“The Great Wall” adopts a philosophy that all famous wonders must be rooted in the legend of absurdist yarns, and that their endurance apparently comes at the expense of sacrifices too great for the respect of modern civilization. Of course, no one involved contemplates the scientific practicality of that suggestion, but no wonder – movies of this vain are far more devoted to their underlying cynicism than they are focused on creating believable worlds, even in the context of their rather elastic suggestions. But for the sake of getting through a basic plot description, let us suspend, for a brief minute, the disbelief that comes when we contemplate this ridiculous premise. Thousands of years ago, China’s great wall was constructed as a barrier to keep enemies away from the empire they hoped to dismantle, but the greatest of those threats was not human at all: it was a horde of ravenous beasts resembling alligators on stilts, who moved with ferocious speed, attacked with evolving precision and seemed to feed from the psychic energy of a queen who, I guess, desired to conquer all mankind in some karma-ridden crusade. The human characters regard this war with military precision and unsmiling focus (as they should), but it never dawns on anyone involved that maybe, just maybe, a future that must be saved from the dangers of an alien reptile onslaught may not be a future worth facing in the first place.
Romantic interests are rarely as simple as an act of affection or a passionate gesture, though few of the more naïve movie fantasies freely dissent from that assumption. To their directors, it’s easier for a story to coddle the complexities into a neat package of hopes and desires rather than descend into their paralyzing mysteries, though that may be of a great disservice; once we become wise to the sensations we grow to resent the idea of unrealistic happy endings. On the other hand, an exhausting discussion about contradictions can lead less experienced sorts astray from taking risks, because we are not easily programmed to tolerate a constant barrage of mistakes and arguments, especially if they may lead to damaged connections. In some strange way, both perspectives are dealt with at arm’s length by the characters at the forefront of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” which tells of two female friends vacationing in the Spanish countryside who walk into the lives of people who may expand (or even tarnish) their views of human relationships. Woody Allen is hardly foreign to the concept of these kinds of spirited discussions, of course, but rarely has he taken them this far, or been so perceptive about the discoveries he makes in the company of his focused actors.
When it comes to supernatural dangers, a priest to the movies is what black cats are to superstitious amblers – a presence that should to be avoided at all costs, lest they lure you into the hungry jaws of pain and suffering. A certain awareness of this possibility rises to prominence in the early scenes of “The Vatican Tapes,” in which Father Lozano (Michael Pena) is seen casually brushing past an injured woman arriving at the hospital. Their dialogue is brief and innocuous, but necessitated; it implicates their relationship as one of destiny, to be escalated shortly thereafter when said woman begins to show signs of a dangerous pathological state. Yet just as precise the foreshadowing is, one can’t help but wonder if it all comes off as excessively ham-handed, even for a film of this nature. Certainly we know what we are in for right from the beginning as opening credits roll, in which a montage of footage of exorcisms is seen flashing between title cards. Certainly the early discussions of priests warning each other of demonic forces are enough to implicate a source. And certainly the abrupt transition of the heroine’s charming demeanor to one of misery is enough to lead one down all the obligatory psychological and moral detours of demonic possession premises. Observing these devices in all their vulgar and excessive glory made me nostalgic for the subtlety of “The Exorcist,” a film that outlasted all others because it trusted the audience to assemble the mystery in the slow passages.
The scene is a parking lot, just after a teenager’s birthday party, where three high school girls enter a car that is destined to be their final link to freedom. He who enters the driver’s seat is not the vehicle’s owner but rather a stranger – ominous and suspicious, wearing black-framed glasses and an expression of deadened complacence. Their uncertainty is far more persistent than their fear, resulting in knee-jerk struggles that come far too late; after spraying their faces with a sleeping agent they awake in a small dusty room somewhere underground, unknowing of what troubles await them. Their confusion is emulated by audiences that too have little concept of what will transpire, even as the movie delves deeply into the framework of a psychological crisis. That’s because its villain, played with deadpan conviction by James McAvoy, is not your conventional psycho interested in orchestrating brutal suffering (although there is some level of that throughout). His is a body housing multiple personalities – some childlike, others nurturing, and a few troubled beyond rational thought. Who are they going to see every time the door to their prison opens? A less threatening face, or one that will bring them incredible harm?