Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Films of the year - number two

Now, lest it seem that I'm going all out for action movies, here's a perfect little picture that manages to do the hokey "grumpy old man gradually learns how to love life again" schtick to perfection, throwing in a few curve balls along the way.

The Visitor
also has a lot to say - or rather show, because it's not at all preachy - about US foreign policy and treatment of immigrants. Throw in some excellent performances by the main actors, and you have a great film. Five stars all the way for me.

And yes, I know the poster has an old white geezer playing the bongos, but by the end of the movie, you won't care. Which is sort of the point.

Films of the year - number three

Now I confess that I wasn't particularly "in" on all the expectation surrounding this movie, given that I still think a viral is something you buy Contact 200 for. But a movie from the guy who brought us Lost has to be worth a look, surely? And to its credit - unlike the afore-mentioned TV series - Cloverfield knows not to outstay its welcome. Its a lean 85 minutes, and I was gripped throughout. A refreshing take on the disaster movie, crossed with Godzilla - what's not to like?

And, never underestimate the value of having a film filled with actors you've never really heard of - it's so much harder to work out who is wearing the red vest a la Star Trek.

But is it great cinema? Look, I enjoyed it a great deal, and isn't that what counts? (A theme we shall return to later...)

Films of the year - number four

All together now: why so serious?

Yes, folks, in at number four, it's The Dark Knight. For my money, easily the best of the far-too-many Batman movies. I didn't really care for the previous film - the relaunch of the franchise, called Batman Returns or Batman Reloaded or Batman Strikes Back, I really could care less - but this one delivered real bang for your buck, and of course had a compelling star turn by Heath Ledger into the bargain.

What I really liked was the overall dark tone - comic-book noir, if you will - of the piece. Oh sure, Tim Burton's first movie had a gothic feel to it, but it was far too pantomime to really hit home (I'm looking at you here, Mr Nicholson). But for those of us who were around when Alan Moore's graphic novel first came out and completely reinvented this whole superhero thang, finally we could see it up on the big screen with this film. Oh yes. Pretty darn scary in parts too - you'll never look at a pencil in the same way again. (Though teachers have been aware for ages that a pencil counts as weaponry in the wrong hands...)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Films of the year - number five

Quite tricky narrowing this lot down to a top five, now I come to actually make my list. I've decided to go with my gut instincts, in terms of films which appealed at the time and gave a real cinematic experience. So no room for No Country For Old Men, which may well come to be regarded as an outright classic, but just didn't quite fully grab me (and besides, the Coens then went on to make the truly lamentable Burn After Reading, so they get marks off for wasting two hours of my life with that garbage). And ditto for There Will Be Blood, which was too much of an endurance test for this reviewer.

Anyway, on we go with number five: the animated, sort-of-documentary Waltz With Bashir. A very powerful movie with a great soundtrack (Hebrew heavy metal! Max Richter!) and a great deal to say about events in the Middle East, both back in the day and, I have to suppose, now. Unforgettable ending too.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Of Time and the City

As promised, a final film squeezed in before the year's end.

Of Time and the City comes with quite a pedigree: not only did it win, um, something or other at Cannes, but it's also the Film of the Year for none other than Dr Mark Kermode (all praise be to his name). It's clearly very arty, and filmic, and all other sorts of stuff. But is it any good?

Well, "know your audience" is an essential bit of media advice for producers, and here I reckon it helps to know if you are meant to be in the audience. And if I'm honest, it helps if you're... well.. getting on a bit. If you're under twenty, go see Twlilight instead. If you're under thirty, then go wild and see both - hey, you have the disposable income, after all. But for those of us the other side of four decades, this offers all manner of nostalgia and is well worthy of consideration.

For those who don't know, the film is billed as an elegy and/or love song for Liverpool. There's a lot of b&w photography, great music, and a voice-over by director Terence Davies who manages to out-baker Tom Baker, which is quite an achievement. Nothing terribly much happens, for the whole length of 74 minutes. (It's not quite autobiography, and not quite documentary either). There's definitely a poetic quality to the whole affair, and it's truly a unique film. And even though I did nod off a couple of times, that only helped to add to the dreamy quality of the whole affair.

On a different day, this could have been pretentious twaddle. But today, I found the film moving and quite, quite beautiful. Now get me my pipe and slippers, it's nearly my bedtime.

(Oh, but: Film of the Year? Nah.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Blimey, but it's quite a movie poster, isn't it?

Anyhoo, one more film squeezed in before the end of the year (with one more to follow - watch this space). I confess I haven't read the book which the movie is based on, so I'm coming to this relatively clean. Except for one major fact, mind you: I come to this movie as a pretty big fan of Buffy, which is going to take a lot of beating.

What's the big?
You know, I have to say that overall I liked this film a fair bit. It sort of lost me towards the end, when there's a bit of drama shoehorned in and derring-do to be, er, done in order to save our heroines's life from the Nasty Vampires; and for a two-hour movie the second hour felt a lot longer than 60 minutes. But I enjoyed the set-up and the performance of Kristen Stewart as Bella, the female lead, in particular. Yes, it's slow, and yes, it's faintly ridiculous - um, hello, like, could these people look more like vampires? - but it captures teenage romance and angst very well indeed. Go see it and unleash your inner emo.

My bad
But there is still the Buffy thing. And Buffy did all this way before, way better - indeed the central Angel/Buffy will-they-won't-they is practically photocopied here. And most crucial of all: Buffy did this with humour as well as angst, which sounds easier than it is. (To be fair, the heroine's Dad here has a nice line in dry wit, which gets a few laughs.) So all in all, I'm sitting around the 3/5 mark, though with time I may upgrade this.

Do the math
Well, respect to the movie for one thing: Bella does seem to be a bit of a geek, as does Edmund. (Edward? I forget.) And part of their "bonding" comes when they both own up to knowing the square root of pi (1.77...) - so that's how to get the girls? Jings, I wish someone had told me that when I was in high school!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Films of the Year - preview

Yes, folks, it's almost time for maths teacher to reveal his films of the year - a moment you have surely all been waiting for.

The graph shows that movie-going has remained reasonably steady for me this year, though I'm still way down on the heady heights of 2004 (over 70 movies - how did I find the time?). Let me stress that I am only counting actual, bona fide cinema visits in this total - films caught later on DVD manifestly do not count on this blog. Not that I see many films that way, come to think of it.

Still, at the moment I have just under 40 movies to pick from, which isn't bad going. I don't feel I can really offer a top ten, though, as that would have to include 25% of the films I've seen, and I'm not sure they all deserve such special mention. Instead, I'll be offering a top five, which seems more reasonable.

Watch, as they say, this space. Meanwhile, regular readers are invited to come up with a function describing the number of films seen each year - clearly it's not a linear graph...

The Great Escape

Altogether now:
Dum, dum, dum, derrr-der dum dum dum...
(seriously though, what brilliant music!)

OK, so who can miss out on the chance to see this movie on the big screen during its rightful place (supposedly) of Christmas-time? Not me.

Achtung! Raus! Raus!
Well, look, it's actually quite hard to review a film like this, when you've seen it so many times before, though it's interesting to speculate on how many times one has actually seen the film right through from start to finish - as I recall, I was more likely to come across the film part-way through its three hour running time on telly. And it's also a joy to be in on the reaction of the small number in the cinema audience who haven't seen the film before (or have very poor memory) when it comes to key scenes: to hear someone gasping out loud at Gordon Jackson's reaction to the "Good luck" line was a reminder of the power of some of the scenes. And of course it's quite a bleak film in some ways - there was a wee nipper in front of me (maybe about 10 years old?) who was a bit shocked that practically everyone got caught, and most of them then got shot, to judge by his questions to Daddy after the movie had ended. Can't help but think that Hollywood would baulk at that ending now.

It's a film that takes its time, but that does help build the overall tension, though I couldn't help but feel that everything was a bit "Allo, Allo" at the start, with the Nazi soldiers uniformly being harmless buffoons. I mean, no-one - but no-one - gets beaten up, ever, in the camp! I know there's an attempt to contrast the brutality of the SS and Gestapo with the more gentlemanly approach taken by the Luftwaffe, but this is surely stretching things a bit. I can almost hear the cast of The Bridge Over the River Kwai shouting "Luxury! Bloody luxury!!" (Entirely pointless aside: a schoolfirend of mine's Dad was actually one of the men forced to build that bridge - apparently every time he watched the film he would start shouting and swearing at Alec Guiness for blowing up his handiwork! Madness, eh?)

Hande hoch, Schweinhund!
So, a score for a fabulous movie like this one - is there even any point? Well, clearly it's a five star movie. Let's knock a star off for over-familiarity. But then let's add one back for the big-screen experience. Result: 5/5. Honour is restored.

For you, Englander, the war is over
How's the maths? Well, oddly enough, once again we have a lesson in the essential importance of accurate measurement - this time, 50 feet rather than 60m (see Nordwand below). A lot of work on volume, too, what with all these tunnels.

But if you want some questions based on the film:
  1. 3 out of 76 actually escaped - express this as a percentage.
  2. Originally the plan was for 250 to escape. Using your answer from 1, work out how many would have escaped, assuming the probability of escaping is constant, had all 250 got out of the tunnel.
  3. 50 out of 73 recaptured were executed - express this as a percentage, then pause to reflect on the fact that the figure of 50 dead is utterly genuine.
Too bleak? OK, on a lighter note, and in honour of stiff-upper-lipped humour in the face of adversity, a bonus question:

In the movie, James Coburn (American actor) plays an Australian pilot. It's not unfair to say that Mr Coburn's accent wanders around a fair bit throughout the movie, all the while managing to sound almost entirely, but not exactly, unlike Dannii Minogue. So, first plot all the countries visited by Mr Coburn's vocal talents on a map. Now: how many colours are required to make the map look nice? (Note: this is an example of the famous Crap Accent Colouring Problem, first solved by a ZX Spectrum in 1984.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nordwand (The North Face)

So, a German film (well, obviously), all about an attempt to climb the North Face of the Eiger by two German soldiers in the mid 1930's. Based on a true story, though not told in documentary form like Touching the Void a while back. (In fact, there has already been a documentary about the attempt, on Channel 4 I think... safe to say that the less you know in advance, the more gripping you'll find the movie.)

Also, wie war's?
Sehr gut, by and large. I knew the story going in, which did ruin a fair bit of the drama, but all the same it's quite a tale. They have embellished the story here and there - indeed, they have embellished the hell out of it as far as the putative love story element goes - but that's understandable. Efforts are also made to shoehorn (matterhorn?) in some comment on the rise of Nazism in Germany, which doesn't really work terribly well. But overall, this is gripping fare, and you'll come out of the cinema wondering why in hell's name anyone ever wants to climb a mountain, ever. Bizarrely enough, I saw this at a small cinema which seemed to be heaving with mountaineers - I guess this not so much because they were all bearded and fleeced, but because most of the audience kept excitedly chatting away during the climbing sequences, in what seemed to be an informed (yet still annoying) manner.

So, all in all, worth catching. 3 and a teeny bit out of 5.

Wie ist der Mathematik?
Well, there's a lot of rope work going on, so you could Pythagoras your way round any number of triangles on the way up (or down) the mountain. But the main, important message in the film is all to do with the need for accuracy. Oh yes. I mean, a maths teacher might give a pupil 4 out of 5 for a maths question, even though the answer is wrong, because only one error has been made. But sometimes errors are costly... Put it this way: there are times when a rope has to be 60m long, and nothing smaller will get you any marks at all.

Und gibt es einige Frage?
Ach ja. Hillwalking is famously used a great deal by maths teachers desperate for a bit of real-life application for trigonometry. And, of course, there's nothing stopping you from throwing in one of those famous contrived contexts - to wit:

The North Face of the Eiger is modelled by the equation f(x)=x^3-3x^2+5x-1 , where x is the time in cinematic minutes from the start of the movie, and f(x) is measured in cinematic credibility. Use differentiation to find the turning point(s) of the movie and determine whether they indicate a happy ending or not.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Well, we start at the beginning, with the most recent movie seen. Blimey - not many laughs to be had here!

How's the movie?
I'm late seeing this movie, I admit, and by now it's picked up all manner of plaudits and awards. I believe that Sight and Sound magazine made it their movie of the year, according to a survey of movie critics. Not that I was asked.

Anyway, all this waffle is by way of delaying getting round to the point and saying that I found myself almost entirely unmoved by the film. Oh yes, I can accept that it's well filmed, and visually stunning, and powerful - to a point - but... meh. I'm, afraid I needed more meat on the bone (ouch! sorry) in terms of more back story on the characters, or on The Troubles generally. As it is, you are just plonked down in the middle of the prison. and asked to get on with it. If you weren't around in the 80's to know about the politics of the time, you won't have much of a scoob.

In the middle of the movie there is however an incredibly powerful 10 minute scene (much celebrated because it is shot as a single take) where Bobby Sands argues with his priest over the whole business of going on hunger strike. At this point the movie really kicks into life for me. But after this - once Sands embarks on the strike - the film becomes little more than an Enya music video. Who knew that dying of hunger could be so arty?

I'll say this much: towards the end I found myself wondering just how much fun it would be to go into this film and start rustling a bag of crisps noisily. Clearly I just don't get it.

Three out of five, and even then I think I'm being generous.

How's the maths?
Not much to be had here. I suppose there's a bit of brutal human biology though.

Can I teach with it?
You would have to be a brave teacher. Imagine all the parental complaints if you show a movie with so much poo in it! (OK, there's some maths for you - take the amount of poo generated in a cell in a day, then multiply by the number of days of the "dirty protest", then... or perhaps not.)

Here's the thing

Not "The Thing", as in the movie, you understand. Rather, here is the thing. The reason why we're here. Our raison d'etre, if you will.

Over on the sister blog The Proof Is Out There (check it out! tell your friends!) I've been ruminating on and off for a wee while now about this and that, in the field of mathematics education. But mayhap there comes a time when you just have to say "stuff that for a lark", and get on with something else.

To wit...

Y'see, I know that out there, as well as proofs, there are mathematicians and maths students/pupils/call them what you will, who are working hard. Putting in a full shift. Burning the midnight. And such people can ill afford to be wasting their time heading off to see some crappy movie of a Friday night. It just won't do.

Step forward, then, maths teacher goes to the movies. Your one-stop shop for the opinions that matter on the movies of the day (or past, or even of the DVD), with a frisson of mathematics thrown in now and then for good measure. And we'll be widening the field as and when it suits us - we might take a look at TV programmes, or other media generally. We may also look at the vexed question of which pen one should use when doing mathematics - yes, the obsession remains.

Not that this is anything terribly new, mind you - archived movie reviews and such like can be found over on the sister site, going back a couple of years at least. But time for a fresh start.