22 March 2015

First-hand Fitness #3 | On Independence: Day 601

A lot can happen in six hundred days. The world can go from Spocked to Spockless, leap unceremoniously from the middle of the Clone Wars into the Rebellion, and even send Nickelodeon’s newly-minted Ninja Turtles scurrying from their sewer lair to take refuge in a house; a very big house in the country. Six hundred days ago, I could rattle off Doctor Who production codes from memory, quote Star Wars scripts verbatim; I could even use semi-colons properly. Now, such crucial skills may not be as sharp, but I can tell you how many grams of protein you’ll find in an average pea, and what you’d need to eat with it to get all the necessary amino acids to build and maintain muscle (it’s wheat, as it goes).

Indeed, for me, the last 1.65 years have been about experimenting on myself through nutrition and exercise. Partly to control arthritis (which I’ll discuss in great detail in a later post), largely to look good, but mostly to give myself a hobby that doesn’t involve drawing upon my toddler-knackered brain too much, I’ve bulked up and trimmed down and even grown half an inch taller (?), aided all the way by apps the calibre of MyFitnessPal and Runtastic.

But now I’ve been as big as I can be without getting fat (or taking drugs), and as lean as I can be without losing muscle and being “skinny fat” (or taking drugs). My colleague-offending, largely plant-based diet has now become so ingrained that I know by heart what I need to be scoffing each day, and, perhaps more importantly, what to steer well clear of.

And so, for my next experiment, I’m going to go sixty days without using any of my beloved apps. If I can cope without them (i.e. maintain or improve upon my current vital statistics and stay symptom-free), then I’ll do away with them for good, but still recommend a six-hundred day course on them to anyone looking to improve their knowledge and/or condition. If I can’t, then they’ve proven themselves to be truly indispensable, and I’ll still be annoying the missus with them for many years to come.

The MyFitnessPal app is free to download from the App Store. Since my 2012 review, it has been updated to encourage weight gain as well as weight loss, depending on your goal. Runtastic is also free to download from the App Store, with the more feature-packed Runtastic Pro costing you £3.99.

07 March 2015

Blu-ray Review | Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles directed by Jonathan Liebesman

“You’re... ninja mutant turtle teenagers?”

Little did she know when she was performing it, but Megan Fox’s self-referential one-liner would hold a mirror up to everything that’s wrong with Jonathan Liebesman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The ingredients are all there, and there’s no denying that they’re looking better than ever, but they’re confused to the point of absurdity.

After hearing horror stories about its script and development (Colonel Schrader, planet of the Turtleoids... the list goes on) I was wary about this franchise-rebooting movie, but nonetheless keen to have my prejudices dispelled. A couple of thrilling and really quite funny trailers (“Don’t freak out! It’s just a mask,” says Mikey to a terrified April, unfastening his bandana to reveal his grinning, mutant face); a beautiful, comic-inspired animated intro sequence; and the sight of Megan Fox in cartoon-homage yellow leather helped to get me on side, and when I saw the Ninja Turtles for the first time in the light of day, I was absolutely shell-shocked. “Photo real” isn’t the half of it; these motion-captured, CG-rendered mutants don’t just look real, but feel real. Each turtle is unique, with tattered real-world gear that reflects their respective personalities, but still stays broadly true to the well-established Ninja Turtle paradigm. You get the impression that these hulking monstrosities are the truth behind a sweetened fiction - the real-life, rough-around-the-edges inspiration for the comic books and cartoons. I think that’s what Liebesman and his team were gunning for, and they’ve demonstrably excelled themselves on this front.

The impressive visuals extend to the rest of the movie, from the detail of the Ninja Turtles’ sewer lair (with its pizza-box sofa and innovative boom-box wall) to snowy set pieces involving eighteen-wheelers and rooftop showdowns where even the camera never takes a moment’s breath. The damn thing never stops rolling; it’s always circling, zooming, retracting, spinning. Moviegoers who care only for popcorn and high-octane action cannot have a complaint here; I, however, do.

A movie is nothing without a half-decent story, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t have one. Worse, what it does have strays far from the well-established Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles origin stories, and to the detriment of all but April’s once-camp camera man. In this iteration, the Ninja Turtles and Splinter are no more than lab rats turned loose, learning ninjutsu from a conveniently-tossed-in-the-sewers book rather than an ill-fated human sensei or even a human sensei turned mutant rat. Oruku Saki, meanwhile, is now the charming all-American, Eric Sachs, and his Shredder accomplice is a visually terrifying but ultimately hollow creation, the victim of a last-minute rewrite (the lesser of two evils, in every sense).

Fortunately the five mutants’ finely finessed portrayals and Will Arnett’s far-from-pink-shirts-and-braces Vernon Fenwick are strong enough to save the movie from utter calamity, but ultimately the headline is similar to the one that I’d apply to co-producer Michael Bay’s Transformers live-action series: an almost peerless feast for the eyes, but little besides.

The bonus material on offer is a cut above the standard of most action movies, but far below what you’d expect for something with such a huge cult following. The extras on the Blu-ray total less than an hour, which even when compared to some of the Michael Bay Transformers Blu-ray releases, is decidedly underwhelming. The obligatory ‘making of’ features are spread across three smaller programmes, one of which examines the technical aspects of bringing the Ninja Turtles back to the silver screen, and another which focuses on the men behind the motion capture. The third then looks at the role of computers in film-making a little more generally, but with obvious emphasis on the instant motion picture. The most intriguing featurette though is entitled Evolutionary Mash-Up. What I thought would be a throwaway featurette turned out to be more enjoyable than the feature presentation, as historians and biologists convene trace the ancestry of the shinobi / ninja throughout the ages in parallel to the evolution of the planet’s many species of turtle and tortoise.

The rest of the material is much less substantial – the extended ending clocks in at well under a minute, leading me to question why it was cut, particularly when it seems such a nice coda to the April / Vernon thread, and the three musical features average just a few minutes each.

Overall neither the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Blu-ray nor the download are easy to recommend. Unless you’re a real sucker for action and have more money than sense, you’d be best advised to spend a fiver more and get yourself an iTunes series pass for the ongoing Nickelodeon series, which seems to have effortlessly accomplished everything that this movie should have done, yet with only a fraction of the budget.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for £13.99, along with around sixty minutes’ worth of iTunes Extras. The Blu-ray contains the same bonus material, and some stores’ copies also include all four replica Ninja Turtle bandanas. The cheapest online retailer today is Amazon, who are selling the disc for £13.00 with free delivery.

01 March 2015

He Am Not Spock

Few artists transcend the niche of their genre and become icons of popular culture.

Famed for his portrayal of Mr Spock in Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy has become not just the face of Paramount’s premier franchise, but the face of science fiction itself.

He might now be dead, but true to his character’s signature sign-off, he’s lived long and prospered, and as my good friend Daniel Tessier counts down his top ten “Am Spock” moments for Immaterial, in this iReckon companion piece I celebrate the man’s prosperous work outside Trek with my top five “Not Spock” Nimoy accomplishments.


Before Peter Jackson’s live action Lord of the Rings was even a pipe dream, this camp but quaint single from Nimoy’s second album had fans clamouring for a film series with the Enterprise’s then-incumbent first officer swapping phaser for sword to play Aragorn.


It’s inevitable though that Nimoy’s most noted works after Star Trek were in some way borne of it, and his 2012 cameo in The Big Bang Theory is a brilliant example of this. A hilarious payoff to almost five years of fact-accurate Spock jokes and jibes, Nimoy’s appearance as the voice of Sheldon’s Spock action figure in “The Transporter Malfunction” was a dream come true in every sense. And this wasn’t Nimoy’s first comic cameo; my favourite dates back to the mid-1990s, when he successfully hijacked a supposed X-Files episode of The Simpsons, outshining the then-red hot David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson at every turn.

Quite rightly, his appearance in “The Springfield Files” was recently heralded by The Guardian as “one of the best Simpsons cameos ever”, which is not faint praise given the three star-studded decades that the series has spanned. Indeed, Nimoy’s second appearance in The Simpsons reinforces his rightful place as the face of sci-fi, while at the same time showcasing his penchant for the driest of humour.


Not quite the rejection of the part that its title implies, Nimoy’s first autobiography set out to separate the playful poet, passionate photographer and occasional singer / songwriter from his typecast part, unintentionally sparking a maelstrom of controversy that gave the mooted Star Trek II television series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture far more column inches than they would otherwise have had.

Twenty years on from its controversial first instalment, Nimoy then buried his tongue in his cheek to complete his autobiography. Though the follow-up’s title of I Am Spock seems to contradict that of the earlier volume, it’s actually thematically identical, continuing to explore the gulf between actor and character, at times even pitting the two against one another as the Vulcan questions the actor’s illogic. I don’t generally pick up an actor’s biography expecting to find innovative literary devices in use or thought-provoking psychological schisms buried at the book’s heart, but in this outwardly Trek-friendly sequel, Nimoy delivers both.


Nimoy’s tones of liquid silver lent themselves perfectly to the part of Galvatron - the incoming Decepticon leader in Hasbro’s 1986 toy line, and thus the main antagonist in one of the bloodiest (well, oiliest) and most underrated movies of the 1980s. Alongside screen legends the like of Orson Welles and Eric Idle, this spectacular animated feature saw Nimoy carve himself a place in the next generation’s childhood memories too.


There are reasons I try to avoid the news, and offensive headlines the like of, “How is Stephen Hawkins Still Alive?”, and, of course, The Mirror Online’s “Spock Dead: Live” are just two of them. But, with a dignified and stirring tweet (above) that rose above the insensitive media cash-in, Nimoy left us ruminating on his touching words that, quite fittingly, muddied the waters between the myth and the man for one final time. LLAP...

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75052 Mos Eisley Cantina

This set was top of my wish list for years before its 2014 revisitation finally came. There’s not a vista out there that screams Star Wars as much as Tatooine’s, and there are few scenes in the whole saga as iconic as Han’s indifferent despatching of Greedo. Having recently given Jabba’s Tatooine operation and the Jawa’s sandcrawler long-overdue facelifts, LEGO have now brought the site of Han’s infamous Rodian showdown up to spec. The 616-piece Mos Eisley Cantina now sits beautifully beside all the other recent Tatooine sets, leaving us only a homestead away from a clean sweep.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this particular set is how expansive it is, particularly for its relatively low piece count. Beyond the eponymous “hive of scum and villainy”, builders are also treated to the most accurate representation to date of Luke’s soon-to-be-sold landspeeder, as well as a giant dewback megafigure, storm-weathered sandtrooper and all.

The landspeeder is very nearly identical to the 2009 rendition that renewed my interest in LEGO; the only (welcome) difference is that the paint scheme has been inverted back to match that of the film. As before, there’s enough room to sit both Obi-Wan and Luke in the cockpit (and, indeed, stow their lightsabers in the trunk), but there are still no back seats, so you’d be hard-pressed to squeeze the droids in there (not that they’re included here, mind).

The Obi-Wan and Luke minifigures have undergone their obligatory re-release redesign, and once again probably for the better. The “crazy old hermit” looks more haggard than ever, though the absence of an optional cape and hood is sure to annoy those who can’t just pluck them from an earlier Obi-Wan in their collection. Luke looks unreservedly excellent in his finely detailed legs and torso, and the designers have got the style of his hair nailed now, if not the shade, which in my view is closer to really light brown (as has since been acknowledged in the spectacular Ewok Village set) than the LEGO blonde generally favoured. His face is perhaps a little too detailed now, though; the extra detail and expression only serve to make him look older than he should be (at least pre-Wampa).

The dewback is one of my favourite components in the set. Fashioned with the same love and finesse that has brought us the updated Jabba and Rancor megafigures, the detail on the beast of burden is incredible. Its mouth even opens to chew - and, if required, hold and pose with - its bone. In the time-honoured style of LEGO horses, it’s up to the builder whether to brick up the creature’s back to give it a natural look, or - as I prefer - to build the saddle that carries the set’s sandtrooper and his small arsenal of weaponry. With his sand-speckled armour and flesh-coloured face, the Imperial agent is the set’s finest minifigure by far; I’d even goes so far as to say that he’s the most realistic-looking LEGO stormtrooper that I own.

Of course, the set’s real selling point is the Cantina itself which, whilst much smaller than I would have liked, has been deftly designed with a number of hinges that allow the roughly 18cm2 building to open out in a 32cm playset. Its distinctive booths, which are probably too small for even a young player to get his or her fingers into, benefit from slide-out floors, allowing even those of us at triple the maximum recommended age to get our eager protuberances in there.

The level of detail both inside and out the building is duly impressive. The distinctive-looking moisture vaporator is wonderfully redolent of Star Wars, and I love the sliding-door entrance and door scanner which, again, reek of the original movie. The set would have been better if it would’ve had a more complete roof though - one dome, however evocative, looks a little lost and incomplete.

The Greedo and meaner-looking Han minifigures make up for any minor shortcomings in the set though; both are flawless. And I don’t blame LEGO at all for giving us the hard-sell with their, “Recreate the famous showdown between Han Solo™ and Greedo™ from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope!” because it is such a seminal scene in the saga. I haven’t had such fun recreating a key moment since I finished building the Death Star. I just wish I could decide who shoots first...

The set is completed with a near-identical trio of Bith musicians with whom I can find no fault. Like Greedo, specially-moulded headpieces ensure that they are the spit of their silver screen selves, particularly when adorned with wind instruments cleverly crafted from LEGO City taps. It would have been preferable to settle for a brace of Bith, and get a unique alien barfly in place of the third, but as it is I’ve just had to draft in a few minifigures from elsewhere to fill up the place.

Overall, this set is excellent value for its price tag, offering builders at least as much good stuff as they got with the similarly-styled Echo Base and Battle of Endor sets, but for far less money and with none of the surplus. A must.

The Mos Eisley Cantina is available to buy from LEGO directly for £64.99 with free delivery. However, today’s cheapest retailer is John Lewis, who are selling the set for just £51.99 with the option of free delivery to your local John Lewis or Waitrose.