Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Undercover Experts

Espionage is one of those subjects about which a lot of bollocks gets written.  'Intelligence experts' are forever taking to print or broadcast media to give us the 'inside' track on espionage related news stories - confidently telling us all about how our intelligence agencies operate and talking as if they have some kind of inside knowledge.  They can do this because they know that they are unlikely ever to have their 'facts' challenged by the real intelligence community, which, obviously, operates in secret and never comments on press speculation.  But it allows these 'experts' to give the impression that they are somehow associated with the supposedly 'glamourous' world of espionage, clearly hoping that some of its 'mystique' will rub off on them, enhancing their media standing.  We saw that recently with Frederick Forsythe's 'revelations' of his 'career' as an 'agent' for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), whilst he was a journalist.  The way the media reported it all, you'd have thought that he was James Bond, rather than a journalist and novelist trying to publicise his autobiography.  The reality of his claims amount to the fact that the Foreign Office sometimes approached him for information when he was a foreign correspondent in Africa.  Which would make him, at best, a 'source' rather than an agent.  He wasn't employed by SIS and received no payments from him.  It isn't uncommon for the intelligence services to tap up journalists for information in order to verify other sources, or simply provide a cover for their real, covert, sources.

Forsythe also claimed that later, whilst reporting from Eastern Europe, he was sometimes asked to convey messages to field agents.  Which, again, doesn't make him an agent, just a courier.  But hey, when you are trying to sell a book, what does a bit of embellishment matter?  But Forsythe hasn't been the only person of late pontificating on intelligence matters.  That whole business of the GCHQ analyst on secondment at the SIS who was found dead, zipped up in a holdall in his bath, has resurfaced, with so called 'experts' making the most ludicrous assertions.  As you might recall, the inquest into his death established that the deceased had experimented with bondage and was probably a transvestite, having a vast wardrobe of expensive women's clothes at his flat.  The conclusion drawn by most people was that he's either zipped himself into the bag in some kind of autoerotic ritual and suffocated, or that it was some kind of sex game gone wrong where an unknown partner had zipped him into the bag, then panicked and fled when the GCHQ guy suffocated.  Enter the first of our 'experts' who claims that the women's clothing was all part of the job and that the dead man had been used 'undercover' by the SIS, posing as a woman.  Leaving aside the fact that the SIS doesn't actually operate within the UK (that's the Security Service's job), I think you'll find that they use real women as operatives, rather than getting men to dress up as women. 

Moreover, the idea that a highly trained analyst, with access to all manner of sensitive information, would be risked as some kind of field agent is ludicrous beyond words. Speaking as someone who actually did once work (a long time ago) on the peripheries of the so called 'intelligence community' (I was am intelligence analyst for the MoD for a while), most people working for the likes of the SIS or CIA are actually desk bound.  Like me, they are simply analysts who spend all day sat at a desk poring over reports and trying to make some sense out of them.  No risk is involved.  Generally speaking, the only people in the whole process who face any real physical risk are the people who covertly provide the intelligence agencies with information about sensitive projects and operations in the countries in which they live.  As if this ridiculous story wasn't enough, more recently we've had some kind of Russian defector claiming that the dead analyst was being blackmailed by the Russian intelligence services over his transvestism and was 'eliminated' when he refused to play ball any more.  The flaw in this 'theory' is that in this day and age, dressing up as a woman and enjoying bondage aren't bars to working in intelligence, (if they were, we wouldn't have any intelligence services).   It's been a long time since admitting to such things would result in you failing the security vetting required for posts involving sensitive material.  Indeed, as far as the security vetting people are concerned, as long as they know about such things, then you are protected from being blackmailed over them.  They make no moral judgement.  So, having rubbished these stories, where does that leaves us?  Back at the inquest findings, actually.  The simplest explanation - a sex game gone wrong, whether involving just the deceased or an unknown third party - remains the most likely.  After all, the world of espionage is, in reality, far from glamourous.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Normal Service Still Not Resumed

I'm afraid that normal service here still hasn't been resumed.  To be sure the stomach problems which plagued me last week seemed to finally end early this morning, (believe me, you don't want the details).  However, I'm still preoccupied with trying to establish if my AWOL friend is OK.  On top of that there are all manner of other dramas developing at work.  All of which has left me with little time to prepare posts for this blog (I had hoped to draft something over the weekend, but other stuff intervened there - mainly sorting out the cooling system on my car, which had been playing up).  All that aside, courtesy of Talking Pictures TV, I was able to enjoy an especially seedy early seventies British sex movie on Saturday night: Not Tonight, Darling.  I had no expectations whatsoever of this movie, but found myself enjoying its tatty suburban ambience immensely. It's another one of those films vilified by the amateur critics on IMDB - which is usually a good sign, I find.  Their understanding of cinema is frequently non-existent and I'm often left wondering if they've actually seen the film they are lambasting.  As an example, one of the would be critics trashing Not Tonight Darling complains that it doesn't even feature any decent nudity - I can only assume there's another print in circulation which doesn't have Luan Peters baring all a few minutes in, or the orgy sequence, or the dancing strippers in the sex club sequence.    Hopefully, I'll find the time to discuss the film in more detail in a later post, when everything else in my life has settled down. 

I also finished reading a fascinating movie-related book over the weekend: The Lost World of Cliff Twemlow.  If you don't know who Cliff Twemlow was, don't worry.  He's someone else I'm hoping to cover in a future post.  Suffice to say that if you are a lover of low budget direct to video exploitation movies, then you really need to look Twemlow up.  Largely forgotten nowadays, back in eighties and early nineties, he and his associates succeeded in completing a number of such movies, running the gamut from crime dramas to science fiction.  As ever with the bottom end of the film making scale, distribution (or lack of it) was their Achilles heel, with several of the films barely released.  But that's no reflection on their quality.  On the basis of the one complete Twemlow movie I've seen and excerpts and trailers from most of the others, I have to say that, bearing in mind their miniscule budgets, largely non-professional casts and crews, they are not at all bad and actually pretty entertaining.  But, like I said, I'll be looking at Twemlow's Manchester based mini-Hollywood in detail later on.  For now, I'd just like to apologise again for the continued lack of proper posting here.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Commercial Break

As I'm too tired after a week of stress, worry and illness to be bothered coming up with a proper post, I'll just cut to the commercial break.  In this case, it's Boxing Day break from 1977, from the ITV regional franchise I grew up with: Southern Television.  It all seems so sedate and low key compared to today's in-your-face, all action sell-a-thons.  Being Boxing Day, there's an emphasis on Summer holidays (no foreign holidays, just holiday camps and canal trips - Freddie Laker and his Skytrain, tough, are a portent of the rapid growth of overseas holidays), Winter sales (funny how those top loading washing machines lost out to the front loaders, despite spinning faster) and alcohol.  There's even a public information film on the perils of drinking and driving thrown in for good measure.  Lots of familiar faces and voices are in evidence: Richard Briers, John Hurt, Donald Pleasance and Terry Wogan (on an elephant) in the days before he needed a hairpiece.  Happy days.  Enjoy.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Swine Fever

Last call for Cameron pig gags - the mainstream media have done their best to deny the story any momentum and it looks like it has finally run out of steam.  Which is a pity.  I know that there are those out there who are of the opinion that the whole 'pig gate' thing is trivial and simply distracts everyone from the real issues.  But I disagree.  The fact that people are so willing to believe that our Prime Minister might have shagged a pig tells us something about the way he is perceived.  Moreover, after the relentless media attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in recent weeks - all based around equally trivial 'stories' - why shouldn't we on the left have something lurid and scandalous to hit back with?   If nothing else, now every time that some Tory twat comes out with some crap designed to discredit Corbyn, w can simply reply 'Yeah, but at least he didn't fuck a pig'.  It's effectively provided us with a new benchmark with which to measure the misconduct of politicians - if their misbehaviour falls short of porking a pig, then it isn't completely discreditable.

So, before leaving 'pig gate', let me just point out that Ed Miliband was probably pulling that face whilst eating a bacon sandwich because he'd just found some of Cameron's pubes in it.  I'm sure that there are lots more variations on that one, (Cameron providing the 'mayonaisse' comes to mind), but that'll have to do for now.  On a totally unrelated matter, I feel that I should apologise for the patchiness of this week's posts.  I had hoped to start writing up the three extremely low budget exploitation movies I watched a few weeks ago, but various distractions have deflected me from achieving this.  In the main, I've simply not been feeling at all well this week, with matters not helped by worrying over a friend who seems to have dropped off of the radar completely.  On a more positive note, Talking Pictures TV has now arrived on Freeview, giving me access to a treasure trove of rare and obscure movies, mainly of the b-movie variety.  My digital recorder has already been working overtime and the channel only came live on Freeview on Tuesday.  So, I have a new supply of schlock to talk about here.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Curse of Simba (1965)

Variously titled Voodoo Blood Death and Curse of the Voodoo, depending upon where when you saw it, Curse of Simba is an early Lindsay Shonteff effort.  Produced by Richard Gordon from a pseudonymous Brian Clemens script and starring Gordon regular Bryant Halliday, the film is one of those 'exotic' jungle adventures set in Africa but actually filmed in Regent's Park and padded out with stock footage of lions and other wild animals.  Playing on popular contemporary prejudices about black Africans (and, indeed, black people generally), the film's scenario of witch doctors and voodoo curses placed on white hunters might well appear shockingly racist by today's standards.  It's probably the sort of film that professional hand-wringing 'liberals' would like to see banned.  However, it is utterly pointless to demonise such films by trying to apply present day standards to them - they are simply products of their era and, as such, provide a fascinating time capsule of the attitudes, prejudices and perceptions of an era gone by.

Lacking the low budget quirkiness (and often sheer lunacy) of Shonteff's later, self produced, pictures, Curse of Simba was a disappointing follow up to his debut, Devil Doll (1964), also produced by Richard Gordon and starring Bryant Halliday.  An effective black and white horror film, played absolutely straight, with none of his usual off beat touches, Devil Doll was also atypical of the director's output.  Shonteff would finally get into his stride with his next film, Licensed to Kill, the first of his many low budget Bond knock offs. 


Monday, September 21, 2015

Pigging Out

I guess there's only one thing I can really post about today: 'Pig Gate'.  For those of you still blissfully unaware of what this is about, disgruntled former Tory Grandee Lord Ashcroft's unauthorised biography of David Cameron, serialised in the Daily Mail, claims, amongst other things, that when Cameron was a student, he committed an obscene sexual act with a dead pig's head.  That's right, he allegedly stuck his todger in a dead pig's mouth.  Or, to put it more crudely, he fucked a pig.  Allegedly.  For its part, Number Ten says that it won't dignify these claims with a response, other than to claim that Cameron was never a member of the society for which the pig business was an initiation.  Which, when you think about it, isn't much of a denial - he might have failed the initiation.  Maybe he couldn't get it up for the pig, or something.  It's a fascinating story, true or not, combining bestiality with necrophilia, thereby going at least one better than Jimmy Savile.  Moreover, the fact that it is the Mail running these claims might, at first sight, seem somewhat odd. After all, the paper is rabidly right wing and usually slavishly supports the Tories.  But, in truth, it has always been lukewarm about Cameron feeling, like a significant proportion of the Tory party (including Lord Ashcroft), that he's either too liberal, too pro European or just too much of a political opportunist, bending whichever way the wind of public opinion is blowing in order to cling to power.

Of course, the paranoid amongst us might suspect that some kind of conspiracy is at work here: while the world is focused on Cameron's alleged porcine porkings, his government is still doing all manner of other evil things unnoticed.  After all, he's said that he won't be contesting another election as leader of the party, so now's a perfect time for him to be 'taking one for the team'.  Mind you, that assumes that everyone is focusing on 'Pig Gate' - for a large part of the day the mainstream media have done their best to pretend that the pig allegations didn't exist, (hence my feeling the need to explain them at the start of this post).  As the day went on and it became obvious that social media was abuzz with the story and that this buzz was showing no signs of abating, that the rest of the media were forced to start acknowledging the Ashcroft claims.  Even then they were coy, with the BBC only referring obliquely to the allegations and even The Guardian trying to airily dismiss them as trivial. It's only now, nearly twenty four hours after the story first broke, that the media are actually taking the story more seriously.  Which is in striking contrast to the way in which they'll all happily trumpet any old made up bollocks designed to try and discredit Labour's Jeremy Corbyn.  Still, no matter what dirt they try to dish on Corbyn now, it can never match the Cameron pig sex scandal.  Whether it is true or not, the sad fact for Cameron is that, from now on, for many, many people, he'll just be 'that guy who fucked the pig'.  Inevitably, he will be met with 'oinking' sounds everywhere he goes and people in pig masks will turn up at every walkabout he does.  I have to say that the only thing about 'Pig Gate' which rankles with me is that it represents another case of real life rendering satire redundant.  I'd never have dared make up something like Cameron being given head by a dead pig - it would have been dismissed as being too ludicrous.   

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Friday, September 18, 2015

Irrational Behaviour

Do you ever have times when you ask yourself what the Hell has happened to your life?  I know I do - in fact, I'm having one right now.  I mean, what in God's name has happened to me that I find myself stalking some bloke on Twitter because I suspect him of, well, I don't really know what I suspect him of.  I say 'stalking', but really it's just obsessively checking his Twitter feed, (obviously, I'm not actually 'following' him, as that might give me away), in the hope that his next Tweet might give me some clue as to, well, again, I don't really know.  It all started with a spam e-mail which appeared to come from a friend of mine.  Whilst I know all about how the spammers spoof email addresses to deceive the recipient into opening them, this one was disturbingly weird as it actually addressed me by my real first name, (none of my email addresses include my actual name, just a little quirk of mine in my attempts to retain some online privacy).  When I looked at the headers in detail, I saw the usual spammer tactics of creating a return email path by conflating my friend's email name with another domain.  So, out of curiosity, I looked up this domain, found this guy's website and consequently his Twitter feed.  And I've been irrationally stalking him ever since.  Whilst I know that it is highly unlikely that this guy had anything to do with sending the spam email, there's just something about the whole business which has set alarm bells ringing in my head.  Yeah, I know, I'm paranoid.

I sometimes think that paranoia is an inevitable side effect of having an active and vivid imagination.  Whilst being imaginative has many benefits, it's downside, I've always found, is that it also creates in you a tendency to try and turn everything into a 'narrative', joining dots to make patterns and plots that simply don't exist.  Modern technology doesn't help, with the internet and social media making it mush easier to indulge these fantasies and conduct 'investigations' into imagined 'suspects'.  It never eases to amaze me how easy some people make it for you to investigate them.  The amount of detail about themselves they put in the public domain on the web is terrifying.  In the case of the guy I've been stalking, I can now tell you all about his working life, his family and even where he lives, not just the town, but an exact address, (although, obviously, I'm not going to reveal any of this info here).  What I can't find, of course, is any genuine connection between him and either myself or my friend whose email address was hijacked.  Because, most likely, there isn't any such connection.  I just have an over active imagination.  Not to mention being paranoid.  Anyway, I've decided that this 'stalking' has to stop - it's achieving nothing and wasting energies which could be better spent elsewhere.  Although I might just check his Twitter feed one last time tomorrow, you know, just in case...

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Lost World (1992) and Return to The Lost World (1993)

I'm still limbering up before starting to write up those three 1980s low budget movies I was talking about the other day.  I just need to complete a bit more research. The trouble is that work and other stuff keeps intervening.  As does watching yet more schlock movies.  Last weekend, for instance, I sat through a double bill of Harry Allan Towers films, namely The Lost World (1992) and Return to The Lost World (1993), which, typically for Towers' productions, were shot back to back with the same cast and crew.  These come from his later period, when he was South Africa-based, which explains why the venue has been changed from South America in Conan Doyle's source novel, to Africa.  I can only assume that South Africa had no extradition agreements with any of the countries that Towers was wanted in - the numerous allegations against him included tax evasion and running call girls.  It also offered tax breaks and low productions costs, which were also powerful incentives for Towers to set up shop there. 

But to get to the films themselves; they are typical of Towers' productions in that they flatter to deceive, with name actors headlining the cast (John Rhys Davies, David Warner and a pre-Will & Grace Eric McCormack in this case) and exotic locations.  But, as ever, there is little to back this up.  The 'action' is painfully slow and strung out, with too many static dialogue scenes padding out the running time.  Worst of all is the lack of dinosaurs.  Which is something of a problem as, for most casual viewers, the dinosaurs are the whole point of watching a film based on The Lost World.  Particularly one that has clearly been rushed into production to cash in on the imminent release of Jurassic Park.  What we get are a few rubber dinosaur puppets, photographically enlarged, which are never seen in their entirety: we see a head and neck 'towering' over trees here and a rubber foot or two trampling on branches and undergrowth there.  These are supplemented by brief appearances from some life-sized (but not very convincing) puppets representing dinosaur heads when they have to interact with actors (which only rarely occurs).   Bearing in mind that contemporary audiences had already seen previews of Jurassic Park's ground-breaking CGI dinosaurs, this was pretty poor.  But par for the course for Harry Allan Towers.  Which isn't to say that the two films are a complete bust: John Rhys Davies and David Warner are well cast as Professors Challenger and Summerlee respectively and deliver highly entertaining performances.  But the various alterations from the source novel, including the obligatory inclusion of female characters and elimination of the Lord Roxton character in favour of a jungle girl type character, just weaken the plot further.  Worst of all is the invention of a child assistant for Challenger.  The sequel starts promisingly, with the 'Lost World' being exploited by ruthless Belgian oil prospectors, starts promisingly, but quickly succumbs to all the vices of the first film.

Despite the inevitable disappointments these films turned out to be, we're not finished with Harry Allan Towers yet, as I have some more of his films to wade through.  Hopefully, I might eventually manage a longer and more detailed assessment of the man and his output.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Up in Flames

They say that it is the simplest things which give us the greatest pleasure.  Which is probably why I got such a kick out of finally using the garden incinerator I bought months ago.  Not that it is for burning garden waste - I decided that I had too many documents which need burning for my shredder to handle.  So incineration seemed the logical alternative.  (Obviously, someone as mysterious as me, someone who spends so much time wading through the sleazier parts of life, has a lot of stuff that needs destroying - I can't have those paper trails leading back to me, now can I?)  For various reasons, I didn't get around to actually using the incinerator until last Saturday.  Damn, I wish that I'd used it earlier it was so much fun!  This was just a test run, a burning of a relatively small amount of documents, but I have to say that it was an exhilarating experience.  I mentioned before that, when younger, I had ambitions to be a professional arsonist - well, using that incinerator brought it all back!  I'd forgotten the sheer thrill that watching stuff burn can bring.  Watching the flames shoot out of the incinerator's chimney as the fire got going was amazing!

It was undoubtedly made all the more spectacular by the fact that I was doing my incinerating under cover of darkness.  I decided that it was the best way to avoid any complaints from the neighbours.  I mean, if they leave their washing out on the line over night then that's their problem, not mine, and they won't know whose fire it was that left it stinking of smoke anyway.  Not that I'm going out of my way to be anti-social toward my neighbours, obviously.  Those people at number seven had put their house on the market long before I started my incinerating.  (They've only been living there for barely a year.  Clearly they've decided that they don't like the rest of us on the terrace.  Maybe they've found out that I'm that bloke on the web who watches and reviews all those low rent sleazy movies.  Perhaps that's why I was the only neighbour they didn't invite to their house warming barbecue.  Not that I wanted to go, but there's a principle involved there somewhere).  But to get back to the point, I found burning all that paper work a most satisfying experience.  I felt a lot better for it.  Far less tense - it was as if some of my troubles went up in flames with all that paper. All that's left of the paper work now is a big pile of ash.  Which, if I'm lucky, will be picked up by the wind and blown all over my neighbours' gardens.  I'm really looking forward to this coming weekend's session when I'm planning to incinerate a second, significantly bigger, pile of documents.  And I'll still have a lot more to get through after that, so between now and Christmas I'm going to be having some fun weekend burning sessions.  


Monday, September 14, 2015

The Evils of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn has a beard.  Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon had a beard and he was evil.  Therefore Jeremy Corbyn must be evil.  It's obvious, isn't it?  All of which is about the level that the right wing press is operating at in their rush to smear the new Labour leader.  Of course, if he is as hopeless as they've been telling us he is, why do they feel the need to try and discredit him now that he is leader?  Maybe it is because he is just so bat shit crazy that he's going to 'abolish the army' as one tabloid headline screamed at me from the newsstand today.  Which is funny, because I thought that Cameron had already done that with his defence cuts, reducing the Navy to a couple of rowing boats and the RAF to the Battle of Britain Memorial flight, for good measure.  Corbyn's also out to destroy the economy, jobs, education, health care and just about everything else that the Tories and their Lib Dem lickspittles have already trashed.  So, I guess that there's no change there - even with a new leader, Labour are just following Tory policies.  I'm amazed that the right wing press haven't alerted us to Corbyn's plans for the national currency should he become Prime Minister: he's going to replace the Queen's head with that of Karl Marx, with other heroes of communism replacing the various Great Britons currently on the other side of banknotes  - Chairman Mao is going to be on the five pound note, Trotsky on the tenner and Lenin on the twenty pound note.  Oh, and Wolfie Smith will be featured on the pound coin.

The hysteria the press and the Tories are trying to whip up around Corbyn really are ludicrous.  They even present as 'evil; things he suggested in the past, which Tory ministers actually did, ('Corbyn wanted to talk to IRA', just like John Major's government actually did in pursuit of the Northern Ireland peace process).  Moreover, for a political incompetent, he's apparently an incredibly dangerous political insurgent, with bonkers Justice Secretary Michael Gove telling us that he fears that Corbyn's election will lead to protests in the street,  Good!  If he can galvanise the UK's depressingly apathetic public into actually standing up to this bullying government of occupation in its attempts to strip us of our rights, then he'll have been a stunning success.  It's what we badly need: for people to take politics back into their own hands and away from over centralised government.

I'll be quite honest, Corbyn wouldn't have been my choice for Labour leader.  I have severe reservations as to his actual ability to do the job.  That said, the reality is that most of his policy proposals actually aren't 'barmy' or, indeed, particularly left wing.  Not so very long ago, most of them were part of mainstream political ideology.  As for those Labour MPs apparently disgruntled by his election, well, if you couldn't see the way public opinion on the left of centre (which Labour is meant to represent) was running, then it isn't any wonder that you lost two elections in a row.  Labour's 'establishment' have consistently misread the aspirations and feelings of its traditional core supporters, instead chasing the mythical 'centre ground', whose opinions are supposedly represented by the Daily Mail.  Except that they weren't the middle ground, they were Tories who were always going to vote Tory, no matter how Tory the Labour party tried to make itself look.  Clearly, the Tories and their friends in the media are getting worried that maybe, just maybe, Corbyn is tapping into a genuine shift in the tide of public opinion.  We can but hope.  Sure, there's every chance that Corbyn's leadership will be a disaster, but at least it might restore the Labour party to its founding principles. That might still result in electoral failure, but at least it will be failure on their own terms, not by trying to be Tory-lite.  So, let's just give the man a chance.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Hammerhead (1968) and Jaguar Lives! (1979)

Hammerhead (1968) and Jaguar Lives! (1979) - two films I've already mentioned here in the context of 'random movie trailers' - are evidence of just how difficult it is to replicate the James Bond movie formula.  Ever since Dr No proved a surprise hit back in 1962, enterprising producers across the globe, ranging from major Hollywood studios to low budget exploitation outfits have tried to cash in on Eon Productions' successful film franchise.  With little success, it has to be said.  Whilst Bond marches on, who really remembers now James Coburn's Derek Flint or Dean Martin's Matt Helm, let alone the slew of Italian knock offs?  No matter what approach the film makers took - spoofs such as the Flint and Matt Helm series and the rogue 1967 Bond adaptation Casino Royale, or relatively straight imitations like the two Richard Johnson starring Bulldog Drummond films from the late sixties - they just couldn't hit the mark.  Whilst some of these films made money, none could match the official Bond series.  Although cinema audiences in the sixties were hungry for additional spy action when 007 wasn't available, they weren't that hungry.  There was no substitute for the real thing.  The only movies which rode this first wave of Bond-mania which have enjoyed lasting success are those which took a different tack entirely: the Michael Caine starring 'Harry Palmer' series of Len Deighton adaptations, (which were, interestingly, produced by Harry Saltzman, one half of Eon Productions), although the third and most Bond-like of these, Billion Dollar Brain was notably less successful than the previous two, and Le Carre adaptations such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Deadly Affair

The low budget Bond knock offs, like the desultory The Destructors, featuring a badly out-of-shape Richard Egan as a Bond substitute, or Lindsey Shonteff's various efforts in the genre,  never really stood a chance of replicating the 007 formula with their meagre resources.  Usually swapping exotic foreign locations for home front adventures, (set in California in the case of US productions, or over-familiar, damp and wintry London and Home Counties locations for their UK counterparts), they seemed anything but glamourous, pitting their heroes against decidedly non-flamboyant villains played by TV actors and engaged in very modest nefarious schemes.  The various 'Eurospy' movies - often Italian in origin - fared slightly better, with bigger budgets, exotic (to UK and US audiences, at least) continental locations and colourful and imaginative production design, but still fell short of the genuine article.  Bigger budgeted and studio backed productions, like the Flint films, or even the more recent Schwarzenneger starring  True Lies and XXX series, did little better, in spite of their greater resources.  Whilst often succeeding in looking something like a true Bond movie, with multiple foreign locations, super villains with grandiose plans and big action set pieces, they still lacked the 'feel' of the real thing, swapping the outwardly sophisticated protagonist of the official Bond series with more thuggish and muscle bound heroes, for instance.

Turning to the two films under examination here, both Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! clearly had reasonable budgets, evidenced by their high production values and, in the case of Jaguar Lives!, an impressive supporting cast of genuine 'name' actors.  Of the two, Hammerhead is the most obviously 'Bondian', with its wealthy villain with perverse character traits, (he is obsessed with pornography and has amassed a huge collection) and a luxury yacht, sun-drenched foreign locations and a well dressed and supposedly sophisticated hero.  Like the Bond movies, it has a literary source - the first of James Mayo's 'Charles Hood' series - and, like the Bond movies of its era, is only a loose adaptation of its source novel.  Produced by Irving Allen, (who had once been Bond producer Albert Broccoli's partner in Warwick Films), it should come as no surprise that Hammerhead followed the pattern of his Matt Helm series by coarsening its source material.  Although it follows the book more closely than any of the Helm series had, it simplifies the plot, substitutes the villain's porn collection for his literary counterpart's art collection, tones down the sadistic violence of the novel and changes the main character beyond recognition.  The Charles Hood of the novel is a suave art expert who has a sideline operating as an agent for a private intelligence agency.  The Hood of the film's status is far less clear, although American, he seems to work for a branch of British intelligence, whether as a freelance or an employee, we never know. 

To be fair, Hammerhead does provide some nice-looking Portuguese locations for most of the film and manages to stage a few decent action set pieces.  However, plot-wise it never seems to get going, lurching from one set piece to the next without clear exposition or character motivation, before building to an underwhelming climax in which the main villain arbitrarily and casually dispatched by a relatively minor character.  The yacht doesn't even explode!  A real Bond film of that era would have climaxed with some huge conflagration involving the US Marines or the Royal Navy boarding the yacht and battling the villain's minions, whilst Bond subjects the villain to some exotic death, but only after defeating his main muscle-bound henchman in some kind of hand-to-hand combat.  Not only does Hood not kill the villain, he doesn't even grapple with his bodyguard, played by Dave Prowse.  The film's greatest weakness lies in its casting, which consists of familiar faces from TV.  Vince Edwards (TV's Dr Ben Casey) simply lacks the charisma needed to play Charles Hood.  Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with British TV sitcom favourites like Patrick Cargill, Peter Vaughn and Michael Bates.  All excellent character actors, but given little to work with by a weak script.  The female glamour is provided by Diana Dors and Judy Geeson, the latter playing an exceptionally irritating side kick cum love interest. The background of hippies, 'flower power' and art 'happenings', which accompany the action date the film badly and simply feels as tired as the whole 'swinging sixties' thing had become by 1968. The whole thing is very professionally made, but completely lacks the 'spark' associated with a real Bond film, coming over, instead, as an episode of a typical sixties TV spy series. 

Jaguar Lives! represents a later attempt to cash in on the Bond series' success and tries to follow the example of the Bruce Lee vehicle Enter the Dragon by mixing martial arts with espionage.  World Karate Champion Joe Lewis headlines the film as Jonathon Cross, codename 'The Jaguar', an agent for G6, an international spy agency.  To be fair, Lewis actually gives a perfectly decent performance, demonstrating considerable screen presence and charisma.  He is ably supported by an amazing supporting cast which includes no less than three former Bond villains (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance and Joseph Wiseman) and a recent former Bond girl (Barbara Bach), with further support from the likes of Capucine, Woody Strode and even John Huston.  Unfortunately, this is where the film's problems start: none of these stars has much more than an extended cameo in the film as it globetrots from one international location to the next, with Jaguar facing, and defeating, a member of the international conspiracy he is investigating, in each.  Whilst Donald Pleasance has a ball in his all too brief appearance as a South American dictator, pulling out all the stops in a hugely entertaining performance, most of the other stars have far too little to do.  Wiseman seems completely wasted as a mentor-figure, Huston, playing a millionaire victim of the conspiracy is all too clearly only there for the money and Lee, as an honourable villain and onetime ally of the Jaguar, gives a good performance but has very little to do.

In addition to reducing its star supporting cast to glorified cameo appearances, the globetrotting plot, although faithful to the Bond formula, results in a halting structure and tangled narrative.  All too often, the viewer is left wondering just why the Jaguar is in a particular location, let alone where he is at any one time. The lack of narrative clarity means that the nature of the international conspiracy is never totally clear - it has something to do with a global criminal syndicate taking over the world's narcotic distribution networks, using blackmail and murder to eliminate local rivals and shift their products in bulk around the world.  (The fact that, at several points in the film, there is resort to a voice over to explain events, indicates that the film's makers were well aware of the script's narrative deficiencies).  It also doesn't help that the identity of the mysterious mastermind behind the syndicate is clearly telegraphed in the pre-title sequence, (which, in another imitation of the Bond formula, sees the Jaguar completing his previous mission), meaning that the climactic unmasking is something of a non-event.  Worst of all, the film fails to properly showcase its star's martial arts prowess.  As the film was conceived as a vehicle for Joe Lewis and one assumes that he was seen as the main audience draw, it does seem surprising that he is given so little scope for employing his talents.  That said, the action sequences where he is allowed to employ his karate skills are superb.  Unfortunately, they are generally far too short.  In common with the earlier film, Jaguar Lives!  ultimately comes over as an extended TV episode, (indeed, director Ernest Pintoff spent most of his directorial career in episodic TV).

Like Hammerhead, Jaguar Lives! is glossily made with its production values reflecting a decent budget.  Also, like Hammerhead, whilst its makers have clearly recognised at least part of the Bond movie formula, they have failed to capture the 'essence' of Bond and, consequently, never really manage to lift the film above the level of a B movie.  Which is part of the official Bond series success: it raises what are essentially B movies to the level of A movies.  It does this, not just through big budgets, but through attention to the details of the fantasy world the films are set in, a narrative sweep which takes in multiple locations which actually advance the plot and a veneer of sophistication. They've also had the advantage enjoyed by any long-running series: the ability to establish a 'look' and a series of narrative and styling cues which reference previous entries and establish an overall 'identity' for the series.  The films are constructed from a series of recognisable set pieces and tropes: there's always a superficially 'civilised' encounter with the main villain, for instance, there's also usually some kind of gambling motif, (often culminating with some kind of encounter with the villain across a gaming table), a car chase, the elimination of a lesser villain a lengthy and violent action set piece, the escape, with the heroine, from some set-piece peril set up by the villain.  There are many, many more - not all appear in every film.  Indeed, it is the makers' deftness in arranging, rearranging and varying these elements in each film which helps the series seem simultaneously fresh and familiar. 

One of the series' greatest strengths has been its ability to continually re-invent both itself and the main character, reinterpreting the source material to suit the era in which each individual film is made.  This reinvention extends to the central character - like Doctor Who, Bond might remain more or less the same recognisable character, but each actor playing him adapts Bond to suit their own persona and the contemporary milieu in which they play him.  Hence, Connery's sixties working class hero hiding beneath a veneer of establishment sophistication gave way in the seventies to Roger Moore's light weight gentleman adventurer, whilst the films themselves simultaneously lightened their tone and tapped into whatever genres were currently popular, (Blaxploitation in Live and Let Die, Kung Fu in Man With the Golden Gun and science fiction in Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, for instance).  To be fair, Moore's interpretation of the character changed over time, to suit the films' change in direction post-Moonraker, (where the series' self-referential archness and comedic self parody had reached its apex), to a more realistic approach with less fantastical plots and villains, instead attempting to ground themselves in political and technological developments in the real world.  Consequently, Moore's Bond became noticeably tougher, highlighting a ruthless streak which had been evident in his earliest appearances in the role and toning down the comedic elements of the character, for his last three Bond movies.  This presaged Timothy Dalton's more Connery-like Bond: blunt, ruthless and driven, before he gave way to Pierce Brosnan's sleek professional battling corporate menaces in a post-Soviet world.  Most recently, we've had Daniel Craig's world weary warrior, ill at ease in the modern world of high tech espionage and continually seeking to establish a role for himself and his 'old school' methods amongst the surveillance cameras, drones and electronic eavesdropping.

The Bond knock offs, by contrast, are too busy trying to imitate their inspiration to bother trying to tailor themselves to the expectations of contemporary audiences.  Although I enjoyed both Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! ultimately they left me feeling unsatisfied.  They feel like decidedly second string efforts whose producers might have understood some of the more mechanical aspects of the official Bond series but failed to grasp their sub text which blends everything from British class consciousness to the UK's post-colonial insecurities.  They simultaneously present an image of Britishness which appeals to the rest of the world whilst subtly questioning that image's underlying assumptions about the UK's national identity and its global role in the context of its waning military and economic power.  Without this sub text films like Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives! might succeed in looking, to some degree, like a Bond movies, but never feel like a Bond movie.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Unjustifiable Homicide?

You know, I could have sworn that we abolished the death penalty in this country back in the sixties.  Yet we've recently seen what can only be described as the execution of two alleged UK born ISIS militants in Syria by the UK via a drone strike.  Of course, Cameron and his cronies argue that this action was entirely justified as it constituted 'self defence'.  Yeah, self defence.  Apparently these two were plotting unspecified terror attacks against the UK.  (I say 'unspecified', but there are allegations that they planned to assassinate the Queen on VJ Day - which they clearly didn't do as she's still alive, but that didn't stop the government authorising their killing some time after VJ Day).  I'm afraid that I'm always dubious about these alleged terror plots - it's all too easy to make such claims when you don't have to back them up with concrete evidence, instead invoking the cloak of secrecy in order to 'protect sources'.  It's easier still when you know that you won't even have to present any evidence in one of those secret courts they use for terror trials these days, because the alleged perpetrators are conveniently dead.

In this case, it all suggests a level of intelligence which seems unlikely when the suspects were in Syria, where they presumably concocted their supposed plots.  The question is what exactly the intelligence services and government think constitutes reliable 'evidence'.  Sure, these guys might well have talked about wanting to kill the Queen, amongst other fantasy atrocities against their original homeland, but when does such idle bragging actually become a threat?  I've talked about the possibility of armed insurrection in the UK and the political assassination of the likes of Cameron and Osborne.  Does that make me a terrorist?  Should I be assassinated by drone?  Which of us hasn't openly stated that they'd like to see some public figure or other strung up from a lamppost?  Should that now carry a death penalty?  This sort of thing makes me very uneasy - the killing of those two guys in Syria sets a dangerous precedent.  It lowers the bar for the standard of proof required to take action against terror suspects and legitimises the idea of dispensing with such things as trials and evidence if they are inconveniently outside of the UK.  Most disturbing of all is the seemingly casual way in which both our Prime Minister and the media in the UK view the killing of two of its own citizens on the basis of highly dubious evidence. 

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Summer of '15 (Part Two)

Second part of this year's summer holiday slideshow.  Part Two focuses on the coast and encompasses images and video from five different beaches: Calshot, Lepe, Keyhaven, Milford-on-Sea and Barton-on-Sea.  There is also a sequence shot on the cliff top path between the latter two beaches.  They photos and video were taken over all three weeks of this year's Summer break and, as you can see, the weather seemed to mostly be overcast.

The liner which turns up off of Calshot is the 'Anthem of the Seas' - the second of Royal Caribbean's 'Quantum' class liners, only delivered in April of this year.  These cruise liners always seem to turn up when I visit Calshot beach - last time two of the Cunard liners and a smaller Fred Olsen Lines ship turned up.  Actually, there was a second liner thee this time, but I wasn't able to get any rally satisfactory pictures or video of it.  Or, indeed, manage to identify it. Next up on the home movie front should be a starring role for Milford-on-Sea in a film all to itself.  After that, I should have enough left over material for a 'Part Three' to this series.


Monday, September 07, 2015

New Season

Back to work (again) and back to Autumn.  Perhaps it is just me, but Summer seems to have ended rather abruptly this year.  I don't mean the weather - that's been Autumnal for a while now - but the 'sense' of Summer has just vanished.  Usually it lingers on into the first weeks of September, but this year it just seems to have stopped.  Even today, with the sun out and clear skies for much of the day, it didn't feel like Summer, there was none of that relaxed feeling one associates with the season, no feeling of optimism. Ah well, Autumn also has its pleasures, once it gets going.  But enough of my seasonal ponderings, as already noted, my holidays are finally over and I'm back at work, with only Christmas to look forward to.  Actually, that isn't quite true - hopefully next month I'll finally be able to physically meet up with the old friend I've been trying to reconnect with.  I'd hoped to do something while I was on holiday, but circumstances dictated otherwise.  Moreover, in order to try and avoid the log jam of untaken leave I had this Spring, I intend taking a few days off at some point during this Autumn, possibly in November.

Mind you, right now I feel like I need to take some time off in order to recover from that last week of leave I had.  The amount of activity I packed in has left me exhausted.  It hasn't been helped by the lack of sleep resulting from my nocturnal film watching activities - in addition to the three British exploitation movies I've already mentioned in a previous post, I also managed to pack in viewings of Hammerhead and Jaguar Lives!, having finally tracked down complete versions of these two Bond knock offs.  My new High Definition digital TV recorder is also working overtime at the moment, with a trio of Harry Allan Towers productions which have found their way onto various digital channels, a pair of Lewis Collins starring Italian action movies and the Hammer obscurity Prehistoric Women (aka Slave Girls) either already safely recorded or scheduled for recording over the next week or so.  At some point, not only do I have to find time to watch these, but I also have to start writing up the movies I watched last week.  Plus, I have to record another edition of the 'Schlock Express' podcast.  All that and still turning out material for The Sleaze.  (I haven't forgotten those holiday films I'm meant to be editing, either).  Clearly, it's going to be a busy Autumn.


Friday, September 04, 2015

The Long Goodbye (1973)

In contrast to the two Raymond Chandler film adaptations which preceded and succeeded it, Robert Altman's Long Goodbye offers neither a straightforward period piece like 1975's Farewell My Lovely, nor does it give audiences a contemporary set adaptation which, apart from a few swinging sixties touches, presents a straightforward adaptation which questions none of the precepts underlying the source material, as does the 1969 version of The Little Sister, Marlowe.  Instead, it sets out to explore the consequences of its main character attempting to untangle a criminal plot in the 1970s by applying what are essentially 1940s values and preconceptions.  Not surprisingly, Elliot Gould's Marlow quickly finds that his values, based around loyalty, honour and friendship, cut little ice in modern America.  He finds himself adrift in a contemporary California where only money matters, manipulated by the various parties in his case and ultimately disillusioned.

Frequently derided by Chandler purists for is major deviations from the source novel, (the climax of the film completely inverts that of the book, for instance), The Long Goodbye has matured with age.  When I first saw it, I tended to side with the purists, but subsequent viewings have mellowed my view of the film.  Sure, Gould, on the surface, seems a highly eccentric choice to play Philip Marlowe and his performance is in contrast to the cynical, yet compassionate, professional portrayed by the likes of Bogart or Robert Mitchum.  But within the film's context, of portraying a man out of his time, struggling to comprehend the cynical and uncaring world he finds himself inhabiting, it makes perfect sense.  In truth, despite the criticisms of the Chandler purists, the film doesn't really stray that far from the author's conception of Marlowe as some kind of modern knight errant - 'down these mean streets a man must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid' - Gould's Marlowe is a man of honour, who fearlessly continues to clear his friend's name in the face of threats and violence.  It's just that in the milieu of seventies California, such qualities are simply no longer effective.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

Below the Bargain Basement

I was hoping to have another holiday film completed for today's post, but life intervened.  Basically, yesterday I just decided that I'd rather be out wandering around an Iron Age hill fort than sat inside editing a home movie.  I am on holiday, for God's sake!  Even when I eventually got home yesterday evening, I decided that I'd rather sit up half the night drinking Guinness and watching dodgy films on my laptop than doing that editing.  All of which seemed to result in waking up to an upset stomach this morning, which delayed my departure for today's travels, which I've only just got back from.  But to get back to the films I've been watching, (as opposed to editing), I've spent the past few days exploring the underbelly of British cinema.  I've watched three eighties movies made on even lower budgets than the average Lindsay Shonteff movie.  It's like I've finally discovered that basement below the bargain basement.  Two were never released in any form and have, in recent years, found their way firstly onto the collectors circuit and now onto You Tube and other video hosting sites.  The only one receive a release was one of the earliest direct-to-video releases in the UK, entirely shot and edited on videotape.

Obviously, the physical quality of the versions I saw was pretty poor, meaning that any judgements I make on them have to be tempered by this fact.  I'm not going to discuss them here but, hopefully, I'll look at each of them in greater detail in the near future.  What I will say, though, is that, as with the Lindsay Shonteff triple bill I spent all night watching last year, I found the experience of watching these 'lost' movies quite exhilarating.  There is something about the more audacious poverty row productions which give me a kick that big budget mainstream productions no longer can.  Perhaps it is the knowledge that what I'm watching really is the sharp end of movie making, with no margin for error in budgets, shooting schedules and the like, which gives these films such an edgy feel.  This is film-making in the raw - movies made by people with few resources other than sheer determination.  The fact that any of them are ever completed, let alone released, is nothing short of miraculous.  I recently read somewhere that it takes something like nine years to get the average film made, from conception to release.  Which is ridiculous.  The people behind these low-rent movies I've been watching could knock them out in a few weeks, months at the most.  They just went out there and made the bloody things.  Which is how film making should be (and used to be back in the fifties and sixties, for the smaller production companies like Hammer, Tigon or AIP, at least). 


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Summer of '15 (Part One)

Well, here's the first of those threatened slideshows of this year's summer travels.  This one focuses on the inland bits of my wanderings - some of the locations are familiar from previous years, some not.  There's a brief bit of video in the middle, my attempts at wildlife documentary making, you might say.  I'm planning another of these focusing on the coastal parts of this year's holiday - this might be delayed as I shot some more, quite interesting beach footage today and I'll have to incorporate that.  In fact, I did a fair bit of filming and photography today at several different locations, which might well result in a 'Part Three' to this series.  Plus, there's still that footage I shot on my day off back in June to be edited.