“Trainwreck”—A Comic Collision


images“Trainwreck” is the best and funniest rom-com since “Bridesmaids”, another hilarious feminist film by Judd Apatow, known also for bro-coms like “40-Year Old Virgin”.  And like previous Apatow productions “Bridesmaids” (see my June 20, 2011 review) and “Girls” , “Trainwreck” is both funny and a little sad. The scenes that are the most memorable and vivid, however, are comic fireworks. Written and starring Amy Schumer, “Trainwreck’s” humor is raunchy, pushes the boundaries of conventional one-liners, and is as sexually explicit as Schumer’s Comedy Central TV series.

Amy Townsend (Schumer) is the daughter of a cantankerous, alcoholic dad (Colin Quinn) with infidelity and commitment issues. Amy follows in his footsteps. Disagreements with her younger sister about Dad’s assisted living expenses become a key indicator of Amy’s attitude toward the deeply unsympathetic man and the way he helped shape the mess she became. But it’s all too clear that Amy’s commitment-phobia, compulsive drinking, and pot-smoking are masking deeper wounds. As a staff writer for a low-brow men’s magazine, Amy gets assigned to interview Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor to the elite like LeBron James (who surprises with impeccable comic timing). The reason for the assignment: she hates sports.

Schumer and Hader have unbelievable chemistry together. Hader’s goofy Mr. Nice Guy channels Tom Hanks in his early career. And he plays perfectly to Schumer’s fear of intimacy and seeming invulnerability. That’s the basic theme here: about rejecting those we really desire before they have a chance to reject us. The why-try-if-we-know-how-it-will-end-up syndrome.

And what a comic team Schumer and Hader make! Funny or serious, they approach every scene without skipping a beat in timing. Open, fearless, undefended, masterful. And the supporting cast (Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, Vanessa Bayer, Brie Larson) give hilarious and moving performances. What every great comedy requires!

In one scene poor Aaron is imposed upon by Amy, who is afraid she has a deep need and desire for him, so she picks a fight: “You go down on me too much!” she yells, desperate to criticize him, before the joke turns around again: “And don’t try to spin this into a reason for not going down on me.”

Some jokes may not be for all tastes, but Schumer is a juggernaut for women in comedy as much as her predecessors: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Lena Dunham, most of whom have been supported by Apatow. And, beat for beat, “Trainwreck” is one of Apatow’s most consistently funny and charming films ever. I want to see more Amy Schumer!!

“Muscle Shoals”–Music Muscle from the Deep South

Muscle Shoals A [This movie review can be also seen at Josephsreviews.com where I was a guest blogger on July 17,2015)

A 2013 documentary about an Alabama musical legacy, “Muscle Shoals“,  brings to light a group of musicians who never had their day in the sun.

Two iconic recording studios in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals Alabama—FAME (est. 1959) and its spinoff Muscle Shoals Sound (1960) —became the “must have” sound for, among others, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Etta James, and many other Rock-and-Roll legendary artists. The magic of a group of background musicians, who called themselves the “Swampers”, some of whom were classically trained, were the touchstone of FAME. The Swampers were all white. Keep in mind this is the early 60’s.  FAME





“Muscle Shoals” is the love story of American music roots in the Deep South. For this viewer, some of the most spellbinding scenes focus on Rick Hall, the pioneer and open-minded founder of FAME studio. , Rick Hall’s own poverty and family upheaval perhaps allowed him to empathize with the racial hostility young music artists of color faced in most of the US, not just the south. Before the Civil Rights Movement really became a force shaping US history, FAME gave some of our most creative musicians their break in the music business. The movie gives the impression that the principals of FAME were unaware of the significance of their race-neutral music production.

Hall brought black and white music together. He produced signature music: “I’ll Take You There” and “When a Man Loves a Woman” by black musicians unknown at the time.

“Muscle Shoals” bears witness to how Hall’s color-blind passion for music infused a magnetism, mystery, and magic into the music that became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. The filmmaker allows the key players to speak for themselves, with many cameo interviews of the legendary including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Etta James. On its own, the cinematography of Muscle Shoals, the backwater town along the Tennessee River is an eye opener. And “Muscle Shoals” is not to be missed for its music history, racial progressiveness, and its imagery. A visceral and magical vision indeed!


) The original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios building is listed on The National Register of Historic Places and maintained, by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. Their goal is to turn the historic building into a music museum.

2) FAME is still owned and operated by Rick Hall and his son Rodney Hall. Beats Electronics, after seeing this movie, is underwriting the renovation of FAME to support young musicians.

3) Actor Johnny Depp is developing this movie into a TV series, according to Variety (July 8, 2015).

“Love and Mercy”– Mostly “Good Vibrations”



If you remember the 1960’s classic album “Pet Sounds” by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, there is a good chance you will enjoy the movie “Love and Mercy”.

In an unusual music biopic of Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” structures his life through two highly acclaimed actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, playing Brian the younger and middle-aged Brian respectively. In a highly innovative flashback structure in which Paul Dano plays twenty-something Brian Wilson and John Cusack plays his fifty-something 1980’s version, we see the backstory of a creative musical genius whose abusive childhood and adult life results in the destructive behavior of his middle-age. Based on Brian Wilson’s biography, “Love and Mercy’ tells the horrific tale of a pioneering musician and the wounds which seemed never to heal.

But tragic childhood can have moments of redemption and hope. “Love and Mercy” has both, with the introduction of Melinda Ledbetter (played beautifully by Elizabeth Banks). Love and Mercy

Brian (Dano): “I would listen to those harmonies. I would teach them to my brothers and we’d all sing. …How about you, Melinda? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

Melinda Ledbetter (Banks): “He broke my heart.”

Brian: “He shouldn’t have done that.”

Melinda: “I shouldn’t have let him.”

And that dialog foreshadows one of the major motifs in “Love and Mercy”. Those closest to Brian let Landy, a tyrannical therapist use and abuse him, just as Brian’s father had. Paul Giamatti delivers a gripping performance as Landy reminding this viewer of JK Simmons in “Whiplash”.

And, the music! Absolutely essential to evoking the time period as well as the genius that is Brian Wilson. For those who do not know music theory well, “Love and Mercy” also provides just enough of a hint of why Wilson is considered one of the music greats. He develops bold new orchestrations and arrangements, new sound textures in an analog era that, to those listening today, are taken for granted as marking the standard for the sixties and seventies. His choral harmony, falsetto voice, and instrumentations were the most innovative of his time. Even the Beatles borrowed from him. Understanding his revolutionary compositions and inventiveness in his music recordings (for example, by separating vocal tracks from instrumentals)  is to appreciate when Brian’s mind was most stable, when he was most himself. His unbounded enthusiasm, however,  was also indistinguishable, at times, from desperation.

“Love and Mercy” has some glaring flaws too, especially if the viewer has some awareness of the trials and tribulations of Brian’s life. In portraying the two lives of Brian Wilson (pre-fame and post-fame), “Love and Mercy” sometimes loses momentum, with incomplete scenes suggesting a much bigger story that is left without important detail. This viewer was left with questions: Why didn’t Brian Wilson’s family, who were sometimes jealous and manipulative themselves, intervene when Landy was blatantly abusing him? What happened to the courageous maid Gloria who risked deportation to help? Who finally brought the legal challenge to Landy’s charlatan therapy and guardianship of Brian? His father delivers several abusive encounters but we are left wanting more background. What about his mother?

Still, “Love and Mercy” deserves to be a classic not only for music lovers but for movie and biography aficionados. Just as “Good Vibrations” was Brian Wilson’s biggest hit,  “Love and Mercy” is a paean to the former glory of the once incomparable Brian Wilson.

Orange is the New Black (OITNB) –Keeps on Going Strong




Feminism, sexual perversion, peccadilloes, assault, and experimentation run strong in Season Three (2015). [See my reviews, “Orange is the New Black—Life Behind Bars”, August 7, 2013 and “The Backstory Behind Orange is the New Black”, August 15, 2013.] Nothing like this has been portrayed on television, without a suggestive body shot, excruciating violence, or even the victim’s voice.

OITNB scenes of how women can become more compassionate through sex with each other are so powerful, indeed so extraordinary and original, that the sexual scene is secondary to the emotional intimacy. And there is a humor as Piper borrows an idea from Japan by giving men what they will pay top dollar for: three-day old women prisoner’s panties, but made to Piper’s specifications.

This season of “Orange is the New Black” breaks even more boundaries with brutal honesty, on a tightrope between comedy and tragedy. At its best, season 3 stuns with new character development in a prison drama every bit as revolutionary as the now-classic “Oz”. There are some wasted opportunities with subplots that go nowhere and characters (especially Bennett) who we miss. But there is always Season 4—a must for 2016!