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Copyright CBS Films 2016

Copyright CBS Films 2016

Life is messy. Stories are our way of cleaning it up to help us try to make sense of it. Some of those stories are in books or movies, but most of those stories are just the editing each of us does all the time in telling ourselves and others who we are. Whether it is explaining to a traffic cop why you should not get a ticket or the difference between the “how we met” story of a couple who are still together and one who has split up, or living in a version of Lake Woebegone, “where all the children are above average,” all of us burnish the truth a little to make ourselves feel better and look better.

Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel The Sense of an Ending is the story of a older man who has to rethink the stories he has told himself and realign his understanding of his life. On screen, the delicacy of the performances stands in for the lyricism of his prose.

Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is semi-retired, the owner of a store that sells vintage cameras, and kind of semi-married, with a warm, companionable relationship with his lawyer ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter, with a voice like a dry martini). Their daughter Susie (“Downton Abbey’s” Michelle Dockery) loves her dad, but finds him exasperating. She is pregnant, and says that her child will call him “Mudge,” for curmudgeon.

The camera store is significant. The vintage cameras are superbly crafted and in some ways better than digital cameras, but they are expensive and complicated and considered obsolete by most people. Tony identifies with the underappreciated quality of the instruments of precision and gets some satisfaction with being out of step with modern technology and mores.

But his romanticized view of the past is put into sharper focus (those cameras again) when he gets a letter about a bequest from a woman he had not seen since he was in his 20’s, when he was dating a woman named Veronica, and visited her family. After he and Veronica broke up, she dated his close friend Adrian, who later committed suicide. Now Veronica’s mother has left him Adrian’s journal, but that raises many questions: Why did she want him to have it? Where did she get it?

And where is it?  Her letter says it is enclosed, but it is not. Tony could let it go, but he stubbornly insists on seeing what it is, without considering where it might lead.

We go back in time, the moments and even the gestures mirroring the present as Tony explores the past and reconsiders many of his most fundamental assumptions about how he has lived his life. Veronica (now played with quiet fury by Charlotte Rampling) will not let him to have the journal. Instead she gives him something else, a letter that will make Tony confront one of his most painful and shameful experiences and open up to his ex-wife as he never has before.

The honesty of story’s portrayal of the foolish and selfish mistakes we make and the hurt they can inflict on people around us is tempered by the film’s tenderness toward its characters and the sensitivity of the performances, especially Broadbent and Walter. It judges them less than Tony is pushed to judge himself, and that is why it is so touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes two suicides, some violence, strong language, sexual references and a situation, and tense confrontations.

Family discussion: Why did Victoria’s mother want Tony to have Adrian’s journal?  Why was Tony wrong about Victoria’s brother?  Why did he forget about the letter?

If you like this, try: “The Remains of the Day”

Arthur Rasco  directed the extraordinary documentary “Facing Darkness,” about the efforts of the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse and their fight against Ebola, one that became very personal when their own doctor and nurse, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, became infected. It was an honor to speak to Mr. Rasco about the film.

When did you start filming? It seems like you were there right from the beginning.

Samaritan’s Purse has been covering the Ebola epidemic since 2014. We have people on the ground in Liberia and some of those folks had cameras and were filming. The Deputy Country Director, Joni Byker, was filming, trying to get some clips and we were trying to get a video team off the ground to go but then late July happened and Dr. Kent Brantly was diagnosed with Ebola. And then so that changed things dramatically and then all of a sudden that threw all of us into a tailspin so it was all hands on deck to try and take care of Kent and Nancy Writebol. So we filmed bits and pieces along the way as we could, their arrivals at Emory, and then we did send our crews back in late October 2014. Once we re-engaged and sent supplies to the airlift with two 747s loaded with supplies, we sent a video crew. And then we were green lit to do the documentary in about April 2015, so that’s when we really begun in earnest putting together the film. The film will be in theaters on March 30, 2017.

How did you shape your production schedule and your approach as the story developed?

We had a great team that was involved in putting the film together. I’m just one piece among a great team of people here at Samaritan’s Purse and so we documented quite a bit of the stories of several people that had been involved. Some of the people like Bev and Kendell Kauffeldt and Dr. Lance Plyler we debriefed and recorded those interviews. So we had an idea of how we wanted to shape the story and then you go and you go there on the ground and then you also start meeting people like the nationals, the Liberians who had such amazing stories that we were able to work into the film.

We talked to people like Joseph Gbembo who lost 17 family members. We knew that he had lost quite a few and when we were interviewing him and then he says in the film, “When I look at the kids, the nieces and nephews, the children of those family members that passed away that gives me hope.” Okay, how many are we talking about? And then he says, “16.” And that moment was just so real and so we put that into the film just as it was because it was just such a dramatic earth shattering moment for all of us. We didn’t quite know that aspect of the story and so that was just amazing. Meeting people like Barbara Bono, who was a Liberian Ebola survivor and having her tell the story was just so powerful. Filming many interviews with everybody, I am crying and all of us are just in tears as we’re hearing the stories of what she went through and what she was afraid of during the time.

How do you maintain the distance that you need in order to make the film and yet to reach out to them as a human to get them to open up the way they do?

Well, I don’t know if I’m too good at keeping distance. I really enjoy and I want to engage with the folks, with people because their stories are just so amazing, they have been through some things that I am just trying to reflect, I’m just trying to share. I wasn’t able to be on the ground in 2014 when all of this happened and yet you know that these folks have been through something pretty earth shattering and so you want to respect that and you want to be able to let them tell their story openly and honestly. And so I laughed at when they laughed, I cried when they cried. I’m just trying to have them tell their story.

In America people went a little crazy on the subject of Ebola and didn’t listen to what the experts and the scientists had to say about the threat that it posed. How did that complicate things to bring back Kent to the US in the midst of all of that fear?

We as an organization as Samaritan Purse knew that we had to do everything, all that was possible to try and take care of Kent and Nancy. As you saw in the film it’s just a miraculous set of events that’s really unfolded. You almost can’t write this as a script. You just see God working in these ways. We took all the precautions that we could and Samaritan’s Purse put in place its own set of protocols to try and take care of our remaining staff. We were in touch with the CBC during this time, too. They gave us their instructions and we said, “Well, we’re going to step it up a notch because we want to keep our people safe and do the best that we can.”

What do you want people to learn from the film?

Our hope is that this is a story that will inspire young people, inspire a new generation of missionaries to set out in bold faith and go out to the mission field, to go out and serve, and serve in the name of Christ and putting their life on the line if that’s what they are called to because that’s where the need is. The need is out there and you can go out, you can make a difference. And that’s what the movie is about right? It’s letting compassion fuel a courage that will conquer fear and so that’s what we want to be able to do to encourage, to inspire a new generation of missionaries to head out there. I hope that people will feel challenged after watching this movie.

Nice work, Oscars!  Except for that weird fake-out at the very end.

Copyright 2016 Plan B Entertainment

Copyright 2016 Plan B Entertainment

The show started off with Justin Timberlake’s terrific performance of his nominated song, a burst of jubilant  celebration that set the tone.  Jimmy Kimmel was a fine host, with a self-deprecating reminder that this was his first-ever time at the Oscars and, given the way the awards ceremony runs through hosts, probably his last.  His opening remarks were just barbed enough, joking about the “overrated” Meryl Streep and touching lightly on the political controversies of the moment.  Supporting Actor award winner Mahersala Ali got the acceptance speeches off to a wonderful start with his gracious comments about being in service to the characters he plays.  His perspective on the event may have reflected the even more important event in his life this week, the birth of his new baby.

Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis gave a deeply emotional speech, reminding the crowd that their profession celebrates “what it means to live a life.” She became the first black woman to achieve the triple threat: Oscar, Tony, Emmy.  Kimmel joked that her speech was so powerful she was immediately nominated for an Emmy.  16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho was marvelous performing the song from “Moana,” and kept her cool even when she was bonked on the head by one of the huge blue flags representing the ocean, and continued like a pro.

Not so good — the idea of delivering snacks to the audience never worked and dropping candy from the ceiling was pointless and silly, as was the prank of bringing unsuspecting tourists into the building.

Oscar commercials are getting as important as the Super Bowl ads. The Walmart challenge to three directors to make short films based on the same shopping receipt made the commercial breaks a lot of fun.

The theme of inspiration was beautifully presented as today’s stars paid tribute to the movies that meant the most to them when they were young and then came out on stage with the stars they saluted. Kimmel went overboard with his spoof, unfortunately using it as another opportunity to push his mock feud with Matt Damon (later introduced as a presenter only as Ben Affleck’s “guest”). I like “We Bought a Zoo!”

It was great to see Damien Chazelle become the youngest person ever to win the Best Director award, for “La La Land,” a labor of love made almost entirely by young people, and a film that revitalized the musical genre and of course paid tribute to the making of movies itself.  Tied for the record of the most Oscar nominations, it went on to win Best Actress for Emma Stone and best score, production design, and song as well.

And then, after the biggest fumble in awards show history, it turned out that “Moonlight” was the Best Picture winner after all, a superb choice.  A small movie about people often overlooked or marginalized or stereotyped, made by a group of friends who had no other aim but to honor their own history, achieved the highest award in show business due solely to its powerful honesty and the poetry of its storytelling.  That’s a Hollywood ending.

Copyright A24 2016

Copyright A24 2016

I love the Spirit Awards (formerly Independent Spirit), given out the night before the Oscars for the best of the year’s independent films. These are movies made with more passion than money, and the award ceremony, on the beach, is always casual and a bit subversive, but always very sincere. I am proud to be a Spirit Awards voter, and very proud of our selections.

Best Feature:

Moonlight (A24)

Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski

Best Director:

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight (A24)

Best Screenplay:

Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Story By), Moonlight (A24)

Best First Feature:

The Witch (A24)

Director: Robert Eggers

Producers: Daniel Bekerman, Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond,

Rodrigo Teixeira

Best First Screenplay:

Robert Eggers, The Witch (A24)

John Cassavetes Award (For best feature made under $500,000):

Spa Night (Strand Releasing)

Writer/Director: Andrew Ahn

Producers: David Ariniello, Giulia Caruso, Ki Jin Kim, Kelly Thomas

Best Supporting Female:

Molly Shannon, Other People (Vertical Entertainment)

isabelle-huppert-in-elle-closing-her-shutters-in-storm-with-help-of-neighbor
Image via Sony Picture Classics
Best Supporting Male:

Ben Foster, Hell or High Water (CBS Films/Lionsgate)

Best Female Lead:

Isabelle Huppert, Elle (Sony Pictures Classics)

Best Male Lead:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios)

Robert Altman Award:

Moonlight (A24)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Casting Director: Yesi Ramirez

Ensemble Cast: Mahershala Ali, Patrick Decile, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders

Best Cinematography:

James Laxton, Moonlight (A24)

Best Editing:

Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders, Moonlight (A24)

Best International Film:

Toni Erdmann (Germany and Romania– Sony Pictures Classics)

Director: Maren Ade

Best Documentary:

O.J.: Made in America (ESPN Films)

Director/Producer: Ezra Edelman

Producers: Deirdre Fenton, Libby Geist, Nina Krstic, Erin Leyden, Tamara Rosenberg, Connor Schell, Caroline Waterlow