Thursday, March 29, 2018

What We've Been Watching: Wilder Fest, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


As I've mentioned before, once we finished watching James Bond films in consecutive order (sigh - I still miss our weekly Bond), we turned to the idea of consecutive Billy Wilder films. The ones he directed, not the ones he wrote before that. We'd like to finish before we die.

We've watched the first four of Wilder's directorial filmography so here's the report on our mini-Wilder-Fest.

The Major and the MinorA frustrated city girl decides to disguise herself as a youngster in order to get a cheaper train ticket home. But little "Sue Sue" finds herself in a whole heap of grown-up trouble when she hides out in a compartment with handsome Major Kirby and he insists on taking her to his military academy after the train is stalled. Memorable not only as Wilder's debut, but also for the fact that Billy Wilder managed to make the ridiculous plot into a watchable movie. The studio was so surprised it made money that they gave him another movie to direct.

Five Graves to Cairo The sole survivor of a WWI British tank crew in Africa makes his way to a desolate desert town where he is given refuge by a hotel owner who is preparing to receive General Erwin Rommel and his German staff. Posing as the hotel's waiter, the soldier attempts to report the general's plans to the Allies. A very watchable espionage movie which also has a young Anne Baxter as a French chambermaid and Erich Von Stroheim as Rommel. Wilder and Von Stroheim will work together more memorably in Sunset Boulevard later on.

Double Indemnity — It didn't take long for Wilder to fire on all cylinders. You can't beat this story about an unfaithful wife and an insurance salesman who cook up the perfect murder plot to collect on her husband's insurance. A famous film that I, nevertheless, have to beat people over the head to watch. The screenplay is by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler and the dialogue crackles with iconic film noir style. (#10 in Movies You Might Have Missed series. Scott and I also discussed it at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.)

The Lost WeekendThe desperate life of a chronic alcoholic is followed through a four-day drinking bout. I'd always managed to avoid watching this Wilder classic which was the first movie to honestly portray alcoholism. Then our Wilder series forced me into it.

It was really great. I have been recommending it to people, not least of all because Ray Milland (who played the clueless Major from The Major and the Minor) showed his acting chops by being absolutely convincing as a full-blown alcoholic who you were somehow still pulling for.

Also, just a month ago I'd actually had an alcoholic give me an identical line to one the popped up early in the movie. Identical. It shouldn't have floored me the way it did. I know from personal experience that alcoholics are not as good at fooling other people as they think they are. The movie's riveting story has more to recommend it than just authentic behavior patterns and I highly recommend it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — Mildred is angry. Her daughter was brutally murdered months ago, but the police have got nothing. She rents three unused billboards just outside town to publicly ask the police chief why more isn’t being done. This film asks us to consider how do we channel anger at an unjust world? Hate, rage, and grief are mixed with hope and chances for redemption.

This movie is violent, funny, and profane ... as well as being perfect Lenten viewing.

Perhaps the best hint of how we should view this film is that near the beginning one character is reading A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor famously said of her title story, "I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace." I'm not saying writer/director Martin McDonagh is Flannery O'Connor but he's definitely channeling her. Three Billboards can be tough to watch but is ultimately rewarding in the end.

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