3.23.2017

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

The philosophical/hypothetical question "Is it better to kill a certain number of people if twice as many people will be killed otherwise?" gets the big screen treatment in The Belko Experiment.  This movie, written by James Gunn, takes a dark (and sometimes darkly comic) look at what people will do when given an impossible choice.

It's a strange start to the day for the employees at Belko Industries.  On the way to the office building in Bogota, Colombia, armed guards search every vehicle and turn away the locals.  We get to know some of the 80 employees there: romantic couple Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) and Leandra (Adria Arjona), responsible boss Barry (Tony Goldwin), awkward and creepy guy Wendell (John C. McGinley), maintenance men, the stoner employee, the hostile woman, etc.
Things get much worse when steel walls rise up and seal everyone in the building, and all communication with the outside world is cut off.  A voice over the office intercom tells the people that they have to kill two people, or four people will be killed.  The employees nervously think it's a joke, until four people's heads explode.  It turns out that when the company put tracking chips in people's skulls in case of kidnapping, they were really explosives that can be detonated by remote control; the company also has cameras all over the building to spy on the employees.  The voice on the intercom then gives an ultimatum that's the basis for most of the movie: The employees have two hours to kill 30 people, or 60 people will die.

The employees react to this in different ways.  Mitch doesn't want to kill anyone and focuses on escaping.  Barry gets a bunch of people and arms them, to do what he thinks must be done.  Some people hide, some arm themselves (with kitchen and office supplies), and everyone has to decide what to do as the deadly deadline gets ever closer...
The Belko Experiment is a basic yet enjoyable big-budget B movie.  The characters are fairly generic, but that's largely the point: to see how they react in this suddenly homicidal experiment.  The movie could have used more dark humor, but it certainly delivers plenty of bloodshed --first accidentally, the deliberately -- as the characters face the demand put on them.  While The Belko Experiment could have done more with its dark premise, it's still entertaining.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.16.2017

BATMAN: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK

There are times when bad or silly movies have good soundtracks.  Batman: The Movie (from 1966) was every bit as campy and goofy as the TV series, but its music works quite well.  Batman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack has all the music from the movie, plus a few extra songs.

Composed by Nelson Riddle, the songs on Batman: OMPS have a very jazzy feel to them.  The 29 songs from the movie are all based on scenes from the movie; one can tell the plot of the movie just from reading the track listing.  It's easy to recognize the songs focusing on the villains -- the Penguin's waddle, Catwoman's seductive side, etc.  -- and elements of Neil Hefti's Batman television show theme creep into many of the songs.  (That theme is one of the three bonus tracks on the album.)

The music on Batman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack will never be jazz classics, but it is a fun, breezy album that's fun to listen to.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.08.2017

LOGAN

With Hugh Jackman taking on the role of Logan/Wolverine one last time, it makes sense that Logan is a pretty bleak movie.  This is a very atypical superhero movie that works pretty well.

It's been several years since the last X-Men movie, and the world is a pretty depressing place.  No mutants have been born in decades, and the X-Men are gone.  Logan has his own problems: He doesn't heal as quickly as before, his frequent coughing indicates some deep health issues, he needs glasses to read, and he may be an alcoholic.  He also takes care of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who needs medication to stay focused and has seizures that can paralyze (or worse) people in his vicinity.  Logan works driving a car, saving up enough money for him and Charles to sail away.  Charles is also helped by Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a sun-sensitive mutant who can track other mutants.

Things change when Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetic hunter who leads a bunch of similarly enhanced mercenaries called the Reavers, wants Logan to find "the girl" and deliver her to him.  It turns out that she is Laura (Dafne Keen), a young mutant with healing abilities and metal claws much like Logan has -- as well as a near-feral combat rage.  When her rescuer is killed, Logan becomes a reluctant hero once more, avoiding the Reavers and traveling with Laura and Charles to Eden, a location near the Canadian border where Laura can meet up with other young mutants.
I give Logan credit for eschewing bright spandex costumes and simple solutions for this created world.  Hugh Jackman is terrific, as usual, as Logan seeks a simple life in the face of all his problems, yet winds up a hero again.  Dafne Keen is quite good as the quiet, sullen teen who seems to be on the same path as Logan once followed.  And Patrick Stewart is fine as the much older, profanity-spewing former genius who still has hope in the future for mutants.  Stephen Merchant doesn't have much to do as Caliban, and Boyd Holbrook is a very dull, bland villain.

It'll be interesting to see whether there are more X-Men movies, or if Laura becomes X-23, the successor to Wolverine.  In the meantime, Logan is a fitting (if somewhat flawed) swan song for Wolverine -- or, rather, Logan.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.28.2017

GET OUT

Some of the best horror movies go beyond simple scared to engage in social issues or commentary.  Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele, adds a layer of racial knowledge and concern to the horror genre -- with terrific results.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) have been dating for a while, and it's time for the event most boyfriends dread: meeting her parents.  He's concerned that she hasn't told them he's black, but she insists it's no big deal.  So the two leave the city for the suburbs, with Chris staying in touch with his TSA agent buddy Rod (LilRey Howery) by phone.
At first, things are expectedly awkward with the parents.  Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) is a slightly dorky guy who keeps calling Chris "my man."  Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) is concerned that Chris smokes around their daughter.  They're both very accomplished -- he's a neurosurgeon, she's a psychiatrist specializing in hypnosis -- and live in a pretty isolated home.  It's not thrilling for Chris, but he can handle it.
But little things seem to keep building on each other.  The Armitages' black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) seem a bit... off.  Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) seems a bit aggressive towards Chris.  When there's a big family gathering, the Armitages all seem to treat Chris differently, as he tells Rose, it's like they never met a black man who didn't work for them.  And Missy had hypnotized Chris without his consent, leaving him without the desire to smoke -- along with who knows other effects.
Get Out works pretty well.  The movie takes the discomfort of being black in a largely white group of people (even if they all say they all would have voted for Obama a third time and Tiger Woods is the greatest) and builds it into a borderline paranoia with something behind it.  Daniel Kaluuya is a fine horror lead, and the rest of the cast do a good job of being almost indefinably off.  Get Out is a creepy, interesting horror movie.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.24.2017

DEVIL IN SPRING by Lisa Kleypas

There's a strong element of predictability in the romance novel genre, as stories head inevitably to the Happily Ever After (HEA) ending -- but that is fairly forced in Devil in Spring, book 3 in the Ravenels by Lisa Kleypas.  This historical romance has opposites attracting for most of the book.

Pandora Ravenel is pushed to go husband-hunting during the London Season, but she has no interest in marrying.  She has the goal of publishing her board game (with the store owner from a previous book pre-ordering 500 copies) and believes, rightly for the time, that marriage would give her husband complete control over all her professional activities.  She tends to go on numerous verbal tangents, invents words, and is almost hyperactive at times.  And an old ear injury leaves her often unsteady (no waltzing) and hard of hearing on her left side.

In the novel's "meet cute," when Pandora is trying to obtain an earring, she gets stuck facing downwards.  When well-known rake Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, tries to help, the pair are discovered, assumed that Gabriel "compromised" Pandora, and also assumed they have to marry to avoid the scandal.  Pandora and Gabriel insist that they're incompatible -- she still has her qualms about relinquishing her freedom, he thinks she's completely unsuitable for handling the duties of marriage -- but the two keep getting tingly when around each other.

And that's the very vast majority of Devil in Spring.  The "we can't be together, but wow are they attractive" gets tired pretty quickly, yet it takes up so much of the book.  The change in pace is forced near the end, as dual threats arise just to add a different type of conflict to the book.  And we never get any details about the board game that's such a vital interest of Pandora (though we are told Pandora knows about all the glues needed to put them together).  There are moments of levity here (mainly Pandora's notes on her daily activities) and fans of Kleypas' earlier book Devil in Winter will enjoy the return of that book's Evie and Sebastian.  But Devil in Spring is tiresome and wears out its welcome pretty quickly.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.18.2017

FIST FIGHT

There are some comedies that have a central idea and never do anything creative or unexpected with it.  This is the cast with Fist Fight, a fairly predictable comedy.

It's the last day of school at a public high school, and English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) has quite a lot going on.  He's worried about all the staff cuts Principal Tyler (Dean Norris) is making -- and his meeting with the principal in the afternoon.  His very pregnant wife is past her due date, and his little girl needs him to help her in her talent show performance that afternoon.  The teachers are a pretty eccentric bunch.  And the students are out of control, pulling lots of pranks on both students and teachers.
Then there's Ron Strickland (Ice Cube), a history teacher feared by teachers and students alike for his short temper.  When Strickland smashes a student's desk with a fire ax, Campbell winds up getting him fired.  Strickland is furious, and challenges Campbell to a fist fight outside the school at three o'clock.  This being a movie, news of the fight spreads like wildfire, and everyone is talking about the fight.  Cmapbell keeps trying different ways to weasel out of the fight, while Strickland seems to get scarier and scarier.
There's really not much going on in Fist Fight.  Charlie Day delivers his usual stammering nervousness, while Ice Cube plays the big scary black man.  There is a talented supporting cast -- Jillian Bell as the guidance counselor who does meth and lusts after the young students, Tracy Morgan as a befuddled gym teacher, Kumail Nanjiani as an inefficient security guard, Christina Hendricks as a sexy French teacher with a psychotic side -- but the humor is pretty broad and often juvenile.  The movie heads to a predictable ending (the similarities to Fight Club are pretty basic) and while Fist Fight isn't bad, neither is it memorable.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.16.2017

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE 2017

February brings Valentine's Day, either the continuation or lessening of snow, and the folks at Sports Illustrated abandoning sports in favor of sexy women in (or at least holding) swimwear.  The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 2017 continues the latter tradition -- with a few changes.

This issue features several familiar models -- the most famous being Kate Upton (who appears on all three covers, though not wearing a full swimsuit on any of them) and Chrissy Teigen -- plus familiar faces from previous issues, new models, and even the return of Christie Brinkley (who may be the oldest model in the issue) and her daughters.  There are also international locations, body paint, and athletes like Serena Williams and some gymnasts.  And the issue also diversifies a bit with several plus-sized models, including in the body paint pictures.
As with every year, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a joy to behold.  Sticklers may point out that many of the photos don't actually have the models wearing swimsuits -- or they may be none in the shot -- but I am not one of those people.  Instead, I just enjoy the sheer beauty of amazing models in exotic locations.
Reviewed by James Lynch




2.15.2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

After Batman's appearance in The Lego Movie, and with the character's rich history in comic books, it's no surprise that the character became the focus of his own Lego movie.  The Lego Batman Movie is solid entertainment, with both lots of in-jokes for comic book fans and a couple of flaws as well.

The movie opens with Batman (Will Arnett, giving a nice comic exaggeration to the current gravelly-voiced character) single-handedly defeating almost his entire gallery of villains (including some new ones, obscure ones, and ones from the 1966 Batman TV show).  While everyone loves Batman, in private he's terribly alone -- watching romantic comedies by himself and wandering around an empty mansion, to the concern of Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).  His desire to be alone has Batman refusing to work with new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and not acknowledging the Joker (Zack Galifianakis) as his arch-enemy.  And when Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), Batman pretty much ignores him -- even when Dick becomes Robin.
The Joker, upset by Batman's slight, hatches a master plan that begins with getting himself and every other villain in Gotham City arrested, involves Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), and winds up with a slew of amazingly powerful (and non-DC) villains taking over Gotham City.   Batman, meanwhile, keeps using or ignoring Robin, carelessly insulting Alfred, and refusing to work with Barbara.

As one might expect, there are innumerable elements from Batman's history, from the cartoons, TV shows, and movies to the obscure villains from the comics and black and white serials.  There are also plenty of other comic book and pop culture references, including the Super Friends, non-comic book characters (that aren't all Lego sets), and pop music.  The voice talent is terrific (including numerous celebrity voices) and there's plenty of action and humor through the movie.

The Lego Batman Movie also has a couple of problems.  The movie drags a lot in the middle and could have been a good deal shorter.  The story arc is pretty obvious, and there are several inconsistencies that pop up in the movie (that can't be explained away by the Lego universe).  But even with those, The Lego Batman Movie has lots of entertainment, for little kids and adult comic book fans.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.12.2017

STRIP JOINTZ ROCKS: ROCK N' ROLL FOR SEXY DANCERS

Back during the N.Y. Friar's Club Roast of Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles joked that Drew Carey didn't go to strip clubs for the women -- he went to them for the music.  Despite that, the music at such places (or personal/private performances) has certain rhythms and themes to them -- and Strip Jointz Rocks: Rock N' Roll for Sexy Dancers does a pretty good job of representing (part of) the music for strip clubs, or for stripping in general.

The 16 songs on Strip Jointz Rocks are both quite diverse and somewhat limited.  The selection of songs is pretty eclectic: There are strip club staples like "Girls Girls Girls," "Addicted to Love" and "I Touch Myself."  These are interspersed with music from lesser known bands (Republica, Gleaming Spires) and some classic rock songs that aren't normally associated with stripping.  ("Born to Be Wild," What's Your Name.")  What's missing are any songs by minorities; but this omission may be deliberate, as the follow-up collection is all strip club music by minorities.
It's impossible to get every song one would want on a collection like this (I tried to do a top 10 mix, which would be being 20 songs and still had numerous songs left off), but Strip Jointz Rocks manages to be an entertaining mix of songs.  The blending of classic rock, alternative music, and current (for when this album came out) songs works pretty well, and even though I'm not a fan of all the songs here, this is an easy album to listen to start to finish.  Strip Jointz Rocks delivers what it promises.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


2.04.2017

RINGS

So, the infamous cursed videotape has gone digital.  Rings is the third movie in the horror chain based on Japanese movie Ringu, and this time around it's... quite similar to what came before.

The movie starts with the latest person to watch the cursed tape on an airplane, which crashed when the ghostly Samara appears.  Two years later Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) buys a VCR that belonged to the victim -- and Gabriel watches the cursed tape that was in the machine.

We jump ahead, where Julia (Matilda Lutz) sees her boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) off to college.  Things are fine, until Julia gets a frantic message from Holt's computer from Skye (Aimee Teegarden).  When Julia heads to the college, she's there when Skye is killed by Samara.
It turns out that Gabriel is a college professor, obsessed with the cursed tape: He has students watch the tape, times their "seven days" until Samara appears, makes digital copies of the tape, and assigns "tails" to watch copies of the tape so the would-be victim gets a reprieve.  Holt had seen it, so Julia watches his copy to save him.  But when Julia makes a copy of the tape, her copy is larger than the original -- and has additional images.
Julia and Holt follow the clues of the new version, hoping to save her and stop the curse.  This journey involved Julia's hallucinations, a town that had been flooded, and a blind caretaker named Burke (Vincent D'Onofrio) who remembers "the drowned girl."  And the seven days countdown continues...

The main problem with Rings is that it's virtually the same story as its predecessors: Someone sees the tape (or, now, digital file) and tries to interpret the images to spare themselves from being killed by Samara.  We get the same warning and timeline, the same disjointed ghostly figure, the same terrified and contorted looks on her victims, even the same dim lighting throughout the movie.  Since we've seen it all before there's nothing really new or scary -- and the paper-thin characters don't have much to do besides look worried and scream.  Rings has a few decent moments, but most of the movie is a dud.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.29.2017

KNIGHTS OF THE DINNER TABLE: THE CATTLEPUNK CHRONICLES -- THE FOUR HERDSMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE

In the comic book world of the Knights of the Dinner Table, the "evil" (definitely hostile) version of the Knights are the Black Hands: Weird Pete, Nitro, Newt, Stevil, and (the inexplicably nice) Gordo.  While the Black Hands usually play the sword-and-sorcery Hackmaster, they have delved into other gaming genres as well.  After seeing the Knights take on the Western genre in The Cattlepunk Chronicles -- Outlaw Trail, the Black Hands' KODT Cattlepunk strips are collected (with over 60 pages of new paterial) in The Cattlepunk Chronicles -- The Four Herdsmen of the Apocalypse.

This collection is divided into two parts.  In the first part ("The Early Years"), Nitro is burned out as the GM, so Pete takes over as the GM, running Cattlepunk and "borrowing" several ideas from B.A.'s old campaign.  It turns out that the other players had forgotten what a hard-ass Pete was, and when Nitro takes over as GM the other players spend the whole time at each other's throats.

The second part ("The Herd of Doom") has Nitro picking up the reins of Cattlepunk again, as a favor to a friend.  After several false starts (when the Black Hands kill each other off before getting through the flavor text), Nitro gives his players the task of delivering a massive herd of cattle.  This leads to more in-fighting, a humiliating encounter with a Western legend, and the discovery of what could be the most devastating weapon in the Old West.

The Four Hersdmen of the Apocalypse is delightfully dysfunctional.  Much as I love seeing the Knights in action, the Black Hands are pretty fun when they're sniping at and plotting against one another.  There's lots of fun as the players struggle in the world of the Old West, and the self-contained issue has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments from this world of role playing. ("On the upside -- we got to use the brain spatter tables.")  The Four Hersdmen of the Apocalypse is another funny and worthy KODT collection.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.25.2017

THE FOUNDER

How did a small restaurant become one of the biggest chains in America?  When does ambition turn into betrayal?  And how does it all relate to the American dream?  The Founder explores all of these, in its based-on-a-true-story look at the man who was largely behind the success of McDonald's.

The movie begins in 1954 with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a 52-year-old dreamer whose get-rich-quick ideas have largely led nowhere and who's on the road all the time selling milkshake machines.  His life is also stressful on his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), who wishes he'd stay home with her.

A large machine order piques Ray's interest, leading him to drive out to California, where he finds a restaurant called McDonald's -- which brings people their food orders in under a minute, instead of the 20-30 minutes of other places.  Ray meets with the restaurant's founders -- brothers Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) -- who have an almost scientific method to making good food and getting it out quickly.  Ray sees a huge opportunity, and he talks the brothers into letting him franchise the restaurant -- despite their previous failed attempt to franchise and concerns about maintaining their standards.  A contract seems to take care of the latter issue.
What follows is a combination of growth and conflict.  Ray focuses on expanding and franchising McDonald's stores throughout America as a family-friendly place, while the McDonald's brothers fight with him on maintaining the standards.  (A running joke are the abrupt hang-ups between the two sides during their discussions.)  Lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B.J. Novak) talks Ray into getting into real estate, buying land for the McDonald's to be built on and charging the franchise owners to use it.  And Ray is tempted by Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), the beautiful wife of a franchise owner with some great business ideas of her own.
The Founder is a very interesting look at capitalism: its promise and its ruthlessness.  Michael Keaton makes Roy Kroc into both hero and villain: Kroc has a never-give-up attitude and plenty of persistence -- but he also has success go to his head, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are fine actors giving terrific performances as the brothers who are content with what they have but find themselves outmatched by their new partner's ambition.  The story has plenty of drama and plenty of humor -- and no easy answers on who's right and who's wrong.  The Founder is a thoughtful, dramatic, and amusing take on one of the great business successes of the 20th century.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch
(who still eats at McDonald's)

1.22.2017

SPLIT

Lots of movies have a battle of wits between a physically powerful enemy and a more clever victim -- but what happens when the enemy has multiple personalities?  This is the set-up for Split, the latest movie from M. Night Shyamalan.

Few movies have ever given so little time to setting up the movie.  Teenager Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is at a party with fellow teens Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who think Casey is weird and an outsider.  When they're getting ready to drive home, they're gassed and kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy).
The teens wake up, captives in some sort of underground building.  It turns out that Kevin has 23 personalities, ranging from the childing Hedwig, to the prim-and-proper Patricia, and the cleanliness-obsessed Dennis.  Kevin and his multiple selves let the girls know that they're being kept in anticipation of the emergence of a 24th personality, known as "the Beast."  Casey wants to turn the personalities against each other, while the other two teens want to overpower Kevin.  There are also meetings between Kevin and Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin's psychiatrist who thinks his personalities are a form of evolution; and flashbacks to when Casey was a little girl, hunting deer with her father and uncle.
Split works, to a point.  James McAvoy is quite good as the multi-faceted Kevin, making us not only believe in the multiple personalities but even that they can converse with each other and remain quite distinct from each other.  However, Anya Taylor-Joy spends almost the whole movie as a blank, emotionless character, making her a less-than-engaging protagonist.  The ending isn't wholly satisfying, and the Shyamalan "twist" is just that this movie is in the same cinematic universe as at least one of his other movies.  Split is uneven.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.18.2017

THE BYE BYE MAN

There may be an overlap between ideas, language and reality -- but that sort of potential is far from realized in The Bye Bye Man.  This is a complete wreck of a horror movie.

The movie opens in 1969, as a man keeps muttering to himself "Don't say it, don't think it" while walking from house to house with a shotgun, asking people if they told anyone the name.  Then he shoots them.
Jump to the present, where college student Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his good friend John (Lucien Laviscount) have rented an off-campus house where they can live.  As usual for a horror movie, there are the beginning minor events: the sound of a coin falling and rolling, what look like figures in the darkness, scratching noises in the middle of the night.  Elliot finds that inside a nightstand, "don't say it, don't think" has been written over and over -- and under it are the words "the Bye Bye Man."

After their psychically sensitive friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) has a seance with the three main characters, Elliot mentions the name "the Bye Bye Man" -- and things get really bad.  All the main characters start hearing or seeing things -- sometimes driving the people to kill themselves.  Some characters who heard the name "the Bye Bye Man" kill others they might have told it to, then themselves.  And Elliot's research suggests that the more "the Bye Bye Man" is said or thought, the stronger he becomes.  Elliot also starts having visions of a cloaked figure, sometimes with a large dog-like creature covered in blood...
Mythology becoming reality has been done in horror movies before, but never as badly as in The Bye Bye Man.  This movie has the unfortunate -- but common in many horror movies -- element of the actors being poor in their roles and having paper-thin characters.  The movie has a visual sense of persistent gloom, from the poorly-lit house to surprisingly dismal daytime scenes.  Lots of things about the movie make no sense, from why the Bye Bye Man kills people whose knowledge of him is what lets him to exist to the point od the dog-type-thing, which adds nothing to the movie.  And worst of all for a horror movie, this isn't scary.  The title character looks like a failed makeup project from Face Off, and the movie lacks either jump scares or growing dread and menace.

I was the only person in the theater showing The Bye Bye Man, and the people who skipped it were luckier than I was.  This may well be the worst movie of the year -- and it's only January!

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.17.2017

HIDDEN FIGURES

There are some parts of history -- even fairly recent American history -- that have been woefully overlooked.  Hidden Figures, based on several real-life people, is the story of three women who were instrumental in America's role in the space race.

Friends Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Olivia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA.  Unfortunately, they work there in Virginia in the 1960s, so they face both racism and sexism, and it's common for them to be stared at by a whole room.  Katherine is a "human computer" who performs complex calculations -- and has to run to another building to use the bathroom because it's the closest one that's not for whites only.  Dorothy does all the work and has all the responsibility of a supervisor, but is denied repeatedly for the position.  And Mary wants to become an engineer, but she has to sue just to take the required classes at a segregated school.
But the three women are strong and persistent -- and they want to help in getting an American into space before the Russians.  They even have unexpected support from the agency's boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who is unintentionally enlightened not because he believes in equality, but rather because he wants the most work out of his people so NASA beats the Russians into outer space.
Hidden Figures is quite an inspirational film.  While there are subplots (including reminders of segregation, the women's families, and Katherine being wooed by a National Guard member), the focus is on the trio overcoming their obstacles and the competition to send someone into space.  The movie rests on the three stars' abilities -- and they all deliver.  Taraji is endearing as the glasses-wearing mathematical genius who struggles both for recognition and problem solving.  Janelle makes Mary the sassy, outspoken one who's as much a fighter as a joker.  And Octavia has plenty of strength as the overworked and undervalued worker -- who also recognizes the importance of learning how to work the "IBM" machine before almost anyone else.  And while the movie is pretty straightforward in terms of direction, it manages to make solving mathematical problems on a chalkboard interesting.

It's a shame that it took a fictional movie to make these women's contributiions known, but Hidden Figures does so with drama, humor, and a very good sense of history.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch