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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Hidden Figures

Best Picture Oscar nominee “Lion” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The famous names from the early days of the space program are fairly easy to recite and recall—and with good reason. Men like Alan Shepard and John Glen risked their lives by essentially being shot into space at the tip of a giant missile. Their lives relied on the math of the nerds (I use the term affectionately) from NASA—typically seen in documentaries and retrospectives on these early years as middle aged white men in white shirts with short sleeves, black ties, pocket protectors, horn-rimmed glasses, and crew cuts.

Best Picture Oscar nominee “Hidden Figures” takes that standard issue look and gives it a makeover—a huge one. After all, no one can plausibly argue that Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Best Supporting Actress Nominee Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) are crew cut donning white men. Middle-aged, sure, and Katherine does wear glasses, but the similarities end there.



What makes these three real-life women special is that they all made their mark at a time and in a place where race and gender do matter—NASA in 1961. The themes recur throughout “Hidden Figures” but they are never preachy or heavy handed. The women’s race and gender are handled in a matter of fact way, and the obstacles caused because of those characteristics, like Katherine having to go to another building across the NASA campus in Langley, VA, just to go to the bathroom, or fictional NASA Engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) pointing out multiple times that a woman has never been part of a Pentagon briefing, are seamlessly integrated into the story. The racism and sexism are just a part of every day life, and as the women are told multiple times throughout the movie, “That’s just the way it is.”

What makes “Hidden Figures” such a triumphant movie is that the three women all earn their places. Katherine is a mathematical genius—a “computer” before the word came to refer to a machine—and she earns the respect of her white male engineer co-workers at NASA, including her boss and fictional composite character, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the head of the Space Task Group. Mary Jackson goes to court to fight for her right to take night classes so that she can become an engineer at NASA. Dorothy Vaughan is mechanically inclined, and learns how to program the giant IBM mainframe computer that no one else can figure out.

This is culturally relevant to today’s society, as we are constantly inundated with messages about the importance of diversity, regardless of qualifications. In modern day America, the loud mouth social justice warriors like to play identity politics, as if that’s all that matters. The black women of “Hidden Figures” become who they are not because they protested and complained and whined incessantly about unfairness and discrimination. They took the hand dealt to them without complaint, and worked hard to earn their places at NASA as well as the respect of their peers. Or as Katherine puts it at one point to her soon to be husband, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), she is part of the Space Task Group not because of her skirt, but because of her glasses. The young people of today who think that crying the loudest is the best way to achieve what they want in this world could learn a lesson from these three fine, upstanding, intelligent, hard working women. Buy it on Amazon: Hidden Figures [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Lion

Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a lot braver than me when I was five years old. Early on in Best Picture nominee “Lion,” he accidentally finds himself on board a train that takes him from his home town of Ganesh Talai, India, to the big city of Calcutta, 1,500 miles away. The resourceful young man, so alone and so far away from home, does not give into his fear. Instead, he uses his intellect and his instincts to survive the rough city, eventually making his way into an orphanage, from which he is adopted by Australian couple John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Nicole Kidman). Twenty-five years later, the mature Saroo (Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Dev Patel) seeks out the family in India he lost so long before.

While in all a good movie with a terrific story, “Lion” suffers from second act sluggishness. After the exciting and suspenseful opening act involving young Saroo, the movie pumps the brakes a bit too much to tell the story of older Saroo remembering his past and seeking out his family. His romance with American student Lucy (Rooney Mara) is hit and miss, mostly because it feels like an after thought. At one point she goes back to New York City, then returns to Australia, and the only reason we find this out is through dialogue. It’s never stated how long they were separated. She’s there, then she’s not, then she’s back again. Same for Saroo quitting his job. We find out about it in dialogue. But since we never see Saroo working at his job, this is less consequential. I can appreciate the movie trying to stay focused to keep things moving. The problem is it doesn’t do that well, which causes the second act to be very scattershot.

Things do return to a good pace and better focus in the final act, however, when events take a positive turn for Saroo. It helps that the movie concludes on a warm, uplifting note. Still, it’s sad that it begins and ends so well, with such a compelling story to tell, yet winds up being so saggy in the middle. Rent it.

The Bye Bye Man

“The Bye Bye Man,” the latest in the recent trend of combining psychological thriller and horror elements, wants desperately to be in the same company as its much loved predecessors, “The Babadook” and “It Follows.” Unfortunately for this movie, it never quite reaches the pinnacle of their success.

Part of the problem is the Bye Bye Man himself. He only comes to those who know his name. So, if everyone who knows his name is dead, then he no longer can exist. As far as villains go, this is a pretty weak premise. It also doesn’t help that he looks more like a street thug in a hoodie than he does some sort of powerful, supernatural figure. His dog is pretty intimidating though. I would not want to come across that beast in a dark alley.

Then there’s the movie, which is built around the already flimsy premise of the Bye Bye Man terrorizing those who say or think his name. In order to create any drama or suspense, the movie centers around three annoying, perfect-looking college students, Elliott (Douglas Smith), John (Lucien Laviscount) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas) reacting to each other to prevent the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones) from coming to them or spreading to others.

This is where the movie is most faulty. I have nothing against unseen entities that are such a force, even off screen, that they control the actions of the main characters. This is good because the Bye Bye Man, and his dog, are only in a handful of scenes. The issue is that the Bye Bye Man is not what is driving the characters’ behavior—it is the fear of the Bye Bye Man that is driving the behavior. In other words, the Bye Bye Man isn’t even around—physically or as an unseen presence—and the actions of these three characters is derived from their fear, not from anything that Bye Bye Man has done or is doing. It’s a fine point, but an important one, because it makes all of the difference. Can a movie be made out of three characters who have a fear of something that throughout most of the movie never acts on them or does them any real harm? I’m sure it can, but “The Bye Bye Man” is not it. Skip it.

More New Releases:  “Monster Trucks,” family movie about a monster truck with a subterranean creature controlling it; “Believe,” about a small town business owner out to save a Christmas pageant; “War on Everyone,” about two corrupt cops in New Mexico who set out to blackmail and frame every criminal unfortunate enough to cross their path—until they mess with the wrong one, starring Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña; “Toni Erdmann,” Best Foreign Language Film nominee about a father trying to reconnect with his adult daughter; and “Brimstone,” western thriller starring Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning, Emilia Jones, Carice van Houten, and Kit Harington.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.