Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, and Jim Parsons
Synopsis: What do you think of when you think about the space race? Likely you think about the competition with Russia. You might think about John Kennedy’s promise we’d get to the moon in the decade of the 1960s. And you probably think of heroes like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. That’s not wrong. It’s also not the whole story. The new film “Hidden Figures” takes a look at the space race through the eyes of three brave women who helped make it all happen. And they’re also probably women you’ve never heard of. The beauty of the story is that it re-frames our view of history in a good way. It’s also an entertaining and engaging film that’s likely to be a strong contender at the Academy Awards. The film picks up in 1960 with a trio of African-American women working for NASA, which was then housed in Langley, Virginia, where the CIA is located. Kathryn Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) was a brilliant mathematician. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) had the chops to be a great engineer. And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) was a gifted supervisor who knew what it took to keep her teams relevant and necessary. But all three of them were overlooked because they were women of color working in a very different America. They could have let that stop them, but instead they used their talents, passion and drive to overcome the times and become a vital part of the success of our space race. “Hidden Figures” is a film that gives us a lot to chew on. As co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”), this a film with a lot of heart. It has some laughs, some touching moments and a great message. It’s also a film that gets you thinking about a lot of things. The obvious is about how much these three characters had to overcome to be an integral part of the space race, yet they’ve still — mostly — been ignored by history. They were women during a time when it was a man’s world and women of color during a time — and in a place — where segregation was still acceptable. But this isn’t a movie that chastises white men all together. It would be disingenuous to suggest that these ladies didn’t face opposition in achieving their dreams, but there were people in their corner. I loved the way Glenn (Glen Powell) and Harrison were portrayed. In fact, this is one of the better roles and performances from Kevin Costner in recent years. He has some powerful scenes, and works beautifully alongside Henson. But this is a film that lives or dies based on the performances of the leads, which are great. Henson should be in the conversation for Best Actress. It’s a performance, and character, that is miles away from her work on “Empire,” but she creates a woman and character who is just as fierce and memorable. Spencer, a previous Oscar Winner, was a nominee as supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, and should be again. She does a great job of bringing Dorothy Vaughn to life. Monae should also be in the conversation for her work as Mary Jackson. She enjoys one of the most inspirational arcs in the film, but it’s also one of the subtlest storylines. This film also succeeds in giving the average viewer a different appreciation of history. These kind of stories shine a light on the people who fought hard, used their skills and found ways to contribute, but often don’t get the limelight. It’s also a movie that makes you think about space exploration differently. It was a big deal and a momentous achievement, something we probably take for granted nowadays. In 1960 it was just a dream. We wanted to reach for the stars, and we had brave men and women who were willing to sacrifice and innovate to achieve it. It’s hard not to watch this film and wonder if that’s still true today. “Hidden Figures” is a beautiful and powerful story that’s beautifully told. It should be in the conversation as we enter Oscar season.
Rating: PG for thematic elements and some language.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.
Manchester By The Sea
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Kyle Chandler
Synopsis: There have been plenty of films that have looked at the process of grief. "Manchester By The Sea" is a beautifully told story that is about a man forced to confront a place and a time he is haunted by. It's a beautiful acting showcase for its star, Casey Affleck, and a film that can't help but evoke a powerful emotional response. That's the reason it's been in the Best Picture conversation for months, and the reason Affleck feels like a lock for a Best Actor nomination. And both he and the film should be in those conversations. Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the film, offers a beautiful and simple story. It's one that really draws you into the characters and wallops you with emotional punches. It doesn't offer glib or easy answers, and it's not a film that offers a conventional resolution. But it works. It follows a man who's forced to return to the hometown he left behind to care for his teenage nephew after his brother dies. While there he's haunted by the demons that caused him to run and hide in an anonymous life as a janitor on the outskirts of Boston in the first place. The question becomes whether he can conquer those demons and find a way to live his life again. It doesn't always go the way you'd expect, but there's some real, raw emotions in the film. In addition to Affleck, Williams has drawn praise for her work. She's not in the film a ton, but she has some incredibly powerful scenes, including one particularly devastating sequence opposite Affleck. She, too, is in the Oscar conversation, and for good reason. This is a sad and haunting film, but it's one worth checking out for those that appreciate the beauty of a story well told.
Rating: R for language throughout and some sexual content.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.
Friday, January 13 -- "Live By Night," "Patriot's Day," "Sleepless," "Monster Trucks," "The Bye Bye Man"
Friday, January 20 -- "The Founder," "Split," "XXX: The Return of Xander Cage"
Friday, January 27 -- "Gold," "A Dog's Purpose," "Resident Evil: The Final Chapter"