‘Hidden Figures’ & ‘Lion’ double feature worthy of Academy

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These are two very serious, deeply moving and well-acted films. Based on true events, they are not necessarily for everyone but special for those who enjoy this genre.

“Hidden Figures” is a story of oppression, but also a series of “one small steps” that helped put a man on the moon. In a recent interview, Michael Keaton was astounded the story of “The Founder,” Ray Kroc, had not previously been told. That amazement is even more relevant to three gifted and steadfast women that helped us win the space race.

NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians serving as “human computers.” Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Grammy award winner Janelle Monae) distinguished themselves as American heroes unknown to the public.

Their arithmetic brilliance was necessary but not sufficient to put a man in orbit. The space program wasn’t their biggest challenge. First they had to change some seemingly impenetrable barriers. Gender, race and vocational restrictions were sustained by the repressive social and legal system of Jim Crow America. Mary could be an engineer, but conceded, “I’m a Negro woman, I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.” Then adds, “Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line, every time.”

Expert in spherical and planar geometry as well as physics, the real-life Katherine Johnson, at 98 years old, modestly asked Taraji P. Henson why anybody would want to make a film about her. This “History Channel docudrama” shoots for the stars with wit and convincing lead performances. Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons offer strong supporting roles, but the film lags somewhat in action and plodding dialog.

“Hidden Figures” is 127 minutes and rated PG for thematic elements and language. With gender policies and racial laws against them, Dorothy’s supervisor explains the dilemma, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Dorothy calmly reasons, “I know you probably believe that.” This story is heartwarming, heart breaking and inspirational. But, everyone will finally know these women had the right stuff.

Ron’s Rating: A Leigh’s Rating: C

“Lion”: Every parent’s worst nightmare is losing a child, even for a few minutes. But, 25 years is an eternity. Five-year old Saroo gets trapped in a moving train that takes him over a thousand miles away to Calcutta. One of the poorest and most densely populated cities in the world, Saroo must survive on instincts and his limited street smarts.

Young Sunny Pawar is marvelous as the young Saroo, Selected from a casting call of over 4,000 in India, Pawar is adorable, but credible as the scrappy little street urchin. Not knowing his full name, hometown or local Bengali language (speaks Hindi), Saroo survives against all odds and ends up at an orphanage resembling a prison.

When John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman) of Tasmania, Australia adopt the boy, they provide a safe, comfortable and loving home. As Saroo (Dev Patel) grows into a charming young man, he becomes obsessed with finding his original home and family. Patel has matured from his pleasing character in “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Marigold Hotel” series to a talented and charismatic actor destined for a bright future.

This feature is emotionally gut wrenching without being maudlin, terrifying without bloodshed and implausible but based on a true story. First time director, Garth Davis, offers sweeping panoramas of the Indian landscape and minimal dialog to create an exhilarating first half. As the dialog surges, it markedly bogs down in the back stretch.

“Lion” is 118 minutes and rated PG-13 for thematic material and sensuality. Both actors playing Saroo generate the sincerity, empathy and inspiration needed to pull the audience onto this incredible journey. It asks as many questions as it answers regarding the 11 million other children living on the streets of India. We do learn that nobody has a corner on all the world’s problems, but it helps us all to occasionally hear a lion roar.

Ron’s Rating: A Leigh’s Rating: B

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