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Reviews for January 21st, 2022

Documentary Round-Up

      Based on the posthumous memoir by Mallory Smith,Salt in My Soul is an engrossing documentary that sheds light on Mallory's battles with cystic fibrosis. She was diagnosed with the disorder at the age of three, and learned how to live with it while undergoing treatment. Surrounded by supportive family and friends, Mallory did the best that she could do with what she had and made the most out of her life. Her diary entries show her candidness, kindness and, above all, her humanity. Director Will Battersby captures that humanity through Mallory's own words and through the archival footage or, more accurately, home videos. Battersby doesn't shy away from getting into the nitty gritty of Mallory's physical and emotional struggles with cystic fibrosis, so it's quite heartbreaking at times, yet it's essential. He's brave for showing the audience those details without any sugar-coating, but concurrently he doesn't dwell on those darker elements either.

      Salt in My Soul is fundamentally about coping with adversity and struggling to conquer it while maintaining one's own humanity. In many ways, Mallory is a brave, compassionate and marvelous human being. It's heartwarming to watch how she and her friends and family let her experience her life as actively, freely and joyfully as possible. She's a wonderful human being with a beautiful heart, mind and soul, and with inner strength. Her perseverance through her adversity are equally heartbreaking and inspirational for anyone going through any kind of pain who feels hopeless. It also helps that she had love and support all around her, including her family, friends and boyfriend, Jack Goodwin, to be there for her through thick and thin. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, Salt in My Soul is profound, unflinching and genuinely poignant. It opens at Cinema Village via Giant Pictures.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

Directed by Pawo Choyning Dorji

      Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) lives in the Bhutan's capital city, Thimphu, with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) while working a government-mandated job as a teacher. He hopes to get a Visa so that he can move to Australia to follow his dream of becoming a musician, but he has one more year left on his job's contract. His superior sends him to teach young kids English in Lunana, a remote village in Bhutan, despite his reluctance to go there.

      Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom takes a conventional, formulaic narrative and turns it into something that's far more than the sum of its parts. There's nothing wrong with formula or predictability, for that matter, because most films follow some kind of formula. It's more important how the film goes about its plot and what emotions it brings out from the audience. Even though you can see the ending coming from a mile away and it has little to no surprises in terms of its plot or what happens to Ugyen along the way, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom still manages to be a heartfelt story that doesn't try too hard to please the audience. The screenplay by Pawo Choyning Dorji has just enough light touches of humor and subtlety to allow for some small surprises. There are no villains or action sequences or any very dramatic scenes for that matter, nor does the film need those elements. What begins as a physical journey for Ugyen as he treks for 7 days by foot with Michen (Ugyen Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Dorj) to Lunana eventually becomes more of a spiritual journey for him, his young students and, in turn, the audience. Dorji keeps his focus on Ugyen's interactions with the villagers and keeps everything understated without any distracting tangents. He shows restraint when it comes to Ugyen's relationship with a yak herder, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), which could've easily veered the film into romance, but it doesn't quite go there. Ugyen's long walk to the village doesn't take up too much of the film's running time, so it doesn't overstay its welcome, yet you can still sense how physically challenging it is for Ugyen. Moreover, the film's darker elements remain beneath the surface and are mentioned gently without any heavy-handedness.

      There's probably a darker version of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, but then it would've become a completely different kind of film. The filmmaker blends the film's light elements with just the right hint of darker elements while letting the audience use their imagination and intelligence to fill in the gaps. The way that Ugyen gradually learns to appreciate the village's culture, traditions and way of life is fascinating and emotionally resonating. He's both a teacher as well as a student who's learning as much as he is teaching. Kudos to Pawo Choyning Dorji for treating the Ugyen and the other characters, even some of the students, as human beings rather than just pawns to move the plot forward. So, while the plot does follow a conventional formula, you don't feel the wheels of the screenplay turning because it feels so natural. The performances also feel natural without any over-acting. Also, the use of symbolism, i.e. the titular yak in the classroom, is thought-provoking. It's also worth mentioning the breathtaking scenery which adds even more poetry and substance to the film.

      Dorji not only avoids contrivance, but also schmaltz and melodrama. By keeping the film lean and allowing for nuance, he grasps the concept that "less is more." Even the uplifting third act only lasts a few minutes without hitting the audience over the head, although, to be fair, there's a brief flashback with an image that briefly spoon-feeds the audience, but that's only a minor issue that's not systemic. Fortunately, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom earns its uplift which can't be said about many films these days. It's just as engrossing and crowd-pleasing as some of the great Miramax films from the 80's and 90's, like The Cider House Rules. At a running time of 1 hour and 50 minutes, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom is captivating, moving and uplifting with just the right balance of humor and heart.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

Redeeming Love

Directed by D.J. Caruso


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Universal Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Simple Passion

Directed by Danielle Arbid


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Strand Releasing.
Opens at Quad Cinema.

The Tiger Rising

Directed by Ray Giarratana


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by The Avenue.
Opens nationwide.

War Hunt

Directed by Mauro Borrelli

      In 1945 Germany, a U.S. military plane carrying a highly-classified package crashes in the middle of a forest. Major Johnson (Mickey Rourke) sends Sergeant Brewer (Robert Knepper),  Walsh (Jackson Rathbone), Rucker (Frederik Wagner), Morgan (Terence Maynard), Stria (Anna Paliga), Gardner (Lorenzo de Moor), Korsky (Matt Mella) on a mission to find the top-secret package and bring it to him. The soldiers encounter bizarre events that impede and complicate their dangerous mission.

      Despite a screenplay with three writers, Reggie Keyohara III, Scott Svatos and Mauro Borrelli, and bold amalgam of action, horror and sci-fi,  War Hunt is an example of an intriguing premise with poor execution. What could've been as outrageously bonkers as Dead Snow turns into a rather dull, clunky and tedious mess that's neither thrilling, scary nor over-the-top enough. If it didn't take itself too seriously and had more fun by pushing the envelope more, perhaps it could've been at least half as exciting as Inglourious Basterds. None of the characters are remotely memorable; they're caricatures at best, so caring about what happens to them remains impossible. There's also not enough scenes with them bonding as soldiers. Even as a B-movie with a throwaway plot, there's really nothing that feels like a guilty pleasure, even in the third act that triest to add a twist, but falls flat. There's also too little comic relief, no wit and very little levity, so it all quickly ends up feeling monotonous and, eventually, lethargic.

      Mickey Rourke is wasted in a role that doesn't give him much to do other than looking silly in his costume and eye patch. His charisma feels muted and the same can be said about the other actors neither of whom get a chance to stand out. The CGI looks average at best, and the choppy editing causes nausea more often than not. It also doesn't help that the action scenes are poorly shot and the cinematography doesn't add much when it comes to style. Without style or substance, War Hunt is an anemic, vapid and underwhelming bore, even by B-movie standards. Its running time of 1 hour and 33 feels more like 2 hours.

Number of times I checked my watch: 5
Released by Saban Films.
Opens at Cinema Village and on VOD.