Friday, August 28, 2015

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

I was familiar with the title of this movie long before I ever saw it.  A regular fixture in the late night TV schedules of the early seventies, I was far too young to be allowed to stay up and watch it - but the title promised much and the synopses in the TV listings promised even more.  According to them it told of the earth laid waste by alien robots, opposed only by a tiny band of survivors. Incredibly, it did all this - alien invasions, decimation of the human race, brave fight backs - in a running time of just over an hour.  By the time I was old enough to watch it, The Earth Dies Screaming had vanished from the schedules, along with many of its low-budget brethren, their main crime being that they were in glorious black-and-white. 

The film has a very variable reputation amongst horror and science fiction fans, with many focusing on its obviously very low budget and wonky alien robots.  So, when I finally caught up with it, I was pleasantly surprised to find it a reasonably well-crafted and suspenseful film which makes the most of its limited resources.  Another Robert Lippert-Jack Parsons coproduction, The Earth Dies Screaming benefits considerably from the presence of the great Terence Fisher in the director's chair.  One of a trio of low budget science fiction films Fisher directed during his mid-sixties fall from favour at Hammer, The Earth Dies Screaming is often held up as 'proof' that the director, who had made his name directing Hammer's first cycle of Gothic horrors, was ill at ease with the science fiction genre. Which, I feel, is a somewhat unjust judgement upon the film.  Whilst it is true that the subject matter of the film never allow Fisher's usual preoccupations with the sexuality of evil and ineffectiveness of reason without faith in the face of evil to take flight, he still manages to achieve a number of effective set-pieces, focusing on the horror, rather than the science fiction, elements of the scenario.  Certainly, it is a far, far better film than his other two efforts in the genre (1966's Island of Terror and 1967's Night of the Big Heat, both made for Planet Films).

Arguably, Fisher's lack of interest in the science fiction aspects of the film are actually one its biggest strengths.  His perfunctory use of them allows the film to move at a reasonable pace, unencumbered by long expository scenes full of the pseudo-science usually to be found in sixties science fiction movie.  Indeed, we never even see the 'invasion' and subsequent wiping out of most of humanity is confined to a pre-titles montage of stock footage of trains, cars and planes crashing and a few shots of people dropping dead at a station. Fisher starts the film proper by throwing us straight into the action, with our hero driving through a lifeless British countryside, through villages populated only with dead bodies, as he tries to figure out what has happened (he was test flying an experimental high altitude aircraft at the time of the attack and landed to find these scenes of desolation).  Undoubtedly, budgetary considerations were a motivating force behind this economical opening, but Fisher makes the most of it, building up our identification with the hero as he, like us, tries to figure out what is going on.

Inevitably, our protagonist runs into other survivors, including Dennis Price and Thorley Walters, and they hole up in a village pub.  At which point the film seems as if it is about to settle into that staple of British low budget science fiction movies: the 'cosy disaster story' where everybody huddles in a pub and endlessly discusses the terrible things going on outside, whilst not actually doing anything.  Fisher, however, uses this segment of the film to stage a number of highly effective suspense sequences, ranging from an unsuspecting young pregnant woman being watched through the window by an eerily motionless robot as she works in the kitchen, to the sudden and unexpected return to life of a character previously killed by one of the robots.  (Not only do the alien machines have the touch of death, but they can also remotely revive their victims as eyeless zombies).   In addition to the alien menace, the group also finds itself threatened by internal strife, with Dennis Price's characteristically suave and snide criminal cad intent upon double crossing his companions.

The film builds to a tense climax, with Fisher switching between two different groups of characters, both facing grave danger from the aliens, but unable to aid each other.  Having figured out that the robots are controlled via radio transmissions from space, two of the survivors locate one of their transmitters and attempt to destroy it.  Simultaneously, the rest of the group, supposedly safe in an abandoned military installation, find themselves menaced by the robots and a zombified Price.  Fisher racks up the tension, switching between the two groups, one trying to evade the robots guarding the transmitter, the other apparently helpless to ward off the relentlessly advancing alien menace.

Fisher's disinterest in the science fiction elements results not only in a briskly moving film, but also gives the whole thing a pleasingly enigmatic quality.  The aliens controlling the robots remain unseen and their motivation in poisoning the earth's population largely unexplained.  Just as in real life, there is no neat wrap up which conveniently ties up loose ends and explains everything satisfactorily.  The elements the survivors do work out - the radio control of the robots and the fact that the aliens had used an airborne poison to kill everyone (the survivors had all been in sealed environments with their own air supply at the time of the attack) - seem to be arrived at by the characters naturally and logically, without resort to laboured and awkward exposition.  Fisher's direction is ably assisted by Elizabeth Lutyens' eerie and jagged musical score and Arthur Lavis' crisp monochrome photography.  All-in-all, The Earth Dies Screaming is no classic of the genre but, thanks to Fisher's efforts, it does stand out as a superior B-picture and, at just over an hour long, it doesn't outstay its welcome.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Oh, What's the Bloody Point?

Don't worry, despite the title, I'm not in the depths of depression or having a breakdown.  'Oh, what's the bloody point?' was, of course, the last entry Kenneth Williams made in his diary before taking a fatal overdose of barbiturates.  Whilst an open verdict was returned by the coroner's inquest into Williams' death, those words certainly indicate that he was a man at the end of his tether: tired of life, growing old and probably feeling that the various avenues of life were increasingly closed for him.  That said, perhaps his overdose was just an accident, rather than suicide.  After all, we've probably all uttered something similar at times of emotional stress, without it presaging an attempt to take our own lives.  I certainly seem to recall spitting out something along the same lines many, many years ago, when I young, foolish and careless with my heart - the stimulus being the announcement of a girl I was seeing that she wasn't just seeing someone else, but was going to marry them.  (It really shouldn't have come as a surprise that she was seeing someone else or getting married - in retrospect, my casualness about the relationship must have made it seem to her that: a) I wasn't interested in an 'exclusive' relationship and b) that I wasn't interested in a permanent relationship, which she clearly was.  To be fair, on the latter point she was right: at that time in my life the idea of a permanent or even just long-term relationship seemed horrifying.  Now, I'm not so sure).

But I'm straying from the point, which isn't to rake over the cold ashes of the dim and distant past.  I was reminded of the Williams quote the other day, when I came across an article on the web in which various atheists, agnostics and humanists explained what they thought the 'point' of life was and how they gave their lives 'purpose' in the absence of religious faith.  Many of their answers were interesting, but the ones I admired the most were the ones who eschewed the notion of 'purpose' altogether.  The apparent need of many people to feel that their lives should have 'meaning', 'purpose' or a 'point' has always fascinated me - it is something I've never really understood.  I can understand people who want to achieve some life's work for which they will be remembered after their death - it is a way of giving a gift to posterity or making a lasting contribution to the human experience.  But that's somewhat different to wanting life to have a point to it.  Surely simply being alive and staying in that state is a purpose in itself?  On a purely biological level, the only purpose of life is to perpetuate itself - reproduction to ensure the survival of the species. (I must admit, that I'm not sold on this - I feel no necessity to perpetuate my genes or my species.  Surely it must be the scorpions turn to be the dominant species?) Perhaps life's only 'purpose', in cosmic terms, is to battle entropy and temporarily stave off the eventual heat death of the universe, (according to the third law of thermodynamics - I think it is the third, feel free to correct me - all energy will eventually be reduced to heat, the lowest level of energy, which cannot be transformed into any higher form of energy: except by living beings and even then only temporarily).   Personally, I've never had a problem with my life being 'pointless': I feel no 'higher calling' or 'greater purpose'. I simply exist.  Which is the crux of it - the existence of life and human consciousness is, in itself, something of a miracle. A miracle we experience on a daily basis.  So we should enjoy it for what it is, while it lasts.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Gloomy Outlook?

There's a part of me that's saying 'For fuck's sake, is it any wonder that the Met Office has lost its contract with the BBC after the dismal job it did for me last week?'  (As you may recall from last week's rantings, the weather kept doing the opposite to whatever the Met Office had forecast, making the planning of activities during my holiday near impossible).  But there's another part which feels that this is simply another reminder of just how 'quality' is being replaced by 'convenience' in contemporary Britain.  For all its faults, the Met Office brings a huge amount of expertise and experience to TV weather forecasting.  No matter how wrong they might turn out to be, (and, to be fair, forecasting has become far more reliable in recent years), you at least know that the Met Office's weather forecasts are based upon vast amounts of scientific research and complex computer modelling based upon the best available data.  The prospect is that this will be replaced by some service provider which has won the BBC contract simply because it conveniently put in the lowest bid.  Which doesn't really fill one full of confidence for their forecasting. Just what data or methodology will this new low-budget service base its forecasts upon?

I'm tempted to tender a bid myself.  I'm sure that my bit of seaweed nailed to the garden shed door will be just as accurate an indicator of weather patterns as whatever methods any of these other potential bidders might utilise.  (Although I have heard rumours that one of them uses a pine cone, which I'm worried might have a bit more sensitivity than my seaweed).  Alternatively, I suppose, I could just lie.  After all, as Billy Connolly once advised TV AM weather girl Wincey Willis, people don't really want to be depressed by a bad weather forecast first thing in the morning: 'Just tell them it's going to be a fucking scorcher out there - it'll cheer them up.  If they really want to know what the weather's like, they can just look out of the window.'  No doubt this new service will also have to be more 'entertaining' than the current forecasts, if trends in the rest of TV output are anything to go by: I can remember the times when science programmes, say, were actually serious, nowadays, by contrast, they seem to have to be an extension of the light entertainment division.  It's all photogenic presenters, glitzy graphics and jokey asides.  'Dumbing down', some might call it.  Anyway, I've just checked the seaweed: wet, so it'll be rain tomorrow, for sure.  You see if it isn't. 

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Right Offended

Over the weekend I discovered the existence of something called 'Redwatch'. This is an online 'service' apparently run by rabidly right wing loonies, purporting to 'name and shame' ;Reds' throughout the UK, including in the media and online.  For the purposes of these kooks the term 'Reds' seems to encompass anybody who is a member of trade union, been on an anti war demonstration, been on an anti-Nazi demonstration, remarked in the pub that they thought that Hitler bloke had been a bit extreme or has been polite to a member of an ethnic minority.  Indeed, the worst crime anyone can commit in their eyes. it seems, is to be 'anti-racist'.  (Which begs the obvious question: if these jokers were on holiday on the Costa del Sol, would they be OK with it if a bunch of local Spanish skinheads came and beat them up, calling them 'English cunts' and telling them to 'fuck off back to where you came from'?  After all, it would just be an example good old honest racism, which they must be in in favour of, if they hate 'anti racists' so much, after all.)

Anyway, the whole thing is chock full of photos of people on demos and picket lines, all identified as 'Reds'.  Not only are they named, but often address is included (I have no idea whether these are accurate or not - hopefully not).  But the most offensive thing about 'Redwatch' is that it doesn't mention me anywhere - not under my real name, (I've been on a few picket lines and demos and can frequently be heard in pubs preaching the need for armed insurrection in order to overturn the capitalist tyranny), nor as 'Doc Sleaze' in the internet 'Reds' section.  For fuck's sake, what does an old leftie have to do to get condemned by right-wing nutters these days?  I mean, it's a badge of honour to become a figure of hate for these bastards.  A badge of honour, incidentally, which I would wear with pride alongside those I have for my pissing off of the 'Paul is Dead' brigade and a certain self-styled vampire hunter and his acolytes. Sure, I've been disparaged on a few neo-Nazi message boards for some of my stories over at The Sleaze, but that just isn't the same as being condemned as a 'Red' by a bunch of rabid racist dingbats.   OK, I know that most of the 'Redwatch' site doesn't seem to have been updated since 2013, its Twitter feed has been suspended and its judgement as to what constitutes 'left wing' is highly suspect, (it 'names and shames' knee-jerk reactionary right-wing radio shock jock Jon Gaunt as a 'Red', for instance), but I still feel insulted by its failure to include me on its lists of dangerous leftist subversives.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Meandering Around

Damn, I've been getting introspective of late, haven't I?  I blame my recent lack of sleep. Despite being on holiday, I seem to have been sleeping less than I do when I'm at work.  I think the problem is that I am on holiday: I get home exhausted from a day wandering around far flung places, then sit down and start working on some other project, thinking 'hell, it doesn't matter if I spend half the night finishing editing this podcast - I don't have to get up for work tomorrow.'  Then, of course, I get up the next morning and go gallivanting off somewhere else on only a few hours sleep, exhausting myself more, before coming home and starting the cycle all over again.  I did try to get some extra sleep in the other evening - I even switched my phone off so as to avoid being disturbed.  Not surprisingly, I didn't sleep, I started doing something else, then forgot to switch my phone back on until the next afternoon, to be bombarded with a backlog of texts.  (I have a theory that people sending texts know when your phone is off and deliberately send them then, so that you are inundated when you switch your phone back on.  By contrast, when your phone is on all day, as mine was today, nobody bloody tries to text you.  I bet that as soon as I switch it off, the buggers will start texting.  Really, there must be an app somewhere for telling if a recipients phone is off.) 

To get back to the point, (if, indeed, there was a point, I'm pretty sure I had one when I started writing this), it's probably time that I started steering this blog back to its regular content: films of dubious quality, political rants and, well, whatever else it is I manage to fill these pages with (we passed the 2000 post mark the other day).  Being back at work next week will probably help - with no holiday travels to enjoy, I'll be forced to write proper posts here to fill the emotional vacuum.  That said, I'm back on holiday for another week after that, so my reader(s) will undoubtedly then have to endure another week of trivial and frivolous posts about nothing in particular. Like this one.  To be honest, right now I can't even think of a piece of pop culture trivia to rant about, I've become so disconnected from my usual routines these past two weeks.  Which is undoubtedly a good thing - the whole point of holidays is to break out of our regular routines.  Something I'm very proud of is the fact that, over these two weeks, I haven't picked up a paint brush or filled any cracks in the walls.  DIY has been off the agenda, (although I did buy some stuff to skim some of the dodgy plaster work, but that's for a future project and I haven't even opened the container yet), which has been relief as I've spent virtually every other day off I've had this year engaged in redecorating or repairs.  No doubt I'll get back to that next week, as well.  OK, I've wittered on enough to make what looks like a post, so I'll shut up for now.   


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Life's Reject Pile?

The only problem with being on holiday is that, during all those long walks across moors, through forests and along beaches, I have lots of time to think.  To be more accurate, I have lots of time to brood on things.  It's a bad habit I have - every time unexpected things crop up, I start brooding over how they will impact my life (I inevitably convince myself that it will be negatively) and what they might signify, (in reality, nothing at all, but when I'm in one of these moods everything seems to be a portent of doom).  This week, there's been no single occurrence which has set me off, but a series of relatively minor things got me feeling that my life has been a failure in so many areas.  Time and again, it seems, various efforts and enterprises just seem to reach a dead end and wind up in life's reject pile.  This applies equally to both my work and my private life.  Worst of all, I fear that I'm too old to change and put myself onto a more rewarding path. Or so I've been telling myself during those walks.

And yet, the reality is that it isn't all doom and gloom.  Despite my propensity for beating myself up over my failures, the fact is that in some areas I seem to be making positive progress.  For instance, my old podcast series 'The Sleazecast' is now being run over at the Overnightscape Underground - to positive feedback.  Moreover, I've just started putting together a new series of podcasts for them: after many delays, I've nearly completed the first episode of 'Schlock Express'.  Plus, I'm in the early stages of working on a new edition of 'The Sleazecast'.  In the real world, I'm within touching distance of paying off my mortgage and I'm already looking into reducing my work commitments.  Most significantly, over the past week or so, I've been making a concerted effort to reconnect with an old and valued friend.  I've been hugely remiss in failing to keep in touch with them outside of exchanging festive and birthday greetings.  As I grow older I'm learning to value genuine friendships more.  I don't have many close friends and this particular individual is one of the few people I've ever felt a real connection with, whose company never bores or irritates me and who I trust implicitly.  Thankfully, my efforts have been reciprocated, although their life has changed radically since I last had a proper conversation with them, (this was one of the things that fuelled my brooding - it left me feeling that everyone else's lives were moving on whilst mine remained stalled), I'm hopeful that we can re-establish our friendship properly.  From a purely selfish perspective, I badly need to feel that I've got someone trustworthy in  my corner again.

So, despite all the brooding and negativity going through my mind, I think that I've managed to convince myself that there are still plenty of positive things going on in my life.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Non-Moving Pictures

So, I spent the better part of the day wandering around plains and forests and the like.  But not filming them.  Indeed, my regular reader(s) might well have noticed the lack of holiday films this year.  In previous years, by this point in my holiday, I would have inflicted several home movies on you all.  But this year I just haven't seen anything I've felt like filming.  Part of the problem might well lie with the fact that I've been mainly revisiting old haunts which I've already filmed from every possible angle.  I just can't think of any new way to video these places.  Maybe I should try going somewhere different, but part of the point of a holiday is to relax oneself and these are all places which I know will do just that.  Why take risks and go somewhere which might prove stressful?  Besides, this year it is familiarity which I crave - it brings me reassurance that everything is OK.  (although it probably isn't).

Anyway, with regard to the holiday films, or the lack thereof this year, you aren't quite off the hook yet.  First off, there's still part two of my holidays to come: whilst I'm back at work next week, I'll be back on leave the following week.  There's always the chance that I'll find something to film then.  Secondly, I already have a load of footage from that day off I took in June, which I still haven't used yet - inevitably that's going to become a holiday film when I have time to edit it.  Plus, I have been taking lots of photos during my holidays this year, so I could yet inflict those on you all.  Then there's my recent foray into wildlife photography: today I filmed some ants I encountered.  And a caterpillar.  I'm sure there's a film in there somewhere.  I've already sent some of the ant film to my friend Little Miss Strange in order to pre-empt her threats of texting me a picture of a dead rat, (don't ask, all you need to know is that she lives up to her nick name).  So, you've been warned.   

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Lifeforce Revisited

Having feature Lifeforce as a 'random movie trailer' on Friday, I subsequently had the opportunity to re-watch the entire film - the longer 'international' version - over the weekend.   Whilst I don't think I did it a disservice in the previous post, it was interesting how much of the film - in its early sequences at least - actually works reasonably well.  The initial space-set scenes, whilst they go on too long, are atmospheric and intriguing, setting up all sorts of questions - most of which are never adequately answered.  Easily the best part of the movie is the subsequent section set at the space research centre in London.  These build up a real atmosphere of impending doom, with Halley's comet ominously dominating the night sky (which, in reality, it didn't do on its 1986 visit).  Indeed, director Tobe Hooper succeeds in conjuring up a real 'late at night' feeling for this section of the film.  The subsequent awakening of the naked space girl and her attack on the security guard are well handled, as are the subsequent scenes when an autopsy is attempted on the security guard, with predictably disastrous consequences. 

Unfortunately, with the entrance of Peter Firth's Colonel Cain (from the SAS, although 'that's not for publication, kindly ignore that last remark', as he tells the assembled press as he arrives at the space centre), the film begins to go seriously off course, with his pointless search for the escape space girl and the consequent trip to a secure mental institute in Yorkshire fatally slowing down the film's pace and completely derailing its narrative drive.  This, along with a welter of flashbacks and clumsy expository scenes, compromise the movie's confusing middle section.  A series of abrupt jump cuts between scenes give the impression that whole scenes had been cut (they had) and the viewer is left suspecting that they might have been better than what was left in or, at the very least, might have clarified the increasingly confused narrative.  Lifeforce gets back on course with the apocalyptic climax, which is well staged and almost saves the film.  Add to this some shockingly poor dialogue and over-the-top performances from Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart (the worst offender) and it is obvious that the film never stood a chance at the box office.  The most restrained performance by a mile is that of Steve Railsback.  Unfortunately, as he's nominally the leading character this leaves a vacuum at the centre of the film which other cast members try to fill by over-acting like crazy.

The visual image everyone takes away from Lifeforce of course is that of Mathilda May as the naked space girl.  Whilst I've often spent the running time of a film idly wondering what the attractive lead actress might look like unclothed, whilst re-watching Lifeforce I found myself pondering what Mathilda may might look like with clothes on.  Not that she wasn't incredibly beautiful in the film but, as I've noted elsewhere, it is remarkable how the novelty of female nudity in a film wears off when it is a constant for nearly two hours.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Lifeforce (1985)

The most expensive British made movie at the time of its production, Lifeforce seemed to have everything going for it: a name American director in Tobe Hooper, who had successfully graduated from the cult horror hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to helming a major Hollywood hit with Poltergeist, a cult favourite novel - Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires - as a source, and a cast of reliable British actors including Peter Firth and Frank Finlay.  But somewhere along the way something went very, very wrong.  Maybe its the ludicrous dialogue, ('That's rather unfortunate', muses the Prime Minister, after hearing that the Home Secretary has been killed by space vampires), perhaps it is the wild overacting of the likes of Frank Finlay and, well, everyone else, or maybe the shaky characterisations (Firth's SAS officer stalks around London in a raincoat behaving more like a Scotland Yard Inspector in an Agatha Christie novel than a soldier), but the whole thing is hilariously and gloriously funny.

Everything is so misjudged and over-the-top - the main female character (European art house favourite Mathilda May) spend the entire film stark bollocking naked, for instance, (leading to suggestions that they should simply have called the film Nude Vampire Girl from Outer Space).  The meandering plot, which encompasses an ill-fated space mission to investigate Halley's Comet, the nude space vampire invasion, and a lengthy diversion to a lunatic asylum amongst other things, really doesn't help.  Whilst, like the source novel, the film is clearly trying to pay homage to Bram Stoker's Dracula with many of its set pieces and plot developments, they are poorly structured, often leaving the viewer somewhat bewildered as to what's going on in the middle portion of the film.  That said, it rallies toward the end, with a spectacular climax set in Central London which resembles the finale of Hammer's 1967 film adaptation of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit to an actionable degree.

None of it makes much sense, but it is hugely entertaining.  To be fair, the film's narrative problems were exacerbated by pre-release editing which removed several explanatory scenes - these were restored for some of the subsequent VHS/DVD releases.  I've seen two different edits on UK TV showings - the longer version does make slightly more sense.  On the film's plus side, the big budget is clearly in evidence, with excellent special effects and production values.  If only they'd been backed up by surer direction and a better script, Lifeforce might have become a British science fiction classic.  As it stands, it's a wonderfully camp piece of entertainment, which is well worth watching.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Another Week, Another Scapegoat

Apparently its all down to those illegal immigrants.  That's the message I've been getting from Tory party central of late.  Their plans to cut benefits to young people - it's because too many illegal immigrants are fraudulently claiming these specific benefits.  Falling standards of living?  Well, according to the Foreign Secretary, that's down an influx of illegal immigrants as well - that's why we have to fight them on the beaches, or at least, in Calais.  Because if any more of them come here then we'll all have to take pay cuts or lose our jobs and houses.  It really is pathetic - just another set of scapegoats on the Tories' seemingly never-ending merry-go-round of scapegoats.  The fact is that these benefits cuts and this country's falling living standards are an integral part of the government's economic policy - it's just their public rationale for it all which keeps changing.  First of all it was because of the need for austerity which, in turn was because of the economic crash supposedly caused by the Labour government's allegedly profligate spending.  Then the disabled, the unemployed and other benefits claimants fault - they were are evil, idle and worthless according to Tory propaganda.  Now it's down to illegal immigrants.  What next, austerity is essential because of the threat of alien invasion?  The mind boggles.

Sadly, a significant proportion of the public seems to buy this nonsense, never questioning why austerity's raison d'etre keeps changing, instead just meekly accepting further misery and changing the focus of their hate.  Hate which, of course, should be directed at the government, but with their shield of right wing media deflecting it all, they just sail on, continuing to implement their neo-liberal agenda.  An agenda which has at its heart, in case you've forgotten, the belief that we in the West need to 'harmonise' wages, living standards, employment practices and the like with 'emerging' economies like China and India.  Obviously, in practice 'harmonise' means that our wages and living standards have to fall to their level and working practices resemble their sweat shops, with no health and safety, no employment rights and certainly no worker representation.  It's interesting that China has become the neo-liberals preferred model for the future of capitalism - a communist dictatorship which effectively practices state-sponsored capitalism.  Moreover, with all those recent currency devaluations - along with other problems - China is looking less and less like a suitable role model.  But who am I kidding - it is all the fault of those bloody immigrants really, isn't it?