‘Hidden Figures’ explores unsung heroes of space race

— Some movies rely on a single character to make a compelling experience. “Hidden Figures” has three key characters who could make any other movie on their own. So despite an overly calculated feel, the numbers add up in favor of this uplifting film, which celebrates America’s pioneer spirit during the space race while delving into that era’s shameful aspects vis-à-vis race and gender.

“Hidden Figures” is periodically guilty of a sort of thudding earnestness, as well as emotional manipulation. Still, with its top-flight cast and absorbing historical foundation, the movie doesn’t just chronicle when America began reaching for the stars, but sporadically achieves cinematic liftoff.

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, the film deals with real-life African-American women who played vital roles in the space program back in NASA’s “The Right Stuff” days, when John Glenn (Glen Powell) orbited the Earth and the virtues of competing with the Soviets weren’t a subject of debate.

Yet while Katherine G. Johnson (Henson) was such a math genius that Glenn requested she crunch the data for his famous Mercury 7 flight, the atmosphere at NASA headquarters circa 1962 was such that Johnson had to walk a long distance just to find a “colored” restroom. This eventually prompts her crusty boss (played with world-weary authority by Kevin Costner) to inquire why she disappears for stretches, prompting her to explain the indignity in a rare outburst.

Katherine’s capable supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), is similarly denied a promotion to the job she’s already doing by her snooty supervisor (Kirsten Dunst). Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Monae, having a very big transition-to-acting year with “Moonlight” and now this) yearns to become an engineer, despite some serious impediments due to Jim Crow segregation.

Working from a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, director and co-writer Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) has such a stirring story on his hands that it doesn’t require much embellishment, or frankly, leave a whole lot of room for side plots. Amid the work, Katherine — a widowed mother of three — does find time to begin a relationship with a just-returned military man (Mahershala Ali), scenes played with a sweetness that adds to the movie’s gentle appeal.

A clever title with multiple meanings, “Hidden Figures” captures the enthusiasm that surrounded putting men in space, but tempers it with the injustices faced by those who assisted them back on Earth. That includes the brilliantly capable Katherine being told by her immediate supervisor (“The Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons) that “computers,” the rather amusing job title back then for those working in the math department, don’t put their names on reports.

The performances are uniformly strong, and the rapport among the central trio feels warm and natural, with Henson displaying a very different side than her “Empire” alter ego. Still, the underlying facts of the story — made even more resonant by Glenn’s recent death — do most of the heavy lifting, leaving behind a film that’s periodically stirring if never especially daring.

Because so much attention has been devoted through the years to the romance of the early space program, just watching “Hidden Figures” — down to the details in its closing crawl — will likely surprise those who are unfamiliar with this chapter in that history. Whatever the movie’s flaws, they’re largely eclipsed by the warming light that it sheds on those blind spots.

“Hidden Figures” opens in limited release December 25 and wide on January 6. It’s rated PG.

The Best TV of 2016

— The abundance of quality TV has flummoxed writers of Top 10 lists, resulting in lengthy rosters that go well beyond that arbitrary cutoff, as writers seek to identify all the deserving programs.

While this acknowledgement of the year’s best shows comes lumped together in 10 loose categories — a sneaky way of paying tribute to more than 20 worthy titles — it’s by no means complete. The goal, mainly, was to recognize the breadth and depth of programming across various genres that helped distinguish this year creatively.

It’s worth noting some shows didn’t make the cut for failing to meet their own previous standards, a la “Mr. Robot,” whose disjointed second season fell short of its first.

There was also no room for something like baseball’s World Series, which, with the Chicago Cubs’ historic seven-game win, yielded enough thrills and drama to make most scriptwriters envious.

Fond farewells

Both “Rectify” and “Downton Abbey” ended their runs on perfectly calibrated notes, offering the kind of thoughtful and heartfelt sendoffs that have eluded many recent dramas. (“The Good Wife,” another 2016 graduate, would rank among the disappointments on that score.)

New standouts

Of all the strong new shows introduced, special kudos to “This is Us” — a family drama made all the more impressive by what an outlier it is on NBC — and a pair of series about 20-something African-Americans trying to find themselves, FX’s “Atlanta” and HBO’s “Insecure.” There were a lot of good new shows, but these felt especially distinctive.

O.J., times two

The 20th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson murder trial produced two splendid projects, ESPN’s multi-part documentary “O.J.: Made in America” and FX’s star-studded scripted version, “The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

Late-night tackles Trump

Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers all found their grooves in the run-up to the election, providing the kind of acerbic, biting political comedy that made late-night feel much more urgent and relevant than its customary habit of providing a platform for stars to promote upcoming projects.

“The bite in those shows — as well as the inspired casting of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” — as they rose to meet the political moment also made ratings leader “The Tonight Show” — and host Jimmy Fallon, who took some grief for playfully mussing up Donald Trump’s hair — look especially safe and tepid by comparison.

Live musicals, reinvigorated

NBC had already drawn big ratings with musicals, but Fox’s “Grease” and NBC’s “Hairspray” breathed new life into the form, coming much closer to capturing the energy of a theatrical experience than their predecessors, while still capitalizing on the close-up, best-seat-in-the-house medium of TV.

Crime, for a limited time

Netflix’s “Narcos,” the second edition of ABC’s “American Crime” and HBO’s “The Night Of” each delivered absorbing dramas with a beginning, middle and end. And while “Narcos” capped a second season that finished off the first, those 20 episodes essentially played like one long, utterly riveting miniseries.

Continuing excellence

Maintaining quality as a show ages is always a challenge, and sometimes taken for granted. So credit FX’s “The Americans” and HBO’s “Veep” with enjoying banner fourth and fifth seasons, respectively, the latter’s achievement made more impressive because the Emmy-winning comedy was under new management with the exit of creator Armando Iannucci.

CW’s one-hour comedies: Most one-hour shows categorized as comedies are light on laughs (it’s been an awards strategy more than an accurate description), but the CW has bucked that trend. “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” continue to deliver plenty of laughs, lots of heart, and in the latter’s case, brilliantly clever songs.

Historical movies meet current events

HBO delivered a strong one-two punch with a pair of movies that each proved inordinately relevant to this year’s election cycle: “All the Way,” starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ, captured the moment when the Democrats won the civil-rights battle, and lost the South; and “Confirmation,” with Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce as Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, zeroed in on what became a seminal moment in the discussion of sexual harassment.

Hail to the king

HBO’s signature drama “Game of Thrones” gets its own category because even with all the worthy shows on TV, simply nothing rivals its mix of feature-film-quality spectacle and serialized storytelling. Handsome new dramas like “Westworld” and “The Crown” generated ample buzz with intriguing but somewhat flawed first seasons, but even with plenty of pretenders, “Thrones” remains in a class by itself.

‘Barry’ zeroes in on formative window in Obama’s early life

— Early-onset nostalgia about President Obama gave rise to a pair of biographical movies this year: “Southside With You,” imaginatively chronicling his first date with future First Lady Michelle; and now “Barry,” which also visits Young Mr. Obama in his college years, this time as he arrives at Columbia University in 1981.

Despite all that’s known about Obama, these respectful dramatizations of his life merely reinforce a sense of how smooth, and in ways impenetrable, he remains for those attempting to get under his skin.

Understated and spare, “Barry” features a strong performance by Australian newcomer Devon Terrell in the title role — reflecting the name he used before Obama embraced his cultural roots and went by Barack — and zeroes in most effectively on issues of race that helped shape a man whose election was supposed to, but didn’t, usher in a greater sense of racial harmony.

“I’m the only black person in four of my five classes,” Barry explains at one point, later telling a friend, “I fit in nowhere.”

Those feelings of dislocation are illustrated as he moves back and forth between African-American and white social strata, from pickup basketball games (Terrell has even mastered Obama’s left-handed release) to having an uncomfortable dinner with the wealthy parents (Linus Roache, Jenna Elfman) of his college girlfriend (Anya Taylor-Joy, actually a composite character).

Yet as a movie, that narrative spine is slim, to say the least, making “Barry” interesting in places but never particularly dramatic or engaging. Barry expresses opinions in class, has a stoner friend and surprises people with his polished moves on the court. Still, these are mere glimpses of Obama as a young man, without adding much — to anyone who has paid attention, anyway — to understanding him as a whole.

Directed by Vice correspondent Vikram Gandhi, “Barry” acknowledges taking a degree of license with these 35-year-old events in pursuit of presenting a formative window that helped frame Obama’s broader outlook.

The latest movie is well timed, to the extent there’s a growing wistfulness among supporters as the president’s eight years in office come to an end. That said, “Barry” leaves plenty of room for future Obama biographers to operate.

“Barry” premieres December 16 on Netflix.

‘Mariah’s World’ lives down to expectations on E!

— To say that “Mariah’s World” is a predictable train wreck serves more as promotion than criticism. Yet even by the standards of reality docu-series, this E! showcase for pop diva Mariah Carey is pretty hilarious, especially with everything that’s transpired since the point where the show’s storytelling begins.

Those who watch such fare for the kitsch factor will have plenty in which to wallow, as Carey conducts most of her direct-to-camera interviews provocatively draped across a couch, looking a bit like Cleopatra being ferried across the Nile. She also appears near the outset (after a segment that basically summarizes the whole series in two minutes) as a character named “Bianca Storm,” wearing a wig and affecting a British (sort-of) accent.

Carey is shown cavorting on a yacht in Capri, Italy, and fretting about agreeing to do the show at all, citing how “little privacy” there is in entertainment. One might ask why she would then agree to the prying eyes of cameras — including footage of her young children — but if there’s one guiding rule for E! and Bravo shows (sister networks that will simulcast the premiere), it’s perhaps best not to overthink them.

The drama, such as it is, centers on the collision between Carey’s personal and professional lives, as she prepares for a European concert tour while planning her wedding to Australian billionaire James Packer. The two have since split up, which should foster some suspense about how much if any of that will be reflected over the eight-episode run. (Conflicting reports have suggested his presence in the show might be edited.)

In the interim, “Mariah’s World” falls back on conventional reality-TV strategies, with the usual tension and chaos that surrounds balancing the singer’s various commitments. There’s also a supporting cast, for lack of a better term, that includes her foul-mouthed manager, Stella Bulochnikov, who tartly tells a candidate interviewing to be Mariah’s personal assistant that she’s not allowed to either date or cry.

Others in the ensemble include Carey’s nephew, Shawn McDonald, and her backup dancers, who gripe at one point about wearing outfits that will make it hard for them to move. The only tougher job here, frankly, might be the show’s editors, who, given how much the narrative jumps around, are deserving of combat pay.

“‘Mariah’s World’ is a fantasy many wish was their reality,” E! says in its press release.

There’s probably more fantasy — and certainly playing to a Carey’s well-crafted image — than reality in “Mariah’s World.” But the artifice and choreography don’t prevent the show from being just the sort of oddity that should keep fans coming back for more.

“Mariah’s World” premieres December 4 at 9 p.m. on E! and Bravo.

From Obama to Trump, D.C. and the arts could shift toward a big chill

— President Obama handed out Presidential Medals of Freedom on Tuesday, to a glittering class of recipients that included actors and athletes, rock stars and business pioneers.

While the mood was celebratory and festive, it was hard not to think that such events are likely to take a significant turn as the nation prepares to shift into a new phase of the culture wars amid a Donald Trump presidency — from the warm feelings on display toward a big chill.

Hollywood and the arts are well known for their liberal leanings, and entertainment heavyweights came out in force for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Bruce Springsteen, one of Tuesday’s honorees, was among the many who performed to support her. Robert De Niro, another recipient, labeled Trump “an embarrassment to this country” before the election.

Trump has traveled in celebrity circles, including his interactions with a wide assortment of the famous — or in some cases, notorious — hosting “Celebrity Apprentice.” But the tone and content of his campaign was especially hostile toward — and elicited commensurate condemnation from — so-called media elites, many of which were angered and alarmed by perceived appeals to racism and xenophobia.

Moreover, Trump added fuel to that fire over the weekend via Twitter, demanding an apology from the cast of the musical “Hamilton” for its public appeal to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and directing additional criticism at “Saturday Night Live” for satirizing him.

Those in the arts and other high-profile endeavors, by contrast, have warmly embraced Obama, due both to his policies and the historic nature of his election. His ease in these settings was evident during his remarks Tuesday, which included teasing basketball great Michael Jordan for having become an internet meme, gushing about actress Cicely Tyson and lauding Ellen DeGeneres for having the courage to so publicly come out as a lesbian almost 20 years ago.

It’s worth noting, too, that Obama was born near the end of the baby-boom generation, and his entertainment tastes and sports idols have reflected those values. Like most people in their 50s, he didn’t need cue cards or prompting to croon Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” as he did a few years ago at the Apollo Theater.

These occasions are largely ceremonial, and one more is scheduled before the year’s over: the annual Kennedy Center Honors. That star-studded program will again be televised by CBS and hosted by Stephen Colbert, who, along with most of the late-night landscape, has turned political comedy into hostile territory for the President-elect.

While it’s normally difficult to reject the siren song of Washington, given the polarized political climate, many of the luminaries recognized at these events won’t readily line up to have their pictures taken with the President during a Trump administration. And one suspects there will be similar reticence within the ranks of NFL and NBA stars, whose teams traditionally celebrate championships with, among other things, a trip to the White House.

Those feeling wistful about the end of Obama’s presidency will likely find weightier matters to contemplate than whether celebrities are comfortable visiting the White House. Still, watching him interact with the honorees Tuesday felt like a tangible demonstration, on that front, of the end of an era.