation with the superhero in film and how this obsession eclipses if not beats to death the realities of the actor’s human experience; eventually, it undermines an actor’s ability to breathe life into new creative endeavors. Birdman verbally taunts Riggan for turning down Birdman 4, as did Michael Keaton who turned down Batman 3, and the gibes eventually get the best of Riggan, the actor.

Riggan and Lesley (Naomi Watts) discuss family issues

Riggan and Lesley (Naomi Watts) discuss family issues

Birdman is a good film, but Iñárritu fails to explore fully the unexpected virtue; ending the film instead with an expected moment when the present achievement won by Riggan Thomson beats back his Birdman past.

Birdman plays through December 18 at The Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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