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Three and out

Some movies are good, some are passable and some are...

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Rarely in the course of a single year do three movies as thoroughly mediocre as The Promise, Don't Come Knocking and One Last Thing... open on the same weekend. But bad movies come to art houses, too, and in this lull between the current hits Thank You for Smoking and Friends with Money and the forthcoming The Notorious Bettie Page, L'Enfant and Art School Confidential, a bombs-filled weekend such as this one is inevitable.

Two of the three films are from acclaimed directors with much better work to their credit. The Promise is the latest from Chinese director Chen Kaige, who made his lasting reputation with Farewell My Concubine. Don't Come Knocking is the work of Wim Wenders, a German-American director who has been coasting for years on a reputation forged by Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire. With their new films, both Kaige and Wenders seem less like the cinematic wunderkinds they once were and more like tired salesmen with combovers trying to sell a product that was hot years ago.

Goddess Manshen's epic hair in the less-than-epic fantasy The Promise - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER INDEPENDENT PICTURES

Chen's The Promise is the worst of the three films under consideration. Arriving years too late for the Chinese martial arts fantasy party, Kaige's film nonetheless attempts to scoop up the diminishing international box office gold unearthed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Like the décor of a third-rate Chinese restaurant, however, the eye candy visuals of The Promise are lurid, musty and moth-eaten. Goddesses fly through the air, mighty armies march through vast, computer-generated landscapes, and massive columns of water rise up and cascade down on cue, all to negligible effect.

Meanwhile, the plot is as saccharine and gummy as General Tso's Chicken. We're introduced to a lost little girl named Qingcheng, newly orphaned after a terrible battle that seems to have claimed her parents. After the poor girl loses a piece of bread that she has scavenged from the battlefield, a Goddess drops by and offers her a "choice" that she can't refuse: Live a life of luxury and power, but be condemned to losing every man you love. Considering that the girl really has no alternative but to accept, it's puzzling that the movie proceeds to make a federal tragedy of a desperate little girl's supposed Faustian bargain.

The ensuing story is a bewildering farrago of fantasy archetypes making extravagant gestures with minimally explained motives. There's no psychology anywhere in this film, and no reason to take any of the characters seriously. The girl grows beautiful and becomes the kept Princess of a cruel tyrant. A Slave and a General fall in love with her. An Assassin becomes involved, as does the cunning and cruel Duke of the North. Characters jump tall buildings in a single bound and outrun the wind. The waters rise and cities crumble. A villain's fans turn, Bond-like, into lethal boomerang-blades. And on and on the visual overload continues, to absolutely no emotional impact.

Finally, the film's insulting ending is meant to be uplifting, but its "lesson" is one best suited for children who have not yet been taught about death: Broken promises can be kept, time can flow backward and the dead can come back to life. Isn't it pretty to think so?

The best that can be said of Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking is that his eye for the Western landscape hasn't left him. And boy is there a lot of time to admire those vistas.

The film, scripted by Sam Shepard, concerns a movie star named Howard Spence, played by Shepard himself, who suffers an emotional breakdown. We first meet Spence on the set of a Western, where he's been binging on drugs, booze and women in his trailer before he decides to blow the whole thing off by disappearing from the set. The bonding company responsible for making sure the film gets finished sends an agent (Tim Roth) to track him, in what must be a parody of the Western cliché of the sheriff hunting down the outlaw.

We learn that Howard is a notoriously self-destructive movie star, a rogue in the Dennis Hopper mold. With the bonding agent in not-so-hot pursuit, Howard makes his way to Reno, where he visits with his mother (Eva Marie Saint, welcome back), before he pushes on to Butte, Mont., where the film's second half unfolds. It turns out that long ago, while shooting a Western there, Howard had a fling with a local woman with the righteously down-home name of Doreen. Now, years later, Doreen (Jessica Lange) is a waitress with a grown son, a resentful and thoroughly stupid musician named Earl (Gabriel Mann). Meanwhile, in a subplot that never comes uncongealed, a slinky young lady called Sky (Sarah Polley) shadows Howard while lugging an urn that contains the cremated remains of her mother.

Middle-aged regret and reconciliation--it's the fashion with aging filmmakers these days, and it's a marvel that Bill Murray wasn't cast as the cowboy. To the film's limited credit, there are moments of Wendersian wooziness, as in the languorous, Cowboy Junkie-ish tunes of Earl's country combo, which includes his girl Amber (played by Fairuza Balk as a comic harpie).

Despite the retro-hip cast, the lonesome twangings on the soundtrack and the long slow pans across empty Western townscapes, Don't Come Knocking is a movie that has been made, and remade, before, by Shepard, Wenders and many others. It's a measure of how infatuated Wenders and Shepard are with the images and the ideas of Americana that they don't seem to care that nobody makes Westerns anymore and, with the possible exception of Kevin Costner, there's not a working actor today who is identified with that genre.

With Don't Come Knocking, Wenders seems to want to debunk the romantic image of a vast, pastoral West even as he luxuriates in it. The fact that much of the West is desolate, wasted and weird won't be news to anyone who has traveled out there, nor is it news to filmmakers who have already studied the place (Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, John Sayles in Silver City). To be sure, Wenders films Butte in a way that seems consistent with the reality of today's dead-end Western towns, but unfortunately, just as there are no people in Butte, there are no fresh ideas for a movie either.

If there's a common theme--other than badness--running through this weekend's new releases, it would be Facing Mortality. This is borne out most explicitly in One Last Thing..., a gruesome "comedy" about a terminally ill teenaged punk given the sadly generic name of Dylan. At the film's outset, Dylan (Michael Angarano) is preparing for an appearance on local television where a foundation that grants the wishes of dying children will bestow what he'd stated was his fondest wish, a fishing trip with a football star. In a rare bit of honesty, where these things are concerned, the film's premise is that this lad really wants to have sex before he dies, and preferably with a hot model.

Once this premise is established, there are a couple of ways to go with it. One would be to explore the ways in which our sexual desires are bound up in consumerism, so that something as unreal as a swimsuit pinup model gets thrown into a dying boy's existential crisis. Another would be to send the whole thing up as the parody of teen horndogginess that it is. This would be the South Park approach, but the film--nominally a comedy--actually takes its premise seriously and provides a rebellious model named Nikki Sinclair (Sunny Mabrey) to take a fancy to Dylan and fulfill his wish.

Imagine that: A movie endorses a terminally ill teen boy's desire to lose his virginity with a model before dying. It's hard to think of a greater insult to the idea of teen boys having mature relationships with their female peers than this film, and if there's any symptom of our oversexualized consumer culture, this is it.

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