17 December 2015

Spoiler-Light Film Review | Star Wars: The Force Awakens directed by J J Abrams

I used to watch Star Wars – and that’s what everybody called it back then, despite its post-Empire Strikes Back subtitling – regularly as a child on home video before I’d ever even heard of its two sequels. Never in any of those viewings did it strike me that the GALACTIC EMPIRE was still out there after the events of the film, or that in destroying the dreaded DEATH STAR, the Rebellion had merely won a small victory in an ongoing war against a superior enemy. By the same token, having never ventured into the sprawling (albeit now defunct) expanded universe of Star Wars literature that picked up where Return of the Jedi had left off, it’d never really struck me that the Rebellion’s success on Endor could have led to anything other than a golden age of peace and prosperity in which Luke would oversee the rebirth of the Jedi Order, and Han and Leia would live happily ever after farming out Force-sensitive sprogs. Not until the first teasers for J J Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped, anyway. It seems that the dark times have grown darker, and the triumphs and tragedies of the Skywalker dynasty are without end.

I’ve just returned home from my local cinema’s first showing of Episode VII (its episode number may not be referred to in its title, but it is in the movie’s opening crawl), and my senses are still reeling from the awe-inspiring display. In of itself, Star Wars in 3-D is something to knock you sideways – its distinctive opening crawl is mind-blowing enough as the Star Wars logo recedes and the words roll up before you, and that’s before you get to the First Order’s seemingly steroid-abusing star destroyers hanging right in your face, or Starkiller Base looming like the granddaddy of all Death Stars. But, better still, under Abrams’ famed direction, The Force Awakens trounces all of the prior ‘saga’ films when it comes to its overall execution. Watching all six preceding episodes over the last six days - as should be obligatory before being admitted to see Episode VII, iReckon - it struck me how meagre some of the effects are in them; whether I was watching the cartoonish, CG-grounded prequels or the now-dated originals with their unconvincing CSO, no earlier episode is beyond technical reproach. This one is. Whilst still clearly - and welcomely - the Star Wars universe that George Lucas envisioned all those decades ago, it’s finally been brought to life in fantastic, photo-real fashion.

Yet what impressed me most about The Force Awakens wasn’t the obvious spectacle, but the movie’s heart. Its story, written by Abrams himself along with Michael Arndt and Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan, manages to be incredibly redolent of the acclaimed original trilogy – particularly Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back – but somehow more nuanced, more real. New characters such as John Boyega’s stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn is a case in point, as is Adam Driver’s chilling antagonist, Kylo Ren. Watch the film and then compare their respective back stories to Han Solo’s and Darth Vader’s, arguably their opposite numbers from the original films, and note the differences in the presentation.

The crossguard-lightsaber-wielding Ren particularly impressed me as he seems to embody all the qualities that made Anakin Skywalker so compelling towards the end of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series and in Revenge of the Sith, together with the cold and capricious venom of Darth Vader. Indeed, in contrast to the ice-cool Dark Lord of the Sith whom he aspires to, Ren is demonstrably unhinged; clearly in the corner of the dark side but, even by his own admission, feeling the pull of the light. This was perhaps to be expected, given that Abrams didn’t have the luxury of a spare trilogy to tell of Ren’s fall from grace – this is Episode VII, not Episode X, after all – but it works marvellously all the same. Some of the film’s most terrifying scenes blend the tear-stained rage that you’d expect from the teenage Anakin with the I’ll-even-choke-my-own-men approach of Vader. I won’t spoil where this tormented soul’s journey leads, though, as I think that I know my Star Wars plot patterns and thematic rhymes and it shocked even me. To the core.

However, the movie’s star is Rey: this generation’s answer to Luke Skywalker, with whom I’d swear she has a strong familial, perhaps even daughter/father, relationship (that’s not a spoiler, mind – just speculation on my part. The Force Awakens benefits from inverting the original trilogy’s secrets: here, the principal villain’s lineage is apparent from early on in the movie; Rey’s, however, remains a secret going into Episode VIII - albeit a thinly-veiled one). Daisy Ridley’s anti-princess may be much more independent and aggressive than the original trilogy’s farmboy-turned-Jedi, but she still walks the exact same path – just in different shoes. I don’t think that I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the movie’s subtitle isn’t as general as many might have surmised, but in fact seems to be specific to her. Unlike Luke, she doesn’t have a crazy old hermit watching over her, primed to one day teach her the ways of the Force – the Force has to ‘awaken’ within her of its own volition. This makes for a very different, and arguably even more gripping, retelling of the saga’s central story. This is one heroine who’s quite capable of rescuing herself...

Which brings me to Luke. Much was made of his almost complete absence from the many trailers for the movie, and the reason for this becomes evident from the very first line of the movie’s opening crawl. Since the end of Return of the Jedi, the last of the Jedi has been through quite a tumultuous time, and as a result has retreated into seclusion and then myth, not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi before him. His role in The Force Awakens is thus critical yet remote: now the hazy stuff of legend, Luke is the catalyst for the whole plot, much like the Artoo-carried Death Star plans in the original Star Wars. Everything that happens in this movie, good and bad, happens because of him and what he did after Return of the Jedi. Yet the movie’s new characters aren’t really sure that he ever existed, and casual moviegoers could be forgiven for thinking the same as the film tears towards its climax with no Luke in sight, its plot more than adequately propped up by the film’s fascinating new generation - and, of course, an ageing anti-hero who rocks just like he used to.

I must also praise the supporting performances of all the actors involved, who comprise a motley crew of up-and-coming stars and established legends. I can’t say too much about Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke beyond that you will almost certainly be overwhelmed by his massive presence, and About Time’s Domhnall Gleeson looks like he’s going to give Peter Cushing’s Tarkin a run for his money as General Hux, the new face of the First Order’s military who is far less tolerant of his leader’s Force-wielding apprentice than the grand moff was.

On a final note, though dark in tone and vast in spectacle, The Force Awakens is not without humour. Chewbacca very nearly steals the show on occasion with his various comic interjections (most of which come out of leftfield), and even old red-arm Threepio gets in on the comic action with a few amusing little skits. Dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is funnier still - he had me laughing even during his first, almost Solo-irreverent, encounter with Ren. The script never strays too far into comedy (or, indeed, attempted comedy) though – it will probably come as a great relief to many to read that the lessons of Jar Jar Binks have been hard-learned by Lucasfilm.

Bigger, bolder and that little bit more real than all of its predecessors, The Force Awakens is sure to please both long-standing fans of the saga and casual cinemagoers alike. My only disappointment with it is the necessary loss of Alfred Newman’s goosebump-raising fanfare at the very start, but in fairness to Disney they have made its absence as painless as possible by simply throwing up the Lucasfilm logo in silence and isolation before launching into the tagline and crawl - there’s neither a fairy tale castle nor a bad robot in sight. Indeed, this film is classic Star Wars through and through, and just like in the original trilogy, we don’t know where the narrative is leading us to. Everything is bigger, everything is faster - and nobody is safe.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in cinemas everywhere.

14 December 2015

Re-Awakening the Force #1 | Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace directed by George Lucas

We live in exciting times, just days away from the premiere of not just a new Star Wars movie, but a whole new era for the franchise - and a
promising one at that. 

Of course, we’ve been here before. I still vividly remember the chills that I got watching the first teaser for The Phantom Menace - the “Every Saga Has a Beginning One...” It made the movie seem stirring, epic and powerful - a feat that, with hindsight, is almost as incredible as George Lucas actually getting the original Star Wars film made despite all the fences fancing. Yet, whilst generally being considered second only to Sex Lives of the Potato Men when it comes to history’s most derided motion pictures, the Star Wars saga’s fourth offering and first chapter is actually a bloody good film. The trouble with it that it’s not a very good Star Wars film, and that’s not something that those reared on the superlative original trilogy can ever forgive.

The Phantom Menace’s mis-steps and misjudgements are too numerous to document, though many have delighted in trying to do so over the past sixteen years. Of them all, I think comedian David Mitchell most succinctly summarised the movie’s patent pitfalls with his usual barbed eloquence in a piece that he wrote for the Observer, later reprinted in his collection Thinking About it Only Makes it Worse and Other Lessons from Modern Life:

“The problem isn’t just that it’s terrible but also that it retrospectively spoils the original films. George Lucas took the hinted-at, mythical, ancient yet futuristic realm of his first films and filled in all the detail like a tedious nerd. He ruined his own creation. It was as if Leonardo da Vinci had painted a speech bubble on the Mona Lisa in which she explained her state of mind. Everything that was magical, mysterious and half alluded to, Lucas now ploddingly dramatised, making it seem dull and trainspotterish…”

However, as these Re-Awakenings are intended to be a celebration of the saga, as opposed to a post-mortem of its less lauded instalments, I don’t intend to rehearse Episode I’s many shortcomings myself. Rather, I intend to accentuate its positive elements - even if that does mean that this opening piece is going to be very short indeed.

Say what you will of George Lucas’s decision to set Star Wars’ opening episode in the childhood of his saga’s central protagonist, but there’s no denying that the era of The Phantom Menace is a fascinating one to explore. The thousand-year-old Republic exists in a state of faded gentility, its leader and senators powerless in the face of aggressive commerce. The complacent and stagnant Jedi, supposedly the keepers of peace and justice in the galaxy, are blind to their nemesis who walks the same corridors, stealthily orchestrating his rise to power under a mask of civility. And then, living in slavery on a remote desert world in the Outer Rim, there is a child conceived by the Force itself; a child prophesied to restore balance to the ever-darkening Force. That’s a hell of a canvas on which to start painting.

My favourite thing about The Phantom Menace is Lucas’s portrayal of the boy destined to become Darth Vader, particularly in the intense attachments that he has to his mother, and later PadmĂ©. It’s a credit to both Lucas and the young Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin Skywalker, that you can see the boy’s unravelling before he’s even fully wound; it’s all right there in that beautiful, “Binary Sunset”-scored scene in which he leaves his mother behind: the character’s defining fear and passion, his fear of loss, of change - the shape of things to come. 

The other aspect of the film that I feel works well is its Palpatine-led Coruscant sub-plot. Ian McDiarmid is so good as the wily senator cum phantom menace that it might be his finest performance in the saga - it’s certainly his most nuanced. McDiarmid manages to convince as someone so thoroughly evil that he’s trying to pass himself off as a thinly-veiled political opportunist as cover; only the most fleeting of looks betrays his true agenda. It’s a dazzling turn from the Shakesperian Scot.

Liam Neeson is nearly as good as the movie’s leading Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn. He makes even the most opaque of dialogue seem meaningful (“Your focus determines your reality...”), carrying the whole picture from end to end on the back of his understated charisma and calm recklessness. I even like Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan. The Trainspotting star had the hardest job of anyone, in my view, as not only did he have to take on a part that Sir Alec Guinness had put such an indelible stamp on, but he had to play that part in a way that, by necessity, would be almost unrecognisable. Crazy old Ben’s character in the original trilogy was that of a wise old hermit; a magician in self-exile with the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. Young and headstrong Obi-Wan carries none of that burden, and he’s yet to gain most of that wisdom, but McGregor still makes the line between the two iterations visible with his Guinness-like delivery of some of the character’s dry witticisms and a mischievous twinkle here and there.

The Phantom Menace is also an arresting visual and aural spectacle – that much is beyond dispute. More of its CG is photo-real than it often gets credit for, and its climactic triple-threat lightsaber duel blows away anything that the original trilogy ever offered up, at least on a technical level. And when it comes to the score, if any piece of music was to have a hope of living up to “The Imperial March”, then it’s “Duel of the Fates”. By turns haunting and frenzied, it serves to heighten the drama as the film nears its end, whilst at the same time hinting at the dark future that’s about to unfold.

And so, when you find yourself being sucked into the fashionable trend of Episode I-bashing, try to remember that it’s not all bad. A good forty minutes or so of it is actually quite good, even by Star Wars’ lofty standards. For every Jar Jar Binks, there’s a double-lightsaber-wielding Darth Maul. Though the Force may be demystified through the introduction of midi-chlorians, it’s enriched by the prophecy of the Chosen One. And, whilst the taxation of trade routes might sound like a preposterously banal jumping-on point for such a spectacular saga, it actually speaks to Lucas’s intention to tell a much more adult and politically complicated tale than he did in the original trilogy. It’s just a pity he started to tell it in a kids’ film...

Under its newly-shortened title Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the 2011 edition of Episode I (featuring a CG Yoda in place of the original puppet) is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for £13.99. A Blu-ray is also available, with today’s cheapest retailer being Zavvi, who are selling the beautiful limited edition steelbook for £17.99 with free delivery. The original 1999 version of the movie is no longer in print on DVD, but can still be found on eBay and other second-hand sites.

10 December 2015

First-hand Fitness #6 | On Cleansing: A Review of Forever Living's Clean 9 ("C9") Programme

Things had been bleak on the fitness front for a few months. A combination of injury, several weekends away (Bourneville’s Cadbury World amongst them...) and even a week in Disneyland had all but put paid to my efforts to work out and eat well. Obviously I hadn’t been doing anything totally nuts like indulging in tomato-based cuisine or potatoes, but, even so, I’d eaten my way through far too many calories for a man whose lifting had been sporadic - and it was starting to show on my burgeoning gut. Worse, since August I’d lost over an inch from my biceps.

As such, a couple of weeks ago I decided that it was time to draw a line in the sand by rebooting my system with Forever Living’s intensive, Aloe Barbadensis Miller-based cleansing programme known as Clean 9 (“C9”). The particular subspecies of aloe vera used by Forever really is incredible stuff – loaded with antioxidants; minerals; essential amino acids; and even vitamin-B12 (a rarity in plants), it’s a veritable catch-all for the body’s most fundamental needs. For my purposes, it’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, containing salicylic acid and plant sterols, amongst other things, that do wonders for auto-immune disorders like arthritis. It’s little surprise, then, that for thousands of years, this so-called “true aloe” has been renowned as the “Miracle Plant”; the “Burn Plant”; the “Medicine Plant”; and, my favourite nomme de guerre, the “Silent Healer”. Every one of these soubriquets has been rigorously put to the test so that today we can all benefit from it as a central ingredient in everything from topical creams and lotions to shampoos.

The C9 programme is built upon aloe’s anti-inflammatory and immune-balancing effects, which in practical terms means consuming copious amounts of Forever’s stabilised gel. Whilst this wasn’t an actively horrible prospect for me, it wasn’t a particularly appealing one either - after all, it’s hardly Innocent smoothie. A helpful conversation with my wife’s friend Claire, a Forever agent who was, at the time, approaching the final days of her own C9 detox, ultimately convinced me to take the plunge and part with my £97.99. She was almost bouncing with energy, radiating that insufferable healthy-person glow that I’d long-since lost and desperately wanted back. For that, I was prepared to neck a few shots of glutinous plant gel.

When my box arrived, Claire talked me through its contents. As it’s primarily aimed at those intending to embark on a major weight-loss programme (as opposed to those just looking to cut some fat and get back on the wagon), a lot of the material set out what I already knew inside-out. FAQs like, “Why does my body need protein?”, even made me worry that I’d inadvertently invested in a product aimed at a different level of punter altogether. I was reassured, though, that Claire was following the programme herself, as with her daily Jillian Michaels-led DVD fat-burning session and vegetarian diet, she’s a damn sight fitter than I’ve ever been.

When I got the box home and started wading through it myself, I realised that it was actually quite an inspiring piece of kit regardless of its target market. Its literature is abounding with success stories, all of which boast ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures that are far more credible than those emblazoned on the front of Men’s Health’s many 30-day body transformation manuals, the vast majority of which beggar belief. These people look real, especially in some of their still-imperfect but nonetheless significantly improved ‘after’ pictures. I found this candid approach refreshing and motivating, as it made my immediate goals seem readily attainable rather than slightly far-fetched.

Beginning the first day, another impressive aspect of C9 presented itself: no matter how busy, or indeed how lazy, you are, it’s an absolute doddle to follow. Your pre-printed diary (a couple of extracts from which you can enlarge by clicking on the relevant pictures on this page) breaks down each “meal” (the term is really stretched here, mind) into its components, which you then simply tick off upon consumption. Most things are even handily packed for portability, with the Forever Garcinia Plus Softgels and Forever Therm Tablets even being separated out and labelled for each meal. Even if you’re like me, then, and spend much of your free time planning how you’re going to hit tomorrow’s protein goal or cut some of the carbs out of your refried bean tofu-dillas, there’s a lot to be said for letting someone else do all the brainwork for you for a bit. I even really appreciated not having to laboriously make my morning Nutri Ninja® or pre-prepare all my meals - it was more like a holiday than my actual holidays have been this year, marred as they were by a dearth of healthy-eating establishments (here’s looking at you, Disneyland!)

I was also pleased to find that the products provided were straightforward to get to grips with. The Forever Garcinia Plus Softgels (natural fat-burners and appetite suppressants derived from garcinia cambogia) inhibit the body’s production of fats from carbohydrates and stimulate the satiety reflex. They may look like medium-sized zeppelins, but they actually go down very comfortably with water. The slightly smaller, green tea-derived Forever Therm Tablets, designed to keep you stocked up on the vitamins that you’d otherwise get from food and boost your flagging energy levels while still burning fat, are even easier to swallow. The Forever Fiber supplement, the purpose of which I don’t need to expound upon, dissolves in water within minutes and barely tastes of anything.

The Forever Lite Ultra meal replacement shake, in contrast, is absolutely delicious - I’d rank it up there with Holland and Barrett’s Precision Engineered Whey Protein taste-wise. Nutritionally, it’s a fairly even mix of slow-burning carbs and soya protein, duly fortified with an impressive array of vitamins and minerals. It’s ideal for those looking to strip fat but maintain lean muscle, as I was, while offering those who’ve had poorer diets probably the first truly balanced meal that they’ve had in a long while. I was a little anxious about taking it over nine days, though, as it contains far more ingredients that I’m comfortable with these days. Indeed, it has about fifty times as many as my protein powder of choice – Bulk Powder’s Pure Whey Isolate 90, which has just two – and amongst them is sucralose, a non-nutritive sweetener that doesn’t seem to flare up my arthritis in the same way that the likes of the nasty aspartame do, but is still quite a controversial substance. Fortunately I experienced no arthritic pain at all during the entire nine days, and so, at least in the short-term, Forever Lite Ultra needn’t deter you from attempting C9 even if you’re trying to follow an anti-inflammatory diet.

The Forever Aloe Vera Gel is, admittedly, an acquired taste. As I’ve intimated above, it’s quite a thick liquid – its consistency is closer to shampoo than it is juice – but its taste isn’t bad. I’ve been habitually necking shots of it for months now, but had to consume my usual daily measure tenfold during the first two days of C9. To my surprise, by the second day, hunger and taste deprivation had actually made me look forward to each gooey 120ml glass. There I sat at the dining table, popping my pills and sipping at my gel as the missus devoured a roast chicken dinner.

Indeed, it goes without saying that the programme’s first two, foodless days are its hardest. Claire spoke to me at length about the importance of timing when to start the programme, as a nine-day programme obviously has the potential to disrupt two weekends if you start on one, but you have to weigh this against the fact that you are going to be feeling rather feeble for the first couple of days, and so starting on a busy workday might not be sensible. I decided to start on my next workday anyway, my reasoning being that at work, I’m so busy that I often struggle to find the time to eat and usually end up munching at my desk, dropping crumbs and spilling green tea all over ancient and already illegible-enough title deeds. I therefore started on Friday 27th November, even putting a day’s overtime in on the Saturday to keep myself as far away from my fridge and thoughts of food as possible. Starting on a Friday also meant finishing on the following Saturday, leaving half of my next weekend untouched.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t as hungry as I feared that I’d be. The Garcinia Plus Softgels and Therm Tablets conspired to keep me ticking over and suppress my appetite, and the lunchtime scoop of Forever Lite Ultra even went some way towards sating what was left. Had I been minded to, I could have increased my caloric intake slightly with some of C9’s “free foods”, which are all low on the glycemic index. Favourites of mine on there include apples, blueberries, cherries, red/purple grapes, raspberries, strawberries, kale, soy beans and spinach. I could have even made my Forever Lite Ultra shake with up to 300ml of skimmed milk instead of water, but to me it felt like cheating. I was hell-bent on starving myself clean, no matter the cost.

Yet the difficulty for me wasn’t so much hunger, but habit; it’s quite a galling moment when you realise how much of your daily routine revolves around the preparation, eating and cleaning up of food. I had to busy myself in the evenings – sitting down in front of the telly would’ve been fatal. Fortunately I didn’t have to busy myself for long as, by about half ten each night, I’d just run out of fuel and collapse into a deeper sleep than I’m accustomed to. If normal sleep is swimming a few metres beneath water, C9 sleep is deep-sea diving.

Exercise-wise, I didn’t push things too hard on days one or two. I did about eighty minutes’ walking at around 3mph on the Friday, and about seventy minutes’ worth on the Saturday. By the Saturday night I was at my lowest ebb – I felt like a had a hangover. I couldn’t sleep for sweating and my stomach was in knots. My body was, quite literally, detoxing. On the Sunday morning, though, I was a different man. For the first time in a couple of weeks, I went in the garage and threw some weights around for half an hour. My recovering groin didn’t ache. I even had a meal to look forward to – albeit one capped at 600-800kcal, and thus one that had to be carefully thought out. In the end, I went for a simple-but-filling poached eggs on toasted soya and linseed bread. High in protein and healthy fats, it seemed like the ideal starter meal for my first day back on grub. For my pudding, I delighted in making a heaven-sent apple last about forty minutes, sitting down with a plate and a knife and eking every ounce of pleasure out of it that I possibly could. On C9, mindful eating is a must.

After that, whilst I wouldn’t say that it was easy, it was certainly easier. I kept myself as busy as I could with overtime at work, cycling, working out – I even braved half an hour of the missus’s Jillian Michaels DVD. I was regularly spurred on by my ever-improving stats – the programme encourages weigh-ins and measure-ups on days one, three, six and nine to maintain motivation – not to mention an increasing sense of well-being that still persists now, as do some of the good habits that C9 helped me to resurrect.

For many, the C9 cleanse is just the start of a 69-day journey to fitness, with its two follow-up programmes - FIT1 and FIT2 - designed to help shred more fat and then increase lean muscle mass. For me, whilst it’s tempting to have another sixty days’ worth of meals mapped out for me, I think I’m going to go it alone (with perhaps a little help from MyFitness Pal and a side order of Forever Garcinia Plus Softgels …), but should I ever falter again, I’ll be sure to reboot my lifestyle with C9.

The Clean 9 pack is available through Forever Living. Prices may vary. I would recommend ordering through Claire Kemp at Sparkle with Aloe Forever as she is able to offer support throughout your C9 journey. You can visit her Facebook page or drop her an e-mail if you would like to discuss the programme further before purchasing.

09 November 2015

Book Review | Back Story: A Memoir by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s hard-won crown as champion of tweediness, along with his largely unremarkable upbringing, make Back Story: A Memoir something of a novelty in the otherwise misery-sodden world of celebrity autobiographies. Much like the man himself whenever he appears on television, this life story belongs to a world that’s gone, if it ever really existed at all. Not even a surfeit of complaints about a bad back can make it blend in amongst today’s juiciest rape and heroin misery memoirs.

This, the shrewd amongst you may have already inferred from my tone, is not a bad thing. In fact, like just about everything that the man has ever put his name to (except, perhaps, the majority of his history essays while studying at Cambridge and, obviously, Ambassadors), Back Story is an unqualified triumph; an expected comedic delight that, to boot, also offers some intriguing insight into the man so often confused with his Peep Show character.

Whilst Mitchell may take undue delight in calling a spade a spade (a carrot a splandeb and an apple a dugnid…), his book is innovative in its format, which eschews linear convention in favour of wandering around London and remarking upon structures that have been the stage to important scenes in his life, before launching into anecdotes about them. A great gimmick in of itself, this literal and literary walk down Memory Lane offers the reader an illusion of familiarity and informality that its rivals lack, but without losing the broadly progressive thread of the story altogether.

   “‘Oi, there’s that bloke off the telly!’
        I smiled and, as far as was possible with an arm weighed down by beer and ready meals, I waved.
       ‘Twat!’ one of them shouted.”

Mitchell’s prose, whilst sometimes a bit cap-happy for such an outspoken linguistic pedant, is laced with acerbic humour, making even the most tawdry of events – such as being recognised by some builders in the quote above – entertaining, as well as enlightening. His description of the mind-boggling level of worry and self-recrimination that goes into his fear of / desire for public recognition, for instance, feels incredibly refreshing and honest compared to the usual trite extremes so often trotted out in these things.

More enjoyable still are Mitchell’s trademark comic tirades - “That’s how far we’ve come in the last ten years: televisions used to work without telephone lines and now they don’t. Well done everyone...” and the like - which I find especially amusing as they generally unravel exactly the sort of absurdities that rankle me on a daily basis. Even when he’s outright wrong and he knows it - his mooted reclassification of public toilets into “gent-fuckers” and “lady-fuckers”, a system clearly rife for abuse, being a pertinent example - his wry arguments are so eloquently cloaked in quiet outrage that you still half think he really means it.

“No one, I thought bitterly, can have had a higher percentage of their life’s snogs appear in the paper than me.”

Throughout the book Mitchell maintains an admirable silence on personal matters - crushes and obsessions are alluded to at times, but there’s no namin’ or shamin’ beyond mentions of a relationship with a woman that he refers to only as ‘Meryl Streep’ and his spouse, Victoria. I welcome this as I didn’t buy this book (well, borrow; I’m quite the library user these days. It’s free, y’know) to read about his love life - I read it for laughs, and I couldn’t have been more satisfied on this front.

“Getting laughs for your material and your performance isn’t just twice as good as one or the other. It is roughly 3.2 times as a good.”

Yet surprisingly, where the book really excels is in Mitchell’s digressions into more serious spiritual and political matters. A fellow agnostic, in just a few paragraphs he manages to encapsulate exactly why atheists and religious zealots manage to be just as annoying as each other, for example. With the same barbed vehemence, he then exposes and destroys many of the cruel lunchtime practices that I recall from my own primary school days; it’s an almost cathartic read, at times.

A good, strong cup of tea in a cafĂ© full of creamy lattes and antioxidant smoothies, Back Story is a must for anyone who wants to like porridge but can’t. It’s the story of a boy who wanted to be good and to conform, only to find that those traits set him apart from his peers. It’s the tale of a jobbing writer without a pen; an actor looking for stage; a lonely guy who wasted his three wishes on his career, only to have his “sneering genie” silenced out of leftfield in the final act. There’s more to this El Dude Brother than being one of the Men with Ven – he’s a “man of consequence”, and Back Story is the evidence to justify that claim.

Back Story is available to download from iTunes and Amazon’s Kindle Store for £4.99. Alternatively, you can get the paperback from Amazon for £8.99 with free delivery if you buy another book at the same time for £1.01 or more, or for free from East Riding Libraries on a short-term loan. You just go in, scan the book in a little machine (like at Tesco), and walk out with it. No currency changes hands at all. You don’t even have to give your card details.

Peep Show returns for its ninth and final series on Wednesday night at 10pm on Channel 4. It’s going to be messy...

22 October 2015

Hasbro Transformers Review | Team: Prime - The Transformers: Prime Deluxe and Voyager Class Autobots

Whilst I clung on to a few of their original boxes and instructions, my surviving Transformers from the mid-’80s were in quite a sorry state when I retrieved them from the loft in the hope of sparking a “Transformers phase” in my young daughter. Even my beloved Powermaster Optimus Prime, who had always been handled with such great care in my youth, lost a leg (and thus about a third of his trailer too) as I tried to demonstrate how he could adopt a supplementary battle station alt-form to my enraptured three-year-old. I really should ease up on the weights.

As I began to watch the extraordinary Transformers: Prime for the second time in as many months, I decided to update my collection with toys inspired by the Hub’s Emmy-award-winning series. Originally released between 2011 and 2013, when the show was being broadcast, the Prime Transformers are markedly different from the rebranded Takara models that I’ve horded for nearly thirty years. Their basic premise is the same, of course, but almost everything else about them is different.

Comprised of two rebranded Japanese toy lines, inevitably Hasbro’s first generation of Transformers came in all sorts of shapes and sizes – and prices. Hasbro’s Prime toy line, in contrast, is built around two principal price points, each of which directly relates to a toy’s size: “Deluxe Class” toys, which, inexplicably, are the cheaper of the two; and “Voyager Class” toys, which generally comprise the larger characters. As well as making the lives of toy designers and retailers much easier, this regimented division gives the overall toy line a much better sense of scale than the Generation One (“G1”) toys had. To look at the Autobots, for instance, only Optimus Prime; Ultra Magnus; and Bulkhead are afforded a Voyager classification, meaning that, just like on television, they tower over their smaller Autobot comrades in something approaching realistic scale.

Pleasingly, the pricing of Deluxe Class toys ($13.00 or thereabouts) also makes them a lot more affordable than many Transformers were in the 1980s, allowing children’s parents – and nostalgic thirty-something men – to amass quite an armada without incurring too much expense. But for those on a very limited budget, there are also tiny, almost Seaspray-sized “Legion Class” and “Commander Class” toys available for as little as $5.00 each, though obviously these don’t sit well next to the larger Deluxe and Voyager ’bots.

In another departure from G1, the Prime toys that I’ve acquired all seem to be made entirely of plastic, which on the face of it is a step down in quality from the early G1 toys. My surviving ’80s Ultra Magnus truck cab tells a different story, though – decades of decay have left it in as sorry a state as the Optimus Prime cab seen on screen in Age of Extinction. And so, whilst plastic might offer a less appealing finish in some respects, it’s an eminently more practical one – especially when you look at the toys’ articulation.

Beast Wars: Transformers rewrote the book on the franchise in just about every sense, but perhaps most notably in its extensive implementation of ball joints in its toy line. Ever since, Transformers have been expected to be as poseable as their Beast Era forerunners. I’m not talking about Optimus Prime being able to bend his arms a bit; I’m talking about full, action-figure articulation. As I found a few years ago when I picked up a mean-looking Revenge of the Fallen tie-in Optimus Prime toy, the results can be absolutely breathtaking to look at – if a bugger to achieve.

Indeed, my main gripe with the Prime toys is that transforming them invariably involves sitting at the table with the instructions and carefully following – and, more often than not, failing – each of the many requisite steps. While there’s got to be a price to pay for finesse, for me these involved transformations take away the magic of being able to transform a toy in as long as it takes to make the appropriate noise. My G1 Hot Rod can go from nought to robot in about five seconds. If these are Level 2 or “Intermediate” difficulty Transformers, I shudder to think what Level 3s must be like! There are simpler toys available, though; “One-Step Changers” and the like, but the decline in overall quality is grossly disproportionate to the simplification. We’ve got better bath toys.

Another minor criticism of the Prime toys is their packaging. It’s undoubtedly much greener, and the numbering on the boxes naturally appeals to the collector in me, but it still lacks the unique and arresting appearance of the G1 packaging (see picture, above). While tech specs (of a decidedly lower tech nature) and (now very) short character summaries are still present and correct, you won’t find a “Robots Points” token in sight anywhere in sight, and you certainly won’t find your imagination being ignited by a sprawling, outer-space battle vista on a package’s rear.

The Prime Autobots are commanded, as they should be, by the eponymous Optimus Prime. Of all the Autobot toys, he’s the only one that feels a little on the small side – it would have been nice for Hasbro to have put out a slightly larger and more detailed “Leader Class” toy to really do him justice as, in my eyes, the Prime Prime really is the prime Prime. He combines the most successful elements of the Optimus Prime depicted in The Transformers and the live-action movies, fusing the mighty long-nosed Peterbilt 379 truck cab of the silver screen with the predominantly red G1 colour scheme. The level of detail is very impressive for the “Robots in Disguise” sub-range’s $22.00 price point, with the cab boasting frosted blue windows and a very detailed, Autobot badge-emblazoned grill, and the robot offering up a similarly-detailed torso and headpiece. Best of all, there isn’t a cost-cutting sticker in sight – all of the detail is achieved through paintwork. I would have liked to have seen a removable mouth plate, as Optimus only tends to wear it on screen as he goes into battle, but for the price it’s an excellent offering, and even backwards-compatible with the Powermaster trailer (though sadly not the original – and much more Prime-accurate - trailer, which only can only rest on the back on the truck instead of pegging in, as pictured below).

The “Beast Hunters” Ultra Magnus figure is more impressive, in many ways. I prefer the look of the G1 Ultra Magnus in both his modes, but there is no question that this is the better all-round toy. As he’s largely a redeco of Optimus’s mould – in Transformers: Prime the two characters are similar in both their forms (until Optimus undergoes his “regeneration”, at least) - I get the impression that Hasbro could afford to include more features, such as the character’s defining shoulder missiles and his depleted, but nonetheless fearsome, Forge of Solus Prime. Also included – albeit a little incongruously - is a winged backpack that can be mounted on the truck’s rear when in alt-form. The only thing missing – or, rather, unnecessarily present – is Magnus’s hand that was lost in battle. I would have loved to have seen the figure with Ratchet’s botched “claw” replacement hand in situ instead of the figure’s standard-issue mechanical hand.

My favourite Prime toy is also, happily, my favourite Prime Autobot: Bulkhead. The Autobots’ final “Robots in Disguise” Voyager is not only the absolute spit of his CG self in both his forms, but his transformation is one of the range’s most straightforward. His fellow Wrecker, the Deluxe Class Wheeljack, is another favourite of mine too, and for exactly the same reasons.

Ratchet is probably the most disappointing Autobot toy in the Prime range; partly because he has too many superfluous vehicle parts on show in his proto-form (see picture, right), and partly because he should probably have been classified as a Voyager – which would have probably cured the vehicle-parts problem. This is a shame as I love the character, but unless you’re looking at him directly from the front, there’s just too much ambulance knocking about his back and sides to make for a convincing likeness of his on-screen self. His fellow Prime stalwarts, Bumblebee and Smokescreen, are each better done, thankfully. The “Robots in Disguise” Bee is perhaps a little lacking in detail when compared to the “Beast Hunters” Smokescreen, but that’s more of a reflection on the quality of the Smokescreen toy than it is the shortcomings of the Bumbleebee one.

Finally, we have the ill-fated partnership of Arcee and Cliffjumper. The latter is a near-miss; as a robot, Cliff looks great from the front, but as a Dodge Challenger his transparent windows betray his tucked-away limbs, and I can’t for the life of me get the two halves of his bumper to click into place. Though she’s less substantial, Arcee is a much more exciting prospect all round – in her alt-form she’s a convincing Kawasaki Ninja, and as a robot she’s a wonderful approximation of her on-screen self. In fact, save for maybe Bulkhead’s, her face is the most convincing of all the Autobots’.

Overall, there’s no question that my 21-century contingent of Autobots put their G1 predecessors to shame - they are far more detailed and infinitely more expressive. Yet somewhere on the way they’ve lost an important element of magic - their boxes don’t conjure quite the same sense of interstellar adventure, and their transformations can’t be shown off quickly and eagerly to the wonder of grown-ups, or even easily folded into play. In the next instalment, we’ll see how their Decepticon cousins fare, but, particularly as they’re mainly heavyweight Voyagers, I suspect that my findings will be similar.