Truth flies high in 'Hidden Figures'

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 16, 2017
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Taraji P. Hensen, as Katherine Johnson, works on orbit calculations in "Hidden Figures."

Owls Head — Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 126 min.). Not only a terrific entertainment, "Hidden Figures" also tells an important, but relatively unknown story of the African-American women who helped the U.S. space effort by working as human "computers" in the time before the first IBM computers were put into use and when racial tensions were still high in America and segregation was the norm. The film, directed by Theodore Melfi and co-written by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, does that by centering its tale of three of those women: Katherine Johnson, who calculated the reentry numbers for John Glenn's first space flight; Dorothy Vaughan, who acted as supervisor for the "colored computer" pool and later taught herself to handle the IBM computer; and Mary Jackson, who became a NASA engineer after forcing her way to being the first African-American to take classes at an all-white Virginia high school.

The acting in the film is terrific, with Octavia Spencer, who plays Vaughan, earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination. The film also earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (it was based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly). Taraji P. Henson is simply wonderful as Johnson, a character so different from the one she plays on TV's "Empire." Singer-actress Janelle Monáe plays Jackson in winning fashion, even if she is the most feisty and most outspoken of the three about the treatment of African-Americans. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group at the Langley Research Center (Harrison is a fictional composite of three real people), who is more concerned with getting the computing job done than letting Johnson be treated any differently. In those times, the early 1960s, even at the NASA facility at Langley, whites and blacks worked on separate campuses in segregated conditions. Even at the city library, books are segregated.

While much of the film deals with the three women's work, we are shown bits of their personal lives. Johnson, then Katherine Goble, was raising three daughters with her mother's help, after her husband had died. The social unrest in the country over racial equality is partially shown through Jackson's husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), a social activist. Vaughan puts most of her life into her job and she battles to be granted supervisory status, as that is the job she has been performing. There also are many references to the "space race" with the Soviet Union, which put the first animal and human into space. Among the supporting cast are Jim Parsons as an engineer who is openly hostile to Johnson; Kirsten Dunst as the bit "uppity" white supervisor; and Mahershala Ali as Col. Jim Johnson, who marries Katharine.

Bonus features include audio commentary by Melfi and Henson; eight deleted scenes (10:14), with optional commentary by Melfi; a piece on filming in Georgia (5:15); a photo gallery; and a five-part making-of feature (41:46), the first part of which is an excellent brief history. Johnson, 97, is interviewed, as well as book author Shetterly. The feature touches on the racism and sexism encountered by the women, and their eventual displacement by computers. Another portion of the feature touches on the music by Pharrell, who wrote songs for the film and served as a producer on the film, and composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, with a brief glimpse of Herbie Hancock adding piano to the score. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Lion (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 118 min.). This is another extraordinary true tale, that of a 5-year-old Indian boy who gets lost after an unexpected train ride takes him 1,600 miles from his small hometown and dumps him in chaotic Calcutta. He is eventually adopted by a loving Australian couple and grows up in Tasmania. However, some 22 years later, the boy, now a man, becomes obsessed with searching for his original home and his lost mother, brother and sister.

The film, directed by Garth Davis and based on the book, "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley, earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay ( Luke Davies), Best Original Score (Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann) , Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel) and Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman). The first hour is a moving, scary tale of loss, while the second half leads to a heart-warming resolution. In the first half, young Saroo is played by newcomer Sunny Pawar (very adorable). We see him at play and "work" (stealing coal off of passing trains) with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate; both he and Pawar are in the new film, "Love Sonia").

Guddu reluctantly takes Saroo on a night work journey, but it is too much for Saroo, who falls asleep and is left on a bench at the train station with the admonition to not go anywhere. When Saroo awakes and cannot find his brother, he wonders onto a train and falls asleep again, only to wake and find he is the only passenger on a non-stop train to Calcutta. Making Saroo's problem worse is that he only speaks Hindu, while the majority of people in Calcutta speak Bengali. His early adventures in the city include sleeping in the train station and streets on cardboard, being befriended by a woman who apparently has a man friend who would sell him, and being sent to a government prison for lost children. From there, he is adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Kidman and David Wenham. This first half of the film is superior.

Most of Saroo's early life in Hobart is skipped, except for Sue and John adopting another Indian child, who seems trouble from the very beginning, but Sue is unsparing in her love for both children. A 20-year jump brings Saroo (now played by Patel) to studying hotel management at a hospitality school in Melbourne. It is while he is at school that he and future girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) attended dinner at the house of friends, who are from India. There, Saroo sees a dessert that recalls times spent with his brother and wakens his desire to find his birth mother and brother (his sister seems a bit of an afterthought, even when he eventually finds her again). A new computer application, Google Earth, helps Saroo in his obsessive search over the next two years  to find his lost family. In this portion of the film, we see rivers of emotion in Patel's performance.

Bonus features include three deleted scenes (4:36; including an emotional one in which Guddu is taken away for stealing eggs); the "Never Give Up" music video by Sia; and a five-part look behind the scenes (22:16), which includes the real Saroo retelling his story in 8 minutes; Patel's take on the story, director and performance; segments on Kidman and Davis; and a look at the music. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Sleepless (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 95 min.). Based on the 2011 French film, "Nuit Blanche," this action thriller stars Jamie Foxx as Las Vegas policeman Vincent Downs, whom we first see as a dirty cop, as he and his partner (Tip "T.I." Harris as Sean Cass) are robbing the courier of Luxus Casino manager Stan Rabino (Dermot Mulroney). It turns out, though, that the loot was 25 kilos of cocaine that were destined for the Novak crime family. This means the film opens with a car chase and a gun battle, but things soon get much more complicated.

When a police-issued bullet is found at the crime scene, Internal Affairs detective Jennifer Bryant (Michelle Monaghan)gets on the case with her partner (David Harbour as Dennison) and she becomes suspicious of Downs, when he gets himself assigned to the case. Meanwhile, Downs' ex-wife Dena (Gabrielle Union) asks Downs to deliver their son (Octavius J. Johnson as Thomas) to his athletic event. As they are stopped at a traffic light, the car is attacked by Rabino's men, who take Thomas as a hostage. Downs tries to return the cocaine, but Bryant follows him and takes it from where he stashed it above a toilet stall in the casino. At the point, the younger Novak (Scoot McNairy) shows up and is all menacing to both Rabino and Downs. The film's twist, spelled out clearly on the back on the DVD, is that Downs, instead of being dirty, has been working undercover to bust all the dirty cops on the drug dealers' payrolls.

The action is decent, with a couple of good fights, even if the story is routine. Downs does get to drive a car inside the casino. The film blatantly sets up a sequel involving the yet-to-be-seen older Novak, who has been on vacation. Bonus features are slim: five deleted scenes (5:19); and a making-of featurette (4:23). Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Isolation (Lionsgate DVD, R, 94 min.). This bland action-thriller sets three couples on a small island in the Bahamas. One pair gets robbed while dining with a second pair, although the husband shows up late, making the robbed couple think maybe he was the thief. So, the vacationing couple go to the third couple for help. A glimpse at the DVD's back cover pictures, or watching the film's prologue, easily answers the question of who the bad couple is. The film, made in 2015 but only now being released as a Wal-Mart exclusive, is supposed to be inspired by true events. Its moral seems to be that one can heal a fractured marriage by being robbed and then killing those who robbed you.

The vacationing couple is Creighton (Luke Mably) and Lydia (Tricia Helfer). She is a teacher and he is an accountant, and she is still mad over the affair Creighton has confessed to. In an attempt to win her back, he arranges a vacation in the Bahamas, where they end up on the small island. William (Stephen Lang) is the man who events them to dinner, while Max (Dominic Purcell of TV's "DC's Legends of Tomorrow," the revived "Prison Break") and Nina (Marie Avgeropoulos) are the couple they are supposed to go to if any problems develop. The film takes a full 70 minutes to get interesting and, by then, it is too late. While there is a lot of drinking and some pot smoking in the film, there are no bonus features on the DVD. Grade: 1.5 stars

Arctic Adventure: On Frozen Pond (Lionsgate DVD, PG, 87 min.). This animated feature stars Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox, the comedy duo from the popular YouTube channel, SMOSH, which has more than 6.1 video views to date. They play frog warriors. One-Eye (Hecox) plots to steal the Crystal Frog, which has been protecting the Frog Kingdom with its magic. It is up to Freddy (Padilla) and the Frog Princess (Ambyr Childers) to trek to the Holy Land to make things right. They have to pass through forest, desert, river rapids and icy caverns. The bonus feature is a look at the voice actors recording in the studio, including Jon Lovitz, who voices Ababwa. The film has been awarded the Dove Family Seal of Approval.

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