Saturday, February 21, 2009

I hae ma doots...

Hmm... sadly I managed to get along too late to see yet another movie at the Glasgow Film Festival the other day (a German comedy, no less) and so made do with Doubt instead.

Ho, and, indeed, hum.

I mean it's not desperately bad or anything. Amy Adams is very good as the naive (is she ever anything else?) nun; Philip Seymour Hoffman is, well, as good as he ever is, which is to say very good indeed, as the young-ish priest. And bonus points to the film-makers for resisting any temptations that they might have had to show us Mr Hoffman's wobbly white bum - blimey, we can do without seeing that again, I'm sure.

And then of course there's Meryl. She's very good too, though her part (as the scary nun who sets out to ruin PSH's "modern" priest, on the basis of what may or may not be flimsy evidence) is a real ham's delight, and poor Meryl can't resist sinking her teeth into a fair amount of the scenery. At one point I wondered if maybe she's angling for a part as a baddie in the next Batman movie - who says The Penguin can't be female?

But och, overall it's a bit dreary and unconvincing.

How's the Maths, father?
Well, a fair amount of this is set in the young nun's classroom, where she drones on for the most part about history and suchlike. But things did perk up considerably for me when a scene began with her writing some fractions on the board instead - Lordy, thinks I, we're about to get some maths, I mean math! Now I can't recall exactly what all the fractions were, but they were something along the lines of 1/4, 2/8, 4/16 and 16/64. So, I'm thinking, equivalent fractions - fair enough, it could happen. But then Amy says "What is the common denominator?" - at which point something or other reasonably dramatic happens, and the question remains unanswered.

Well all I can say is, do tell, please, sister: what is the common denominator? 'Cos as far as I can see, there isn't one! Oh sure, you could convert them all to have the same (ie common) denominator... but the examples are all the same bloody fraction! A better question would be, what do these fractions have in common? Or, leave some blank, and ask for them to be filled in: how many 64ths, etc. But presumably no-one on the film set could be arsed bothering coming up with anything half-decent, by way of a maths question. Quelle surprise.

Yes folks, what we have here is a clear transgression of Maths Teacher's (hitherto secret) First Rule of Movie Mathematics: Thou Shalt Do The Math. Clearly Sister Amy has been at the communion wine when she should have been revising her knowledge of basic fractions, and a better movie would surely have seen the eagle-eyed Ms Streep getting all righteous on Ms Adam's ass for her shortcomings in matters arithmetic. PSH could still have been around, going on about Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, if he was keen to be seen as "trendy" - and you just know a dedicated actor like him would go off and study the subject for a good few months, just to get the part right.

Talk about a missed opportunity!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


... in 3-D, no less.

Got to the cinema last night along with a fellow maths teacher and we tossed a coin to decide between this and Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen's latest supposed-return-to-form. The Woodster won, at which point we realised that really, we'd rather he hadn't. And so we went for the catoon dog instead. As you do. (Now, try capturing that decision-making process in a mathematical equation...)

I didn't have particularly high hopes for the 3-D glasses, as my left eye is weak compared to the right and so 3-D picture thingummies tend not to work for me. But this worked more or less fine, and it was a bonus not having to look like a real dweeb wearing different colour lenses, as these ones were clear. And to be fair there was a reasonable amount of things pointing out the screen at you, in the manner of 3-D films of old. But I wouldn't say the 3-D really added over much to the experience.

What, then, of the film itself? Well, I enjoyed it a great deal, and laughed long and hard quite a few times. It doesn't outstay its welcome and there's a good amount of humour pitched at grown-up level, to keep us intellectual types happy. The movie is pretty much stolen by the hamster sidekick, and the voice artists are good, though I did spend a long time trying to identify the voice of the female cat, only to find out by the closing credits that it was No-one I'd Ever Heard Of. Which was a bit annoying. It's not Toy Story (though the central plot borrows heavily from both TS movies), but it's a great way to spend an evening. Good curry too, but that's another story.

And the maths?
Well, given that dogs don't count past... um... three? four?... there's not a lot going on. But that allows you to pontificate instead on how little progress movie-making has made with this 3-D schtick. I mean, about 50 years after the first 3-D movie (The Revenge of The Thing From Another Title I Just Made Up), here we are, and the best we can do is still to work in three dimensions? Yeesh, gimme a break! What about four dimensions? Five? I want n-dimensional movie-making, dammit, and I want it now!

I mean, is it too much to ask for a movie set in a Klein bottle? I'll bet Charlie Kaufman could write it. No problem.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Frost / Nixon

I've been meaning to catch up with this for a while, and I'm very happy to say that this has proved well worth the wait. In some ways it's a bit of a powder-puff piece, and if you're looking for an in-depth look at Watergate, you've come to the wrong place. But as a dissection of the power of the interview, and the power of the close-up, the movie has much to offer. And when it comes to the final, crucial "confession" of guilt by Tricky Dicky (though it's not quite that), I was totally gripped. All good stuff, though it's maybe a shame that so many of the key moments are in the trailer, which seems to have been around for ages.

Michael Sheen deserves more credit than he seems to be getting in award land (nary a nomination) for bringing David Frost to life, and at first I thought that Frank Langella's performance was in fact the lesser of the two - I mean, all he has to do is look presidential, and you can argue he looks far better than Nixon ever did. But towards the end Langella delivers a masterclass in close-up acting: a slight twitch here, a lowering of the eyes there... none of which can be in the script, if you think about it. So, praise all round, even for director Ron "Ritchie Cunningham" Howard.

How is the maths?
Not much here - lots of numbers flying around, in terms of how many days/hours of interviews were recorded... what percentage made it to the final interview? Of more interest to me is the title, with it's forward-slash ever so slightly suggestive of the division/fraction symbol in maths. Is this a subtle suggestion that Frost gets one "over" Nixon? Is Nixon, in some weird, sense, the "denominator" of the movie? Would a mathematcian read the title as "Frost divided by Nixon", or "Frost over Nixon"? Would anyone else care?

Oh, and one final word of advice: if you want to sound knowledgeable about the movie, for goodness' sake don't do as I seem to be doing, and start talking about "David Nixon" (who was, as any fule no, a reasonably famous children's magician & entertainer of the same period).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Boy, do I feel for this film. Talk about setting high expectations: "feel-good film of the decade"?? Really??

I recall hearing, ooh, ages ago Simon Mayo reviewing a novel on his 5 Live radio show, about a boy in India arrested just as he was about to win some quiz or another. I clearly wasn't paying that much attention, as despite the rave reviews of the book, I didn't catch the title. Eventually I found the book - called Q&A - but was then thrown into confusion by hearing about this movie, with its similar - heck, identical - story. Turns out they are indeed one and the same, so let's first up give kudos to whoever it was who decided on the title change - Slumdog Millionaire is a way better title.

And what a start to the movie: the drama of the quiz show, and the interrogation, and then the flashbacks to the young lad's life. Wham! Wham! Wham! Director Danny Boyle does this all so well, in Trainspotting fashion, that I half-expected to see Begbie in the background having a pint and a curry). And from there, he doesn't do much wrong. I confess I thought the pace lagged a bit once we got to the flashbacks which were more recent, but all in all, this is very close to a five-star film for me.

Now, the "feelgood" thing. Hmm. Critics have rightly pointed out that there's quite a lot of uncomfortable material in the film, which seems at odds to a feelgood tag - but that's the same accusation you could make against everyone's Christmas favourite, It's A Wonderful Life, when you think about it. Though this film is probably not one you should think about too much.

So, job well done. Not perfect - and I can't quite think why, but there you go. Maybe it's written.

Oh, and please stay for the end credits. It's worth it. Heck, it's always worth it if you ask me, but you're missing a bit of extra feelgood if you get up and go early.

Wait a minute - what about the mathematics?
You'd think, wouldn't you, that in all these questions there would be room for a maths one. Sadly not. But it's interesting to do some exchange rate work: our lad actually becomes a technical "millionaire" early on when he gets to 1000000 rupees... how much is that worth in pounds then? And the grand prize of 20 million rupees - more or less than a million pounds?

Final answer?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Well obviously I have to go and see this!

A still from the soon-to-be-released Spanish movie "Fermat's Room". From what I can make out, it's a sort of horror-cum-mathematical thriller (reminds me a bit of the low-budget Canadian film "Cube" a while back) - judge for yourself with the trailer here.

I see that Empire movie mag reviews the film this month, so it must be on some form of general release at some point in February, though I hae ma doots that it will come anywhere for long, if at all. So three cheers for the good people of Glasgow and their Film Festival, which has a couple of showings, though only one that a teacher can make it to! Details can be found here.

I mean, how can I not go to see this?

Got Milk?

Well, I finally did, and I'm glad I got to see this movie before it disappears - which it may well do soon, going by the paltry number of showings that my local cineplex is managing.

In some sense it's a fairly conventional film, though flashbacks are used to liven things up a bit. I confess I didn't know the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician in the US, and so was a bit surprised when the movie more or less began with the aftermath of him getting shot and killed. Those of us still in the dark then spend the film wondering who exactly it was that pulled the trigger. Which all sort of works.

Two things help lift the movie out of the ordinary. One is the simple power of the story of the struggle for gay rights, which is of course a story that's on-going. The other is Sean Penn, who turns in a masterful performance and one I didn't really think he had in him. There's a nice touch during the end credits when you get to see the main actors, followed by a still of their real-life counterparts; mostly you marvel at how accurate the casting is, but less so when it comes to Milk himself (who looked, to me at least, more like, say, Javier Bardem). I daresay Penn has worked hard to capture mannerisms etc from available footage, and I'd be happy seeing him win an Oscar for this.

But what about the math, I mean, the maths?
Well, here's the thing: you could easily use parts of this movie to do work on percentages and their application in election results, but tell me this: would your school be happy if you did? Would parents be happy seeing their children doing work on gay rights? Tell you what: answer this: if x is the distance we have travelled in the direction of tolerance of gay people since 1978, then
(a) is x positive or negative?
(b) what unit should we best measure x in? km? m? mm?

(I don't mean to be pessimistic, because I do think we have come a long, long way - but by jings this is still a tricky subject when people start talking about schools.)