Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2017)

Hidden Figures tells the story of three women who made extraordinary contributions to the space race during the Cold War. In consistently overcoming putdowns and setbacks with grace and dignity, they become pioneers: Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) becomes the first black woman engineer; Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) becomes one of the first IBM coders at NASA; and Katherine Johnson (Cookie Lyon Taraji P. Henson) gets herself into "the room where it happens," as it were, through sheer talent and an unrelenting commitment to doing the best work possible. The film celebrates the women's friendship and accomplishments, and illuminates worthy new heroes.

How does it compare to the book? The film is gentle, even light in its retelling of the recent past. The book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly is outstanding for its affectionate descriptions of Virginia's role in nurturing NACA; the author's blunt portrayal of racism, sexism, and segregation; and her reverence for the intellect, work ethic, and endurance of the women "computers" chronicled. By contrast, the movie shows the darker tendencies of society only through numerous awkward and tense moments as well as sharp one-liners. The film version of Hidden Figures isn't as methodical or analytical as the novel in reminding us how deeply embedded the racial divides were back in the day, relying instead on showing the many small humiliations suffered by its main characters to communicate how institutionalized racism held back an entire people (c.f. having to run 40 minutes to use the "colored bathroom.") That said, the movie is plenty dramatic when those barriers are dismantled (c.f. scene with Kevin Costner and sledgehammer). While the movie takes plenty of liberties with the source material, it treats the titular hidden figures with respect and presents them as keenly aware of how their successes ripple throughout their community.

Why "computers"? You see, my child, from days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend. The legend of...people doing complex mathematical calculations by hand! Before Apple compressed computers into that thing that's now in your pocket/hand, "computers" meant people who computed. For example, in the movie, when NASA had to figure out the go/no-go parameters of John Glenn's return trip from orbit, here comes the trope of the glasses-wearing nerd at the chalkboard -- only this time it's COOKIE LYON!!!

Source: PopSugar

For more on women computers, I think there's a section in Simon Singh's Big Bang about the Harvard Computers who worked on astronomical data in the late19th/early 20th century. Wikipedia also has an entry.

Who had the best one-liners/comebacks? While Monae played Mary Jackson as deliciously shameless and undaunted, often having to be restrained by her friends, the prize goes to Spencer's Dorothy Vaughn. Here are a couple of highlights:

Son: Did you just steal that library book?
Dorothy: I pay taxes!

Kristen Dunst (unsupportive manager): No matter what you may think, I don't have anything against y'all.
Dorothy: I know. I know you probably believe that.

She read her. REEEEAAAAAD.

So should I watch it? Yes, of course! This movie knows what it wants to do -- showcase the quiet heroism of its talented trio -- and does it with plenty of heart, laughs, and a sweet soundtrack. Best of all, it's comparable to the book in its presentation of math as a powerful tool: for the country, for the professional and personal lives of the heroines, and for collective scientific advancement. Hurray, math, truly the dominion of hidden figures!

TL;DR: A feel-good celebration of fierce mathematicians!

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This post brought you by mid-afternoon hungerrrrrr!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Game Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a perfect escape. Its characters, story, and locations are absorbing and entertaining. It flawlessly combines stunning visuals, ridiculously fun climbing mechanics, and easy puzzles and gun fights. Best of all, it's a compact adventure and will take 20 hours or less to complete! How refreshing!

Summary: Nathan Drake returns as the wise-cracking treasure hunter, this time in search of Henry Avery's legendary pirate booty. But he's not doing it for the hundreds of millions of dollars -- he needs it to save his brother Sam's life. How noble!

Heroes: In this edition, Nate is torn between his current normal life and his explorer instincts. Meanwhile, series regulars Sully (Nate's longtime mentor/partner) and Elena (Nate's wife) are back and as supportive as ever, in terms of both the physical work and the emotional heft. Elena is particularly moving, with the amazing graphics team giving her eyes an expressiveness that Nate is afraid to face. Sully is as dependably gruff and clutch as ever. As for newcomer Sam, he brings a new layer to Nate's background, and his obsession with the treasure acts as a foil to his now-cautious little brother. How interesting!

Villains: There are two antagonists also looking for Avery's treasure. Both are suitably ruthless, with a dash of psychotic for rich boy Rafe, who's backed up by Nadine Ross and her mercenary army. I winced every time Nate had to face Nadine because he never stands a chance. Those triceps! Meanwhile, Rafe presents a challenge to the uncoordinated, and that is all I shall say. How mysterious!

Combat: This element of Uncharted is easy and predictable. Have you been climbing for the past 30 minutes? Are you now in an area where there's lots of places to duck behind? Well then, time for a gun battle! Conveniently, Nate can sneak up on enemies and steal their weapons, and there are bullets galore just lying around. Players can even choose to just straight up ninja and sneak-concuss bad guys one by one. Mix it up! How delightful!

Puzzles: Hahahahahahaaaaaa~ ...Listen, come talk to me about puzzles after playing Alundra! How simple!  

Sound: As always, all the voice work is impeccable, and blends effectively with the minimalist sound effects and thrilling score. There are long stretches during gameplay where all you hear are Nate's footsteps and his breathing, the silence broken by birdsong or rustling. I highly recommend having headphones on for this game. How sound!

Twist: There are two "twists," both telegraphed early on, and tied with the title. ***Obviously, spoilers: 1) Sam claims a drug lord sprang him from prison in exchange for half of Avery's loot, but actually, Rafe got him out to help him find it and Sam double-crossed him so he and Nate could get it instead! In my opinion, this would have been so much more dramatic if Sam were the drug lord all along! WHAT! ...Right?; 2) Avery convinced other pirate captains to pool together all their treasure and then betrayed them and tried to escape with everything! And they all killed each other! So basically everyone's a thief and there is no honor among thieves. How terrible!

Bonus Category! 
Spouse Credit Score: 800. My very generous and loving husband bought me the Uncharted 4 PS4 bundle for Christmas. He also threw in Final Fantasy XV with a Masamune DLC, and followed up with Rise of the Tomb Raider. It's almost as if he wants me distracted for the rest of the winter...ಠ_ಠ How diabolical?

TL;DR: A spectacular action/adventure game!

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This post brought you by fresh fruit!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)