By BRUCE DENNILL
Wet Wet Wet: Greatest Hits Tour – Live In Glasgow / A 7
Lone Survivor / Directed by Peter Berg / 16LV 8
Devil’s Pass / Directed by Renny Harlin / 13HL 6
Vampire Academy / Directed by Mark Waters / 13V 7.5
This concert performance film is a grower. When Wet Wet Wet kick off proceedings on more or less their home stage (their first professional gigs were in Glasgow) they come across more or less as the naysayers describe them – dad-rockers best-known for contributing to the soundtrack of Four Weddings And A Funeral, with opener Run being one of their weaker tracks. Marti Pellow’s light-up mic stand is the most impressive thing about that first sequence, though only in the cheesiest way possible. But as the singer warms up – he has wonderful tone and doesn’t mind showing it off, repeatedly, with long, sustained notes – the hits start coming, and there are so many of them that only the most resolute anti-fan will try to deny the band their place in the spotlight. Wishing I Was Lucky, Julia Says, Angel Eyes (Home & Away), Sweet Little Mystery, Sweet Surrender, Temptation and Goodnight Girl are just some of the original works that have stood the test of time and will continue to do so, and the band’s well-chosen covers – Songbird, With A Little Help From My Friends and, of course, Love Is All Around only embellish a reputation that would’ve stood strong and proud on its own. This is not a risky show at all, with the band comprising great session players rather than out-and-out showmen. Pellow has plenty of presence, but he’s a kind, friendly presence rather than a strutting, crotch-in-your-face rock star (though he does have the leather pants for the latter role). Just after halfway through the generous, 21-track setlist, there is a stripped-down, acoustic interlude that adds some dynamic interest. It must be said, though, that the songwriting and performances are of a standard high enough to maintain interest throughout. You won’t be thrilled, necessarily, but you will be entertained.
It’s no indictment on on Hollywood scriptwriters that war films that aren’t based on reality are so often less than convincing. It’s simply that the real deal is infinitely more terrifying than anything someone sitting in a Sunset Strip coffee shop can dream up. Director Peter Berg likes the harsh reality approach: his contribution to the superhero genre, Hancock, involved a protagonist with superpowers, but also a set of all-too-human weaknesses. In Lone Survivor, all the gloss is stripped away from the re-telling of the story of Marcus Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) and the team he is part of, tasked with capturing or killing Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in Afghanistan in 2005. There are a couple of touches of the Ra-Ra-America! one-sidedness that more often than not blight such projects, but these are generally overwhelmed by a willingness to expose the weaknesses – the downright stupidity, even – of the American effort to take on an established, well-equipped regime in its own backyard. The script underlines that, conceptually, there are no absolutes in war: a decision made for sound reasons now may result in terrible hardship later. For that reason, it’s possible to identify – to a limited degree, and for a limited time – with all perspectives presented in this film, while never for a moment considering endorsing any of them. There are action sequences of wince-inducing brutality as the gear-laden American soldiers are hunted down by the unsophisticated locals, who have on their side both knowledge of the terrain and icy devotion to their ideologies. It’s slow-motion car-crash stuff, without the slow motion – you’ll want to look away, but be unable to do so. By the end, bruised and battered – though not nearly so much as the characters – you’ll question Berg’s motives for making the film. If he’s aiming to make a statement about the futility of war, he’s on the money, with an occasional hedged bet in the way that he allows the Americans to be the heroes when in fact everyone with a gun in this scenario is just as willing as the next man to shoot everyone else with a gun. A more accurate reflection of the moral sliding scale on screen is who audiences feel more sorry for, and that will likely change as the film goes on. There’s nothing at all to celebrate in what the Taliban stands for, but neither is there much of a positive nature in the gung-ho American attitude to it. A great piece of filmmaking, but it’ll leave you with a slightly queasy feeling when the credits start to roll.
Renny Harlin hasn’t come a long way since helming Die Hard, but he does still have a way with suspense that makes horror/found footage thriller Devil’s Pass worthwhile. The “based on a true story” line above the title should be taken with a truckful of salt: Harlin’s film places a group of young students – it’s always students, isn’t it? – in a remote, mountainous area in Russia, trying to get some answers regarding the mystery of what happened to nine Russian skiiers who died in the area in 1959. That story may have happened, but other than being referred to in news clippings, it has nothing to do with what happens here other than giving our protagonists a reason to be in the location where they went missing. For much of the film, the usual teen horror formulae play out – strange incidents occur, usually just offscreen, causing stress that puts strain on the characters’ relationships. What gives this film a slight lead on other efforts based in less exotic climes is that isolated frozen wastelands already have their own mythology (Yetis and so on), so the audience’s imagination is already primed to imagine strange, menacing creatures. When the unseen beasts do materialise, they’re presented in an unpredicatable and even vaguely credible way (on a sliding scale of documentary to the Saw films), but once the cat’s out of the bag, rather too much time is spent indulging that twist, meaning that the film ends without anyone feeling cheated out of the time they’ve spent watching it, but also with a vague feeling that more could have been made of a solid set-up.
As a film title, Vampire Academy is not encouraging. Enough with the sodding undead already. But Mark Waters’ presence behind the camera is better news: he directed Mean Girls and wrote Heathers, so he knows plenty about the best way to present the drama and comedy generated when a group of young women struggle for prominence in a shared context. That context here is St Vladimir’s Academy, a school for good vampires, bad vampires, half-human-half-vampires and everyone in between (the mythology is clearly established early on). As in any school or college-related production, there are matters of culture, peer pressure and romance to consider, and relative unknowns Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, Dominic Sherwood, Cameron Monaghan and Sami Gayle do a superb job of combining those tried and tested dynamics with the whipsmart dialogue and sophisticated wit in Daniel Waters’ script. That script, and knowing (but never smug) mien of the heroine, Rose Hathaway (Deutch) mean that a satisfying laugh is never far away, and the twists and turns of the plot always intrigue, never annoy. This will be a pleasant surprise for first-time viewers and possibly a guilty pleasure for fifth or sixth-timers – there’s certainly enough between-the-lines stuff to make returning to the film a few times an enjoyable exercise.