The last week of the cinematic year always brings a final push for Oscar buzz and box office bucks.
On the mass market side this year are “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (already in theaters) and “Passengers” (opening Dec. 21). Both have strong appeal to established fan bases. Fans of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt can enjoy their dual mission to consummate their irresistible passion and to escape a doomed spaceship.
Fans of the Star Wars saga can enjoy the clever way Disney and Lucasfilms layer references to the canon into “Rogue,” dubbed “Episode 3.5.” They can also enjoy the amazing special effects, the appearance of an amusing new droid K-2S0 (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and a strong cast led by Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Less enthusiastic audiences may notice the weak script and terrible dialogue, creepy CGI effects that reanimate the late Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and rejuvenate Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), confusing battle sequences and general lack of suspense since the fates of the characters and the outcome of the mission are already foregone conclusions.
On the prestige front, “Fences” and “Hidden Figures” open on Christmas Day. Both movies feature superb performances by African-American casts and bring some much-needed diversity to the race to the Academy Awards.
“Fences” is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by the late August Wilson. One of the greatest American dramas, “Fences” tells the story of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington), a former star of the Negro baseball leagues who ends up working as a trash collector in Pittsburgh.
The sleeper hit and the hidden gem of the holiday season is the inspiring “Hidden Figures,” a well-made ensemble drama that shines an overdue spotlight on three unsung heroes of American history: the African-American female “computers” who worked at the segregated NASA facility in Langley, Va., and helped successfully propel John Glenn into space by performing the complicated launch calculations by hand.
The movie centers on Katherine Johnson, brought to vibrant cinematic life by the excellent Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”). Johnson is recruited by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of the Space Task Group, to help America overtake the Soviet Union in the space race, but her work is hampered by rampant racism and sexism. As the only woman and the only black person working in that department, she is denied a full security clearance and is forced to use the bathroom for “colored women” on the other side of the campus. Her white male colleagues (led by Jim Parson as her jealous rival Paul Stafford) force her to drink from a separate coffee pot labeled “COLORED.” Despite these obstacles, she becomes the only mathematician trusted by John Glenn (Glen Powell), who refuses to launch until she personally verifies his final trajectory.
The second character of the pioneering trio is Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe (“Moonlight”). A brilliant engineer, Jackson is forced to go to court so she can attend the classes on a segregated campus. Her comic and crafty courtroom scene with Frank Hoyt Taylor is one of the highlights of the movie.
Finally, Octavia Spencer turns in a superb performance as Dorothy Vaughan, who works as the supervisor of the “human computers,” even though she is denied the title and pay she deserves. Fearing that her staff will be made obsolescent by the huge new IBM computer that is being installed, Vaughan trains her colleagues to become some of NASA’s first computer programmers.
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and directed by Theodore Melfi (who co-wrote the excellent screenplay with Allison Schroeder), “Hidden Figures” is a stirring tribute to three women who shattered racial, sexual and professional barriers in their determination to live their lives to the fullest and to help their country. Well-paced and laced with wonderful moments of comedy and family togetherness, this is the perfect movie for the holiday season.