Here's some good news: Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly cracked the box office top ten this week, coming in at #10, while playing only on 216 screens. Our number one movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, is playing on 4133. For the math geeks out there, that's nearly 20 times as many screens. The difference between the two movies is that Pirates needs to saturate the market as quickly as possible before moviegoers discover how truly mediocre it is, while A Scanner Darkly is the kind of movie you want to ponder, then go back and see again.
I have still only seen the film once, but I continue to roll it around in my brain. It's a bit of a downer, focusing mostly on drug addiction and very little of the cool gadgetry that make other Philip K. Dick movies so cult-worthy; the best trick is the identity-mixing suit that the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) has to wear in his capacity as a drug cop. Yet A Scanner Darkly has quite a bit to say about drugs, especially the business of drugs and the emotional side of drugs. Plus, the kooky, cartoony performances by Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. go a long way in lightening the movie's load.
Either way, it's definitely the darling of the under-400 set -- unlike many of our other guests. Last week while Ebert was recovering from his current hospital stay, the "Ebert & Roeper" show ran a clip package of the worst films of the year so far. That's kind of a stretch since our duo seem to give the "two thumbs up" stamp of approval to just about every piece of junk that Hollywood spews out. But they managed to come up with a few genuine stinkers, such as RV (currently on 302 screens), Stick It (currently on 89 screens), Just My Luck (currently on 37 screens) and Wassup Rockers (currently on 30 screens).
I think I can do one better. In my years of reviewing, I've been convinced that just about every year has been the worst yet. But this is a critic's game that has been played out since time began. James Agee once complained that 1943 was particularly awful. Among its horrors: Shadow of a Doubt, I Walked with a Zombie, Day of Wrath Heaven Can Wait, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Ossessione, Meshes of the Afternoon, The Seventh Victim, Journey Into Fear, The Leopard Man, Hangmen Also Die, Air Force, Cabin in the Sky, This Land Is Mine... Need I go on? Agee had it good.
So far, for me, 2000 was a particular low point, but even that yielded Edward Yang's masterpiece Yi Yi as well as a few gems like Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother Where Art Thou?, Stephen Frears' High Fidelity and Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys all of which I'd glady watch again. Last year was particularly gruesome, though I loved Terrence Malick's The New World, Ingmar Berman's Saraband and Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, among other items.
But 2006 is nearly half over, and we're talking about a level of mediocrity even worse. Let's not even talk about all those films that didn't screen for the press (that's one dead horse) or the ones I skipped in the name of humanity. Let's start with Deepa Mehta's Water (43 screens), a pathetic, hackneyed story heavy on the exposition and self-importance, but wrapped up in a great big puff of "pretty" so that art house audiences will think they've seen something profound.
How about the completely, utterly pointless The Omen (191 screens)? How many horror remakes do we have to suffer through before Hollywood learns its lesson? Here's your answer: all of them!
Don't get me started on the horrid Kinky Boots (17 screens), with the great actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stuck in a secondary role as a sexless drag queen whose job it is to be sassy so that a soggy Englishman can get his daddy's shoe factory back up to speed in time for a big fashion show in Milan. Talk about taking the Full Monty formula and flogging the stuffing out of it...
For some reason, the Australian Look Both Ways (5 screens) has been an audience favorite, but this is nothing more than a dour disease-of-the-week movie that made me feel queasy and tired. Likewise Francois Ozon's dreadful new movie, Time to Leave. Two cancer movies in one month is two too many, thanks.
The Hidden Blade (3 screens) is yet another example of filmmakers attempting to be meaningful by taking a perfectly good samurai flick, slowing it down, making it longer and adding a lot of dates in the subtitles to make it seem all historical and stuff. Yawn.
The Beauty Academy of Kabul (5 screens) is an example of why the new wave of digital documentaries is not necessarily a good thing. Did these filmmakers have any idea that their subjects were so annoying? If they did, why didn't they let on? And what's up with The Devil and Daniel Johnston (8 screens)? Here, the subject is actually alive and available to be interviewed, but he doesn't show up until the final 20 minutes! It's time to do a little more than follow the PBS format here...
And that's not even going anywhere near the top of the list with sludge like Little Man, You, Me and Dupree, The Da Vinci Code, Click and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. But you didn't hear that from me.