A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

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Review #290 of 365
Film: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) [R] 98 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $11.75
Where Viewed: Landmark Esquire Theatre, Denver, CO
When 1st Seen: 28 October 2006
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Film's Official Website
DVD Release Date: unscheduled

Directed by: Dito Montiel (debut)
Written by: Dito Montiel (debut)

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Robert Downey Jr. (A Scanner Darkly) • Rosario Dawson (Clerks II) • Shia LaBeouf (The Greatest Game Ever Played) • Chazz Palminteri (Little Man) • Dianne Wiest ("Law & Order") • Channing Tatum (Step Up) • Eric Roberts (Phat Girlz) • Scott Michael Campbell (Brokeback Mountain) • Martin Compston ("Monarch of the Glen"-UK) • Anthony DeSando (Kiss Me, Guido) • Melonie Diaz (Lords of Dogtown) • Michael Rivera (Strangers with Candy) • Peter Anthony Tambakis (The Sixth Sense)

Click for 'Review Lite' [a 150-word or less review of this film]
Well, I probably should have known better, because I went absolutely ga-ga over the trailer for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints labeling it one of the best I'd ever seen. Overall, the film is not quite as good as the trailer; which, unfortunately, misleads on a view details as they so often do. The trailer, which I still will rate as one of the best of the year, is so raw, fresh, musically astute, tight, enticing, dramatic, tender, poignant, as to create a sense of urgency and desire to see the entire film. Of course, this is the point of a good trailer—that is exactly what it is supposed to do. Yet, in this case, the trailer is a beautiful piece of artwork all on its own. The editor of the trailer deserves a nomination for best short film. As for the full-length version, it is a complex montage of character and story that evokes many of the same emotions, however, for different reasons, with some bedeviling blemishes, and one fundamental flaw that from which it can barely recover.

"… a character study that fails to study its main character."
So, putting the trailer out of mind, let's start with this book, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints: A Memoir by Dito Montiel. The book, which cursory research was not able to establish the degree to which it is autobiographical, tells the life of Dito Montiel, son of a Nicaraguan immigrant father and an Irish mother who grows up in Astoria, NY (a part of Queens where Scorsese filmed GoodFellas). He grows up enjoying/enduring a life that is filled with excitement and danger with a close group of friends. Throughout, he encounters special people like described Saint Number One, Father Angelo Pezullo, who provide guidance, inspiration, or protection of some sort. Another of his saints is Antonio, an older kid who fills the role of a big-brother protector. In the book, Antonio beats a gang member to death with a baseball bat and goes on to serve six years in prison for the murder. Well, without having read more of the book than Amazon.com will permit one to read on-line, it's difficult to tell beyond that how the book works. The book jacket does reveal that Dito went on to some degree of infamy as a Versace underwear model and as a member of the band Gutterboy.

Well, for whatever reasons, perhaps as all authors must face the reality of around 120 minutes of time vs. unlimited time when their book has to be condensed into a movie, the film it seems, is very, very, very different from the book. The film, focuses on one element of Dito's life, the idea that his life in Astoria was so fraught with dangers, with his best friends dying all around him, that he has to get out, leave, and start over. There is a great deal of emphasis put on the notion that, eventually, he abandons everyone in his life, but no one ever abandons him. For whatever reason, this choice to take with the film, presented the film with it's fatal flaw, a flaw that would not come up in a trailer edited for speed and even less time, but one that percolates and drips out the bottom. The film version of the story never gives us really any reason to care about Dito. He is precious to everyone whose lives he touches for reasons we cannot fathom, and the fact that he leaves, doesn’t seem so bad. What was he all about anyway?

The film's story of Dito Montiel is told in two time lines: one with Dito as a teenager (Shia LaBeouf) and one when Dito is in his 40s (Robert Downey, Jr.) and returns home from California at the request of his mother and two of his friends via answering machine messages to please come take his father to a hospital. We get only a limited sense of what the adult Dito is up to in California in a scene that might be too recursive for people watching to wrap their minds around at first, but we see the adult Dito Montiel, sort of squirming in a chair reading to an audience excerpts from his book, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. He starts off, then by mentioning some names of people and suggesting they are going to die, but noting we shouldn't worry about him giving away any big plot secrets because a lot of other (bleep) is going to happen." Then, we are taken on a series of flashbacks between the present and the past to see the lives of the people mentioned. There's Dito's mom, Flori (Diane Wiest), his father Monty (Chazz Palminteri), childhood best friend Antonio (Channing Tatum), girlfriend Laurie (Melonie Diaz), and new best friend Mike O'Shea (Martin Compton). The kids spend most of their time hanging around, going to summer school, trying to get something going with their sex lives, complaining about how hot it is all the time, and getting some words of wisdom from Monty whom they seem to like more than Dito does. Things are pretty trouble free, until Dito, Antonio, and their pals including Antonio's younger and even more fool-hardy brother Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo) and Nerf (Scott Michael Campbell) come across a dude called the Reaper (Michael Rivera) tagging Nerf's mom's store with some graffiti. They get into a tussle that then escalates over a series of weeks with each step going up a notch. Antonio stands up for what's right and is the chief instigator of retaliation. This and other craziness leads Dito down a path toward a stronger bond with Mike O'Shea. The two spend a lot of time in Manhattan doing things and walking dogs for a guy who gives them $4 an hour per dog along with encouragement toward their new-found goal of going to California and starting a band. Dito, in fact, is so high on the plan, he shares it with his father who says he can never leave and his girlfriend who isn't that excited but believes shes' been invited along nonetheless. The growth of the relationship between Dito and Mike bothers Antonio whose physically abusive father has driven him closer and closer to Monty as a father figure. While unstated, it is clear that Dito begins to feel that his father is closer to Antonio than he is to Dito. Things come to a head with two deaths and a murder that puts Antonio in prison, apparently for life, and Dito decides he's just got to get out of town, and he does. While he is gone, however, life in Astoria goes on. Things change. People change. Laurie grows up (Rosario Dawson) and has a child. Monty gets sick and close to death. Which leads, Flori to leave the message that Nerf will pick him up at the airport if he will just come back to New York City to take his father to the hospital. This probably gives enough of a taste for how the book, the film, and the trailer differ.

"For a couple of minutes, there is popping, electric action, and then the fizzle fades."

The choice to take the movie down this path, and convert it into one that focuses on possible regrets one has in life for decisions one made in youth and the ripple effects they have on those whom we love and love us, made for a very different story. And it would have been just as good, I'm guessing, had it not been for the one essential, previously mentioned, missing ingredient. For the film, we would have needed to be given more insight into why we should care how Dito feels about anything. Believe it or not, but despite all that happens in the film, in a story that is supposed to be about him, he is the least well developed of the characters. We can only glean what he has done from the wake he leaves behind. He is not a dutiful son. He is not a loyal blood brother. He is not a dependable boyfriend. Now, he's not a bad person really either. It's just that always seems like he's sort of along for the ride, there on the periphery of the events, but not really involved. So, if the protagonist of the story is not that 'pro' and not that 'ist', the events that surround his life lack their potential impact.

Aside from this deep-rooted flaw, there are blemishes as well that negatively impacted the film. There were pluses and minuses to the casting decisions throughout the film. It's easiest to say that of all the casting choices, Channing Tatum was probably the best one. Despite growing up in Alabama, a southern boy, he has not problem filling the role of Antonio both physically and emotionally. How Chazz Palminteri is a Nicaraguan immigrant, remains to be explained. Interestingly enough, you put Chazz Palminteri in a role like this, and the entire dynamic changes. You get Italian mobster. We never know in the film what it is that Dito's father does. But, you look take one look at Mr. Palminteri and Astoria and you picture he's a low-level organized crime guy. Maybe he was. Despite this change, Mr. Palminteri is terrific in his role. No qualms with his portrayal nor that of Dianne Wiest as Flori. They are fine. Flori's character is also completely underdeveloped. Young, Scottish actor, Martin Compston is also well cast as Mike O'Shea. Seemingly a peripheral character at the start, he becomes one of the most important characters in the film. The trio of young women including the outstanding Melonie Diaz as young Laurie, all fit the bill for the most part. Certainly miscast was Eric Roberts as the grown up version of Antonio. Not only did he seem generationaly out of sync when the older Dito comes to visit him in prison, but if you feed Channing Tatum's photo into the software that ages people used by the FBI to find missing persons and harden it from a life in prison, appearing on the screen is not going to be Eric Roberts. Nothing about him seemed like a grown up Antonio. He had the opposite impact of Rosario Dawson who was perfect as grown up Laurie. She has one of the more confrontational scenes where she explains to grown up Dito what happened to them all once he left. The scene provides, unfortunately, the only real peek into the Pandora's Box that will open the longer Dito stays in his old neighborhood. Which leaves, for last, an analysis of Dito. Shia LeBeouf was quite capable of playing this role. Had it been given just a few scenes or parts of scenes that revealed something, anything about who Dito was and why we should care, undoubtedly he could have carried these. To the extent of the way the role was written, if we were to get this about him from other things, non-verbal things, then he wasn't the right actor, because they do not come through. The same can nearly be said for Robert Downey, Jr. in his portrayal of the grown up Ditto. While there is so little physical similarity, it's hard to picture Shia LaBeouf aging to look like Robert Downey, Jr., there is little emotional similarity. The latter is ok, because people can change in this area as they grow up. It's just hard to figure what Mr. Downey, Jr. is using to divine his character when thinking about the life of young Dito. Another blemish was saving the best song/music in the film for the final credits. This song, "Back in the New York Groove" may be the title, is outstanding, one of the best of the year in any film, and so perfectly sets the up the trailer. It does not suit the ending of the film well. This is an upbeat, lively, invigorating piece of music with a great beat. It should not be playing at the end of a tragic drama.

In summary, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is a character study that fails to study its main character. The impact of the deaths in the film is barely felt. There is an emotional detachment between the reality of events and their true and immediate impact. More is given to the long-term impact, and even then often only by inference. The story's chief dilemma: is escaping our upbringing to follow our dreams at the expense of our roots worth it, remains unanswered for two reasons. First we never know if Dito fulfilled his dreams. Second, we do not know the full extent of the damage of his departure on himself. We see the devastation caused for those who cared about him, but the film does not give much insight into whether he experiences any sense of loss or remorse or even regret. The bacon is thrown into an already sizzling frying pan, and then the heat is turned off. For a couple of minutes, there is popping, electric action, and then the fizzle fades.

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Cast Members
Robert Downey Jr.Rosario DawsonShia LaBeouf
Chazz PalminteriDianne WiestChanning Tatum
Eric RobertsScott Michael CampbellMartin Compston
Anthony DeSandoMelonie DiazMichael Rivera
Peter Anthony Tambakis
Dito Montiel
Dito Montiel
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A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) Review-lite [150-word cap]
While the raw, fresh, musically astute, tight, enticing, dramatic, tender, poignant trailer for A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is one of the best of the year, the film does not deliver. Fans of the book, should also prepare for a very different experience. Detailing the youth of Dito Montiel (Shia LaBeouf) as he receives his mean streets of Astoria, Queens, New York education, causing him to choose to leave his family and friends for romanticized greener pastures in California and his subsequent return some twenty years later, now looking a lot like Robert Downey, Jr., and showing little emotion, the story withholds explanation as to why we should care about him. This serves, unfortunately as the film's chief flaw. It is a character study that fails to study its main character. For a couple of minutes, there is popping, electric action, and then, disappointingly, the fizzle fades.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

did u ever think the song at the end, was meant to be kind of ironic...after showing a movie full of how awful new york could be, to have this awesomely happy song about the city at the end..i thought it worked well...altho i did think the movie was as close to perfect as it could have been...especially for a first time director!