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Review: Only Angels Have Wings

Howard Hawks’s masterpiece organizes its space within a nodal web of slightly claustrophobic locations, always shrouded in fog or cigarette smoke.

4.0

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Only Angels Have Wings
Photo: Film Forum

A ship docks at the South American port of Barranca. Out comes a woman, Bonnie (Jean Arthur), subsequently pursued by two flirtatious pilots who fly shipments of mail over treacherous terrain for a barebones operation manned by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Within minutes of their meeting, one of these men, Joe (Noah Beery Jr.), is called to fly despite potentially dangerous weather conditions. Geoff demands that he go, and thus begins the series of tragic deaths and defiantly stoic responses that supply a large part of the emotional and philosophical flow of Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings.

Based on a story fragment written by Hawks in 1938 titled “Plane from Barranca,” this bizarre and gorgeous masterwork embodies a fantastic range of opposite states of mind and being: stoicism/grief, pragmatism/mysticism, stasis/change. It’s one of Hawks’s films where his standard ethos is most fully autocritiqued. Throughout, the director seems to ask: How can one be entirely professional, practical, stoic, and strong in the face of such great emotional (and material) loss, mutability, and uncertainty?

Part of the film’s ingenuity lies in the positioning of familiar Hawksian professionals (often an isolated male “group”) as white Americans in a South American mountain-and-jungle terrain. Not only is the exotic, romantic appeal of boyish adventure there (a familiar angle in the director’s films), but the setting also stresses that these professionals are in some way out of place or, more accurately, that they’re in a different place than the one that shaped them and provided them with their deepest values and mores. In Hawks’s films, the group is often insulated and tightly knit, but his characters are generally not displaced from their original environment, culturally or geographically, as they are in Only Angels Have Wings.

With Joe’s death, it’s apparent that these professionals are used to bad news, formulating a type of callousness as a coping ritual (“Who’s Joe?” is the mantra Geoff and the others use to teach Bonnie how to deal with these sudden tragedies). On an intuitive level, Hawks is acting as an armchair sociologist, and he documents the efforts of (and effects on) the film’s central group to consciously erect new ways of dealing with the patterns of loss and grief that their adopted environments force upon them. But the loose, amateur, and intuitive nature of Hawks’s sociological insights should be stressed. For one thing, they’re hardly scientific, and what’s more, Only Angels Have Wings isn’t exactly an analytical film.

It’s important to recognize that Hawks allows for a sudden emotional deluge in his characters’ responses to crisis, embodied in the moment when the reserved Geoff weeps over the death of his best friend. There comes a point where the coping devices simply give way to the emotions bubbling beneath these characters’ tough, professional, can-do surfaces, so the ultimate, perhaps unattainable goal the Hawksian group strives for is to reconcile these dueling energies. Hawks always has this kind of duality in mind in his group films, but it’s never literalized and critiqued as overtly as it is here.

The other reason why Hawks’s film can’t be approached as a pure sociological interrogation is that it’s, quite visibly, a Hollywood production with certain inescapable commitments to entertainment convention. This isn’t to downgrade the movie, though, as there’s a reason why Hawks and other Old Hollywood filmmakers have become so revered. The film organizes its space within a nodal web of slightly claustrophobic locations, always shrouded in fog or cigarette smoke. Barranca comes alive in its very movieness. The strength of these locations is in their charming specificity and artifice, as in the bachelor-flat plainness of Grant’s room and office, or the bright warmth of the local bar singing after Joe’s death, and its dimly lit loneliness later that night.

Consider one early scene after Joe’s death, where Geoff and Dutchy are in a room. The tall, imposing Geoff (in a wide-brimmed hat and leather jacket) paces and barks on the radio on the right side of the screen. A disheveled Dutchy is sitting down in the bottom left corner, very sad and guilty about “sending” young men to their deaths. An overhead lamp stretches out in an ellipse above Dutchy’s body and mirrors Geoff’s hat, creating a three-quarter, L-shaped compositional domination of Dutchy’s figure. We’re witnessing a spatial, pictorial, and psychological depiction of one energy (Geoff’s sureness and stoicism) dominating another (Dutchy’s doubt and grief).

Late in the film we see a startlingly similar composition with reversed meaning—not long after the death of his best friend, Geoff sits alone in his office at a table, grief-stricken, with a lamp overhead. Bonnie enters the office and stands to the right of Geoff, fulfilling the same three-quarter L-shape composition as in the Geoff-Dutchy scene. Bonnie is planning to say goodbye to Geoff despite her love for him, a calculated choice she makes in order to cut her (emotional) losses; it parallels the pilots’ stoic responses to death. This time, however, Geoff is in Dutchy’s earlier position—spatially, pictorially, and psychologically. Bonnie begins to speak, without much confidence, but her attempt at emotional repression fails once she sees that Geoff is crying. Her defenses begin to fall apart as the film cuts to a close-up of her face, and then to her movement to Geoff’s level as the two, in medium close-up, hold one another. Geoff and Bonnie finally share a communal, open moment, and those dueling energies are for a moment reconciled.

Hawks is never one to end on such a note of resolution. Suddenly, there’s a jump in the film’s adventure when a reconciled Geoff dashes off to make a flight, leaving behind with Bonnie a certain, steadfast token of his affection. Right after Hawks has established some balance and stability, he gives his audience a final exhilarating rush.

Cast: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman, Victor Kilian, Noah Beery Jr., John Carroll Director: Howard Hawks Screenwriter: Jules Furthman Distributor: Sony Pictures Repertory Running Time: 121 min Rating: NR Year: 1939 Buy: Video

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Review: Buddy Is Hesitant to Look a Gift Dog in the Mouth

The film is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

2.5

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Buddy
Photo: Grasshopper Film

Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy is something like porn for dog lovers, following six specially trained canines as they help their owners live with various physical and mental traumas. The documentary’s great appeal and limitation are soon revealed to be one and the same. Honigmann and editor Jessica de Koning admirably refuse to shoehorn these people and animals, inhabitants of the Netherlands, into a contrived plotline. The filmmakers are devoted to capturing the everyday communion between dogs and humans, but to the point of filtering out other elements of life, including basic and pertinent details of the needs and experiences of said humans. Buddy is only concerned with dog love, which is occasionally cordoned off by the filmmakers into a sentimental bubble.

Watching a white dog named Kaiko as she helps her elderly and wheelchair-bound human, Erna, make coffee in the morning—opening and closing drawers and fetching objects with amazing acumen—one may wonder about the nature of Erna’s predicament, which is never disclosed. One may also wonder what breed Kaiko is. (Throughout the film, Honigmann takes the viewer’s knowledge of breeds for granted, telling us virtually nothing about any of the featured dogs.) Later in Buddy, when Kaiko helps Erna remove her socks, we see that one of Erna’s feet doesn’t have toes and is twisted at an odd angle. This is a joltingly privileged moment for Erna and Kaiko, and Honigmann films it with a sense of rapture and respect that’s quite moving, yet more context would’ve grounded such scenes in specific, tangible details. If we knew what ails Erna, our curiosity wouldn’t be encouraged to compete with our empathy. A similar vagueness clouds Trevor, the film’s most troubled subject, a soldier with PTSD who’s helped greatly by an adorable big brown fur ball named Mister.

If Buddy sometimes succumbs to generality, its love for dogs still yields aesthetic rewards. Honigmann doesn’t compromise the dogs’ inherent nature with cuteness; she doesn’t “humanize” them for us with music and pillow shots of animals smiling and yawning for the camera. The filmmaker is viscerally alive to the dogs’ movements, to how their body language expresses their emotions. The pride Kaiko takes in helping Erna in the kitchen is intensely poignant, as is the piercing way she regards Erna in an effort to read her human’s needs. Mister is similarly aware of Trevor’s torment. When Trevor’s wife leaves a park bench, Mister becomes more alert, or “on duty.” Mister understands that he and Trevor’s wife alternate “shifts” watching Trevor, and Honigmann brings this information to bracingly lucid visual life.

Honigmann films the other dogs with similar care and awe, particularly Makker, who helps Edith, an elderly woman who lost her sight to a German bomb as an adolescent. Edith is the most memorable of the documentary’s human subjects, because Honigmann allows her to offer the audience a significant amount of backstory. Edith strides the countryside with astonishing confidence, and continues to ride horses even as a blind person pushing 90. In one of the film’s most exhilarating sequences, Honigmann cuts to footage of Edith riding a horse as a younger woman while her first dog races around the track behind them.

In this moment, the devotion of the dog and the unity of Edith with her animals while in flight is nothing less than transcendent, and Honigmann rhymes such a sequence with the transcendence of everyday gestures, following Makker in a tracking shot as she catches up to Edith after relieving herself by a tree. Honigmann is alive to the beauty of a dog in motion, and of a woman who hasn’t allowed herself to be stymied by atrocity.

Buddy may follow special service dogs, but it’s implicitly concerned with the macroscopic miracle of the animals. Dogs are beloved for offering an ideal of tolerance, representing a democratization of friendship. Not all of us can be accepted by our fellow humans, but we can be loved by dogs if we’re willing to meet them even a quarter of the way. Do dogs allow the disenfranchised to give up on their own species? It would appear that some of Buddy’s humans have indeed written off their fellow people. Does this matter? Honigmann’s film doesn’t plumb this potentially resonant question, as it’s hesitant to look a gift dog in the mouth.

Director: Heddy Honigmann Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Ramen Shop Is a Low-Calorie Take on a Rich Culinary Tradition

Its drawn-out descriptions of culinary traditions and practices are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations.

2

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Ramen Shop
Photo: Strand Releasing

Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop celebrates the culinary mecca that is multi-ethnic Singapore—once described by Anthony Bourdain as “the most food-centric place on Earth”—with a slight family drama that tries to bring to light the tensions underlying its history. The film begins with Masato (Takumi Saito) working in his cold, distant father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) much-praised ramen shop in Japan, experimenting with Singaporean dishes in his spare time. When Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds himself in possession of the journal of his long-deceased Singaporean mother, Mei Lian, motivating him to head to Singapore and rediscover his past. There, as he walks in his parents’ footsteps—and flashbacks reveal their courtship over various dishes—Masato begins an immersive love affair with Singaporean cuisine.

Aided by a Japanese ex-pat food blogger, Miki (Seiko Matsuda), and his chef uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), Masato experiences local dishes like fragrant chicken rice and fish head curry. But the meal that comes to obsess his mind is the one that brought his parents together, and the one he wants to bring back to Japan in order to conserve their memory: bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. Like ramen, bak kut teh was originally a Chinese recipe that’s become emblematic of its adoptive country, and as such Masato sees something of himself in the dish.

Half-Japanese and half-Singaporean, Masato finds himself confronting the damage left by Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II on the city and his family. Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) decision to marry Kazuo, a Japanese national, led to her exile from her family. Despite Mei Lian’s deepest wish, the grudge remained until she died and has been extended to Masato himself. To bridge this gap between him and his relatives, he prepares a novel blend of ramen and bak kut teh to placate his Singaporean family. How things will go is clear enough—this a film that has no qualms about gushily assuring us that food brings us together, in spite of our differences—but the gesture stands as the film’s final confidence in Singaporean cuisine’s dynamism and openness to all things, even reconciling the dark reaches of history.

Throughout Ramen Shop, each dish that Masato tastes appears on screen. In these moments, the narrative is momentarily suspended while ingredients, their source, the dish’s origins, and its preparation are explicated in full as mouthwateringly shallow-focused photography catches the glinting colors and textures of the food. The purpose is to titillate and to instruct. Indeed, some moments are so didactic as to explain the exact cooking time required for each step of the preparation process. And, inevitably, each of these displays ends with Masato’s first bite and his uttering some variation of “incredible” or “delicious.”

These drawn-out descriptions of the culinary traditions and practices of Singapore are enticing enough, but the same can’t be said about the characterizations. While Masato feels a lot of things—excitement at discovering his past, loss over his parents, wonder at his new environs—the thirtysomething’s journey through Singapore is depicted in the same ambling, emotionally listless fashion. Khoo, a native Singaporean, is an excellent ambassador for his homeland’s cuisine, using the film to extol its variety and singularity. Would that he had summoned the same exuberance in celebrating this cuisine on the low-calorie narrative filler that seems to exist only to tide us over until the next on-screen meal.

Cast: Tsuyoshi Ihara, Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw, Beatrice Chien Director: Eric Khoo Screenwriter: Tan Fong Chen, Wong Kim Hoh Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Sunset Builds a Mystery in Graceful but Desultory Fashion

László Nemes’s follow-up to Son of Saul simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

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Sunset
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Mysteries, in film, don’t have to be solved and sometimes shouldn’t be. A mystery plot can be a jumping-off point for more abstract or character-driven concerns, which of course doesn’t excuse the rote and careless incorporation of genre elements into a film. Such is the fatal flaw of László Nemes’s Sunset. Striving to tell a heady, metaphorically rich tale of corruption and cultural cleansing, Nemes loses sight of the basic mechanics of plot and scene work that are necessary for his film to form a coherent, meaningful whole.

Nemes’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Son of Saul takes place in the courtly, stratified society of Hungry in 1913, a land abundant in top hats, lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), young and strong-willed, arrives in Budapest to petition for a job at the famous Leiter hat store once owned by her parents, who perished in the fire that burned the store to the ground. It’s since been rebuilt and restored to its former glory by the gray-bearded, buttoned-up, and over-paternal Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov). Intrigued by Irisz’s pedigree, he offers her a position on the spot. So far so good, but that night, a hysterical man breaks into her room and rants cryptically about a lost brother, Sándor (Marcin Czarnik), who she soon discovers vanished years ago after killing a local nobleman.

And so a mystery plot is kicked into motion. Where is Sándor? Why did he do what he did? What will he do next? And to work through these questions, and to keep us engaged and hopeful of answers, Sunset is entirely dependent on Irisz. Nemes makes her the center of every scene; we only experience what she experiences, and we know the other characters only as she knows them. While cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera is fluid, and will occasionally turn in the direction of her gaze, or tarry a moment, or anticipate her, for the most part it’s content to simply follow Irisz, often in close-up, as she makes her way around Budapest.

There’s grace in the sinuous way that the camera maneuvers through crowds, around carriages, in an out of rooms, up and down stairs, through fields of darkness and shadow. But from a story perspective, our being yoked persistently to Irisz’s side becomes constraining. Nemes allows himself no cutaways, which can make conveying off-screen information a bit of a challenge, as in the few cases where he has to conspicuously resort to having Irisz overhear important information from conversations between bystanders.

This self-imposed limitation to Irisz’s point of view could have been an opportunity for some bravura plotting, but as Sunset develops, there’s little emphasis on fashioning a fiendish mystery. Clues are scattered around, such us our finding out that Sándor once worked for Oszkár, that the nobleman he murdered was an abusive husband, and that Sándor has made threats against the Budapest elite. But there’s a difficult and exacting art to making these scraps of information build on each other, and the film doesn’t care to practice it. Instead of coalescing, the plot is constantly striking off onto tangents: a hidden room that must be uncovered, a murky secret society. Throughout, there’s less a sense of a picture slowly coming into focus than of a penlight jabbing haphazardly on a dark canvas.

Worse, there’s a lack of conviction to Sunset’s middle section, when the film is lengthily but almost grudgingly occupied with developing its genre elements. Irisz is seen running from place to place, encountering various stock situations: She goes to an orphanage to find out more about her brother, only to be stonewalled, and later she pays a visit to a key character at just the precise time that another one happens to show up so that she can witness the pair interact. These are scenes that in another film might have been used to build suspense, or to establish and vivify characters, or even to simply offer up stylish versions of classic situations. Here, the only real function of these scenes is practical: to move Irisz around the map so that she can collect various bits of information relevant to the plot. Surprisingly little would be lost from the film if her findings were simply provided in an intertitle.

In its final third, Sunset opens up, bending toward the surreal. The pace quickens as Irisz tracks down her brother, and a coterie of ominous aristocrats arrive on the scene to menace her. Paradoxically, however, as the film is becoming more interesting on a moment-to-moment basis, it signals with all of this commotion that it has no plans to tidily resolve any of the central mysteries on which it’s been spending so much desultory effort.

Here, Nemes is aiming to transfigure his plot into a commentary on, well, several issues: classicism, sexism, decadence, and the looming world war. There’s no reason this can’t work on a conceptual level, but all those themes are overwhelmed by the quotidian workings of the mystery plot. They’ve been too muted up to this point to suddenly carry the whole weight of the film’s conclusion. In short, Nemes caps a historical mystery with a 30-some-odd-minute blitz of hypnagogic symbolism, and as neither stretch succeeds on its own merits, Susnet simply feels like two films awkwardly affixed to one another.

Cast: Juli Jakab, Vlad Ivanov, Evelin Dobos, Marcin Czarnik Director: László Nemes Screenwriter: László Nemes, Matthieu Topiner, Clara Royer Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 144 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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