How Old Is That Boy at the Mike?

New York is a town with a prodigy on every block, but how many of them ever become as famous at 18 as jazz flavor-of-the-month Peter Cincotti? By day, a freshman at Columbia; by night, a nightclub star at the Algonquin in a club debut preceded by oceans of hype and a record-company bankroll that should keep his piano tuned for years. By George, the kid deserves the attention.

This much talent, polish and virtuosity in a teenager may not even be legal.

The august Oak Room that introduced Harry Connick Jr., Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli is a nice place to start. Apple-cheeked and precocious as hell, Mr. Cincotti ambles into the center spot surrounded by a world-class trio and hammers out “How High the Moon” in three different tempos that rock the joint–and that’s just the intro. His hard-driving right-hand arpeggios on “I’m Old Fashioned” and introspective honky-tonk stride on “Taking a Chance on Love” are ample proof that he’s been alone in his room a long time listening to all the right licks from Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner. He shares his exploratory arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” that dazzled the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland when he was 16. And he seems, alarmingly, both clean-cut and ambidextrous, with a wicked right hand playing riffs while a steady left hand marks the always-shifting rhythms, then switching emphasis (and hands) in mid-chorus.

What he hasn’t learned to do is sing with confidence. He isn’t comfortable enough on the ballads: He throws them away, never holding the vowels long enough, and he doesn’t know much about phrasing. In his attempts to be finger-snapping cool, the lyrics suffer, and there’s a shaky tremolo in his vibrato that comes dangerously close to being downright irritating. Surprisingly, the closest he comes to being a warm vocal stylist with his own personal sound is on the pop song “Rainbow Connection” by Paul Williams.

If there’s one thing that defines his work, it’s the hard, punchy drive that comes with youth. He should listen less to Vegas lounge lizards and more to Nat Cole, Bobby Troup and Mel Tormé. But make no mistake: Peter Cincotti is not just another cocky Italian kid in basic black with a Sinatra collection showing off on prom night. From “If I Had You” to “Miss Brown to You,” he has passion, verve and talent. He’s also going places, big time. Head for the Algonquin fast and get in on the first rung of his beanstalk. It will make you wonder where your own kids are tonight.

Denzel: Laid-Off Everyman?

Denzel Washington would probably hock his Oscar to avoid typecasting. He’s worked in every style and genre, from Shakespeare to Malcolm X , and he’s different every time. His work is fearless, his career impressive. Now, in the new Nick Cassavetes film John Q , he does another about-face as a simple, working-class Joe who’s unable to afford a heart transplant for his terminally ill son and who takes a hospital hostage to demand one. The movie is seriously flawed, but the star keeps it focused and relevant.

John Quincy Archibald, a factory machinist, is one of the thousands of disenfranchised blue-collar workers who face the promising new millennium imperiled by the trials of Job. Forced by the economic recession into reduced hours and pay, he breaks his back to provide for his family, but gets turned down for every job because he’s overqualified. Then his car is repossessed, his son collapses while playing baseball, and the family’s H.M.O. benefits will not cover the $250,000 needed for surgery. With his back against the wall, a good man is finally driven to the brink of helpless, hopeless, last-resort insanity, taking a group of hostages that includes patients, interns and the head of cardiology (James Woods).

While the whole thing is broadcast “live” on TV, the inevitable circus arrives to surround the hospital–and so do the clichés. Robert Duvall is the hostage negotiator, Ray Liotta is the moronic police chief looking for personal glory, Anne Heche is the cold-blooded hospital administrator without a heart of her own who places dollars and cents above human survival. “There are 30 million people in this country without medical insurance–if you want to change it, write your Congressman,” she sniffs acidly. Before it’s over, they are all in tears.

The movie tries to have it every way at once. One minute it’s a powerful indictment of the crisis in American health care, the next minute it’s a shameless action melodrama, and the result wreaks havoc on a perceptive audience’s willingness to suspend belief. There is no question whose side everyone is on, but when Ms. Heche authorizes an 11th-hour transplant with tears of compassion streaming down her frozen face, the audience around me turned into hecklers.

Mr. Washington is sympathetic and remarkable at showing the agony of a loving father and the mounting desperation of a decent man battling the system, and Mr. Cassavetes gets points for trying to illuminate the horrors faced daily by poor people who are lost in the quagmire of a shameful American health-care system that must be reformed. There’s an important movie waiting to be made that will draw attention to this crucial issue, but John Q , with its manipulative sentimentality, contrived plot and phony climax, is a disappointing way to do it.

Goalies In Prison Stripes

Mean Machine is a tacky, unnecessary British remake of Robert Aldrich’s popular American 1974 prison-football drama, The Longest Yard . Another incomprehensible trash explosion from the Guy Ritchie school of cinematic slugfests, it substitutes soccer for football and stars scowling, granite-faced Vinnie Jones, jock-strap alumnus of Mr. Ritchie’s two lurid gangster flicks, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels . Mr. Jones is in the Burt Reynolds role as the celebrity athlete turned convict who tries to improve morale by coaching the prisoners in a big game against the warden’s hand-picked team of guards, but this film has none of the realism or humor of the original.

The jail is so brutal that the guards seem like S.S. men left over from the Third Reich, the warden is a crook in hock to bookmakers who threaten to blow up his Saab, and the only woman on the premises is a blond bimbo receptionist with a pig ring in her nose (a role, one assumes, created for Mr. Ritchie’s wife Madonna, who was wisely unavailable). An unrecognizable David Hemmings plays the warden, or “Guv’nor,” with an extra 200 pounds of fat and eyebrows like ram’s horns. Big catch: The “Guv” bets all of his money on the guards and demands that they win so he can pay off his gambling debts. Big dilemma: Does the “mean machine” betray his own mates and throw the game, or does he beat the guards and face 20 years at hard labor added to his sentence?

Sadly lacking in conflict and utterly without nuance, freshness or a cogent point of view, the film has been so badly directed by Guy Ritchie protégé Barry Skolnick that there are visible overhead microphones in the showers, in the prison cells and on the soccer field itself. The loutish star doesn’t go for sex scenes, and mistakes head-butting and bare-knuckle combat for acting. The inmates are too paunchy to win a game of darts. Boring, pointless and a big waste of time, Mean Machine has plenty of cons, but no pros.