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Play it again, Tim: Davidson rules as ‘The King of Staten Island’

Written by Tim Miller

I’m still trying to catch up on movies released earlier this year. This week I caught one gem and one dud.

“The King of Staten Island” (R, 136 minutes, On Demand). If you find comic Pete Davidson inexplicably endearing on “Saturday Night Live,” you might have a better idea of why after seeing this funny, semi-autobiographical comedy.

Co-written by Davidson and Judd Apatow, and directed by Apatow (“Knocked Up”), it involves an aimless 24-year-old stoner named Scott (Davidson), who lives on Staten Island with his widowed mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, real-life daughter of the director).

Scott was a young boy when his firefighter father died heroically during a fire, and he has been struggling with life ever since. Claire is heading for college, and Margie appears ready, finally, to move on with a new man (Bill Burr) in her life. Scott’s life is at a standstill.

Scott talks about opening a tattoo restaurant — he suggests Ruby Tattoosdays as a possible name — but he hasn’t done much to pursue that dream. He gets wasted with his friends and sleeps with the vivacious Kelsey (Bel Powley), who wants him to commit to being more than just pals and gets frustrated when he responds with his typical blank expression.


Pete Davidson stars in “The King of Staten Island. (Universal Pictures)

As the film continues, we get a better idea of why Scott has struggled. Aside from the loss of his father, he has attention-deficit issues and Crohn’s disease, both of which have left him frustrated. He has self-esteem issues; he thinks he’s stupid. And he does do questionable things, like starting a tattoo on the arm of a 9-year-old boy. (Hey, Scott reasons, the kid gave his consent!) But he has a good heart, which becomes clear when he later spends more time with the boy and the boy’s younger sister.

For anyone familiar with Davidson’s background, the similarities between him and Scott are readily apparent. Davidson’s father was a firefighter who died on 9/11 when Pete was 7. Davidson has Crohn’s, he’s been open about smoking marijuana, and, at 26, he still lives with his mom. You get the sense that there are other things shared by the performer and his character.

And that makes Scott’s struggle to find direction all the more poignant and enlightening. The film makes the point that you never really know what someone else is contending with in life.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, Movie Critic

Meanwhile, the movie delivers lots of laughs, like when Scott dryly notes that Staten Island is “like the only place New Jersey looks down on.”

Though Davidson is front and center, those in support — Burr, Tomei, Powley, Apatow, Steve Buscemi, Pamela Adlon — all create memorable characters.

Even if you haven’t been impressed with Davidson on “SNL,” this movie is worth a try. It’s one of my favorites of the year. Rating: ***½ (out of four)

“Capone” (R, 103 minutes, Prime Video). This is the dud. And that’s a surprise, given that it stars Tom Hardy, who at his best (“Bronson,” “The Drop”) is one of the most compelling actors around.

Picture this if you will: Hardy as Al Capone, his mind and body ravaged by syphilis after a decade in prison for tax evasion. His robe open to expose the diaper he’s wearing, he staggers around the yard of his Florida mansion with a Tommy gun, mowing down countless landscape workers and others in his employ.

Is this one of Al’s many hallucinations as the Chicago mob boss endures his final year of life? Could be, but it doesn’t make the sequence any less ridiculous, especially given what we’ve already sat through up to this point. Written and directed by Josh Trank (2015’s “Fantastic Four”), “Capone” tries to put us in the head of a deranged man suffering a kind of karmic payback for his violent, evil existence. But the results are repetitive and almost comical. I mean, how many times do we have to see Al Capone lose control of his bowels? It ain’t pretty.

Capone, by the way, is called Fonse by his wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), and his underlings. He’s not to be confused with Henry Winkler’s Fonz, though. No “Happy Days” here for Al Capone, or the moviegoer. *

Nicolas Cage, Steve Buscemi and Lon Chaney Sr.

During the past week or so I’ve also seen the following (I’ve included the service on which I watched the films; check for other options):

“Primal” (2019, R, 97 minutes, Prime Video). Nicolas Cage can be outstanding — he deservedly won the best-actor Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas” in 1995 — but he’s also developed the reputation over the years for delivering over-the-top performances in one cheesy movie after another. Watched in the right frame of mind, Cage and these efforts can be enjoyed on a camp level.

So when I saw the description for “Primal,” I couldn’t resist. It went: “A hunter (Nicolas Cage) must fight for his life on a ship when his deadly animals — including a rare white jaguar — are set loose by a dangerous criminal out to kill everyone on board.”

Yes! It sounded … awful!

And it was. But in a mildly amusing way. Most of the yuks are provided — no surprise — by Mr. Cage, whether he’s yelling (“Take it easy with my cat!”), simmering (“Let’s get something nice and sparkling clear …”), or using a blow gun while doing battle with the bad guy (Kevin Durand, who, with his sinister smile, could have been a terrific villain with better material). **

“Interview” (2007, R, 84 minutes, Prime Video). There’s an interesting backstory to this film (I know: You’ll be the judge of that). This is a remake of a 2003 Dutch film directed by Theo van Gogh, the great-great grandson of Theo van Gogh, the brother of Vincent van Gogh. The modern Theo was murdered in 2004.

Three years later, the new “Interview,” directed by and starring Steve Buscemi, came out. Buscemi plays Pierre, a magazine reporter accustomed to covering important political stories, who’s furious that he’s been assigned a puff piece about a sexy actress known for horror movies and an inane hit TV show. Sienna Miller plays the actress, Katya, who’s as invested in the interview as Pierre is.

They meet in a restaurant, they quickly part under bad terms, they are brought back together alone in Katya’s loft. Verbal jousting ensues, as they challenge each other regarding their occupations, their motivations, their sincerity, their honesty. Will they become friends? Will they become enemies? Lovers? It’s hard to tell.

I caught part of this film a few years ago, and Buscemi and Miller were so riveting together that I knew I’d come back to the movie someday.

I’m glad I did.

Overall, though, the film isn’t as good as it should have been. The attempt to deliver a clever ending fails to ring true, and even earlier the rapid shifts in emotions (they’re liking each other, they’re hating each other, they’re liking each other …) get tedious.

But when things are clicking, Buscemi and Miller are magnificent together, and it feels a privilege to watch them at work. Also, the film provides a thought-provoking look at celebrity and journalism, and where the two meet. ***

“The Ace of Hearts” (1921, not rated, 75 minutes, TCM). It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize — by seeing several of his movies on TCM — just how great an actor silent-screen star Lon Chaney Sr. was. Known as “The Man of 1,000 Faces,” Chaney (not to be confused with his son, Lon Chaney Jr., best known as the Wolfman) played a stunning variety of offbeat roles. He appeared as a masochistic clown in “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924); a criminal, cross-dressing ventriloquist in “The Unholy Three” (twice — in 1925 and, in his sole talkie, in 1930); the title roles in “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). (A heavy smoker, he died at age 47 in 1930.)

His performance in “The Ace of Hearts” is not one of his best — it’s a little too over the top even for a silent movie — but you can still see how he dominates the screen.

Directed by Wallace Worsley, who later directed Chaney in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” it features remarkable photography. There are stunning shots of Chaney’s heartbroken character standing alone at night in pouring rain as he stares at the silhouette of his beloved with her new husband in an apartment above him. The story also is strong. It involves a secret society that disposes of people the group feels no longer deserve to live. Love gets in the way, though, and complicates matters. Doesn’t it always. ***½

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He believes that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are proof of the existence of God. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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