Monday, April 20, 2009

The Damned United

Time, surely, to check up on Michael Sheen's latest attempts at being Rory Bremner... has there ever been an actor so famed for impersonating real-life figures? I have to confess when I heard he was playing the role of football manager Brian Clough in a screen adaptation of David Peace's novel, I was astonished. I mean, he doesn't even look like the guy - or so I thought. And yet... he does. Sort of. No prosthetics at work here, folks, no fake hooter a la Nicole Kidman's turn in The Hours (and so probably no Oscar either) - instead... well, what exactly? I suppose it's just bloody good acting.

The boy done well, Brian
And it's not just Michael Sheen who deserves praise - there are fine performances here by Timothy Spall as Clough's right-hand man Peter Taylor (though if I were him I'd be a bit miffed that I was being played by someone quite so, ahem, plump as the good Mr Spall is right now); also by Jim Broadbent as the long-suffering chariman of Derby County, and Colm Meaney as Don Revie, Clough's nemesis and predecessor at Leeds United. Colm's comb-over deserves at least an Oscar nomination all by itself...

A game of two halves
I have to say I enjoyed the film immensely, helped at least in part by its relatively short running time (just over 90 minutes - how apt for a footy film). It's by no means perfect, as it seems to want to be both a light-hearted comedy and reflect some of the darker aspects that are the main meat of Peace's novel. But, at the end of the day (Brian), as many have pointed out already, the film is really a love story - the sort of macho, male bonding love that allows Taylor to feed Clough cheese and onion crisps whilst Brian drives the car, drinking Skol lager all the way. That's something to celebrate, surely?

Aye, but...
It pains me to say it but I do have to draw special attention (and not in a good way) to the performance of Stephen Graham as the diddy Scots hero and Leeds captain, Billy Bremner. Referee! Offside!! etc. I mean, I know that wee Billy was no great athlete but he wasn't the fat porker on screen here, unless my childhood memories of (say) Scotland v Zaire in the 1974 World Cup are deceiving me. And worse yet, Graham (a scouser) gives what is easily one of the worst Scottish accents you are ever, ever likely to hear. Ever. It's so bad, he could have been auditioning for the part of Scotty in the up-coming Star Trek remake. (A part which, incidentally, has gone instead to Simon Pegg... more on that story later.)

How's the maths?
Well, I was disappointed in one sense, in that there was little talk of football tactics or combinations - I had hoped for at least a bit of 4-3-3 stuff. And OK, they do bang on about the First "Division" and the Second "Division", but that doesn't count as a proper mention of mathematics. But, to be fair, there aren't many films around where, slap bang in the middle of the movie, someone comes flat out and asks a maths question, as Clough does of Taylor when he asks (albeit in the middle of a tirade of insults): "What's half of nothing?" And he gets the answer right...

It's not much, but we maths teachers have to take it where we find it. And, in a week where the First Minister of Scotland was apparently asked by a frustrated parent how you divide by nothing, I suppose things are perhaps looking up, in the division stakes at least. Or the "goes-intys", as many of our children prefer to call it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How's this for a book title?

Long-time readers of the blog (in its previous incarnation as The Proof Is Out There) may recall a while ago I posted with great excitement about the US actress and mathematician Danica McKellar and her book Math Doesn't Suck. As far as I could see Danica was keen to emphasise to girls in particular that maths, sorry, math was all about handbags and boyfriends and make-up and stuff. I may have been unkind, but only a little, though I admit now that saying "ding dong" was hardly advancing the cause of female emancipation in the sciences...

Well, what do you know, but Ms McKellar is back on the case, as I found out upon browsing a bookstore on holiday in the US. Yes folks, I give you her sequel: Kiss My Math.

What can I say? And, more importantly, what the hell will the third book be called? Eat My Equations? Look at the curves on that quadratic?

I can hardly wait to find out!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Something novel...

Well, read the tagline to this blog carefully enough and you'll note that it does say "maths teacher goes to the movies... and elsewhere." So, whilst my film viewing is going through a bit of a dry spell, here's a quick review of the novel "PopCo" by Scarlett Thomas, on account of it having a fair bit of maths in it.

Thomas came to some fame relatively recently via her book "The End of Mr Y", which had a red cover and black-edged pages and was well-received. I never quite got round to reading it, but then I saw this book and was interested by all the maths links therein. And, of course, any book that gets an approving cover quote from Jonathan Coe has to be worthy of some attention. This is actually an older novel, repackaged with a blue cover and blue-edged pages. See what they're trying to do there? I tell you, the folks at Canongate books never miss a trick to shift some stock.

So, the book: the main character is called Alice and works for a global toy company (the eponymous PopCo) where she creates children's kits with a spy & code-breaking theme. She's off on a company creative weekend and starts receiving mysterious coded messages... now read on.

Or not. The book is fine but by heck it gets worthy the further in you go. What's that you say, Scarlett? Global corporations are bad? Well shucks and gollee, who knew? It also a bit of a puff piece for homeopathic remedies - aye, right - but Alice herself is an intriguing character with a good back-story which (this being a modern novel) it takes most of the book to discover fully.

How's the maths?
Well, this is definitely the saving grace. As far as I can tell Thomas doesn't have a maths background but she's done her homework well enough and there are several good passages dealing with all manner of codes, as well as Godel's Incompleteness Theorems and the Riemann Hypothesis, in a cheerfully non-technical manner that deserves praise.

And besides, how can you not like a book that has a maths-related cryptic crossword towards the end? For what it's worth, I'm still stuck on 1 across...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Class

Finally... just about the only film I've seen that gets the feel of a classroom right. Oh, hang on, there was also that movie Etre et Avoir... (guess the French must have a real ability for doing education justice) but that was a documentary, whereas this isn't. Or, not quite. It's based on the book Entre Les Murs (Between The Walls), written by French teacher (as in, Frenchman who also teaches French) Francois Begaudeau, which relates a year of his life teaching in an inner-city school. I think the situations in the film are semi-scripted, and semi-improvised, with the pupils coming up as the real stars of the show.

I confess I was dead chuffed with myself for declaring, at the end of the movie, that the actor playing the teacher must actually have been a teacher at some point, because I doubted anyone without a teaching background could cope so well with the whole improv set-up. Turns out I was spot on, as M. Begaudeau plays "himself" in the film - though with the character's name changed, presumably to emphasise that this is fiction, not fact. Nice one, Francois!

It's quite a film, and we teachers will quickly see that this guy - and these kids - are for real. It's fun spotting all the differences between the French system and ours... boy, those Frenchies do like their committees, don't they? Mind you, at one point the main business item on the agenda is the staff coffee machine, and we've all been there. The film couldn't be further from all your Michelle Pfeiffer/Richard Dreyfuss inspirational twaddle, though it does show the upside of teaching as well as the downside, and Francois is portrayed as a complex, flawed but well-meaning character.

I believe the book and film caused quite a storm in la belle France and actually, you know what: the more I write, the more I think this is a contender for the film of the year for me, given how easy it would have been to do this really, really badly. Go see it! If you're not a teacher, it'll show you a slice of modern-day classroom reality; and if you're a teacher, it'll remind you of the importance of not calling any of your students... um... let's just say, a bad name.

So, a gold star for the movie. I may even give it a Praise Certificate. Oh, wait a minute, I've forgotten - I don't do that.

Commes les mathematiques?
Well, as usual we have a movie that at least partly nods towards the language teacher as one who deals with inspiration, self-expression and all that guff, whilst the maths teachers are only mentioned casually - at one memorable point, in a list just after "racists". Jeez, gee's a break, Francois pal, non?

However there is one brilliant bit, just towards the end of the film, when Francois is asking his class (in his role as form tutor, or whatever they call it in France) what they have learned this year. One lad talks about having learned Le Theorem du Pythagoras, so F challenges him to explain it. What follows can be summed up more or less (after much umming and ahhing) as: "well, if you have a triangle, and the square of the two sides added together is the same as the square of the hypotenuse, then... then the triangle is a rectangle."

I'd give him the mark, wouldn't you?