Friday, 29 April 2011

Review of Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

As the trailer for the new Transformers film has been launched today, it seems like a good time to look again at the previous film, Revenge of the Fallen.  After its release, a number of people asked me what I thought of it, and I wasn't really able to answer such people at length and explain exactly what my opinion is, or to say whether or not I really enjoyed watching it.

So, here goes - my first written film review. And it will be detailed, and will contain spoilers. I should explain that I am a very big fan of Transformers, have been since I was about 8 years old, and thoroughly enjoyed the first Transformers movie, in 2007 (and the one in 1985). I can recall when Sideswipe and Ironhide were red, while Jazz and Ratchet were white.

When I settled down to watch the film, I noticed all the credits at the start: Dreamworks this, and Steven Spielberg that, and Michael Bay etc etc, and Hasbro. "Oh yeah," I thought to myself, "The toys - it all started with the toys." And thought nothing more of it at the time. It has crossed my mind several times since.

The film starts with the Autobots tracking down Decepticon activity all over the globe, having formed an alliance with the humans. I had to learn in the first movie that human weapons are effective against Transformers - they certainly never used to be, but okay, we'll accept that they are now. Ironhide leads a team to track down some nameless Decepticon. Now, excuse me for asking, but why don't the Autobots speak when they're in vehicle mode? Or do anything sensible? We do get the full length, ten-second-long Ironhide transformation - we know we'll never see a transformation take that long again - and Ironhide finally starts speaking. (Compare this with the scene in the first movie, just after Starscream's airstrike on the city has taken out Bumblebee's legs... Sam has to tell Jazz, who's still in vehicle mode, to back off and reverse. I'll repeat my earlier question - why don't the Autobots do anything sensible in vehicle mode?).

And yes, it is some nameless Decepticon.  Sadly, this is something that I had to get used to, as it cropped up repeatedly.  I guess here is as good a place as any to cover the new characters in the film. There are loads. In fact, to be quite honest, it's the single greatest issue I have with this film. I loved the explosions, I loved the hardware and the storyline, but the number of new characters was overwhelming. On both sides, but especially the Decepticons. The Autobots - we see them in their hangar, an array of shiny sports cars and motorbikes, a couple of Japanese minicars and an ice cream van. No, I know very few of the names of these characters, and very few of them got personalities - just accents. The purple ice cream van rates as moderately annoying. The two Japanese minicars - one of them was called Skids, which was really disappointing considering the intelligence of the original character - were stupid. I think a professional film reviewer likened them to Jar Jar Binks, which is quite accurate - right down to the racial stereotyping. One Autobot I did pick out was Sideswipe, who was silver, instead of red. Now, he has no feet, just wheels. Nor does he have hands or forearms - just large spikes on his elbows. I was thoroughly unimpressed by this - it strikes me as lazy CGI and I was not happy. But anyways, it was only a fluke that I found out that this particular character was Sideswipe - he could have been anonymous if I'd not been listening closely.

Having mentioned the large number of Autobots, this is nothing compared to the Decepticons. At one point towards the end of the film, it almost literally starts raining Decepticons. A huge army of Decepticons arrives in the desert and start attacking our heroes, and as I watched this, I started to wonder why the existing Decepticons - those already introduced in the story, or even some already on Earth - didn't show up. I'm still not sure, but I think the answer is that Hasbro are named in the credits, and more figures (I can't call them characters - I don't think they have a line of dialogue between them) means more toys. Now, these fresh warriors all look pretty much the same, since they haven't adopted an earth-based vehicle mode. In other words - they don't transform. This is, above and beyond the number of new characters; the stupid accents; the nameless characters, the single most irritating part of this film. Transformers that don't transform? No. Big mistake. Wrong. And wrong from the perspective of the toy makers too. Surely Hasbro should keep in mind that the original series of toys were successful because they were robots and vehicles. I should mention at this point "The Fallen" who also doesn't transform... he could have been any sort of intergalactic weapon - tank, spacecraft - but no.

And if you want further evidence that this is a toy-maker's film, consider Starscream, who is one of the few Decepticons to make it from the first film. Ordinarily, Starscream version 1.0 would be sufficient for most kids, but no. To quote one of the soldiers (I can't recall which), describing Starscream in aircraft mode - "It's got some crazy alien graffiti all over it." That's right, kids, Starscream from the first film is out-of-date, time to go splash out on Starscream version 2.0. And if you thought the original Optimus would suffice... sadly not, as, towards the end, we get Japanese-armoured-style ultra super-powered Optimus with the armour of that poor unfortunate defecting Decepticon, Jetfire. I bet the armour in the toy version either (a) sticks on and doesn't come off, leading to a non-transforming Transformer, or (b) doesn't stay on when it's put on. I'm not sure which is worse.

That's covered most of my ranting about the robots, now let's turn to the humans.

Now - Megan Fox. Oh good grief... I'd heard that she was in the film almost exclusively as eye candy, but the first few scenes with her in, posing on the motorbike, were just too much. Perhaps I'm the wrong side of, say, 14 years old, but it was just a bit too obvious that she was just in the film for the teenage boys.

Sam's parents, who thoroughly annoyed me during the first film, were back on form. Why, why, why do the film makers insist on giving Sam's parents lines, or even screen time? They are the most unnecessary characters in a film that I've ever come across. The "Sam's special time" scene from the first film could have been cut in its entirety and the film would have been greatly improved. In this film, it was the scene where Sam's mum buys a 'herbal rememdy' from a student that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Many people have commented that this film was over-long... I think I've just solved the problem.  I'm with Ironhide, who in the first film commented, "Can't we terminate the humans?  The parents are very irritating."

Speaking of Sam's parents - shortly after (before?) the first Megan Fox scene, we come to the scene with the kitchen critters and Bumblebee blasting the house down. Yes, I enjoyed this one - and in particular the extremely cool kitchen critters (no lines of dialogue, no names) but why, oh why has Bumblebee been reduced to an overgrown guard dog in the garden, with his own kennel? And, okay, perhaps it's a plot contrivance that he's lost his voice, but when did he become an over-exuberant teenager? He used to be a no-messing warrior who protected Sam from Barricade (the police car) and an all-round fighter. A highlight of the film is the scene where Sam has to tell Bumblebee to grow up and remember who he really is.

Now? He can't wait to go to college with Sam? Okay, I'll let it go, but I did think it was particularly stupid that he lived in the garage like a dog. And yes, I thought some of the kitchen critters were cool, but it didn't dawn on me until a little later that they were obvious merchandise, and would probably be in my local Toys R Us store by the end of the movie.

One of the film's biggest redeeming features for me has to be the Sector Seven agent, Simmons. He is brilliant. I loved his archive of antiquated Transformers, Frenzy's head in his office, I liked his panicky but genuine character, and the way he ordered the naval barrage was inspired. I like this character, and hope to see him in the third film.

Finally - Alice, the human who turned out to be a Decepticon. She doesn't Transform... and Decepticons never, ever, took human form. Mind control, yes. Human form? No. "Decepticon Pretender".  Possibly.

Overall, I actually liked this movie. I thought the effects were amazing; the music was outstanding (most of it taken from the first movie, and I was nodding along at various points); the story was actually well written, if a little cheesy in places... the idea of Sam having the power of the Allspark in his head goes back to a comic-book story where Buster Witwicky (yes, that was his name) was given the Creation Matrix by Optimus for safekeeping. Yes, I thought, on the whole, it was enjoyable, possibly overlong but on the whole kept ticking along at a good pace. Did I want the DVD for Christmas? Yes please. Would I watch it repeatedly until I'd learned the script? Possibly.

I think I could some up my views on this film by considering if I would I watch it all the way through; the answer is probably. Although I can quite easily see myself skipping the boring bits (with the humans), there's enough pace to make it watchable, and I'll also like to find out all those Autobots' names!  Overall, I'd recommend watching the DVD with the subtitles turned on - that way, you'll get all the dialogue, character names and all the parts of the plot.

So, I'm looking forward to the new film, and I'll be posting a review here when I've seen it!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Isaac Newton's Random Walk

Poor Isaac Newton.  He was having a pleasant afternoon nap, but was disturbed by a gravity-driven apple.  His attempts at destroying the apple that fell on his head have almost led to the death of a poor innocent bystander, and he's had to explain his actions to the local constabulary.  After a long and gruelling day, he's visited the local pub, and drunk slightly too much cider (stupid apples).  Now, having stepped out of the pub, he has to get to his house at the end of the street.  Alternatively, he could go to his aunt's house, at the other end of the street.

Conveniently, the pub is located at the middle of the street, which is 20 metres long.  His house is at one end, his aunt's house is at the other end.  Both possible destinations are 10 metres away.  In his slightly tipsy state of mind, the best that Mr Newton can manage is a stride of 1 metre; however, he's so unbalanced (he's also developing an apple-shaped bruise on his head) that it's not guaranteed that he'll keep going in the same direction.  In fact, it's 50/50 each time on which way he'll go.

How many steps will it take him to get home?  And at the rate of one step every 10 seconds, how much time will it take?

There are two ways of solving this one: the pure maths way, or the spreadsheet way (actually do some experiments on a spreadsheet).  Let's do the spreadsheet way first.

Each step is 1 metre long, but can be +1 metre or -1 metre, so we need to randomly produce a +1 or a -1 and add it to the previous distance walked.  This is easy enough in a spreadsheet - with a column of random +1 and -1 and a column which sums the previous column.  The function I've used for the random numbers is:


I then look down the 'total distance covered' column until I find the first +10 or -10.

I've run the test 20 times, and have obtained the following results for the number of steps it takes Mr Newton:

22, 20, 30, 20, 82, 94, 142, 106, 52, 51, 76, 92, 44, 74, 142, 50, 25, 17, 82 and 16.

What is there to say on this?  Isaac only has to travel a net distance of 10 metres in either direction, and yet in some cases it's taken him over 100 steps to cover the distance (he's not just drunk, he's very drunk).  At his best, he's managed it in 16 steps, with most of them in the same direction!

The results here show how probability (chance) is a key part of this question.  We've not given Isaac any sense of direction at all, and he's at the mercy of probability.  As a result, mathematically, all we can aim for is an approximate, or an average distance that Newton can travel.  Unfortunately for him, the mathematical average of his wanderings is going to be close to zero - for every step he takes to the left, he has an equal chance of taking a step to the right.

Doing it the pure maths way involves probability.  There's a 50% chance that Newton will go to the left (let's call this a step of -1) and a 50% chance he'll go to the right (this is a step of +1).  Let's start him at zero, and assume that he has to reach either +10 (his home) or -10 (his aunt's home).

After his first step, he has a 50% chance of moving even closer to his target, and a 50% chance of returning to his starting position.  So the probability of him making two consecutive steps towards either target is (0.5 x 0.5) x 2 since he has two targets to aim for (one at each end of the street), which is 0.5 - in fact, after two steps, Isaac has either moved two steps towards one target (+1, +1 = +2 or -1, -1 = -2) or moved back to his start position (+1, -1  =0 or -1, +1 = 0).

However, the maths becomes considerably more complex after three steps, and more complicated still if we need Isaac to achieve ten steps in one direction or the other.  I won't do the maths here, but after a large number of steps, it becomes clear that the most probable location after a large number of steps is close to the start point, as mentioned above.  On average, the number of steps in one direction will be balanced by an equal or similar number of steps in the other.  This is known among mathematicians as the random walk problem, and Wikipedia has plenty to say on it (no surprises there).

The question becomes not "When will Mr Newton reach his destination?" but "How likely is he to have reached his destination after 10 or 20 or 30 or 40... steps?" and that's far more complicated than I'd like to cover here - it's why I prefer science to maths!

What is smog?

Over the last few days, we've seen in the news how some of the cities in Britain (well, we've had pictures of London, and on the television London = Britain) have been covered in smog.  The word "smog" comes from a combination of smoke and fog, but what causes it and where does it come from?

Smog usually comes from sources like car exhaust fumes, and fumes which have reacted in sunlight to produce other pollutants (called 'secondary pollutants').  Worse still, the primary pollutants (directly from car exhaust fumes or from burning coal) can react with the secondary pollutants to produce a real mix of gases, called photochemical smog.  "Photochemical" reactions are ones that use light to make them go - in the case of smog, it's sunlight that drives the reactions.

Photochemical smog is produced by the chemical reaction of sunlight, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and other organic compounds in the atmosphere.  Smog also contains airborne particles (called particulate matter - bits of dust, ash and smoke) and ground-level ozone.  Ozone is best kept in the upper atmosphere; at ground level it's toxic (despite what you might have heard about invigorating ozone at the seaside - that's just misinformed nonsense).

Nitrogen oxides are formed when nitrogen and oxygen in the air react together under high temperature such as in the engines of cars and trucks, coal power plants, and industrial manufacturing factories.  Nitrogen and oxygen make up about 98% of the atmosphere between them, and when these are drawn into a hot internal combustion engine, they react together to product nitrogen oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).  Both NO and NO2 are harmful to human health.

So, smog contains ozone (toxic) and NOx (harmful), along with dust, smoke and so on.  It builds up when the air is still - very little wind - and can occur at times when there's high air pressure.  London has suffered serious instances of smog in the past, in particular in 1952.  Work has been done to reduce smog in Britain and in Europe, in particular reducing the sulphur content of fuels - burning fuels that contain sulphur leads to the formation of sulphur oxides which contribute to smog - and also, incidentally, to acid rain.  This is why smog is generally rare in London... that, and the fact that we rarely get the still, sunny weather that's needed to produce it!