Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

Oops - well behind, once again. Evidence, if any were needed, that maths teacher is back at the electronic chalkface.

Anyway, The Time Traveler's Wife, based on the highly successful (and enjoyable) novel by the somewhat unfeasibly named Audrey Nifenegger. A tale of love and time travel, which takes the route of seeing time as being non-linear... a sort of big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. Quite right too.

The main idea is of course that when our Time Traveler (minus an L for reasons known only to Americans) Eric Bana meets the always watchable eventual Wife Rachel McAdams for the first time (in his timeline), she's in her early twenties, yet has known him since she was about eight. Much to-ing and fro-ing ensues as their romance blossoms, and blossomed, and will blossom, to great joy and sadness. Why is she never visited by a particularly old version of EB? Uh oh.

The film is a decent effort at fiming a complicated book and manages the romance side of things pretty well - hankies at the ready, folks! But it doesn't really generate enough tension and perhaps gives away too much too soon.

Overall, a watchable effort. But I wouldn't travel back in time to watch it again.

How's the maths?
Well, it would be interesting to try and do a timeline for the two lovers, but as with any time travel or flashback movie, it's really all about the additive inverses within the integers. So if we head back, say, 15 years (negative fifteen) and then want to come back to the present day, then that's adding 15 to -15 to get 0.

But you spotted that already.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fermat's Room

Well blimey o'reilly, if this isn't just the sort of film that we maths teachers going to the movies have been waiting for. Not only does it have a mathematician in the title, there's even four mathematicians in the film (some of whom are even not-too-bad-looking) - all trapped together in a room trying desperately to solve maths problems before the four walls close in and crush them. And yes, so it is in Spanish, but even then - what's not to like?

Oh yes, I had high hopes for this one, you can tell. Perhaps too high, in fact. Truth be told, Fermat's Room is a decent wee movie that doesn't outstay its welcome (around 100 mins, if I recall correctly) and more or less does what it says on the tin. And that's no bad thing.

If I have one complaint, it's that the film doesn't really deliver much in the way of suspense: despite the set-up, you're not really gripped by what is going on, or anywhere near terrififed. Contrast this with the total brown-trouser job that is Cube, and you can see that the film does seem to fall short in the terror or thrills department.

Overall, I'd award the film pi stars out of five, as an overall movie-going experience. But then of course there's all that lovely maths... speaking of which:

How's the maths?
Well, there's a fair bit here, I must say. Early on things are looking very good indeed: a young, unfeasibly attractive mathematician is busy finalising his "proof" of the Goldbach conjecture (that's when he's not signing copies of his best-selling maths book to swooning young lay-dees - aye right!); and discussions between other characters manage to quickly clock up references to such hard-core maths as Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, and the fact that quite a few famous mathematicians have committed suicide. When our quartet of mathematicians first arrive to be greeted by the eponymous Fermat in the equally eponymous room, they are given mathematical code-names too: Pascal, Galois, Hilbert and Oilva (that's Oliva Sabuco, apparently, a famous female mathematician from the 16th century - news to me too). There's even a fair bit of banter about how mathematicians work, and some laughs to be had throughout the film at the difference between "applied" and "pure" mathematicians. Well, I laughed...

And of course this is All Very Good and manages to go a long way to erasing previous cinematic crimes against mathematics such as Jeff "weird specs" Goldblum's ridiculous turn as a "chaos mathematician" in Jurassic Park.

The only trouble is, when the "ooh we're trapped in a room and will die if we don't solve these problems" bit kicks in, the script-writer seems to have abandoned The Penguin Guide to Dead Hard Maths in favour, say, Maths In Action Book 2B. For it breaks my heart to have to report, the problems they are set are way, way too easy and way, way too well-known to cause supposed high-powered mathematicians any difficulty whatsoever. Quite seriously, they are the sort of puzzles that MIA2B did set as "brainstormers" for 2nd year pupils back in the day. They even dig out the Liar's Paradox, which was used as a plot device by none other than Doctor Who way back in Tom Baker's day (Pyramids of Mars, episode 4, for those taking notes).

I appreciate the difficulty the film-makers face here - after all, the problems need to be reasonably accessible if a general audience is going to make any sense of them, and their solution. But I do feel they could have tried harder. Still, maybe they're preparing a special edition, or DVD extra - Fermat's Room: The Mathematician's Cut - where our heroes have to solve much harder fare?

I'd buy it!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Oh dearie me, this will never do.

I mean, as a modern teacher, I should be more positive and upbeat, in keeping with current thinking about offering encouragement - you know, "two stars and a wish" - but it's hard to do with this lumbering, mindlessly vacuous movie.  I mean, what is the point of this remake?  Why?  For goodness' sake, Tony Scott, why??

For those who don't know: when marking homework and the like these days, one is not meant to blaze away with the ticks and crosses, but is rather meant to proffer words of encouragement (that'll be yer two stars then) and of wisdom/advice (that's the wish bit - as in, say, I wish you'd stop making so many bloody mistakes).

I confess I'm not very good at this, but you know what, maybe this is exactly the approach I need for this snoozefest.  Let's see...

Two stars: Denzel W and John T (well, I mean obviously)

A wish: I really, really wish I hadn't bothered going to see this.

Can I get my chartered teacher status now please?

How's the maths?

Well you know, this is very interesting, as yet again we have a movie which offers up a maths (or in this case, arithmetic) question.  Travolta - aka Shouty McShouty of Bad Guy Inc - demands at one point that Denzel get a calculator and work out what 19 times $526315.79 is.  I leave it to you to ponder the significance of the answer.  But is this a trend that I'm noticing - Hollwood beginning to insert random maths questions into its movies?  I know this sounds far-fetched, but you never know.

Sadly of course Travolta's demands wouldn't go down well in Scottish education, where (under the new Curriculum for Excellence) it is for the learner to decide whether or not to use a calculator for a particular calculation.  Tut tut.  I mean, Denzel might have fancied having a go at long multiplication!  It would certainly have helped take his mind off the script for a bit.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Public Enemies

So, the tale of John Dillinger, notorious bank-robber from 1930s America, as directed by Michael Mann. Let's be generous and leave aside the fact that JD is here played by "The Gorgeous" Johnny Depp (ooh - I've just noticed they have the same initials), which means he would have found it hard to pass himself off incognito in public, what with women of all ages swooning all over him. Instead let's concentrate on the main problem of the film, which has been commented on by several critics, though to my mind they have all misdiagnosed the cause. Much has been made of the shaky, hand-held style of shooting which MM has used on and off throughout the film, in marked contrast to his more usual highly glossed style, and even the good Dr Kermode himself has complained that this just doesn't work with a film set in the 1930s - we have expectations as to how all this should look and feel, based on the way greta movies have been shot in the past. Now I sort of see what they are getting at, and for the first 15 minutes or so I was quite uncomfortable with the look and feel of the film, and the shooting style did seem to be the culprit.

But, like a good mathematician should, I sat and mulled over this problem as the film progressed, and I realised that this is not quite right: it's not the visuals that are the problem, it's the soundtrack. Y'see, it may look all shaky and all over the place - almost like The Blair Witch Project - and of course the idea is to give you the feeling that you are there, in with the actors, in the midst of all that's happening. But, Mr Mann sir, if that's the case, then I sure as hell shouldn't be hearing a traditional sumptuous Hollywood soundtrack. That's what grates. I shouldn't hear any music - except for any ambient music, ie records playing in the background or whatever. (I'm not saying that this approach would work, by the way, but it might have been interesting for MM to at least to try to run with his intention properly, instead of trying to have his cake and eat it.)

While on the subject, I should say that bits of the soundtrack are actually very good: some excellent Billie Holiday, and a to-die-for slow, lazy version of Bye Bye Blackbird", sung by Diana Krall (a favourite of mine, I admit), who even turns up in a cameo performing the song in a nightclub. Mind you - speaking as a jazz fan and pedant - she sings the song at a tempo that would have been absolutely, ridiculously slow for the period. But enough of that.

Of the film itself, well, Marion Cotillard is wonderful but underused as JD's girlfriend; JD is his usual watchable self; and Christian Bale is a near-total cypher; but overall it's hard to really care about anyone. I know MM is often accused of making films which are all style and no substance, and it's hard to see him breaking out of the mould here.

How's the maths?
Well, not much here, but JD gets a big laugh at one point when he points out that $15000 is less than $300000 (I'm making the actual figures up here, I confess, but they're around that level). It's the way he tells them.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Or HP6, to save a whole lot of typing.

The general critical feeling seems to be that this is the best HP since Azkaban, and I'm happy to agree.  In fact I think there might even be case for saying that this one is a shade better - HP3 looks amazing but as I recall the finale is a bit rushed (more a fault of the book, as it turns all Basil Expositiony).  By contrast I was happily entertained throughout this one, and found the conclusion very dramatic and engaging.  (I can even see it making my end of year top ten films list.)

Ah, yes: the conclusion.  Or, as the good Doctors Mayo and Kermode have taken to calling it (for fear of being accused of giving away major plot points): The Unfortunate Incident.  For those who don't know, the movie takes quite an unusual step in making a major change to events at this point in proceedings.  It all boils down to whether or not Harry Potter is unable to act at a key juncture (due to magical shenanigans being placed upon him) or whether he chooses not to act - for reasons which may or may not be cowardice.  The movie opts for the latter route, and I was expecting (like M&K) to be most discomfited by this, but I wasn't.  To me, it's not about cowardice, it's about trust: Harry choosing to trust Dumbledore, and perhaps - just perhaps - even Snape.  And I can see that the final movies (HP7 now being filmed as a two-parter, as anyfuleno) will get a lot of yardage out of the consequences of all this.

Kudos to Rupert Grint, who has gone from being an all-girning plank of wood to a young actor with a fine sense of comic timing, and to Jim Broadbent for a fine performance as a returning master to Hogwarts.  And Alan Rickman as Snape - well, what can you say?  He's chewing it all and loving it - and so are we.

How's the maths?

I've said it before - would it really, really hurt the film-makers to show a bit of maths being taught every now and then?  I mean, I know it's a place of magical learning, so I can see why they give science lessons a miss... but presumably they get taught English, for goodness' sake, as they all seem able to read and write at least.  So come on, film-makers, let's seize the opportunity.  Let's face it, there are two films left and only one book title to play with (HP and the Deathly Hallows), so here's a golden opportunity.

Harry Potter and Curse of the Irreducible Quadratic Equation... it has a certain ring to it, surely?