Tag Archives: Michael Madsen

The 35th Cambridge Film Festival: The Visit

cambridge film festival logoThe Cambridge Film Festival, the UK’s third longest-running film festival returns 3rd – 13th September 2015 for its 35th edition, at the Arts Picturehouse, the Light Cinema and other venues across Cambridge. One of the UK’s most prestigious and well-respected film festivals, 2015 also celebrates Festival Director Tony Jones’s 30th anniversary with the festival, which has been shaped by Tony’s passion and exceptional knowledge of cinema.

This year’s festival features specially selected screenings for everyone, from parents with babies to retirees, the programme offers a diverse mix of films of short and feature length spanning different genres including 7 World Premieres, 55 UK Premieres, with films from more than 30 countries, plus special guests and complementary events and workshops, all scheduled at convenient times and locations. The Cambridge Film Festival is operated by the charitable Cambridge Film Trust and funded by BFI Film Forever. You can find out more about the festival at their website:  http://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/

Next in our series of reviews from this year’s event, Tony Black takes a look at Michael Madsen’s conceptual documentary, The Visit.

by Tony Black (@BlackHoleOnline)

A legend appears at the outset of The Visit: An Alien Encounter which informs us everyone who takes part in this ‘simulation’ are real professionals, scientists and thinkers. The word simulation marks Michael Madsen’s (not that one) piece out as slightly to the left of the documentary, despite being filmed as such. Rather, it’s a thought piece, a consideration, a classic ‘what if?’ presented not as fiction but almost-fact. What if, in this case, we were visited by an extra-terrestrial life form? Fiction has of course covered this ground in cinematic terms a wealth of times, perhaps most memorably in 50’s B-movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, but Madsen’s spin on the idea presents the film less as entertainment, more a conversation we happen to be part of, or a series of conversations. Our POV is that of the unseen, unheard alien being who the aforementioned real life professionals respond to, explaining the procedures immediately following the aliens’ arrival and later delving into the philosophical, practical and psychological repercussions of his arrival. We are welcomed to planet Earth. We become the very thing we are questioning.

This does serve, at points, as if these world famous (in their field) people are communicating into a void, almost talking back to themselves, which is a consequence of the approach and in real terms a budgetary consideration from Madsen; this is stripped down Scandinavian conceptual filmmaking, without the license to show visual effects of aliens, the inside of spacecrafts or too many cosmic landscapes. It’s also definitely a creative choice on his part; he seeks in part to evoke the almost religious wonder of the unknown we witnessed in Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (though using the Blue Danube Waltz is perhaps a little on the nose), as scientist Chris Welch explores the spacecraft interior and finds unusual landscapes. Madsen is also, certainly, playing with our perception of reality – not just considering what lies within the craft, but scenes involving one contributor see him deliberately trick the frame, inducing parallels while flipping props to enable a sense of disorientation; indeed the scientists themselves posit the philosophical idea that if the alien leaves without sharing any information or shining a light on its own existence, was its presence theoretical? Madsen explores all of these concepts within the thin running time, though frankly he has the breathing room.

Even at just shy of eighty minutes, The Visit doesn’t necessarily feel longer but Madsen struggles at points to fill out the narrative he does present. A documentary could call upon facts and research, but a fascinating look at the makings of the Voyager space probe aside, his picture is solidly in the realms of the conceptual. It may dress itself up as a simulation but in many respects it is a drama, a play of sorts only featuring naturalistic performances functioning as reactive conversation between people well respected in their field. Madsen at times can’t quite balance whether he wants to explore an element of narrative or rest on the mere pondering of the ‘big questions’ – why are we here? What is a human being? Almost all of the big theological & philosophical ideas are in play here, as are the practicalities. This too is where Madsen over eggs the pudding. He’s a slave to the slow motion tracking shot – at first it evokes a slightly otherworldly mood, a cold and calculated exploration of the unnatural, but it quickly becomes a crutch he relies on to deploy his imagery of unusual constructions, people going about their day to day, and the mobilising balance of a military deployed as a reaction to the alien’s visit. He seems afraid to let his camera breathe as naturally as the scientists on screen, ironically enough serving to further detach himself from the documentarian approach he primarily wants to ape. It’s a shame because his imagery, intersected with the static interactions with the people on screen, is often interesting.

If nothing that will revolutionise either the science fiction or documentary genres The Visit dips a toe in either way, Michael Madsen’s film is an intriguing look with an intriguing hook at a concept which has fascinated writers and filmmakers for the last half century – what would happen if aliens visited us? It’s quite rare to find a film which doesn’t approach the subject matter in bombastic or fantastic terms, moreover one that uses real life thinkers & scientists to consider the extreme possibilities & consequences that we’re not alone in the universe; amusingly at one point two of those on screen describe ‘fiction’, and report that more often than not such attempts to portray first contact end without a happy conclusion. If you’re looking for a film with such conclusions at all, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re looking for a flawed but fascinating, rational and illuminating exploration of the idea, this may be worth exploring yourself.

The Visit will be screened as a part of the festival on Monday 7th September at 18:45 at The Light, and Thursday 10th at 15:30 in the Arts Picturehouse. To find out more information and to book your tickets, visit the Cambridge Film Festival website.

A Decade In Film: The Nineties – 1991

A new series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choose their favourite films from each year of that decade, and discuss the legacy those years have left us.

Kate has chosen to relive the nineties, because she’s old enough to remember them in their entirety This week she revisits 1991.

Beauty & the Beast

beauty & the beast

‘Tie your napkin round your neck, Cherie, and we’ll provide the rest.’

The first animation to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, an honour which wasn’t bestowed again until Up got the nod some 18 years later, Disney present this classic fairy tale as a Broadway production. Notable voices provided by the delightful Angela Lansbury as kindly Mrs Potts, and the late Jerry Orbach, whose French accent steals the show as Lumière  the singing candelabra, in the same year he first appeared in Law & Order.

While other Disney offerings have some cracking songs, make no mistake, this is a musical. Indeed, in another Oscar first, this was the first picture to receive three nominations for Best Original Song.  From the big budget opening number, to Céline Dion warbling over the end credits, this film is all about the singing. ‘Be Our Guest’, performed by the ensemble cast of enchanted objects, is right up there with Little Mermaid‘s ‘Under the Sea’ for lyrical genius.

It’s difficult to find a huge amount of sympathy for the Beast, who really doesn’t do himself any favours considering his mission to ‘love and be loved’ is a rather time sensitive matter. Belle, our plucky protagonist, is sweet enough. But a carriage clock, a teapot & cup, a footstool and the aforementioned candelabra are the real stars. Anyone else find it really disappointing at the end, when they turn back into humans?

Father of the Bride

father of the bride

‘Our plane’s about to take off, but I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye. Thank Mom for everything, ok? Dad, I love you. I love you very much.’

A remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy & Elizabeth Taylor romp of the same name, Father of the Bride is a simple tale of a daughter flying the nest. Like the Meet the Parents of the nineties, what makes it great is the stellar ensemble cast. Steve Martin portrays almost the same neurotic, fiercely loyal father he did in Parenthood two years earlier. Only this time he plays basketball and makes trainers for a living, so he’s pretty much the perfect dad.

Add to that the always great Diane Keaton, Kieran Culkin at the same age, and just as funny, as his older brother was when he starred in Home Alone, and Martin Short‘s inspired performance as the generically ‘European’ wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer. There is also a bridal couple but, as these things often go, the film is less about them and more about everything surrounding them. Indeed, Wikipedia notes that groom George Newbern is ‘best known for his roles as Bryan MacKenzie in Father of the Bride (1991) and its sequel’.

An enjoyable 105 minutes for anyone who has planned a wedding, owns a daughter, or likes looking at the ridiculously lavish mansions that seemingly pass for a ‘house’ in the United States.

Thelma & Louise


‘Shoot the radio.’

You know that feeling on the last day of your holidays when you really don’t want to go home? This is the tale of what happens when you actually act upon those feelings, under the direction of Ridley Scott. The story obviously resonated, and gained writer Callie Khouri the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for this, her first produced film.

Geena Davis & Susan Sarandon star as sunglasses and head scarf clad best friends, heading off to the mountains in their dusty convertible. Thelma is instantly lovable as the ditzy downtrodden housewife, while Louise is bolshy and demanding, with hints of a hidden past which might make you warm to her. Such is the nature of long car journeys, spend enough time with a person in a confined space and you’ll grow to love them. Or kill them. (Spoiler.)

There’s a cameo from Michael Madsen, a ‘before he was famous’ sex scene with Brad Pitt, and Harvey Keitel as the cop with a heart who is rooting for our anti-heroes. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’re sure to know the oft-parodied ending scene. And while, at age 11 watching my mum’s VHS copy, it took me a while to comprehend the significance of the decision to ‘keep going’ in relation to the Grand Canyon, it was nonetheless pretty inspiring.



‘You go, we go.’

Admittedly the initial appeal for me was the sight of William ‘Billy’ Baldwin in full firefighter get-up. But legendary director Ron Howard goes one better and makes burning buildings look sexy. Chicago’s emergency services never fail to impress on the big screen, and this depiction of their fire department is no different, gaining the auspicious title of ‘the highest grossing film ever made about firefighters’ in lieu of awards.

Baldwin and Kurt Russell are brothers and co-workers, who become embroiled in the work of a serial arsonist, the fallout of a mayoral campaign, and the deaths of several colleagues. One of them also has sex with Jennifer Jason Leigh on top of a moving fire truck. Have a guess which one. Elsewhere, Robert De Niro puts on a suitably geeky performance as an arson investigator, while Donald Sutherland is like Hannibal Lecter but with fire.

Backdraft has action, obviously, tension, and more than a little heart-wrenching family drama. Personally, nothing makes me sob like a baby more than some on screen reference to real life at the end of a movie. There are over 1,200,700 active firefighters in the U.S. today.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves


‘I’m not one of you, but I fight! I fight with Robin Hood! I fight against a tyrant who holds you under his boot! If you would be free men, then you must fight! Join us now, join Robin Hood!’

A thoroughly British affair, showcasing our rolling landscapes, our engaging folklore and our classic actors. Kevin Costner does his bit, by chucking in the occasional semi-English accent when he remembers to. Which is more than can be said for Christian Slater, as New York’s finest Will Scarlett.

Funny (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not so much) the film builds to the climactic final wedding/multiple hanging celebrations. Naturally Robin of Locksley saves the day, with a combination of arrow skills, sword fighting, and good old fashioned punches to the face. Alan Rickman is at his slimey evil best as The Sheriff of Nottingham, while Morgan Freeman’s Azeem is the person you’d most want to have your back in the woods.

The Bryan Adams rock ballad which featured on the soundtrack spent an epic 16 consecutive weeks at number one in UK charts, and somewhat eclipsed the film. Which is a shame because, to dismiss it, would be to miss out on the most amazing cameo/tribute to The Untouchables at the end.


See the five films Kate picked for 1990 or check out the full A Decade in Film series so far.