The King of Staten Island: Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson fan flames of resentment
The real Scott Davidson, Pete’s father, was a New York firefighter and first-responder who died in 2001 when the World Trade Center collapsed around him. Anyone familiar with his son’s Comedy Central appearances knows how many dark laughs Pete has milked out of being left fatherless at age seven. Those who made it through Apatow’s cancer comedy Funny People had every right to fear a relapse into maudlinity in this autobiographical tale of a young man who, after 17 years, still can’t get out from under the loss of his father. Happily, co-screenwriter Davidson clings to his therapeutic roots; there will be no calming shades of sentiment to soften The King of Staten Island.
Ink flows through Scott Carlin’s (Davidson) veins. He has more tattoos than a fleet of drunken sailors, and dreams of opening an ink-and-skin themed eatery along the lines of Ruby Tattoosdays. His mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) arranges for her aimless boy to get a job in his cousin’s restaurant, a ploy that will later allow Apatow space to stage a haphazard pair of uncomfortable confrontations. Body art remains Scott’s obsession, but as a tattoo artist, he makes a great waiter. Having used all of his friends as test victims — a forearm sketch of Barack Obama looks like something out of Alien Nation — Scott is always looking for new canvases on which to practice. That includes Harold (Luke David Blumm), a nine-year-old who one day happens upon Scott’s enclave.
The needle stings Harold’s arm just long enough to leave a half-inch mark and send the boy screaming home to his divorced dad Ray (Bill Burr). This leads to a vituperative visit to the Carlin home, followed by a hush-hush romance between Margie and Ray. Much to Scott’s satisfaction, in the almost two decades since her husband died, Margie hasn’t been out on one date. The eventual downfall of both men in Margie’s eyes is hard felt, particularly after Scott & Co. briefly turn to a life of crime to help bankroll his tattoo bistro.
His stoner friends toke so much they no longer get high, but keep puffing away because they dig the lifestyle. Unbeknownst to the gang, Scott just recently turned the corner with his lifelong friend Kelsey (Bel Powley). Alita: Battle Angel left me wondering why they bothered giving Rosa Salazar the CG Margaret Keane treatment with tumescent-eyed young actresses like Powley (or Anya Taylor-Joy) eager to report for duty. Powell’s take on Kelsey is anything but wide-eyed. The doubt she brings to an otherwise backstopping sweetheart draws attention to Scott’s worth. And speaking of ocularly-enhanced parties here-to, it isn’t until Ray floats the idea of Scott filling his father’s boots that the self-destructiveness that has guided his life shows signs of dwindling. It’s here that real-life firefighter Steve Buscemi — he could just as well have played Davidson’s father — shows up to lend support as Scott’s commander.
Past reservations linger on. Dialogue scenes persist long after the point is made. At 136 minutes, it runs about a reel too long; some of the more skit-ish material — waiters boxing for tips — should have found a home in the deleted scenes supplement of the blu-ray. And Apatow has yet to develop much in the way of a visual style. Borrowing a page from Woody Allen, he does the next best thing by hiring Robert Elswit (Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler) one of the best DPs in the business, to make him look good. Ultimately, it was the consistently funny, warm-hearted ensemble that won me over. I haven’t liked an Apatow film this much since Knocked Up. Maybe even more. ★★★
Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Three films directed by women and told largely from the points-of-view of female activists highlight this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The 11-film series will be available online June 11-20. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://ff.hrw.org/.
The Belly of the Beast — The use of elective sterilization as a cost-effective method of contraception inside women’s prisons sounds like something out of a sequel to Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom. But inside the belly of documentarian Erika Cohn’s Beast lurks a monstrosity more appalling than horror fiction. The concept of purifying the human gene pool had been around since the late 1800s. The Nazis were so impressed with California’s capacity to sterilize 20,000 people that in 1937 they paid a visit to consult with our state’s top eugenicists. It wasn’t until 1979 that correctional facilities were ordered to stop performing hysterectomies for purposes of birth control. The problem not only festered, it got worse. Doctors would order pap smears for patients complaining of a broken finger. One physician took victim-blaming to new heights by accusing sex-deprived inmates of deliberately asking to be examined. Legal activist Cynthia Chandler was the girl sporting a mohawk in her high school yearbook photo, and when it comes to fighting for women’s rights, she’s still punk rock. Kelli McDonald was misdiagnosed with cervical cancer while imprisoned and intentionally sterilized. Their combined involvement and determination help to transform what could have been a standard documentary into a compelling individual rights drama. 2020 —S.M.
Coded Bias — Can algorithms discriminate based on personal prejudices embedded into the technology? Are computers capable of racism and sexism? In her quest to create an inspiration mirror for her science project, M.I.T student Joy Buolamwini discovered her computer software program worked only when she donned a white mask. The training sets provided to “teach machines to see” showed biometrics authentication registered better in mostly light-skinned men, as opposed to female faces of color. Artificial intelligence is being used like tattoos or microchips to keep track of human behavior. Too many documentarians realize halfway through shooting that they don’t have enough material to warrant a feature and begin scrambling to find sidebars to pad the running time. Not Shalini Kantayya. She begins her narrative with a cogent history of facial recognition technology and won’t quit until laws have been passed against the high-tech bigotry programmed into A.I. that discriminates against minorities. 2020. —S.M.
Down a Dark Stairwell — The homicide transpired in a Brooklyn housing project in 2014: NYPD cop Peter Liang was two years on the job when he happened across Akai Gurley, an unarmed 28-year-old black man, on a dim flight of steps. The 911 call ends with the neighbor on the other end gasping, “The cop shot him.” When he was found guilty of reckless manslaughter, Liang became the first NYPD cop to be successfully prosecuted for an on-duty killing in 10 years. The conviction brought to the fore the racial tensions that existed between the Asian- and African-American communities. Director Ursula “No Relation To Peter” Liang’s gripping documentary takes us from the night of the shooting — Officer Liang said it was the result of an accidental discharge — through the sentencing phase, where he could face either 15 years in prison or a probationary slap on the wrist. The nationwide peaceful protests that followed the conviction couldn’t have been better timed had the events unfolded last week. 2020 —S.M.