Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Ham-fisted action: The Professional (Georges Lautner, 1981)

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Not to be confused with Leon: The Professional, this film stars Jean-Paul Belmundo as Josselin Beaumont, a hitman betrayed by his own government. At times, Beaumont almost seems to be framed as the French Rambo, which is rather silly considering that Belmundo was, by this point, 48 years old. Worse, the film itself is meandering, dull and repulsively sexist.

The film has a few interesting aspects that are not well followed-through. The plot begins as a reasonable commentary on France’s post-colonial international meddling: Beaumont’s target is an African president whose political standing with France has little to do with how tyrannically he rules his country. The film also attempts to create in Beaumont a world-weary figure who, having lost his ideals, has no reason to live other than revenge (and getting laid a few last times).

Beaumont is difficult to sympathise with. His insistence on visiting his wife, Jeanne (Elisabeth Margoni), brings her to the attention of Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who Beaumont knows full well will treat her brutally. Elisabeth faces some physical violence and is almost raped by a WPC (a shameless excuse to get the actress naked, and to use lesbianism in a pandering way). Beaumont exacts revenge on her behalf, but the fact remains that she only had those experiences because of him. As he proceeds towards his goal, the film still pretends that Beaumont’s likeable, but guilt doesn’t seem to be reason enough for old and new friends to help him.

Visually, The Professional looks lacklustre, barely above a TV production. This carries through in the action scenes, which are almost all clumsy. The comedic touch they often receive detracts from any sense of tension or from the bleak outlook the film attempts to portray. Beaumont’s original jail break is so poorly staged that it’s complete nonsense. A car chase in which some quite good stunt drivers tear through Paris streets, even below the Eiffel Tower, is the one bit of decent action in the film.

The last straw is that way The Professional uses Ennio Morricon’s “Chi Mai”. It is, in a word, incessant. It might have been enough to ruin the movie – if the movie was any good to begin with.

Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.

Woman with a gun: Blue Steel (Kathryn Bigelow, 1989)

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Though Blue Steel‘s coolly elegant style and thematic focus on androgyny and obsession place it firmly within Kathryn Bigelow’s oeuvre, it’s such a weak film that I would swear it only got made in the aftermath of The Silence of the Lambs – if it hadn’t been released two years earlier. Though it’s also about an inexperienced female law enforcement officer (in this case, a member of the NYPD) and her relationship with a psychopath, it’s in no way comparable in quality. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Megan Turner, a cop whose first night on patrol goes terribly wrong. After interrupting an armed robbery, without backup, she shoots the perpetrator in self-defense, only for Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) to steal the dead man’s weapon from the crime scene. He’s developed an obsession with guns, and with Megan, that sends him on a killing spree.

Megan starts the movie looking incompetent (why not wait for backup or immediately retrieve the weapon?), but her oversights are partly attributable to the patchiness of Bigelow and Eric Red’s script. The plot is so disconnected that it manages to become abstract, scenes and images strung together without making any logical sense. Few of the character motivations in this movie make sense either – if Megan behaved in an intelligent fashion, she would be an oddity.

The film plays around with ideas of gender in ways that are, again, not coherent, but are interesting. An early shot establishes that Megan wears a white, lacy bra beneath her uniform, but it’s the outer layer that counts. On her first walk home from graduation, a couple of women react to her as though she’s an attractive man, and she jokingly responds as though she is. There’s a tension between her off-duty attire and the uniform (and how people treat her depending on what she’s wearing) throughout the film. By the final scenes, she’s even dressed in a (stolen) male police officer’s uniform. Part of the reason Hunt is drawn to her is the power her gun signifies, but if she weren’t a woman, he would not have fixated on her. Other men, whether her father or potential dates, feel threatened by or resentful about her job. At least fellow officer Nick Mann (Clancy Brown) likes Megan on-duty and off, but he will pay a high price for Megan’s heroics. Worse, Megan can’t help her mother (Louise Fletcher) or her best friend (Elizabeth Peña); Mann is her only partial consolation. (Could the naming choices in this film be any more obvious?)

Blue Steel’s cast do their best with the material. Jamie Lee Curtis, one of Hollywood’s most simultaneously masculine and feminine actors, is the perfect choice for Megan. Ron Silver chews the scenery as Hunt, while Kevin Dunn shows why he’s still getting cast as the senior cop who yells at his subordinates, 25 years later. Brown is awesome as always. Fletcher and Peña’s roles are disappointingly undeveloped. Meanwhile, Tom Sizemore gets low billing as the would be-thief, but would earn a larger role in Point Break. (And is there another connection in James Cameron’s casting of Curtis in True Lies?)

With a stronger plot, Blue Steel could have better explored its themes. However, by its end, it doesn’t want to be anything more than an action flick. The final shootout looks good (Megan reloading her gun one-handed is a striking moment), but the film misses a chance to get some characterisation in amongst the slo-mo. Hunt’s ruminations on death and killing are the most notable features of his mania, but the final scenes neither prove nor refute his beliefs. He and Megan just shoot at each other. The film is not only a fairly negative take on a woman who tries to function in a man’s world, but it’s not a good film, either.

Carter fantastic: The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

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The writing of Angela Carter adapted into a film – does life get any better than this? Let’s hope so, because it’s only happened twice, but that just makes The Company of Wolves something to treasure all the more. It’s taken from several stories in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a volume devoted to deconstructing fairy tales. Carter’s view of Little Red Riding Hood is that it’s a story that aims, through equating men with wolves, at making girls afraid of their burgeoning sexuality, and this forms the basis of the film.

Neil Jordan collaborated with Carter on the script, and the director seems to have been well-suited to working with this feminist author. Many of his films –Interview with a Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Byzantium, The Brave One, Breakfast on Pluto, etc– feel more darkly feminine than masculine. He might joke that the target audience for The Company of Wolves is preteen girls and dogs, but his ideas for broadening the film’s scope only enhanced Carter’s material, and he shows a great sensibility for it.

Ostensibly, The Company of Wolves is a dream in the mind of young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). It contains stories within stories, with various tellers. The modern day mixes with what is seemingly an eighteenth century English village. Some moments operate on dream logic, more about feeling than meaning. These meld admirably well with the story’s more straightforward aspects.

The film’s visual richness belies its identity as an independent British film. The wolves, most of which are in fact malamutes, are often lit so that their eyes reflect in a predatory fashion. Images such as life size toys and stork eggs containing baby dolls harken back to the story’s source within Rosaleen’s mind. Meanwhile, the main set, the village and surrounding forest, is impressively large. It’s a detailed environment, populated by animals (not always British), that changes with the seasons. Like the period costumes and the romantic yet folksy score, it approaches realism while maintaining an unreal aspect.

The story is dependent upon special effects, some of which have dated more than others over the past thirty years. The animatronics are strongly unconvincing at times, but the concepts behind them, such as the famous werewolf transformation in which the wolf’s muzzle bursts through the man’s screaming mouth, are often inventive. The film is better in moments where it is more judicious about what to show, as when a group of humans transform bit by bit, with the camera frequently focusing instead on distortions in a mirror.

Jordan mixes well-established actors with some who are inexperienced. Patterson is one of the latter, as is Micha Bergese, a dancer, who plays the Huntsman. Patterson’s innocence and Bergese’s physicality seem to come naturally, and are ideal for their roles. The far more famous Angela Lansbury is perfect as Rosaleen’s grandmother; this is certainly no Disney film. David Warner is, as ever, quite good as Rosaleen’s father, though once you know that he had recently broken both his legs and sat down at every opportunity, you won’t be able not to notice. And most surprisingly, a post-Zod Terence Stamp appears in an uncredited cameo as The Devil himself.

After weaving through various stories, The Company of Wolves culminates in Rosaleen becoming a Little Red Riding Hood figure. The interactions between her and the Huntsman tease at what we expect from the story, while being quite different. Rosaleen should by now be prepared to meet her grandmother’s expectations and defend herself from the Huntsman, but perhaps she has not learned the lesson she was supposed to. Perhaps she is willing to change, and to be consumed.

The Company of Wolves is open to interpretation. Jordan himself doesn’t think the ending fits the rest of the film. Meaning is there if you want to find it, however, both in the individual stories, and the way they combine and conflict in Rosaleen’s psyche. The way the film is unclear about its intent, yet full of purpose, is a mark both of Carter’s intelligence and Jordan’s affinity for her work.

Commentary Comments: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, 1988)

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I usually watch a movie with commentary less because I want to learn something than because I still need to process my feelings about it. This has proved especially true with the first two Hellraiser movies. Heck, I watched the first one three times over consecutive days, twice with commentaries. It didn’t even matter that Clive Barker was on both and he repeated himself a fair bit. Having never seen these movies before, I’m suddenly fascinated by them. The fact that the commentaries are indeed full of interesting behind the scenes information makes them all the more worthwhile.

The Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 commentary features Peter Atkins (screenwriter), Tony Randel (director), and Ashley Lawrence (Kirsty). It’s a slightly uncomfortable listen, as this is an obviously flawed film, and Randel, a producer on Hellraiser who made his directorial debut with Hellbound, has some strong regrets about it. I also suspect that Lawrence got along better with Barker than with these two (Barker seemed quite appreciative of her on the Hellraiser commentaries), and has little to say. Still, there’s a lot to learn from this discussion.

Budget cuts definitely seem to have hurt Hellbound. Scenes such as Captain Spencer’s procurement of the puzzle box would have been good to see, and if that thing attached to Channard’s head (which, yes, is meant to look like a giant Hellpenis (no one mentions that it also looks like one of the surgical tools he was using in his first scene, which makes a lot of sense)) was linked back to Leviathan, as intended, that’d make the connection between them more clear.

Randel is displeased with the scenes involving Frank, seeing them as too tied to Hellraiser rather than the events of this film. The problem was that Andrew J. Robinson dropped out at the last minute and the script needed to be rewritten.  Robinson makes anything better, and Larry being there definitely would have been an improvement. Still, Atkins defends the film as it stands by saying that Larry shouldn’t be in Hell. Fair enough, but it’s not unimaginable that Larry could have wound up trapped in there despite not being a bad guy. Atkins also says that Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank gives her the strength to help Tiffany later in the film. He bemoans a mindset that privileges action and pacing over characterisation. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to have all three.

Atkins seems rather irritated as he describes how much hate he’s gotten from fans about Channard killing the Cenobites. Now, I generally think fans claim too much ownership over their favourite things, and while creative decisions are certainly open to criticism, the people who make them don’t deserve personal abuse. Regardless, this particular scene is, indeed, TERRIBLE. Everything about the way it occurs suggests a major battle that we don’t get, and the characters we’ve known from the last movie should not be killed off so quickly by a catchphrase spouting newcomer. Pinhead and his Cenobites are powerful figures, and the movie as it stands does not establish why Channard should be stronger. It’s not even fully evident whether they’re defending Kirsty, holding onto their place in Hell’s pecking order, or just fighting for their lives.

Atkins claims that the Cenobites have been weakened by Kirsty’s reminder that they were once human. I can also read into it that Leviathan wants to replace them with Channard, as he was more evil in his former life than they ever were. I can buy this because the movie has a strong sense of mystery about it that suggests there is more going on behind the scenes than what we get onscreen. Nonetheless, this sense of mystery, though it covers for problems with the script and direction, is owed more than anything else to Barker’s concepts and Christopher Young’s magnificent score. I’m not sure how much credit Atkins and Randel deserve for what they get away with in Hellbound.

Amusingly, Lawrence makes a comment about Kirsty and Tiffany getting together at the end of the movie, but she and Atkins also ship Kirsty and Pinhead. They’re not the only ones; they’ve seen the evidence in fanzines. Hellraiser fanfic? The mind boggles.

Taking a Shot: Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme, 1984)

It’s true that Stop Making Sense was put together from footage filmed at three different Talking Heads shows, and that the band rerecorded some of the audio to cover technical issues. It’s certainly not a raw concert film, nor was it meant to be. However, this takes nothing away from the energy and chemistry apparent between the musicians. The performances are fundamental in this regard, but it helps that Demme avoids music video style quick cuts, using plenty of longer shots to get the viewer involved in what the musicians are doing. The most obvious example of this is “Once in a Lifetime,” which goes more than four minutes without a cut. I’m fond of one particular shot from near the end of “Burning Down the House,” however.

The camera starts over here, with David Byrne and Alex Weir strumming away madly together…

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…then, wavering slightly, it follows Weir as he goes over to his microphone…

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…then it moves, blurring the image in its enthusiasm, over to Byrne in the middle of the stage…

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…and then over to Jerry Harrison, Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt doing something joyous and indescribable.

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This film is supposed to make the viewer feel as though they, not the people who attended the shows, are the audience. In shots like this, the camera moves as if it’s the viewer’s eye, looking across the stage and back again. If we were there, we wouldn’t be able to take everything in, because there would be too much to see. Demme makes that clear within this single shot, which also connects five of the band in order to show how caught up they are in the music they’re all making together.

Not your average crime drama: Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)

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When Bob Hoskins announced his retirement from acting last year, as he has contracted Parkinson’s Disease, George in Mona Lisa was one of the roles that I saw most highly recommended out of his entire career. And indeed, he gives a bruisingly honest performance in this quietly original and surprisingly emotional film.

George, newly released from jail, is handed a job by mob boss Mortwell (Michael Caine) that he’s not only ill-suited for, but that offends him: he’s to be a driver for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-class prostitute who is also black, and has plenty of secrets besides. Though George initially has no respect for Simone, the two grow to rely upon each other, especially after she sends him on a search through London’s scungy, neon-lit streets and clubs in search of a friend she’s lost.

Tyson makes Simone an unforgettable figure, ever a mystery, hanging onto her hard-earned dignity where she can. Hoskins’ George is funny in his gaucheness, endearing in his naivety, and touching in his loneliness, all of which make his capacity for explosive violence only more terrifying. Caine plays dangerous and cold without trying to take over the film, and Robbie Coltrane is also solid as Thomas, a friend of George.

This film is definitely filtered through George’s perspective, which keeps it from properly focusing on the lives of female sex workers – but his inability to understand them is precisely its point.

Mona Lisa often feels quirky in unobtrusive ways, which gives it a uniqueness even though it is part of a well-trodden genre. It is full of humour even though it can be grim, devastating even. Above all, it’s one to hold up against other British crime dramas to damn them for their lack of heart.

For Walken and Penn die-hards only: At Close Range (James Foley, 1986)

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After seeing Heaven’s Gate last year, I decided that I needed more Christopher Walken in my life. The ensuing streak of bad luck I had with that goal didn’t end until I watched Seven Psychopaths some months later.

It was difficult to make up my mind about which Walken film to order from Quickflix, but I thought I’d go with one that didn’t destroy Michael Cimino’s career and watch The Deer Hunter, which I’d only seen half of, ten years ago. Once the DVD arrived, however, I had to face the fact that sitting through The Deer Hunter was going to be kind of upsetting. I put it off and put It off, and a couple of weeks later we had a weekend of storms so heavy that it wasn’t completely safe to go outside. Stuck at home with limited viewing options, I figured that it was now or never for The Deer Hunter. Then the disc wouldn’t play. It had a crack in it. I chucked the movie back in a mailbox once the rain let up.

Some time after, I ordered At Close Range, having heard that it features an underrated performance from Walken. The disc went missing in the mail. Quickflix ignored my first email about this, so I didn’t get a replacement for another couple of weeks. This movie was making me mad already, and it wouldn’t stop there, either.

At Close Range stars Sean Penn as Brad Jr, a teenager living in a backwoods town who tries to strengthen his relationship with his distant and mysterious father, Brad Sr (Walken), who’s the head of a local criminal gang. Mary Stuart Masterson is Penn’s girlfriend, Chris Penn is his brother, and Crispin Glover is in there being weird with terrible hair.

After finally watching it, I can only recommend At Close Range to people who have a particular liking for how Sean Penn looked in 1986. The movie has lots of long, lingering shots of his face and body. His looks seem to be a shorthand for why we’re supposed to like Brad Jr, since he doesn’t talk much and Penn only gives the slightest impression that there’s anything going on in his head. I was bemused that Brad Jr wants to cut ties with Brad Sr after finding out that his dad, surprise surprise, sometimes has people killed. Brad Jr would have to be a total idiot not to have at least guessed this, and he doesn’t seem like it would bother him a great deal anyway.

There’s very little plot to this movie, and it’s slowed even further by pretentious visuals. Nondescript synth music accompanies close-ups of body parts moving. Brad Jr’s dumb buddies are given fun-filled, sunset-lit montages. Brad Sr contributes some lens flare by turning around to direct the torch he’s holding straight into the camera. The film ends with a zoom into a grainy freeze frame of Brad Jr’s anguished face. Whatever Foley was going for, the result ends up being cheesy, and not in an enjoyable way.

Is Walken scary in this film? Sure, and not just because of the moustache. He manages this while being fairly understated in comparison to his more famous roles. But unless you’re really, really interested in him, or like Sean Penn for some reason I can’t relate to, At Close Range is just a waste of time.