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Amira & Sam

Cinedigm // Unrated // May 5, 2015
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author
It's been a month since Sam Seneca (Martin Starr) re-entered society following his third term in Iraq, and he's still not entirely comfortable with modern living. He loses his job as a security guard in the building where his cousin, Charlie (Paul Wesley), works when he locks a couple of drunk employees in an elevator, and his attempt to follow his dream of being a stand-up comedian goes over like a lead balloon. One thing he does do is look up his friend Bassam (Laith Nakli), a translator he knew from one of his tours, to return an important item. When he shows up at Bassam's apartment, he meets Bassam's niece, Amira (Dina Shihabi), an aggressive young Iraqi woman who resents soldiers following her father's death in the war. They don't get along, but Sam still steps in to help out when Amira gets in a bit of trouble with the law while Bassam is out of town, giving Amira a place to stay, where they slowly warm up to each others' personality.

Amira & Sam is somewhat of a slight film, but it generally has its heart in the right place. Modern audiences have potentially been conditioned to expect that movies built on a ton of tropes will subvert those tropes and comment on them, yet the approach is so prevalent that it can seem like a cliche all on its own, and it takes an expert touch to make those movies work. Writer / director Sean Mullin certainly gets in a couple of jabs at modern rom-coms through the pirated DVDs that Amira sells on a street corner, but he sticks with tradition, focusing on the characters and the story, trusting in the chemistry between Starr and Shihabi to make the movie satisfying even while following basic plot beats that the audience is undoubtedly familiar with.

William Goldman says that casting is most of what makes a movie work, and that adage is especially true here. The characters of Sam and Amira are particularly distinct, yet the two performers have strong chemistry with one another despite entirely different personalities. Starr, as fans of comedy will probably know, has a deadpan, almost monotone delivery, and here he reformats that wry wit into a humble, seemingly shy person. One of the major threads of the film revolves around Sam's service and the way people either expect him to or even ask him to take advantage of his status as a veteran for money. In particular, Charlie hires him to help close an investment account with a fellow vet (David Rasche), with the hope that Sam will help him land multiple accounts for former service members. Although Sam gives a bit more leeway for his cousin (and it's clear Charlie is earnestly looking to help Sam), he uncomfortable at the prospect of trotting out his achievements as leverage.

Amira, conversely, is an extremely outspoken woman who doesn't hesitate at stating her dislike of Sam upfront. Similarly, she reassesses him on a dime, and is bursting with emotion and enthusiasm when Sam take her on her first boat ride, and when she sees the material he's written for the stand-up career he wishes he had. Shihabi and Starr have both romantic and comedic chemistry, best illustrated when they attend a wedding together, and despite their drastic differences, their connection is believable. Some aspects of her personality are slightly underdeveloped (she apparently loves the romcoms she's selling DVDs of), but she feels real anyway. There is also the expectation that a post-9/11 movie set in New York City would touch on her ethnicity, and it does, but it's not a major plot point.

If there's any misstep, it's the imbalance of plot to character development. Material about Charlie being investigated by the SEC and Sam's dealings with the vet played by Rasche are perfectly fine, but they feel unimportant in comparison to the scenes building the relationship between Amira and Sam. Either that material could've stayed and the film could've been longer (it runs a mere 88 minutes), or some of that material could have gone in favor of another day of Amira and Sam getting to know each other. As it is, while the vibe is there, their romance does feel almost instantaneous. Mullin shoots the couple sitting on a bench, overlooking the bridge, a visual homage to Woody Allen's Manhattan. Amira and Sam isn't in that class, but it does manage to capture something that feels real.

The Blu-ray
Drafthouse supplies one of their usual packages for Amira & Sam: the single-disc release comes in a clear Viva Elite Blu-ray case, featuring a reversible cover and a 12-page booklet, featuring a short interview with the director. On one side of the artwork, a simple design featuring photos from the film is livened up a little with a bold red-and-white color scheme. On the reverse, the colors are muted to black-and-white for a more artful design of the two characters in profile, standing back to back. Aside from the booklet, there is also a insert for a digital copy via Drafthouse's unique service.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, this is an extremely bright and vivid transfer. Bright daytime scenes practically glow with color and are rife with fine detail, and there's just enough range for faces and backgrounds to be seen in extremely dark scenes. There is the occasional digital issue, such as blown-out whits or a touch of harshness to the detail, but they're clearly inherent to the original photography. A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (not Dolby Digital 5.1 as the package states) sounds just fine, capturing the dialogue and very occasional environmental detail in the few scenes where such ambience is present. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
An audio commentary featuring writer / director Sean Mullin and actors Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi kicks things off. This is an unexpectedly spread-out affair, with both actors joining the track via telephone (Starr from Australia), and with Mullin being the only person able to see the movie and comment on it. As a result, unsurprisingly, Mullin leads the charge on the track, setting up which scene is on-screen for comments and the actors responding to his descriptions with memories of the production. Mullin talks about what he hoped to do with the characters and the story, and the actors talk about what they liked about the script and crack a few jokes, although they are often a bit quiet. The nature of Mullin's role leads to him describing what's happening on screen sometimes, which he acknowledges (leading to a little detour where Martin Starr discusses his confusion about commentaries). Like the film, a genial affair.

A handful of brief video featurettes follow. "The Making of Amira & Sam" (4:26) is a very short look behind-the-scenes, but one that is produced without the usual filler. The actors talk about their characters with more specificity, touching on scenes and ideas that appear late in the movie. "Stand-Up Outtakes" (4:42) are alternate takes and other jokes from one of Sam's performances. He's joined by each and every member of the crew in "Crew Jokes" (9:04), where every member of the production team are sent-up to the stage to help warm up the crowd. This is topped off with some "Director Stand-Up" (3:20), in which Sean Mullin does a very short set at a real stand-up club before the shoot. The disc rounds out with brief excerpts from a "Table Read" (2:45). The video is very brief, but some additional material is present in the reading. All of the video extras are presented in HD.

An original theatrical trailer for Amira & Sam is included under the "Trailers" option in the special features menu. There are also trailers for 20,000 Days On Earth, A Band Called Death, The Congress, Mood Indigo, and Wrong.

Amira and Sam is pretty light material, but it's got charming leads who seem made for each other, which is all a romantic comedy really needs. Recommended./p>

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