Diary of a Movie Madman

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, March 17, 2003

 Oscar time is almost upon us, with the Academy Awards ceremony airing at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. And look at you – you haven’t seen even one of the films nominated for best picture yet.

We certainly hadn’t. Who has time? So, being efficient as well as foolhardy, we decided that we would knock out all five in one recent weekday. We took advantage of a rare opportunity – that is, all the films are still playing in the area, at least until Friday. Typically, by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around, not all nominated films are still being shown in theaters.

Careful planning, multiple theaters from which to choose, and copious amounts of popcorn and diet soda should make seeing all five films a breeze, right?

Well, sorta. A day at the movies circa 2003 means murder, mayhem, suicide and war – with a couple of great song-and-dance numbers thrown in. And John C. Reilly.

Follow along with us and we’ll show you how it’s done … so you don’t have to.

11 a.m. – ‘The Pianist’

There’s nothing like a Holocaust in the morning to get you off to a depressing start. But “The Pianist” has the earliest start time, and we’ve got 13 hours of movies to see, so here is where we begin. Still … the Warsaw ghetto at 11 a.m.? But it’s not as off-putting as one might think: There are 25 people in the Tower Theatre – the biggest audience we’ll see all day.

However, best-picture nomination aside, after two and a half hours of mass murder, summary executions and a final hour of best-actor nominee Adrien Brody being reduced to skin, bone and beard, one can be excused for feeling drained.

Certainly, not everyone can hang with the grim scenario. One man gets up and leaves, then another. The second, Jack Wiseman of Sacramento, 56, says he didn’t realize what he was getting into.

“I thought I could handle it, but it’s too real,” he says apologetically. “Maybe I’ll try it again later.”

The rest of us stick it out, waiting for some uplifting ending, but it never really comes. And that last hour of watching Brody struggling for scraps has exhausted us … and made us hungry.

We’ve got a short break between the end of “The Pianist” at 1:35 and the start of “Chicago” downtown at 2:15. So we grab a quick burrito at the Downtown Plaza food court – our last actual meal for the day.

2:15 p.m. – ‘Chicago’

Now this is a movie. This is fun. This is, as many critics have noted, the best recreation of a Broadway musical for the silver screen in many years.

This is also more murder and mayhem, but it’s been Americanized, which means it’s pretty to watch. It’s also got a good beat and you can laugh at it.

But there’s another walkout. As authorities interrogate the murderess Roxie Hart (best actress nominee Renee Zellweger), who’s been cheating on her husband (best supporting actor nominee John C. Reilly) and shoots her lover, an angry filmgoer leaves the theater.

“She’s just a ‘ho,’ ” she mutters on her way out. Yes, she is – but we like her. At least she’s not a Nazi. And she can sing.

Indeed, the movie is wry and smart, a sophisticated meditation on celebrity, crime and the media. There are only 13 people in the theater – but they’re smiling.

4 p.m. – ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’

This is where our plan breaks down. “Chicago” ends at 4:15, and the next movie is 15 miles away, at the United Artists Laguna Village. We’re already behind, and with rush hour on High`way 99, we don’t arrive at the theater until 4:55.

And guess what? There’s a battle going on. Death and destruction. Who’d-a thunk? Hobbits, elves, orks, wizards, various monsters, walking/talking trees, big castles, storms and a handful of very medieval-looking humans in a classic battle of good vs. evil. We’re in J.R.R. Tolkien’s World War II-inspired territory, but it’s more like a giant video game.

Which, frankly, is a good thing: We need a bit of a break, and an hour and a half of mindless entertainment is just fine. The 17 other people in the theater seem to agree.

And the scenery’s great. Note to self: Visit New Zealand.

But first, go to the next movie. We leave 45 minutes before the end. We figure that good is going to triumph (though not until the third installment) and besides, we don’t want to miss any of the next film.

6:55 p.m. – ‘Gangs of New York’

Since our next theater, the Century Laguna, is only 3.5 miles away, we do have enough time to grab a “light dinner”: popcorn (no butter) and a diet Coke. OK, some Junior Mints, for dessert – and energy.

It’s a good thing we’re seeing “Gangs” from the start because it starts with an excellent … battle! Unlike “The Two Towers,” however, this one features all humans, but they’re barely human. The monstrous gang battles in mid-19th century New York City make the cartoonish fights in “Towers” pale. This is blood, guts, brutality and sociopathology on a grand scale.

This is America in its formative years. The accuracy of the history has been assailed by some, but the story the movie tells feels as new and horrifying, and ultimately as true, as the daily newspaper. This is the film that will haunt us when our five movies in one day are over. This is the movie we could see again … if we could handle it.

The film also marks the reappearance for us of John C. Reilly, the wonderful character actor from “Chicago” (and also “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights” and “The Perfect Storm.”) In “Gangs,” he’s a member of the Irish gang, the Dead Rabbits.

There are 18 people in the audience. So far today, we’ve shared theaters with 73 people, which makes that ubiquitous Fandango ad warning us to buy our tickets online to beat the crowds look a little silly. We’ve seen 13 previews and are well aware that “Charlie’s Angels” are coming, as are all sorts of movies we can’t quite remember right now. But they’ll be here soon enough. And based on our reaction, most will be forgettable.

At 9:42 p.m., we stagger out of the theater, call a friend to rave about the film – and get some human contact. A whole day has passed, most of it with us sitting transfixed in the dark land of make-believe. And we’ve still got one more movie to go. A quiet one, a so-called “chick flick.” We’re sure we’ll fall asleep.

10 p.m. – ‘The Hours’

And yet, we don’t fall asleep, even after driving 26 miles in 20 minutes to the Century Stadium 16 at Arden and Ethan. Because “The Hours,” as low-key and decorous as it is compared to the other nominated films, still has something going for it: There’s more death!

No actual battles, of course, but people keep dying. And those who aren’t dying – in two cases, by killing themselves – are thinking about it. A lot. It has become clear in the course of this day that death, not sex, is the central preoccupation of modern filmmakers.

And for the first time, we’re all alone in the theater, a fitting way to end this odd odyssey.

But the psychological pain of “The Hours” – the angst, the tears, the lousy communication, the creeping insanity, the relentless Philip Glass music – is as hard on us as the knives and hatchets of “Gangs of New York.”

But there’s a familiar face: John C. Reilly, again. Here he’s playing another husband who loses out.

And – stop here if you don’t want to know – he dies (of course).

But “The Hours” is nuanced, moving and not a moment too long. We even shed a tear at the end, though that could be mere fatigue … or dry eyes.

The last lines of the movie, ostensibly from Virginia Woolf, sum up simply why all these violent, death-filled movies touch us:

“Someone has to die,” intones the voiceover, “so that the rest of us will value life more.”

At midnight, it’s over. The battles and murders and suicides are done, the actors have all moved on to new movies, and we can go home – uniquely ready for the Oscar broadcast Sunday.

And $52.81 and a few gallons of gas poorer. But the Academy has several fine movies to choose from – though we’re sure to have nightmares.

And we’re planning to avoid popcorn for a while.

THE PIANIST
When we saw it: 11 a.m.
Where: Tower Theatre
Plot: A Jewish pianist fights for his life in the Warsaw ghetto.
Run time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

CHICAGO
When we saw it: 2:15 p.m.
Where: Century Downtown Plaza
Plot: Fame is murder. Or is it the other way around?
Run time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE TWO TOWERS
When we saw it: 4 p.m. (more or less)
Where: United Artists Laguna Village
Plot: Hobbits and wizards and orcs, oh my! (Part two, that is.)
Run time: 2 hours, 59 minutes

GANGS OF NEW YORK
When we saw it: 6:55 p.m.
Where: Century Laguna 16
Plot: Leo and Daniel are Martin Scorsese’s original gangstas.
Run time: 2 hours, 48 minutes

THE HOURS
When we saw it: 10 p.m.
Where: Century Stadium 14
Plot: Three women in different eras play
Six Degrees of Virginia Woolf.
Run time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

D