Reviews & More: History Lessons

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Taraji P. Henson (center) as Katherine Johnson in “Hidden Figures”

I liked “Hidden Figures” so much I went back to see it again. And I liked it just as much the second time. It’s a thoroughly entertaining history lesson about (1) early NASA space exploration, (2) the very beginning of the computer age and — most importantly — (3) the Jim Crow South’s treatment of women of color in the 1960s. It’s an education, especially, on women of color with fine brains and educations who worked at NASA but were relegated to lesser jobs in segregated rooms, and how three of them — true story — managed to elevate themselves into the mainstream workforce that created the first space shuttle trips. Three gifted actresses tell their stories, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae. Plus, there’s a nice performance by Kevin Costner as a composite character who simply wants the work to be done and doesn’t care by whom. It’s a well-made, uplifting film, one that needs to be seen, especially by the generations born later on. A history lesson made not just painless but downright enjoyable.

If “Lion” does nothing else, it allows us to see how Dev Patel, the scrawny kid from 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” has matured into a handsome and forceful actor. But, of course, it does so much more than that: “Lion” presents the journey of Saroo, a child lost on the streets of Calcutta (played by an amazing young actor named Sunny Pawar) who, after some pretty harrowing situations, is adopted and raised by a childless Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, both excellent). Another film based on a true story, it follows Saroo’s adult journey to try to find his family of birth, and is alternately emotionally wrenching and veering on the sentimental. But it never reduces itself to mawkishness so, by the end, we are rewarded for having seen it. Be sure to stay for the credits. 

May I just say about the latest “Star Wars” saga, “Rogue One,” that it pretty much fulfills all the requirements? Lots of special effects (especially the bordering-on-creepy computer generated appearances of the late Peter Cushing and the very young Carrie Fisher); lots of action and lots of battles; an attempt at life lessons. It also has a young hero at its center (in this case a female hero, played by Felicity Jones) who is called on to pretty much save the world. Did I love it? Not really. But I liked it just fine. It needed it to be much better than those best-forgotten Episodes I-III, and it does just that. Best thing in the film? Forest Whitaker’s small but crucial turn as a ferocious former mentor; the actor simply can do no wrong and lights up whatever screen he is on.

Speaking of lights, do see “Bright Lights, the Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds documentary that is currently available on HBO. The nuances of the mother/daughter bond have rarely been portrayed so intimately and this bond is revealed to have been fierce, strong and loving between these two remarkable women. Even had they not recently died so tragically close to each other, the film would still have been poignant, even somewhat difficult to watch. Debbie was a born performer, driven by a need to keep going, no matter what. She was also a mother who loved deeply and stuck by her difficult daughter through all her ups and downs. And what can you say about Carrie Fisher? By the end of their lives, when the daughter became the mother, Fisher was still brilliant, funny, complex, brutally honest and deeply troubled — also filled with huge affection and admiration for her parent. Fascinating women, fascinating lives. Don’t miss it.