Today was all about the past.
House On the Hill Toy Museum and Mountfitchet Castle (site)
After a bit of a lie in, we decided to try and repeat yesterdays' 'random-direction-find-nice-thing' train of thought and headed off south down the A10 towards Royston. After some driving through the rain, we still hadn't seen any green fun signs, so we checked the map. Bishops Stortford seemed to contain a few of the little symbols and was only a few miles due east, so we cut our losses and headed towards a castle symbol, which turned out to be Mountfitchet Castle, on the edge of Stanstead Airport.
First impressions for a castle were.. odd. Firstly, it was next to a railway station, in a valley; not the most secure of places to stick a castle traditionally. Second, as we looked around, there was nothing castle-shaped on the horizon. Still, we'd paid our car park fee now, so it was going to bloody well entertain us for the next hour at least.
Still feeling the twitches of excitement, I bounded into the gift shop/tickets area and asked for two tickets, only then realising, as Ms. Plants had done, that the tickets were £8.50 each. Still, this is London (ish) so us northerners should bite the bullet and enjoy ourselves regardless of the price.
Good news then that the tickets weren't just for the castle - you were also able to take the magical wonder trail to the House on the Hill toy museum too! The trail ended up being a gravel path round the edge of the castle grounds, featuring a talking tree to entertain you as you passed by. I say a 'talking tree' - I guess that's put you in mind of some magical moving tree with arm-branches that sway about, or at least a big plastic tree-like structure with a moulded face and perhaps some light bulbs for eyes. It was in fact, just a standard, slightly dead tree that had a loudspeaker stuck in it.
For some random reason, the toy museum was at the top of a big slope (the hill) and was surrounded by large plastic dinosaurs and cavemen, and a rocket, as if some theme park was having a clear out one day and they decided the outside of the museum needed some novelty garden ornaments. Some dinosaurs spoke to us, via the deftly concealed crackly speaker hidden under a handful of sticks placed somewhere in the vicinity, and the odd amusing sign about dinosaurs eating parents for being grumpy rounded out the prelude.
Once inside, well. It was a haven for the toys and games and giant life-size mannequins of yesteyear. Del and Rodney's Robin Reliant sat comfortably against a Dalek and a Police Box, with Bagatelles, Beatles Posters and Baboons in Shades littering the place. Directly opposite the entrance was possibly the strangest sight; several lifesize Star Wars figures - Chewie, Yoda and an Imperial Stormtrooper among others - were standing diligently in a thin glass cage, looking less like they were in the middle of a film and more like they had all just encountered each other in a lift and were trying not to make eye contact. Somewhere in the chaos, we received a weary 'Hello' from the curator, who beckoned us to come in. That Reliant really was used in one of the shows, we can inform you.
Room upon room of densely-packed displays of toys greeted us. Thousands of dinky-toys, rusting Meccano cranes, huge crèches of dolls, some old arcade cabinets (Robocop looked a little peaky) Lego bricks on one of those tables for the kids to play on (ripe for rude word education) and battered, torn comic annuals were to pour over, and to be fair, this part was pretty good for going down memory lane. Countless times we both did a 'I had one of those' followed by a sigh of fond remembrance.
It would have been fine, except for the things that didn't quite go in a toy museum. Life-size models of the Beatles, for one; looking shifty and a little scary, or perhaps the miniature Lady Di shrine, where one of the main pulling points (a bike she rode as a kid) was proudly displayed in what I guess in some peoples' eyes is a major coup. Lastly were a few of the displays, where you could press a button, or even just walk by, and the dolls inside would start up and re-animate themselves like the evil dead. Worse still for some of the kids, some of them weren't working right and so you'd get a single eye moving around in its socket instead of both of them, or an arm wrenched away from the body as the doll tried to raise itself from the grave that was its bed. It was all a bit disquieting, especially as there was almost no-one else around.
Feeling we had quite enough, we said our goodbyes to the scary dolls, Yoda and the cavemen and headed back under the talking tree to the castle entrance. By now at least the skies were blue, and it was a good thing too. Mountfitchet castle was a castle in the Norman sense of the word. In otherwords, no large, imposing structure you could walk around, rather a large field shielded by staked fences, containing stone huts and a few wooden lookout towers. For what it was, there was a certain amount of entertainment to be had; each of the huts had been kitted out with a presentation of Saxon or Norman life, complete with hidden speakers and buttons to press. Both the sights and smells of England of the time had been recreated, with the sort of smells you encounter in the Jorvik Viking Museum being put to shame. The whole area was also home to a number of rescue animals such as hens, goats, deer and ducks, who all had got used to the constant influx of people and were enjoying whatever titbits they could wangle out of people. Quite understandably, the whole place had been commandeered by an army of schoolchildren who were climbing everywhere, pressing all the buttons, and generally burning energy, and I would say that is essentially the target market for the place.
A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) (wiki)
A Matter of Life and Death was one of those films I had been told about but never saw, and hearing it was being shown, in a restored print, no less, was an opportunity I was not going to pass up. It is a story about Peter, a World War 2 pilot who is the only survivor of his plane crew after a bombing raid. The plane is still in the air but in bad shape, and surviving a landing is out. His final message before bailing out to his certain death is to June, a US radio officer on the ground. In the few minutes they spend talking to each other, they fall in love, and then feeling that the situation is hopeless, Peter bails out.
But he is not killed. Instead he washes ashore and finds June, and quickly they become inseperable; but there is something wrong in heaven - Peter should have died, and when the powers that be send someone down for him, he challenges them by appealing the decision, and has his case tried out in celestial court.
For a film made over 60 years ago (one of the first in colour, and one of the first to mix colour [down on earth] and black and white [up in heaven] sequences), this new print looked like it had been made yesterday, and the originality of the plot and the sharpness of the script made it a great classic film. If you can put up with some slightly cheesy special effects and a few plum accents, it's heartily recommended. 8/10
Dr Strangelove (UK 1964) (wiki)
Our second film was also an oldie. Dr Strangelove is a deeply satirical film by Stanley Kubrick, someone who is very good at dividing an audience. Its about what happens when you give the big red button to someone who perhaps is not best placed to decide when to press it. In this case, the increasingly demented General Jack D Ripper launches a nuclear air raid attack on Russia, because the voices in his head were getting a bit too loud. Peter Sellers plays three parts in the movie; GC Lionel Mandrake, the nervous and very English officer caught in the sights of Rippers' delusions and perhaps the only man able to stop him; the President of the USA, Merkin Muffley, the hard nosed politician dealing with the soviets and hot-headed generals in the War Room; and Dr Strangelove himself, an ex-Nazi scientist who came up with the doomsday device that will automatically trigger armageddon in the event of a bomb hitting Soviet soil.
Though there were some good laughs in the film, not to mention the iconic scenes ('Gentlemen - you can't fight in here, this is the war room!' and Major Kong riding the nuclear bomb as has been parodied many times), but by the end we both felt it was missing something, or that we hadn't fully grasped what was being satirised. Perhaps a second viewing is in order sometime.. 5/10
We had been round the centre of Cambridge a bit before this point, but today we would have a proper go, concentrating mainly around the Cam and the university buildings. A good place to get bearings is Great St. Mary's Church, where you can climb the 125 or so steps to the top of the tower and get some good pictures of the architecture and the market place. We also went for a punt after being badgered on the high street by a studenty type. (Tip: never take their first offer - the price will always come down if you haggle) and got some gorgeous pics in the midday sun.
We stopped off by Kings College Chapel and fantasized about setting dogs on the poor people if we owned the Gibbs Building, did some possible trespassing into areas that may have been student-only, but were not signposted either way, and after taking a few piccies and looking round the nearby shops, called it a day.
Strength and Honour (Ireland 2007) (site)
The only film of the day will be shortly released nationwide. Strength and Honour is set in Ireland - or at least a Holywood varient of it - and is about the retired boxer Sean, who hasn't gone in the ring since killing his sparring partner by accident. Now a widower, his young son needs surgery to stop him dying of the same cause that took his mother. Sean himself, played by Michael Madsen, is the good guy that the audience gets behind, and his foil comes in the form of Smasher, an unredeemable and violent figure played by Vinnie Jones, the current and undefeated holder of 'the puck' - the bareknuckle boxing crown held by the gypsy folk of Ireland. Without going into detail just where the gypsies come up with it, the title comes with a prize of £300k, just enough to pay for flights and medical treatment.
So the main ingredients are in place, and with the additional audience manipulation of Sean having to sell his house, live with a pack of gypsies, and when it shows him react with soul-searching and modest reservation when his new motorhome gets smeared with crap, we're all rooting for him. I don't need to give the ending away because it's pretty obvious what happens, but the journey is quite entertaining. The bare-knuckle fighting is surprisingly raw and can be uncomfortable to watch, and dispite being full of the sort of cliche these films carry (yes, the training montage is present and correct) it is enjoyable. Seeing Richard Chaimberlain out of retirement in the 'Mickey Goldmill' slot is a pleasant surprise, not to mention a very convincing Gail Fitzpatrick as the mother figure of the Gypsy clan (Father Ted fans may remember her cheeky appearance in Speed 3) getting my vote as the most entertaining character. Overall though, it could have done with being a bit less one-dimensional. Sean could have been less selfless and navel-gazing and perhaps have a few rough edges so we can make up our own minds whether to root for him or not. Likewise, Smasher could have been less pure evil and more like a human being, and the characters around them could have been a little less like amalgams from the script fragments on the Rocky cutting room floor or token Hollywood-Oirish lovechilds.
At the end of the screening, Director Mark Mahon and Gail Fitzpatrick held a short session where they answered questions about the film, and Vinnie Jones sent over an audio message for the film festival goers, which was a nice surprise. The talk went on for a bit, mainly because Mahon can talk a lot without saying much (and isn't too modest with it), meaning poor Gail Fitzpatrick was given little airtime for her questions, but it was an insight into the whats and whys of the resulting film.
It was good. Very good in places, but clunking, manipulative and plastic in others. 6.5/10
New Romanian Shorts
This event was free, and being a northerner, I wasn't going to pass up on something like that - especially in Cambridge, where ice creams come with their own mortgage. Each film was about 10 minutes in length.
The Boxing Lesson : A man takes his bullied child to a boxing school, and ends up having to show his own worth in the ring when he is accused of being too much of a pushy dad. 6/10
Megatron : A spoilt, grumpy child gets to do what he wants on his birthday, which involves dragging his mother to the local MacDonalds, where the Megatron action figure is included in a happy meal. When father doesn't turn up and Megatron is sold out, the film ends with a focus on the mother, whose day is about to get worse. 5/10
Nice Day for a Swim : Three youths hijack a van with its driver tied in the back. On the way they pick up a prostitute and drive to the beach where they have their way with them, nearly killing the driver. A depressing, unpleasant film that got my anger up. 3.5/10
Life is Hard : A woman used to an automatic car finds herself using her dad's manual car and causing a traffic jam. Suddenly a man with a knife reaches in and takes her bag, but has to get in to avoid the police who have come to see what the jam is about. In a delightfully absurd twist, the man starts giving her driving lessons, and eventually even goes out of his way to get her to her meeting. The little touches as the end credits roll are the icing on the cake. 7.5/10
The Yellow Smiley Face : A very simple but effective film about a couple of middle-age parents attempting to turn on a computer and sign into a chat program so they can speak to their son in America. The bickering between the parents as they attempt to follow the presumptious notes written by the son and the reactions to what most computer literate users would think nothing of doing put me in mind of several attempts to get my parents to even touch a computer. 7.5/10
Waves : Following a brief coming together of three groups of people at the beach. Teenage poseur goes to look at the ladies and show off his skinny body. He happens upon an attractive Swedish mother and her stupid-looking son, whom poseur agrees to look after while she goes for a swim. A fat husband and his snarly wife look on as a similarly proportioned couple get it on in the middle of the crowded beach, then the husband heads off to the sea, where he meets the swedish woman. Things go a bit wrong when he tries to teach her to swim, and poseur is left holding the baby. Will he abandon the child or care for him? 6/10
So, two naff, two so-so and two good, then. Overall, worth the effort.
1000 Journals (US 2007) (site)
You may have come across the 1000 Journals project. It's had a web presence since its inception in 2000. Its premise is simple. Someguy (that's his pseudonym) got hold of 1000 blank journals at the turn of the millennium, and after giving each one its own cover art, and some instructions inside, started sending them off into the world. Some close by, some posted off to random places. The idea being that the desire to create art does not leave the average joe, but instead is suppressed by the monotony of day-to-day life. Receivers of the journals are encouraged to express themselves however they want on a few pages, then pass the journal on. When the last page is completed, it should then be returned to Someguy so he can put it on the web.
It took 3 years for the first journal to be returned, and in that time, word had spread about them. A website was created to allow people to join a request list so they could receive one of the journals, and the queues were growing.
The film follows Someguy as he tracks down the other journals, and interviews some of the authors of the pages on his travels around the world, highlighting cases where the receiver was offended by what the sender had included on the pages, or giving authors a chance to review a journal they had written in, some of which had been written over by more selfish contributors. Even though the film doesn't progress beyond this journey (other than to promote the accompanying book release and the 1001 Journals sister project), there was enough variety on offer by examining the personal lives of the people these journals passed between and it is a fascinating look into human expression when left to develop without restrictions.
At the end, director Andrea Kreuzhage joined the audience on a live link up from America (at least, after a fashion of knob twiddling and wire swapping), which was really wierd but disconcerting since the person on the cinema screen was now reacting to the audience! It made the film that extra bit special and can be seen here. 8.5/10
Where the Water Meets the Sky (UK 2008)
Morgan Freeman narrates yet another African documentary, this time about a group of women from a remote area, coming together as volunteers from local villages, and given basic camera and sound training so they can produce their own films that highlight the hardships they face as a community. After a short while debating the subject matter, one theme is shared by all of the women - the rampant spread of AIDS through the communities and the people it leaves behind. Most of the women have had friends or family die of the disease, often exasperated by the promiscuity of the men in the family.
The film has a general feel-good vibe to it, despite the often depressing subject matter. As both films proceed (the one we're watching and the one they're making) the women gain confidence in themselves and the respect of their husbands and peers in their community. When the film is finished and played in the local villages, its warm reception and positive message of spreading knowledge to combat the spread of AIDS gives hope.
Only a couple of small points may detract; the title of the film has almost no relevance to the content, other than that it is the English term for the region of Africa where the film was shot. It is also pretty subtitle-heavy as well, but that should not bother the intended audience, I guess.
Burma All Inclusive (Austria 2007)
Another documentary, though done in a different style. Burma is a country with many things going wrong (for instance, the oppressive actions that resulted in the 2007 anti-government protests), as well as a place of outstanding beauty and culture. The film attempts to reflect this by taking on the appearance of a promotional holiday video, showing the beauty of the many temples and pagodas deep in the Burmese forests, interspersed with some of the things you would not see on such videos; killing, emaciated prisoners, torture, oppression, and so on.
After a few minutes, the video stops, and invites the audience to come on a 16-day trip around Burma 'all inclusive' - meaning it is shown in its raw, unpolished state. The style of the film then changes to a first-person camera view, where we, as a naive and slightly selfish holidaymaker arrives in the centre of a bustling city and have to learn quickly what can and cannot be done, said or thought.
Definitely another of those eye-opening films, the film commendably avoids showing just the bad things, and instead devotes some of the 16 chapters to the more pleasant things you will see. However, the film did have a slightly patronising feel, not least the depiction of the selfish, bumbling tourist that was meant to be the viewer, and the use of puppets to explain some of the situations to us. It also had the feel of one of those dubbed adverts, that look to have been made in another country and then cleverly made so you never see anyone's lips move so it can be given a voice-over in the language of choice.
But all these are inconsequential when compared with the overall impact the film has. If you find yourself wondering how bad it is in countries without a democracy to ensure at least a semblance of freedom for the man on the street, this film is a good place to be educated. 7/10
The Black Balloon (Australia 2008)
I didn't see this one, but the lovely Ms. Plants did, so I'll hand over the keyboard...
This film deals with the struggles of a teenager growing up and wanting to be accepted and fit in with his peers. Even though Thomas has the added difficulty of dealing with a brother who has autism I feel we could all identify with the hurdles that Thomas faces as a teenager, e.g. fitting in at new school, or his first love. Thomas has a lot of responsibility looking after his brother and as you can understand becomes jealous of all the attention his brother gets from his parents and just wants his brother to be "normal". I thoroughly enjoyed the film and feel it gave me a better understanding of how it's not just the child with autism who has problems fitting in but also the effect it has on the whole family. It contains some funny parts and I would highly recommend this film to anyone and think could be a good learning tool to be shown in schools. 9/10
Rivals (France 2008)
Our last film would have been Just Another Love Story, but that got cancelled. Conversations with my Gardener also looked interesting, but that sold out. Feeling a little deflated that the festival ended early for us, we got a couple of tickets for Rivals, which was on in place of Just Another Love Story.
Rivals is set in 1970's France, around the lives of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. François is a cop, and a good one. Well respected by both his family and his colleagues. The only problem is that his brother Gabriel is a pimp, habitually in trouble and often part of any major killings or robberies that happen to go on. As we enter the story, Gabriel is caught in a police sting attended by his rookie brother and goes to jail for 10 years.
After his lengthy time in prison, Gabriel comes out with the intention of going straight, but with poor job prospects in the area the best he can get is a thankless supermarket job, and his attempts to set up a business with an ex-con partner literally go up in flames.
This was enough for Gabriel to go off the rails, and hearing about a job for a hitman, takes it up, and we see just what Gabriel used to get up to in his cold, calculated actions.
During all this, François becomes fascinated with a woman whose ex went to jail by his hand, and he wants revenge, and his family life with his brother and their infirm father begin to break down. With so many grudges flying everywhere, someone is bound to end up off-ed by the end, but who?
Rivals definitely has the feel of a 70's cop drama. It's very authentic, both in the violence, the acting and the dress code, and though you can see generally where the film is headed, it does dart off in unexpected directions now and again to keep the interest up. However it is peppered with little holes, such as Gabriels' ease at returning to the dark side, and the brothers' problems not ever getting in the way of François' police career, which may leave a niggle as you watch it. 7/10
Tropical Bird Land (site)
I found out about Tropical Bird Land just after attending Cambridge in 2007, and vowed that I would go this year. Located in Desford, just west of Leicester, it meant a small detour across the A1(M) and M1 which took about an hour and a half from Cambridge. And what is there? A collection of birds, mostly parrots, many of which are allowed to fly completely free around the site and its nearby area. Being a big parrot fan it was a must, so we made it a point to stop there on the way back to the north.
Unfortunately, the day was not its best, and the parrots themselves were a bit on the grumpy side due to being drizzled on, meaning plenty of stern warnings (sqwawks, growls, stares) not to put your hand too close or you might lose it. A couple of parrots were game though, in particular a green Lori, who happily climbed onto my shoulder and pressed its beak to my cheek to hear the things I was saying, although its clear he didn't fully agree with me as he grabbed my nose and gave it a 'gentle' squeeze. A bright pink Australian parrot was also very tame, and would happily sit on your shoulder rather than walk everywhere, and put his head forward for a stroking, moving your finger with his beak if it wasn't in the right place. A small parakeet also decided to land on my head when it saw the fruit and happily munched on a grape while sat on my finger.
Most of the macaws were not in the mood, and looked down on the visitors with a glare, only softening slightly when they were offered a piece of fruit which they would climb down to get and the head back up again.
Overall, its recommended if you have even the slightest interest in parrots, as they have beautiful specimens there doing what they should - flying free. A few tips though:
- Go in summer, on a nice, pleasant day to catch the parrots at their most agreeable.
- Take a pair of gloves, just to be safe, and some hankies for the bird droppings and fruit juice.
- Don't panic if they land on you.
- Don't try to force them to get on you.
- They prefer fruit more than nuts (you can buy bags of both at the entrance).
- Take a camera.
- Don't stick your hand near the Psycho Cage. The parrots inside take delight in tricking you into putting your finger within nipping range.