Movie Review: Don't Worry Baby (2015)


Upon learning that they unknowingly slept with the same woman four years earlier, a middle-aged man and his twenty-something son realize that either one could be the biological father of her adorable daughter in the infectiously charming indie Don't Worry Baby.

Deftly navigating tonally challenging terrain in his feature filmmaking debut, writer/director Julian Branciforte takes what in lesser hands could've easily turned into a gimmicky, contrived, creepy, or sudsy TV movie of the week and instead zeroes in on the naturally humanistic character-driven dramedy at the heart of the storyline.

Creatures of habit that inhabit the same restaurants and bars in the New York City neighborhood terrain in which aspiring photographer Robert Lang (John Magaro) and his serial adulterer father Harry (Christopher McDonald) live and work, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that the two would've crossed the same romantic paths once upon a time.

And the end result is a genuinely original twist on cinema's age-old "boy meets girl" paradigm that manages to both generate empathy for its main ensemble (while refreshingly never "slut-shaming" the young woman at the heart of the love triangle played by the affable Dreama Walker) and stay surprisingly plausible throughout.

Admittedly, it does get a bit bogged down at times by an overreliance on romantic comedy stock characters and situations like our protagonist's sexually voracious roommate who takes up way too much valuable screen time that should've been dedicated to others with more fascinating story arcs.

Nonetheless, Baby keeps us invested by its gender-reversal power dynamics as well as its talented ensemble cast including under-utilized MVPs Talia Balsam (who creates an admirably three dimensional individual out of an underwritten role) and Tom Lipinski as the aforementioned roommate.

Augmented even more by the wildly charismatic John Magaro who matches the fast-paced rhythms of Branciforte's energetic script word-for-word, the passionate lead commands every scene he's in the same way he did opposite the late great James Gandolfini in David Chase's Not Fade Away.

An impressive feature length debut for the short film veteran that aims to be as catchy as a Beach Boys song, while the female characters are a bit shortchanged in the male-centric narrative, Don't Worry's heart is always in the right place.

Sure to pick up momentum during its current film festival run where it's bound to leave a lasting impression and get viewers talking, here's hoping that Branciforte's clever and sincere spin on contemporary romantic dramedy will (much like its father/son duo) cross your path soon to stay.

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Lonely Boy (2013)

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Whether it's because we crave the immediate connection we can have with someone else based on a shared experience or we need the affirmation that our own beliefs are something closer to fact than opinion is open for debate but for whatever reason, we tend to believe what we can see.

And just like the street corner hustlers urging us to follow the card in a quick shell game or the magicians who rely on the art of the misdirect in order to successfully bend us to their will, filmmakers have been experimenting with new ways for people to be betrayed by their senses since the birth of cinema.

Eager to test the medium out on an enthralled public – even before shots were edited together to create the most rudimentary of narratives, viewers were so willing to believe what it was that they were seeing on the soundless black-and-white screen that they fled their seats to avoid getting swept away by the sea – certain that the ocean waves appearing right before their eyes were real.

Of course, it wasn't until the creation of the montage (which graduated from its humble beginnings chronicling a hungry man's dinner to Sergei Eisenstein's influential Battleship Potemkin "Odessa Steps" sequence) that directors were finally able to change the literal, figurative, and/or metaphorical meaning of a scene to resemble something closer to a misdirect-fueled confidence trick on par with hustlers or magicians.

Once they had this new ace up their sleeve, filmmakers began using it to rewrite their films in the editing room, paying homage to the twists, tools, turns, and techniques that had thrilled the literary world for centuries such as Canterbury Tales author Chaucer's unreliable narrator. And much like the black-and-white ocean waves and Eisenstein's steps, they swept viewers up before leaving us all hopelessly under their spell.

A remarkably effective tactic when executed deftly, unreliable narrator movies have practically developed into their own subgenre – spining off from all the major film types.

Yet from The Usual Suspects to Fight Club and The Sixth Sense to Memento and Mulholland Drive, Film Noir's modern day next-of-kin equivalent Neo-Noirs and/or existential thrillers have been the most successful and influential of the lot.

Although it might be tempting to lump any film with a surprise ending into the category of unreliable narrator, one of the most important factors for making these films work is ensuring that the final twist was set in motion throughout the entire movie – encouraging viewers to want to immediately go back to the beginning to watch the film again in order to better appreciate the construction of the house of cards that we’d been fooled into believing was made out of brick.

Knowing when to bluff and when to let audiences sneak a peek at the wild cards in your unreliable narrator's hand makes setting up these thrillers (both on the page and later in the cutting room) incredibly difficult for veteran helmers, let alone relative newcomers.

And that makes the feat achieved by those responsible for the award-winning independent film festival favorite Lonely Boy that much more impressive.

A brilliant one-two-three punch for Alev Aydin who wrote, starred in, and produced this pressure cooker of a passion project, the audacious Lonely Boy blends a number of genres together into its own thrillingly dramatic hybrid which has us questioning what we see and believe right along with our protagonist.

Interrupting the rhythm of its montages with unexpected jump cuts as well as surprising shifts in point-of-view early on that are used to establish character, Lonely Boy is at its best when it holds us at arm's length, keeping us off balance much like its main character would as we rely on context clues to better understand just what exactly is going on.

An unreliable narrator saga of epic proportions (ever-complicated by the protagonist's battle with uncontrolled Schizophrenia), Lonely Boy is centered on Aydin's titular lonely boy Franky who finds himself at an emotional crossroads within the first ten minutes of the start of the movie.

While it does hit a few dissonant notes – mainly when it abandons its core plotline and point-of-view to instead follow those of secondary characters in order to bring us up to speed with exposition filled dialogue – again and again, Lonely Boy rights itself from heading too far in the wrong direction.

Admirable in its aims and ambitions, although the film's romantic subplot suffers in comparison to the rest of the movie, one of the most intriguing things about director Dale Fabrigar's Lonely Boy is that – save for a few obvious exceptions – we're never sure whether what we're seeing is real or imagined.

Fostering empathy while simultaneously bringing out the filmic detective in most of us – after catching a stranger call Aydin's lead by his character's name, I found myself rewinding the film.
Going past the start of the scene to revisit the first forty-five minutes once again, Lonely Boy made me eager to test out a few theories I had as well as see what else I might've missed (or only thought I did) along the way.

While unfortunately again the movie's romantic angle seemed slightly contrived particularly when giving it a closer look, Boy is vastly more compelling when it focuses on the power struggle that had long been simmering between Franky and his well-meaning older sister (played by the ever-talented Paul Thomas Anderson scene stealer Melora Walters).

And this is especially evident when the filmmakers rely on the two to share a scene instead of abandoning the lonely boy in order to follow Walters' similarly lonely girl, driven world-weary by a bad twist of fate in scenes that feel stylistically and narratively out of place without Franky there.

Confidently trusting in the strength of its cast, crew and creative throughline, Lonely Boy pays only the slightest of homage to some of the aforementioned unreliable narrator movies.

Thematically reminiscent of Memento during a devastating revelation that occurs in the final act of both works, whereas Christopher Nolan opted for a more visceral and overtly violent confrontation during the penultimate sequence of his international crossover hit, Lonely Boy packs an emotional punch that is sure to linger long after viewers press eject.

Anchored by the power of Aydin's performance, which came from a very personal place in a labor of love effort inspired by his mother's battle with brain cancer, viewers gravitated to the immediate human connection they felt for Lonely Boy on the festival circuit.

A film that questions if we can believe what we see, Lonely Boy (which is now available to be streamed on Hulu), relies on the classic building blocks of cinema to give us something that has to be seen to be believed via a work that's better understood the more it's shared.

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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Blu-ray Review -- Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts (2015)

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Set in a techno futuristic version of Gotham City that resembles a cross between Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, although Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts initially steers us into a more fantastical direction, fortunately the latest original animated feature from DC Comics finds its footing before it goes completely off the rails.

With Batman training Red Robin and also working in tandem with (former Robin) Dick Grayson's Nightwing, Batman Unlimited is a film of doubles and doppelgangers on both sides of the law.

Outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and overwhelmed by the latest diabolical plan to dominate Gotham that’s been undertaken by a rogue's gallery of villains dubbed the Animilitia comprised of Cheetah, Silverback, Killer Croc, Man Bat scheming alongside a ruthless crop of robotic animals created by Oswald Cobblepot's The Penguin, Batman and his allies team up with Green Arrow and The Flash.

And the end result is a motley version of the much more polished and professional Justice League squad of heroes whom we've witnessed before in other comics and animated features.

Penned by Justice League: War screenwriter Heath Corson and directed by veteran DC series helmer Butch Lukic, Batman Unlimited keeps things interesting by making this group the black sheep of the DC family.

And at the heart of the film's best scenes is the friction between Nightwing and The Flash – whose annoying efficiency and "look, ma, no hands!" short term attention span is the source of a few well-earned chuckles.

Yet that dynamic aside, unfortunately it never manages to create a psychologically compelling interplay between Batman and The Penguin – most likely because the overpopulated film is bursting at the seams with characters.

Nonetheless, the thoughtful way that it compares and contrasts the many similarities between the main hero and villain in a riveting Blu-ray special feature makes me eager to see if they'll devote more time to this thesis in a standalone film or sequel.

The first part of two 2015 Batman Unlimited titles, the follow-up to Animal Instincts is currently slated for an August release.

And while this ranks as a slightly above average entry in the routinely impressive franchise of direct-to-disc Warner Brothers/DC Comics animated original films, coming right off the heels of Batman vs. Robin, it serves as a vibrant reminder that right now, Nightwing is easily the most entertaining character in the long-running series.

Filled with enviable bonus material from the DC Archives including extra episodes from series of decades past, the technically stellar Blu-ray/DVD/Digital boxed set (which also boasts a limited edition toy a la last month's Batman vs. Robin) outdoes itself with some standout shorts.

While many feature familiar faces, the Easter Egg quality reimagining of the Batman narrative as filtered through classic 1930s Chinese artistry makes the two woefully brief Shanghai shorts worth the price of the Blu-ray alone.

Originally made by Wolf Smoke Studio and screened on Cartoon Network in 2012, the works constitute a "Shanghai surprise" that more than makes up for that horrifically bad 1980s Sean Penn and Madonna movie.

While I can only hope for a feature length Shanghai spinoff (as well as a solo Nightwing venture), until then Batman Unlimited: Animal Instincts not only serves as a quality placeholder but also gives us a worthwhile place for the new narrative to start.

Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Blu-ray Review: Amira and Sam (2014)

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Filmmaking as an act of creative rebellion – first time feature writer/director Sean Mullin's Amira & Sam is as sweetly earnest as it is achingly wise.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "character is plot" and "plot is character," and Amira & Sam adheres to that adage from the very beginning, building off of its two gorgeously acted (particularly by Silicon Valley scene-stealer Martin Starr in a beautiful turn that's totally against his often comedic type) and richly written characters without wasting a single scene.

An existential coming-of-age movie disguised as a romance, the film is centered around Martin Starr's titular Sam, a hardworking, prideful, and quick-witted Green Beret who is stunned to discover that life during wartime makes even less sense in the states than it did overseas, upon returning to his New York home.

Set seven years in the past, back in 2008 at the start of the Kardashian craze, when Facebook was still friending, the economy was on the brink of collapse and Twilight infected teens with vampire fever, Amira & Sam is a far cry from typical tales of postwar woe.

More humanistic than melodramatic, Mullin's movie emphasizes emotional authenticity over Hollywoodized tragedy, steering clear of the stereotypes and contrived plot points that have saturated post-war PTSD narratives of soldier coming home stories since the 1940s without sugarcoating a damn thing.

And this approach is evident right from the start in a brilliantly written introduction to our male lead which finds him being treated like a second class citizen by the crass party boys of Wall Street.

Fired by an overly apologetic boss after giving his bullies a brief lesson in humility, the film makes it repeatedly clear that Sam is challenged less by what he's been through during multiple tours of duty in the past than by his need to decide just what he'd like to do in the future.

More specifically, Sam struggles to figure out both his own identity as well as where he belongs in a post 9/11 society that's struggling to do the same in a subplot that gradually usurps everything else when he encounters a fellow outsider from the Middle East in the form of actress Dina Shihabi's Amira.

The beautiful, headstrong niece of an army translator that the now fluent in Arabic Sam had befriended in Iraq (played by Laith Nakli), Amira is initially wary of his military background.

After she gets into trouble with the authorities and is threatened with deportation, Sam makes a promise to her uncle to keep Amira safe and hidden until he can drive her to stay with another relative in the Midwest.

A critically acclaimed hit on the festival circuit – given the central theme of two outsiders who find a kindred spirit in one another, the film has been frequently compared to Richard Linklater's likeminded strangers turned would-be lovers by chance contemporary Gen X classic Before Sunrise (which also spawned two sequels in Before Sunset and Before Midnight).

And while it is easily reminiscent of that picture as well as the 2011 indie sleeper Stuck Between Stations (which revolves around a soldier on leave who crosses paths with the girl he’s had a crush on for years), Sam's roots go back even further.

Of course, it harks back to the freewheeling walk-and-talk French New Wave films made by √Čric Rohmer (whose work obviously influenced Linklater). But at its heart, Amira & Sam feels like a direct descendant of Vincente Minnelli's bittersweet WWII love story The Clock to such an extent that I feel it would be intriguing to watch them back-to-back as a double feature given their comparisons and contrasts about love and war.

Visually it pays tribute to Manhattan and other New York stories. However, it’s weightier than Linklater's film and Woody Allen's romances given both its illegal immigration/deportation plotline focusing on Amira as well as an intelligently handled crisis of conscience after Sam finds himself caught in between ethics and family duty when his closest cousin (Paul Wesley) enlists him in a hedge fund scheme that may not be as clear cut as it seems.

Needless to say, Amira & Sam has an awful lot on its mind for what one may be tempted to classify solely as a romance.

And while the penultimate act seems a bit rushed, the sensitive portrayals, thoughtful writing, and character dominant plotlines ensure that when the conflicts arise, they feel organic rather than melodramatic or too conveniently manufactured.

Admirably and rather remarkably for a feature filmmaking debut, it avoids caricature or easy outs particularly when it comes to the evolution of Sam's dealings with his cousin or a Vietnam veteran he encounters of whom he fears he may have inadvertently taken advantage.

Amira & Sam might end on an upbeat note right out of its heroine's favorite romantic comedies but the world and the individuals who reside within Mullin's impressively crafted landscape never strike us as anything less than genuine, three dimensional, and relatably complex.

Lovingly transferred to Blu-ray high definition from Drafthouse Films and Cinedigm, complete with a bevy of bonus features as well as a digital copy to download or stream, Mullin's independent crowd-pleaser is also available on DVD and digital download.

A refreshing spin on the solider’s story subgenre that avoids easy classification (in the spirit of its winning leads), Mullin’s character driven effort crosses borders and boundaries, taking us on an unexpected journey that I’m sure more viewers will love to explore.


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Text ©2015, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy of this title in order to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.