DID YOU READ

Interview: Chazz Palminteri on “Yonkers Joe”

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01072008_yonkersjoe1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

If New York-born actor (and sometime writer/director) Chazz Palminteri were just a decade older, he probably would’ve been an Italian-American staple in the ’70s films of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Instead, during that time he studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, then made his way to off-Broadway and TV shows in the ’80s before writing the 1988 play “A Bronx Tale” that would eventually be adapted for the screen as Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and offer him his breakout movie role. Now one of the most prominent Italian-American actors working today, Palminteri currently stars as the titular Vegas shark in “Yonkers Joe,” an entertaining drama about a con man whose seedy world of palming dice, cheating casinos, and conning any poor sucker is uprooted when he’s forced to look after his adult son with Down’s syndrome. I took a seat with Palminteri (while writer/director Robert Celestino quietly looked on) to talk about his cultural background, fatherhood and his New Year’s resolutions.

Are you a gambling man?

Yeah, I like to gamble. Am I like Yonkers? No, but I’ll go to Vegas and gamble a little bit. Why not? I like playing roulette, I like dice. I grew up with gamblers. But the way Yonkers is, which is really fascinating to me, it’s kind of this subculture of people, like magicians with dice and cards. Here’s this guy who’s great at what he does, but he can’t tell anybody because if he does, he’ll get killed. And if he tells his friends, his friends won’t use him anymore. So he lives a life of being kind of lonely.

How long did it take you pick up those sleight-of-hand tricks you perform through the film?

Well, obviously, could I do it like the real Yonkers Joe? No. But Bob, the writer-director, that was his father. Bob can do it as good as his dad can because his father taught him — Bob was teaching me. The beauty of film is that I would study it for hours and hours, but if I do it one out of ten times, that’s the take we’d use. I would screw up a lot, but the one that I did it right, that’s the one we used, so it was okay.

I like that the film never feels obligated to judge this character’s moral compass, considering he regularly rips people off.

01072008_yonkersjoe.jpgNo, that’s what he does. There’s no apologizing, that’s what it is. When you read the script, some people would say: “How do you root for a guy like this?” You end up rooting for him because you don’t have to like him as much. But if you understand him, you’ll start to like him.

You’ve taken a lot of roles that reflect your Italian-American background. Are you offered a ton of projects that play into cultural stereotypes, like gangster movies?

Yeah, and I usually don’t do them. [laughs] That’s why I do movies like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” “Yonkers Joe,” or “Once More with Feeling,” that I have at Sundance. I don’t want to play a goombah character if he’s just one note. I’m very proud of being Italian-American, but people don’t realize that the mafia is just this aberration. The real community is built on the working man, the guy who’s the cop, the fireman, the truck driver, the bus driver. This is my father. These mafia guys get all the press because they’re fun to write about, they’re fun to watch. That’s why I wrote “A Bronx Tale.” The working guy’s the tough guy: “It doesn’t take much strength to pull the trigger, son.” He says that in the movie, that’s why it was important for me.

Not that you’ve had to take care of a child with Down’s syndrome, but can you think of anything in your own life that has been a tough responsibility?

Not like that. God bless the parents who handle things like that. I’m astounded by them. I have a friend who has a son with Down’s syndrome. He’s about 30 years old, the boy, and the things that they went through in the very beginning: in school, in talking with girls, and the things that he would say in front of people — they would just say anything. You’d get embarrassed: “Oh my god!” And you know what? The child has brought them nothing but joy. So my heart goes out to anyone who has a special needs child, and the work that they must have to do, the constant supervision, and the love. I’m so grateful to be a father, and I have two healthy children, and it made me even more grateful for my kids when I saw how hard it is.

Well, but what about you? What frustrating obligations have you personally embraced?

Well, I think… [deep breath] I don’t know if I should talk about this, but… yeah, I guess so. My father, who was 89, passed away a year ago. He was the inspiration and essence of Lorenzo Anello in “A Bronx Tale,” the character played by Robert De Niro. He was healthy all his life, and then he got sick. For six or seven weeks, he deteriorated, and we knew it was time for him to go. That was it. Holding the family together, I thought I’d be the basket case of all the kids, but I ended up manning up and taking control with my mom and my sisters. I guess I had to, for whatever reason. No one else could. I was looking for someone else to take over, but I had to do it. I’m happy I was there at the end, and I never thought I could do that, but I thank God everyday that I did.

01072008_yonkersjoe2.jpgBesides Celestino, you’ve worked with other up-and-coming filmmakers before. What do you like about working on a project where you’re the veteran and they’re a bit green?

I love people who just started making movies — first-timers, second-timers. They take chances. Usually, they have a script that they’ve had for 20 years that’s really good that no one wants to make, so you want to do it. I think Bob wrote the script maybe 10, 15 ago years, Bob? [Celestino nods.] 15 years. You try to make it and it falls through. You get the money and you don’t have the actor, or you get the actor and you don’t have the money. It’s a nightmare. So finally, if the right actor comes at the right time, I don’t know. I’m happy with the movie, and I can’t picture anybody else doing “Yonkers Joe.” Could you, Bob? [Celestino shakes his head emphatically.] Well, he wouldn’t tell me anyway. [laughs]

How did you two get connected?

He sent the script to the agent, and the agent gave it to me and I read it. Great material gets a response right away because you don’t read much of it. I read a lot of scripts, and most are bullshit. Most scripts are 60% written — you like the ending, the beginning, you might like the middle, but then you read it, and you get 30 pages before you put your head down. I just like a good story, and a character that has flaws and complexities. Could you compare the Yonkers Joe character to anybody in the history of films? “Yonkers Joe is like the guy in…” I can’t do that. I say that honestly. So when I see a movie that’s so original and has three-dimensional pull to it, this subculture of gamblers and the guy has a son with Down syndrome? Show me a movie like that, I haven’t seen it.

Entering this depressing economic year, how much does the potential SAG strike affect you and your upcoming projects?

Obviously, the country is having a tough time right now. Is now the time to strike? I hope not. But I’m only one voice here. There are other actors who have different agendas, and maybe they want to strike for whatever reason. I mean, could we give away the store? No, we can’t give away all Internet rights and things like that. I want to hear both sides a little more. I just don’t think now is the time to strike. I think it would make a bad situation worse.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

Yeah, I just try to be better than I was the year before. I know that sounds lame a little bit, but I go: “Okay, well, what could I do this year that I didn’t do great last year?” I try to be the best father I can be. You could be a billionaire and live in the biggest mansion, but if your kids don’t love you, what success do you have?

01072008_yonkersjoe3.jpgWhat’s been most surprising about fatherhood for you?

I think checking yourself because you are a mirror to your children. You have to get yourself in shape because whatever you are, your children will become. If you’re mean to people, your children will be mean to people. If you’re an asshole, your children will become assholes.

My children are good kids. I taught them that [skin] color means nothing. I have friends who are African-American, and I wanted them to talk to them, hang with them. I don’t want them to one day say, “Oh, gee, there’s other people with different colors than us?” I wrote “A Bronx Tale” because of racism. It’s a big issue with me. You’re not born a racist. You’re taught to be a racist. When you see, like in the South, those five-year-olds walking around with sheets on their heads, what’s more despicable than that? So you teach your kids not to be racist, and they will teach their kids, and their kids will teach their kids. My legacy as a father, I hope, is that our children will welcome everyone.

You’ve played so many tough guy roles. Are you a strict father?

Yes, I am. Sometimes a little too tough? I can be. But I work on that. My wife isn’t as tough, but she balances me out a little bit.

[Photos: Chazz Palminteri in “Yonkers Joe,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]

“Yonkers Joe” opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 9th.

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The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy 1996

Weird Science

10 Weird Movie Substances That Had Hilarious Consequences

Catch The Nutty Professor this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

If you’ve ever opened your refrigerator to find some seriously gnarly days-old potato salad, then you know that sometimes the most harmless-seeming things can turn freaky. Movies have conjured up some truly bizarre stuff, often the work of crazed scientists. Before you catch The Nutty Professor on IFC, check out some of the icky-est, gooey-ist and just plain weird substances on the big screen.

10. Flubber

Flubber
Walt Disney Studios

Professor Brainard’s “flying rubber” increases its speed every time it bounces, and increases the chaos, destruction and unlikely basketball-dunkage of anyone who uses it. Thankfully the movie ends before its thermodynamic impossibility cause the incineration of the entire universe.


9. Quantonium, Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs Aliens
DreamWorks

In Monsters vs. Aliens, both action-packed parties are battling over Quantonium, an exotic material which massively empowers anyone who holds it. Literally in the case of Susan Murphy, whose exposure turns her into Ginormica and enables her to fight against Gallaxhar’s invasion force.


8. Sustengo, Little Fockers

Sustengo
Universal Pictures

After finally finding favor with his hard-bitten father-in-law, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) finds himself strapped for cash and starts promoting Sustengo, an erectile dysfunction drug. Which means leaving boxes of ED drugs lying around a family who can’t even use a toilet without triggering a series of hilarious misunderstandings.


7. Iocane, Princess Bride

Iocane
20th Century Fox

Iocane is a deadly poison with no odor or taste that dissolves instantly in any liquid. The perfect tool for murder isn’t usually hilarious, but The Princess Bride makes everything funny. Hero Westley (Cary Elwes) tricks cunning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) into drinking the poison in a game of wits. Vizzini lost, not knowing that the answer is “Don’t drink anything offered by someone who just talked about how awesome their poison is.”


6. PX-41, Despicable Me 2

PX41
Universal Pictures

The mutation compound engineered by PX-Labs turns anything into a purple, fluffy, indestructible killing machine. And when Despicable Me‘s famous Minions are dosed with it, look out. Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) crafts an antidote, PX-41 Antidote, proving he’s much better with chemicals than he is with names.


5. Mood Slime, Ghostbusters II

Mood Slime
Columbia Pictures

When the Ghostbusters came back for their 1989 sequel, the slime they encountered was sillier and scarier. The “Mood Slime” was a special form of ectoplasm utterly saturated in the emotions of everyone and everything around it. And while our heroes energize some positive vibes with Aretha Franklin tunes, the entire city of New York’s psychic outpourings are filling the sewers with something distinctly less positive.


4. The Stuff

The Stuff
New World Pictures

A science fiction soft-serve satire, The Stuff is about an oddly organic treat which is utterly delicious and zero calories. In fact it’s negative calories, because if you eat enough it’ll take over your brain and hollow you out from the inside.


3. Miracle Weight Loss Serum, The Nutty Professor

Buddy Love
Universal Pictures

The core component of The Nutty Professor‘s plot is a miraculous weight loss serum, a simple fluid which re-engineers human DNA all by itself. This allows sweet but sizable Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) to transform into the tight, toned and turbocharged Buddy Love (Murphy again). The serum is revealed to be fatally dangerous, but anything which allows Eddie Murphy to play himself cranked up to the max is pure comedy gold.


2. Cobalt Thorium G, Dr. Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb is about a bomb built with Cobalt Thorium G. It’s a doomsday device designed to annihilate all human civilization and is, slightly worryingly, based on the least fictional materials on this list. Cobalt and thorium both have applications in nuclear weapon design. Luckily we haven’t got them up to G yet.


1. Ectoplasm, Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures

The Ghostbusters live in a world where ghosts are real but physics is still in charge. So while the ghouls are flung around with proton packs, they get the boys in grey back with their appalling ectoplasm, or slime, trail. As Venkman says, getting covered in the stuff will make you feel all funky.

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Fast Times Jennifer Jason Leigh

Retro Grades

The 11 Best Movie Comedies of the ’80s

Catch Fast Times at Ridgemont High during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

The ’80s gave us so many great things (Tab, anyone?), but when it comes to movie comedies, the Reagan years were a golden age of funny. In honor of IFC’s ’80s Weekend, we’ve selected the best big screen comedies from the decade that gave us Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and other comedy greats. And like one of the movies featured below, this list goes to 11.

1. Back to the Future

“A high school slacker goes back in time, takes his mother to a dance, and gets dangerously close to becoming his own father.” The elevator pitch for Back to the Future doesn’t sound so charming, but the 1985 flick starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover is declared by many as being the perfect movie. (Though we can’t officially say if the Eric Stoltz version would’ve been better.)


2. Ghostbusters

The sheer number of childhoods that were professed to be ruined by the recent reboot should tell you how beloved the original film is. A perfect blend of comedy, horror and fantasy, Ghostbusters has an indelible cast at the top of its game and a heap of one-liners worthy of countless casual references. They have the tools, and they have the talent.


3. Airplane!

Speaking of one-liners, it doesn’t get much more quotable than the 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classic Airplane!. Almost a one-to-one parody of the 1957 disaster film Zero Hour!, Airplane! works so well because of how straight faced the zaniness is played — which is something its many imitators fail to notice.


4. This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created the de facto mockumentary film with the hilarious 1984 rock diary This Is Spinal Tap. Heralded as one of the most accurate depictions of backstage life by actual real-life bands, the movie showcases an aging glam metal band struggling for the spotlight while keeping the group intact (especially the spontaneously combustible drummers).


5. National Lampoon’s Vacation

While Caddyshack and Fletch are quintessential Chevy Chase films, nothing beats the bumbling patriarch of the Griswold clan losing his mind en route to Wally World, America’s favorite family fun park. Yes, the sequels saw diminishing returns (aside from Christmas Vacation), but the one that started them all is endlessly watchable. Amen, let’s go!


6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe managed to capture exactly what high school life was like in the early-’80s. The awkwardness, the frustrations, the scares, the search for purpose and gratification, Fast Times presents its young characters as fully fleshed-out individuals (even the designated stoner shows nuance) and doesn’t talk down to its audience like many teen movies do. (Click here to see all airings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High on IFC.)


7. Beverly Hills Cop

A reminder of the days when Eddie Murphy was the edgiest comedian in showbiz, the one-two punch of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. set the template for modern action comedies. We wouldn’t have the Rush Hour franchise and every Kevin Hart film without Axel Foley.


8. Trading Places

A treatise on the Nature vs. Nurture argument at the height of Reagan-era excess, Trading Places depicts the lives that are held in the balance when the mega-rich make friendly $1 wagers and just how joyous the retribution can be. Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis are terrific as the leads, the Duke Brothers are delightfully evil, and in all seriousness, that is a nice purse.


9. Better Off Dead

This 1985 Savage Steve Holland movie is teen angst at its most surreal and affably goofy. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a high schooler still reeling from the loss of his girlfriend to a cocky champion skier. (Is there any other kind in an ’80s movie?) With bloodthirsty paperboys, foreign-exchange street races and stop-motion hamburger interludes, Better Off Dead doesn’t let realism get in the way of accurately portraying pure teen heartbreak.


10. Midnight Run

Of all the critically acclaimed pairings that actor Robert De Niro has had through the years, few are as entertaining as his reluctant team-up with a persnickety Charles Grodin in 1988’s Midnight Run. Perfect foils, the bounty hunter and mob accountant race against time, the Feds and mafia hits until mutual Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and the partnership stops becoming merely professional. (The counterfeit bill scene alone is worth the watch.)


11. Heathers

Heathers is the kind of pitch-black comedy that would never get a major release in 2016. Unflinching in its satire of school shootings, teen suicide and the tragedies that come with the need to fit in, the movie remains relevant to the kids currently growing up in a cruel and judgmental world. And the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny while also making a sharp point about youth culture is a testament to how great the movie really is.

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Bill Hader in Conan Star Wars Audition Sketch

Acts of Wars

Watch Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and More Audition to Play Young Han Solo

The Documentary Now! star shows off his best Han and Chewie.

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Photo Credit: TBS/YouTube

Thanks in large part to The Force Awakens not sucking, the Star Wars universe is about to get a lot more expansive. Sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and more are underway — which means a helluva lotta casting calls. Fortunately, Conan O’Brien got his hands on a few audition tapes of celebrities trying out for a role as a young Han Solo.

Check out Documentary Now!’s Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Portlandia favorite Jeff Goldblum, Todd Margaret star Will Arnett and other funny folks offering their takes on what that younger, brasher space swashbuckler would be like.

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