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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Swimming To Cambodia Spalding Gray

Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Rocky IV Stallone Lundgren

Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Optimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, from Paramount Pictures.

Rotten Apples

10 Rotten Movie Franchises That Need to Stop

Catch the "Too Rotten to Miss" movie Scary Movie 2 tonight at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

We live in the age of the blockbuster movie franchise. If you want a green-light, you better have tights, a light saber and decades worth of backstory and fan love to build on. And while we love some of these franchises, some just keep getting new entries despite horrible reviews, audience indifference and an utter lack of care from even the people making them.

With IFC and Rotten Tomatoes celebrating “too rotten to miss” movies like Scary Movie 2 this month, we thought it high time to point out just a few franchises than should be retired to the bottom of your Netflix queue. Here are 10 “rotten” movies franchise that need to just go away, please.

10. Transformers

Transformers
Dreamworks Pictures

Hollywood execs, we get it. You grew up in the ’80s, and now you want to produce everything you loved as a child, only make it a lot worse. Here’s the thing: while a show like Stranger Things took all the tropes and style of ’80s movies, and created something new, lingerie commercial director Michael Bay went the opposite way, taking a title and basic concept, and creating a pile of garbage made out of robot parts.

If poop jokes mixed with racism, misogyny and incoherent fight scenes are your thing, this is the franchise for you. If you have even the slightest respect for character or basic story logic, you have to admit this franchise has been awful from frame one. Yes, we were alive in the ’80s, but some things are best left in the past. Unfortunately, with a sixth movie, a Bumblebee spin-off and a proposed G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover movie in the works, this franchise will probably outlive us all.


9. Scary Movie

Scary Movie
Dimension Films

True, its been a couple of years since we’ve been subjected to one of these, but you know that Jamie Kennedy or the Epic Movie guys are sitting in a writers room somewhere, pitching jokes on how to merge The Purge with a fart joke. This franchise started out in a mediocre place, a Wayans family knockoff of better movies like Airplane, and things went downhill from there. You shouldn’t be able to spin five movies out of a few Scream jokes and a Carmen Electra cameo.


8. Alvin and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks
20th Century Fox

Designed to appeal to kids who love ’50s novelty albums and pun-y titles, the Chipmunk franchise feels like it was made by a prop comic from the Uncanny Valley. Full of rapping CGI rodents, and a paycheck cashing Jason Lee, 20th Century Fox has somehow made over a billion dollars off a series of diminishing “Squeakquels.” We do secretly sort of hope these movies keep getting made, just so David Cross keeps getting forced to star in them.


7. X-Men

X-Men Oscar Isaac
20th Century Fox

If we can all be honest with ourselves, these movies have been a mixed bag for the past decade. (Even the foul-mouthed spin-off Deadpool made fun of how self-serious the franchise has become.) In an ever expanding quest to turn the series into a dumbed-down version of the moody mutants’ ’90s cartoon, the stories have gotten paper-thin, the performances phoned in and the monster makeup just this side of Grimace cosplay. (We’re looking at you, X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Do we really need to see Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine for the ninth time? There is only so much steamed chicken and protein powder this man can eat before this franchise legitimately becomes a form of torture. Fox Studios, there are enough superheroes on the big screen right now. Maybe let this one go, and a decade from now Marvel can reclaim it and make some good movies again.


6. Tarzan

Tarzan
Warner Bros.

There have been over 200 projects starring Tarzan since pictures started motioning at the turn of the last century. 200! This vaguely racist story of a white man taming the, ahem, Dark Continent, has been told ad nauseam. We know Hollywood loves to keep beating iconic characters into the ground, and Tarzan probably has near universal name recognition, but that doesn’t mean that anyone wants to, you know, go and watch a movie about the guy, no matter how ripped Alexander Skarsgard’s abs are.


5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Tarzan
Paramount Pictures

These “heroes in a half shell” were a stretch for movie stardom back at the peak of their popularity, but thanks to some ingenious work by The Jim Henson Company, and Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap,” they were able to have a moment during the early ’90s.

Now, decades later, Michael Bay’s desperate desire to ruin all of our childhoods has found its way to these pizza loving turtles with ‘tude. The CGI monstrosities that have resulted can barely be called movies. Like the Transformers franchise, but with more creepy scenes of an anthropomorphic turtle hitting on Megan Fox, these movies are a nail in the coffin of ’80s nostalgia, and need to be put to bed before Bay starts sniffing around the Thundercats.


4. Now You See Me

Now You See Me
Summit Entertainment

Magic tricks are impressive when you see them performed live. The fun is in wondering how they could possibly do that. When you watch a bunch of Christopher Nolan castoffs performing CGI tricks created in post production, the only thing you’re left wondering is what the point even was.

This is perhaps the strangest movie franchise to come along in awhile, a collection of genres tropes quilted together by a cavalcade of filmdom’s best supporting actors. Take a bit of Ocean’s Eleven, and a touch of The Prestige. Add a pinch of Morgan Freeman and James Franco’s brother, and cross your fingers that audiences will be dumb enough to line up for a sequel to that movie they didn’t totally hate when they saw it on an airplane that time.


3. God’s Not Dead

Pure Flix Entertainment
Pure Flix Entertainment

The Christian movie genre has blown-up over the last decade. God’s Not Dead, and its sequel, were beneficiaries of this expanding audience, raking in tens of millions of dollars at the box office. But, despite connecting with an audience, all is not well in God’s Not Dead-land.

These insipid movies, that never met a straw man they didn’t hate, tell laughable stories about the evils of college campuses and the ACLU, full of cartoonish villains whose sole purpose in life is to crush good Christian souls. With a “who’s who” of “Remember Them??” in the cast, including TV’s Superman Dean Cain and TV’s Hercules Kevin Sorbo, these movies are as poorly produced as the message they’re espousing. God may not be dead, but the careers of the filmmakers behind these movies should be.


2. Bridget Jones

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

It’s been more than a decade since the last Bridget Jones movie was foisted on us, and in that time young Bridget has remained the same self-involved, unrealistically clumsy mess. With pacing that makes each movie feel 10 hours long, sub-par slapstick and an unlikeable lead, the Bridget Jones trilogy too often feels like Sex and the City without the sex or the city.

Just because the book series your franchise is based on churns out another entry doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get the gang back together. Well, some of the gang, considering Hugh Grant wisely let Dr. McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey fill in for him this go around. Remember when Renee Zellweger was an acclaimed, Oscar-winning actress? Yeah, that was a long time ago…


1. Avatar

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Seriously, is anyone really excited for the four sequels that James Cameron has promised us to this box office breaking blockbuster from 2009? Yes, at the time the 3D wonderland of CGI planets and tail sex was a revelation, making us overlook the fact that we were watching a hokey Dances With Wolves knockoff starring an actor with the approximate charisma of a broken toaster. But over the last few years, Avatar has slipped from the public consciousness. When’s the last time you popped in your Blu-ray of it, or saw someone cosplaying a Na’vi, or even mentioned it in casual conversation? If Cameron were making one sequel, okay, but four? FOUR? Maybe it’s best to just remember Avatar for what it was — a blue-hued fluke, and move on.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” flick Scary Movie 2 this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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