Grantland editor Robert Mays loves going to the movies. January and February, or Dumpuary, as we've dubbed the post-holiday, pre-Oscar period when Hollywood disposes of its least promising fare, is a terrible time to see movies. And so, in an attempt to break him the way Kevin Spacey broke that fat guy who loved spaghetti in Se7en, we asked him to spend two consecutive days at the biggest multiplex we could find, seeing everything they had to offer, from the moment they opened to the minute they closed. This is his viewing journal.
When I got to the Universal CityWalk, at about 10:30 on a Saturday morning in late January, the plaza in front of the AMC Theatres was empty. The video for Adele's "Someone Like You" played on a large video screen adjacent to the 75-foot-high guitar outside Hard Rock Cafe, and as I walked to the ticket window I looked to my left and saw a man with two young girls in tow heading down a path between two brightly lit strings of stores. CityWalk is a stretch of shops and restaurants just outside the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood that looks like a demented neon vision of what the world might look like 50 years from now if it were designed by Joel Schumacher. If it weren't for the man and his daughters, I would have believed I had awoken from a coma after half a century only to find I was the last person on Earth. A really terrible Earth.
I approached the window and pulled out my phone, which housed the list of movies for the day. As I glanced down to open the Notes app, I saw that the battery icon was nearly drained. I had forgotten to charge it the night before — the weekend's first misstep. Well, there went my lifeline. Dispirited, I placed the phone onto the counter.
"Hi. I need one for the 10:40 Contraband."
"Contraband at 10:40, OK."
"Yep. I also need one for the 1:20 Mission: Impossible."
"That's in IMAX," she said. "Is that OK?"
"That's fine. Thanks. I also need one for the 3:40 Devil Inside."
"OK ... "
"And one for the 5:45 Beauty and the Be — "
"Wait, are you going to be here all day?"
"Oh, that's so cool."
I wished I were so sure.
1. Contraband (10:40 a.m., 0 minutes watched)
Two couples were already seated in the theater by the time Contraband started. Eating a box of Milk Duds and watching Mark Wahlberg mail it in apparently makes for a romantic Saturday morning. I sat in the first row of the back section of seats, my feet propped on the railing.
The movie unfolded in much the same way the trailer does: Marky Mark was the best the smuggling biz had ever seen, and after he goes legit, his brother-in-law decides to start running his own game. He wastes little time in thoroughly fucking this up, and 30 minutes in, his buddy is dead, and he's in deep to a local hardass played by Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi continues his storied history of sleazebaggery on film as gun-toting, goatee-having, strange-talking Tim Briggs, and it quickly becomes clear that it's going to take one last job for Criminal Micky Ward to set things straight. The premise is almost identical to that of Gone in 60 Seconds, where Ribisi plays the idiot little brother to Nicolas Cage's master thief.
There was enough gunfire, J.K. Simmons, and cocaine-fueled psychotic twists to keep me thoroughly entertained throughout, and by the end, it was hard to tell whether the movie was better than I expected or I wasn't as hungover as I had thought.
Dirk Smuggler made off with all the loot at about 12:50, and although my stomach hadn't completely settled, I walked to the open concessions stand on the other side of the theater to gauge my food situation for the next two days. If I had to guess, I would say I've been to the movies between 300 and 400 times. Before this, I'd never eaten anything except for popcorn and candy. The decision hadn't been a conscious one — I have eaten too many gray hot dogs at Soldier Field to be of discerning taste — but somehow, meals and movies had remained separate. The fare at this AMC mirrored a standard stadium menu: hot dogs, pizza, nachos, pretzels, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, type 2 diabetes. There was no sense wading in.
"Can I have an order of the mozzarella sticks?"
"Sure," the young man behind the counter said. "Those will be about five minutes."
"No worries," I said. "I've got time."
Five minutes later, I had a gallon of Diet Coke and a cardboard box housing my most Midwestern of lunches, and I was off to Theater 19 [Total Calorie Count: 490]. The AMC Universal CityWalk has 18 normal screens and one IMAX, which is situated on the second floor. I sat down in the back and opened the box. I ignored the marinara sauce. They tasted fine, but I could feel each bite stick to me as it settled.
2. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (1:20 p.m., 1 hour 50 minutes watched)
I was 20 minutes early for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (which I had already seen a few weeks prior), and that meant a heavy dose of "AMC First Look." I will never understand the audience that pre-trailer movie entertainment has in mind, but this time it seemed to be fans of Army Wives on Lifetime, potential fans of The River on ABC (which I'm fairly certain was pitched as Paranormal Activity 4: The Amazon), and those who might appreciate the daredevil camera work in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. One of the commercials — for a Honda CR-V, I guess — featured an exhausted marathon runner receiving a congratulatory text message read aloud by her car. As I munched on fried cheese, I tried to avoid the thought that people run anywhere. How can they run with all those mozzarella sticks sloshing around inside them?
Eventually, Nic Cage stopped espousing the cinematic genius of the men responsible for the Jonah Hex screenplay, and the lights went down. Rather than a set of trailers not fit for the beauty of IMAX, the only preview was the six-minute prologue for The Dark Knight Rises. After Tommy Carcetti tossed a second guy out of a plane and Tom Hardy finished spitting his second line of inscrutable dialogue, I glanced down at my phone. The screen was black. I still had six movies to go. That day.
3. The Devil Inside (3:45 p.m., 4 hours 2 minutes watched)
The low point of the weekend came when I walked out of M:I and realized what was next. Of the 14 movies I was scheduled to see, the one I was dreading most starred neither Katherine Heigl nor the Chipmunks. It had little to do with the 6 percent it was sporting on Rotten Tomatoes, either. The walk to the The Devil Inside felt a mile long for one reason: I hate these movies.
I tend to avoid horror movies altogether, but on occasion, I can stand a slasher flick. If a guy in a Scream mask comes through the door, at least I can hit him with a golf club. If my head spins completely around and I start projectile vomiting, I'm S.O.L. The first try at a weekend schedule left The Devil Inside as the last movie on Saturday night, and that just wasn't happening. One o'clock in the afternoon was far more agreeable, and when I walked into the theater, I was happy to see about a dozen other people that a pissed off demon might find to be better hosts. The theater was cold, and as the trailers started, I pulled the hood of my Chicago Bears sweatshirt over my head and sank into my seat.
Everything was fine until the preview for Silent House, in which Elizabeth Olsen and her father are attacked in a secluded cottage by some deranged woods folk. The trailer ended as Olsen saw a shrouded figure in her rearview mirror, and my only inclination was to say, "Nuh-uh fuck this" and bail. That was when one of the girls sitting behind me, who couldn't have been older than 13, turned to her friend, laughed, and said three crushing words: "That looks stupid."
What followed were 90 of the more unpleasant minutes of my life. With every disjointed limb and sudden voice change, I alternated between cringing and putting a hand over my face (I mean c'mon). Right when it looked like any hope for sleep that night was gone, the screenwriters showed mercy in the form of the worst movie ending I have ever seen. SPOILER ALERT, but don't see this movie, it's terrible: The multiple demons inside the original victim had leapt into the bodies of our other main characters, and as the now-possessed documentary director smashed his car, the screen went black. If you can imagine, the Rossi case is still unsolved.
4. Beauty and the Beast 3D (5:45 p.m., 5 hours 39 minutes watched)
The discomfort of The Devil Inside was replaced with the discomfort of being a grown man in a hoodie sitting alone at Beauty and the Beast. The trailers had already begun when I walked in, and if there were any confused or concerned looks among the parents, I didn't see them. I moved to the back and tried to avoid eye contact along the way. I sat down in the farthest seat I could find and tried to quietly crunch my peanut M&M's [Total Calorie Count (including popcorn): 1,590]. Looking back, I could not have seemed creepier. But I swear, I'm not creepy, I'm just a dude living in a movie theater for a couple of days.
Each of the trailers was for a children's movie, and following tempered responses to The Pirates! Band of Misfits and The Lorax, there was pandemonium for Madagascar 3. I have never seen any of the Madagascar movies, but based on this reaction, Chris Rock must be one hilarious zebra.
Growing up, Beauty and the Beast was always my favorite Disney movie, and as I watched for the first time in well over a decade, two thoughts stuck with me: (1) Five-year-old me had damn good taste, and (2) How much HGH is Gaston doing?
5. Haywire and 6. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (7:30 p.m. and 8:35 p.m., 7 hours 6 minutes watched)
On my way to see Haywire, I stopped by the front entrance to ask one of the employees what time it was. Alyssa, whose favorite movie (according to her name tag) is Beetlejuice, looked down at her pink Casio. "7:32," she said. I was already two minutes late. I thanked her, and when I started to step away, the other girl tearing tickets chimed in.
"How long have you been here? Nothing better to do on a Saturday night?"
I laughed. "Apparently not." It was just true enough to send me back to the concession stand to numb myself with some chicken fingers. [Total Calorie Count: 2,120]
Haywire was the perfect movie for that point in my night — complex enough to keep me interested and digestible enough for my melting mind. Michael Fassbender was high on my list even before the penis putting jokes, and combined with Antonio Banderas' beard, and Gina Carano kicking a lot of ass, it was more than satisfactory.
The overlap between Haywire and Sherlock Holmes was my only scheduling mishap of the weekend. I walked into the latter about 25 minutes late, but since the movie is a half-hour too long and I had seen it a month ago, it was probably for the best. After two hours of stylized action, pithy Robert Downey Jr. lines and nasty facial hair from the English guy in Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce, I was down to the last movie of the day. Of the first day.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (11:35 p.m., 10 hours and 27 minutes watched)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was playing on the same screen as Sherlock Holmes, and after the theater was cleaned, I walked back in and sank into the aisle seat of the back row. All the other seats were empty, and it took every bit of will to stay awake. "First Look" was on again, and when the marathoner and her Honda CR-V came back to the screen, it became clear how much of my mind had been lost. How is her car the only one in the lot? Did it take her that long to finish? Did she park that far away? Wouldn't she want to be closer if she was about to run a marathon? And why the fuck does the car have to sound like it belongs in The Devil Inside? I pulled out my phone, the one that had been dead for 10 hours, looked at the blank screen, and slid it back into my pocket. For the fourth time that day, I watched an ad for Swamp People where a bunch of Cajuns creepily smile at me and drive fan boats in scenes directed by Guy Ritchie. A woman shook me from my trance as she bumped my leg on the way down the row, and shortly after, the trailers mercifully began. So this is where I was: excited to see a bunch of trailers I'd already seen.
Admittedly, I am not an impartial audience for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it has nothing to do with the books (of which I have read exactly zero). Dragon Tattoo is Round 2 of the match made in my pop culture heaven. Trent Reznor is, without question, my favorite musician, and David Fincher has, without question, directed three of my favorite movies ever (Fight Club, Se7en, and The Social Network). By 11:29, that was the only thing keeping me in the theater. And when the opening sequence kicked in and Reznor's version of "Immigrant Song" came with it, I hated myself a little less. Upon a second viewing, my conclusions about the movie remained the same. Aside from Drive, it was my favorite movie of the year, and a good portion of that (discounting the soundtrack) was tied to Rooney Mara's performance. Even as I could feel the popcorn butter seeping into my brain [Total Calorie Count: 2,870], it was worth watching again.
When I left the theater, the plaza was empty again save for a woman hosing down the concrete. The video screen had been turned off, and as I started toward my car, I saw a group of three young women in short, shiny dresses making the same walk the man and his daughters had earlier. The sound of bumping music could be heard in the distance, and I remembered that there's a bar just outside the Universal Studios entrance. My car sat alone in a row of the second floor of the Jurassic Park garage. I got in, turned the key, and looked at the clock. 2:28. The next movie was in eight hours. Should I just sleep in the car? Nah, that would be creepy, and we've established I'm not creepy. I went home.
8. Man on a Ledge (10:45 a.m., 13 hours and 7 minutes watched)
I was about 20 feet from the ticket window when I saw the pink watch.
"Hey! I remember you from yesterday! You're back. Oh my gosh."
"I sure am. Can I have one for Man on a Ledge at 10:45?"
With Ledge and six more tickets in hand, I walked into the theater and dropped into my spot behind the railing just as the trailers began. For as long as I've enjoyed going to the movies, I've enjoyed getting there early enough to see the trailers. Few things annoy me more than movie companions who get me to the theater 10 minutes late.
Trailer sites like Apple's make it rare for a theater to be the first place I see one, so when I didn't recognize a scene where Bruce Willis' family was kidnapped from a boat, it was a welcome surprise. The movie was called The Cold Light of Day, and aside from figuring out that Willis was in the CIA and it means his son needs to kill a bunch of people, I have no idea what it's about.
I saw dozens of trailers over the course of the weekend, and some — notably 21 Jump Street and Safe House — I saw at least five times. All those viewings produced a few key takeaways:
- The marketing team behind Project X is doing everything it can to make me want to see that movie. "Superbad on crack"? Yes, please.
- Can anyone explain the Journey 2 trailer to me? Did anyone see Journey? When is Fast Six?
- My favorite trailer might be for Lockout, starring Guy Pearce. Pearce is some nondescript badass who has to break into a space prison to rescue the president's daughter. The movie actually contains the line, "He's the best there is but he's a loose cannon."
- The Safe trailer is a close second. In some of the least-shocking news ever, Statham was "New York's toughest cop once upon a time."
- In all seriousness, I'm pretty excited for Jeff Who Lives at Home. Jason Segel is sort of killing it right now.
Man on a Ledge came with a predictable amount of mindless entertainment and glaring plot holes. How Sam Worthington's brother's girl was qualified to pull off the scene from Mission: Impossible because she'd knocked over a few houses remains unclear. And how a man in prison could orchestrate a fake death for his father is equally puzzling. Either way, it could have been much worse.
9. Underworld: Awakening (1:05 p.m., 14 hours and 49 minutes watched)
I used the break before Underworld: Awakening to get some popcorn and a drink. [Total Calorie Count: 3,580] After Saturday's fried-food binge, [Total Day 1 Caloric Intake: 2,870] I could feel my heart slowing down. I'm not sure why I thought a massive amount of sodium was a proper solution. Before the trailers began, an ad for AMC's new Smart MovieSnacks came across the screen, solely to taunt me. I looked for a moment at the previously unseen combo of apple chips, trail mix, and popcorn chips. Then I returned to mixing my popcorn with Milk Duds [Total Calorie Count: 3,930, +5 Diabetes Points].
There was a moment of confusion before the movie when a trailer for Resident Evil: Retribution came on the screen. It took me about 30 seconds to realize these were different franchises, and when I thought about who actually sees these movies, I looked around to see at least 20 other people in the theater. This Underworld version of the vampire/post-apocalypse tale begins with Leather-Clad Kate Beckinsale and her werewolf boyfriend (Scott Stapp from Creed) kicking wholesale human ass. And well that's about it, so I decided that the best way to deal with this was by was keeping track of Beckinsale's body count.
For the first 15 minutes, she was on a ridiculous kill-per-minute pace, which ended with her wasting four dudes with a scalpel while running down a hallway. Sadly, the deaths slowed when someone decided this movie needed a plot, which can best be described thusly:
- Leather-Clad Kate Beckinsale and Scott Stapp are taken prisoner by the humans, who are attempting to wipe out the vampire race
- By combining their DNA, the scientists have created a hybrid vampire-werewolf child (Leather-Clad Kate's daughter) who holds the key to destroying the vampires
- Spoiler (!): The scientists are werewolves involved in a government conspiracy that "goes all the way to the top"
- Following this discovery, Kate Beckinsale puts on a floor-length leather trench coat and kills a bunch of werewolves
Final body count: 49. I've got to believe she's a little upset she couldn't get 50. But maybe they're saving that milestone for Underworld: Reawakening; you really need somewhere to take the franchise.
10. The Grey (2:50 p.m., 16 hours and 17 minutes watched)
The biggest mistake of the weekend came before I even made the drive to Universal City. On Friday afternoon, I agreed to join the Grantland staff for a showing of The Grey, which seemed a bit like Kobayashi deciding on July 3 that he just feels like a hot dog. So instead of the excitement of following Kate Beckinsale killing werewolves with Liam Neeson killing actual wolves, I knew all I had to look forward to was Liam Neeson running from some wolves while contemplating his mortality and man's relationship to nature.
There are moments early on — Liam trudging through the snow with a voice-over letting us know that he belongs at "a job at the end of the world" surrounded by "ex-cons, fighters, drinkers, assholes," Liam telling one of his fellow plane crash survivors that he's going to "start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds, and you're going to swallow a lot of blood" — but as the wolves, cold, trees, and rivers start picking off survivors, it all got a bit too reflective. I enjoyed the movie, but honestly, I was hoping for more wolves (TO GET COLD-COCKED) and a bit more fun, because up next was the weekend's hurt locker.
11. One for the Money and 12. Chipwrecked (4:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., 18 hours and 14 minutes watched)
For as much as I was dreading The Devil Inside, the back-to-back of One for the Money and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked had been looming from the start. Katherine Heigl is my reigning champion of unwatchable starring vehicles, and when I walked into the theater, I knew that every fiber of my being was about to be tested. The raucous laughter during the What to Expect When You're Expecting trailer only confirmed it. Not only was I in for 90 minutes of torture, I would be surrounded by people ready to giggle through my cinematic waterboarding.
The moment Heigl's Jersey-accented voice-over kicked in, it was over. The premise involves Heigl, an out-of-work lingerie saleswoman, taking up bounty hunting for her cousin's bail-bondsman business. As I've since learned, Heigl's character is based on the protagonist from a best-selling set of novels, and I can only hope the print version of female empowerment is a bit more empowering. Her first target turns out to be a guy who had the audacity to aid her in defiling a local bakery and then never call. Heigl responded by trying to hit him with her car, and when that didn't suffice as payback, she decided, years later, that getting a gun and bringing him to justice would win back her honor. Turns out, the well-intentioned ex-cop isn't the actual villain, and by the final credits, our sassy Jersey girl has laid waste to the bad guys and even taken a bullet in the line of duty (In her ass! Of all places!). I saw Jack and Jill in the theater, and at least I smiled (once). After an hour and a half of this travesty, there wasn't a grin to be had, and I tried as hard as I could to find a reason for this movie's existence, besides the scene where Heigl takes a bullet in the ass.
I had about 10 minutes to compose myself before Chipwrecked. Turns out it wasn't enough. I'm not sure how old the Chipmunks are supposed to be, but it appears that in the world they inhabit they have passports, can gamble, and are international recording stars. Alvin and his troublemaking ways get the Chipmunks lost on a deserted island, and what follows are jokes about Castaway, the honey badger, and double rainbows. I felt bad for the kids in the audience. In 90 minutes, I don't think I heard a laugh. And these are kids! They'll laugh at literally anything! And, worst of all, Liam Neeson did not punch a single chipmunk.
Jason Lee and David Cross were two of the three actors in the movie (the other being the poor woman's Alia Shawkat), and I can only imagine each of their conversations on set were about what they planned on buying with their checks. Not to spoil anything, but the Chipmunks do manage to make it off the deserted island, and for their big show at the "International Music Awards," they lay down "Party Rock." I walked out of the theater as the credits began to roll, and with some time to waste before the next movie, I made my way into the plaza. The video for "Party Rock" played on the large screen outside, and nearly everyone standing there had their heads tilted back and their eyes fixated on the screen in what looked like some conditioning exercise from a dystopian novel. I decided that I had officially fallen into an unnamed circle of hell, so I went back inside to buy an Icee. [Total Calorie Count: 4,435]
13. Red Tails and 14. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (8:40 p.m. and 11:10 p.m., 21 hours and 27 minutes watched)
Red Tails ended up as the pleasant surprise of the 14 movies. For all its deficiencies (the first line of dialogue really is "Germans! Let's get 'em!"), its heart was enough to sustain it. And anytime a cast features four Wire alums (Bubbles, Michael, Wallace, and Cheese), a healthy amount of wrongdoing is necessary for me to be disappointed. Terrence Howard was typically great, and Cuba Gooding Jr. did no further damage in his quest to desecrate his Oscar at every possible turn.
The last of the 14 was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and despite everything I had heard, part of me was looking forward to it. I'll admit that I'm a sucker for schmaltz done well. There were six people in the theater, and four of us were alone. I looked at each of them and thought about why no one else had come. I saw 80 movies last year, most of them without company (by choice! I am not creepy), but I still can't see someone alone in a theater and not wonder.
I haven't read the book, so I can't say whether the issues with the movie were born on the page or the screen, but as someone who rarely needs an excuse to cry at the movies, most of the movie left me unmoved. Maybe I was too tired, or maybe I've become too cynical, but for 120 minutes, Oskar Schell's earnestness and the thick layers of patriotism were more annoying than affecting. Then, near the end, they finally got their hooks into me. As Sandra Bullock sat with her son on his bed and each mentioned what they missed about good ol' Tom Hanks, I could feel the tears well up. That this movie was nominated for an Oscar is a travesty — of both the system and the year in movies. But like just about every other movie I've ever seen it had something that made me glad I went. I guess that's why I keep on going. Even if it means spending two days locked in a multiplex in the middle of Dumpuary.
I moved toward the exit and noticed full bags of trash next to the empty garbage cans throughout the theater. The lights of both concession stands were off, and a vacuum hummed. I tossed the large Diet Coke cup I'd carried all day into a can near the exit. My phone, still with 17 percent battery life, said it was 1:33. The girl working near the door smiled. "Thank you for coming," she said. I smiled back and pushed through the door. The plaza was empty.
By the Numbers
Total Time Watched: 25 hours, 36 minutes
Diabetes Points: 27
Total Caloric Intake: 5,250 (I had some nachos during Red Tails. Not great.)
Self-Respect Points: -12