On evenings when I'm not at a live-performance or movie theater or having a girl's night out — or both — I watch lot of TV. A lot. You might know that if you listen to the weekly Tuned In podcast where I chat with colleagues Rob Owen and Maria Sciullo and I usually talk up "The Flash," "Arrow," "Sleepy Hollow," BBC America shows ... you get the picture. The generally messy interior of my house reflects this. I should probably clean or do some chores while watching, and sometimes I do, but texting, tweeting and playing Words With Friends tends to fill the gaps when I can't fast-forward through commercials of a DVR'd show.
That's a lot of throat-clearing to say I've added to my small-screen routine recently — watching same-day-as-theater movies on Comcast On Demand. I'll admit to also renting "Guardians of the Galaxy" to watch with my son because it makes us smile. A lot (echo intentional). It's my favorite non-drama of 2014.
The two movies I watched this week are about as far from "Guardians" as you can get, but I went there.
I sat down to "The Humbling" not because of Al Pacino or Barry Levinson or co-writers including Philip Roth and Buck Henry, or even the fact that it was about an aging theater star in the throes of a nervous breakdown. "Birdman" is still fresh in my mind, an adrenalin-filled movie-theater mashup, with Michael Keaton brilliant at the core of a terrific cast, so no, I wasn't dying to see this one. But it has a Pittsburgh tie going for it — Billy Porter (below, center) has a small role, and short of getting to New York to see his American Songbook concert at Lincoln Center, I figured the least I could do was catch this film.
Pacino goes to raw, uncomfortable places in "The Humbling" as his character faces the indignity of aging and waning celebrity. After a stint in a rehab facility, he becomes infatuated with a manipulative woman (Greta Gerwig) young enough to be his granddaughter. He discovers she is a lesbian, but he's already in lust. He seems to have friends who care about him — Charles Grodin, another Pittsburgh tie, has a cameo as his manager — and he still has job offers, yet he's paralyzed in a self-loathing state.
Pacino's Simon Axler does not internalize his feelings. He talks, a lot, including to his therapist (Dylan Walsh) via Skype. Sometimes it seems his is the only voice, and it gets grating. It's as if he's drowning out the sane voices trying to guide him back to his former self.
Porter appears about half-way through in a role that is, well, a big twist on "Kinky Boots' " Lola. That's enough of a spoiler as it is, but it's a quiet role, shoe-horned into an already uncomfortable scenario, and it adds to the eerie feeling of doom in a character study of a downhill spiral.
I saw Pacino in "A Merchant of Venice" on Broadway and he's such a present, committed actor onstage. Here we see him pathetic, exposed, and it's not a place I'd want to share again on a gloomy, snowy day.
And so we come to On Demand movie No. 2, "Wild Card," which could easily have been called "Leaving Las Vegas" if that title wasn't taken. I've stated before that I'm a Jason Statham fan. When he's not mutilating people on film, I think there's a charisma there that could carry him through a movie without a body count. This is not that movie.
I was hopeful when I saw that Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Jason Alexander and Sofia Vergara were in the film, and curious about Anne Heche. All have cameos that elevate this excuse to see down-on-his-luck Statham fight his way out of a few ridiculously violent situations. His character — named Nick Wild, for heaven's sakes — is a security consultant with a gambling problem. He shares office space with Alexander, who introduces himself to a potential client as, "I'm Pinky Zion, attorney at law."
The names are great fun in the William Goldman screenplay based on his novel — Tucci's Vegas bigwig is called Baby; Heche is a waitress named Roxy; Vergara, DD (with Statham below). But Raymond Chandler, it's not.
A friend of Nick's is brutally raped and wants revenge against the son of a crime lord who did the deed. There's also a rich Mark Zuckerberg type, a geeky 23-year-old who wants Nick to help him get over living with fear. Nick, all the while reluctant to use his killer fighting skills and longing for life on a sailboat in Corsica, can't seem to stay out of trouble. Go figure.
Much of the violence in "Wild Card" is cringe-worthy, cover-your-eyes stuff for someone like me who is not big on spurting blood. Perhaps it's not just me — critics give it a 24 percent rating, the audience, 41 percent, according to rottentomatoes.com. "The Humbling," 52 percent and 38 percent.
I also recently caught the charming, Oscar-nominated "The Boxtrolls" On Demand, and that makes it three movies for the theater price of two. All in all, I still prefer the big-screen, see-it-with-an-audience experience when I can make it out of the house without salting and shoveling first, but this is a nice option.
I've seen all nine Oscar-nominated films in theaters, and it wouldn't have been nearly as awesome to see "The LEGO Movie" or "Guardians" only on a small screen.