Hidden Figures, Lion Reviews (2016)
You can start 2017 with positive vibes.
At least at the movies.
There are two feel-good films out recently that should lift spirits of viewers. In Hidden Figures and Lion, positivity prevails. I recommend them to gentle audiences.
Although both films are based on actual experiences, they have the edges honed off. They are not edgy. Severity and nastiness are abolished from the films. If only they were in 2017 society.
In Hidden Figures and Lion, seldom has alienation or racism been so polite.
At the beginning of Hidden Figures, a Virginia highway patrolman is a threat to three African-American women by a car broken down on the road. But after a few smart remarks from the women, he gives them a police escort to NASA's Langley Research Center where they work. [One of the women has fixed the car.]
At this point, we know we're going to take a trip to another la la land. It's a pleasant, if occasionally bumpy, odyssey.
Hidden Figures is a tale focusing on three African-American women who work for NASA planning for the 1962 space flight of John Glenn to orbit the Earth. The women are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a unique mathematician, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), a forceful supervisor who is denied official recognition, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aerospace engineer, who has been denied schooling. The gifted trio are crucial in preparation for the phenomenal space flight.
Hidden Figures avoids unsettling, personal racism, and focuses on institutional racism. Katherine Johnson has to run a lengthy distance to another building, because there is no bathroom for colored in the building in which she works. Katherine also is supposed to use a cheap coffee pot for colored.
Kirsten Dunst, as manager Vivian Mitchell, has a thankless, generic role. Vivian tells Katherine, "Never had a colored in here, Katherine. Don't embarrass me."
And the scene in which group leader Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) destroys the colored bathroom sign smacks of contrivance.
John Glenn never smiled so much as his portrayer John Powell does in Hidden Figures. Glenn is the poster boy for nice astronaut.
Despite a few glaring limitations, Hidden Figures works best because of its actors. The direction by Ted Melfi, and the writing by Caucasian blond Allison Schroeder and Melfi, from a book by African-American Margot Lee Shetterley, are serviceable.
But the strength of Hidden Figures is the three actresses who invest their characters with palpable, appealing humanity.
Lion is also based on a book - Saroo Brierley's memoir, A Long Way Home. It's the story of a boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) who by mistake gets on an empty train which starts up and then takes him more than 1,000 miles away from home. The 5-year-old doesn't know his home town or last name. He arrives in Kolkata. He is alone and desperate.
After grueling travail, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple - Sue (Nicole Kidman) and Joe Brierley (David Wenham) - and moves to Tasmania. They are wonderful parents. But as an adult (Dev Patel), Saroo becomes more and more anxious to find his original home and mother.
He becomes obsessed with Google Earth on his laptop - not exactly providing memorable film imagery. He is supported by his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
Australian director Garth Davis and writer Luke Davies create an uneven but entertaining film. As in Hidden Figures, the acting is the film's strength. A bulked-up Dev Patel, wide-eyed Sunny Pawar, and a very sensitive Nicole Kidman are outstanding.
Both Hidden Figures and Lion beautifully remind us of reality. At the end of Hidden Figures, we see photographs of the actual people. And at the end of Lion we witness footage of the actual people.
Now that's memorably feel-good.