Judge Adam Arseneau says this DVD came with a free pith helmet and butterfly net.
Sometimes the only way to move forward is to go back.
Winner of Best Ensemble and Best Director at Sundance, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints is the story of one man's life growing up in Queens in the 1980s. Despite its ensemble cast, it skimmed under the radar theatrically, but has made it to DVD with full impact.
Facts of the Case
"My name's Dito. I'm gonna leave everybody in this film."
Astoria, Queens. 1980s. In one of the most violent and turbulent neighborhoods of New York City, Dito (Shia LaBeouf, Holes, Transformers) and his friends run rampant through their neighborhood, chasing girls, drinking and getting into fights. His friend Antonio (Channing Tatum, She's the Man, Step Up,) abused by his father, translates his endless aggression to the streets, terrorizing anyone who crosses their paths. For these teens, the streets are their homes. Dito's mother (Dianne Wiest, The Horse Whisperer) worries about him, but his father (Chazz Palminteri, The Usual Suspects) sees little wrong with his son's friends and activities. As a graduate of the same streets, he knows only the neighborhood.
When a foreign exchange student from Scotland comes to Dito's class, Dito is suddenly introduced to a world he never knew existed. For him, there was only Astoria, but now, he finds himself obsessed with music, literature, and a desire to break away from his roots and see the world. This desire only intensifies when Antonio begins clashing with the Reapers, a Puerto Rican gang from uptown, drawing Dito into a circle of endless violence.
Now in the present day, decades later, an older Dito (Robert Downey, Jr., A Scanner Darkly, Good Night and Good Luck), having long abandoned his life in search of better times in California, receives word that his father is ill. He returns to his old neighborhood, to the people he abandoned, to find much has changed in Astoria, but little has with the people. Reconnecting with his mother and his old girlfriend (Rosario Dawson, Clerks II) comes easy, but his father is another matter altogether.
A cinematic adaptation of an autobiography is a rare thing, doubly so when the individual who wrote the book on himself gets to write and direct the motion picture as well. First-time writer/director Dito Montiel, a hardcore musician from NYC (previously in the bands Major Conflict and Gutterboy), graduated to author and sold his fictionalized autobiography "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" in 2001 to publishers to great critical acclaim. In a rare privilege not given to many writers, Montiel himself was given the privilege of adapting and directing his own material for its cinematic debut.
Radically different from his memoirs, the narrative structure is a twister at first to get your head around, in what could only be called a continuation of a pseudo-biography. Robert Downey Jr. plays current-day Dito Montiel, the real-life author returned home to his family. Shia LeBeouf plays the young Dito during flashback sequences. What is interesting is how the characters in the present timeline reference the novel, suggesting this film takes place after the book itself is released, making this film less a direct adaptation and more a continuation of the novel. The book, a Kerouac-esque tale of New York during the 1980s, a wild punk rock ride through the fashion and music, the people and neighborhoods that personified a generation, is nothing like this movie. The film is radically microscopic in its adaptation, focusing instead on Dito's personal relationships with his family and friends, especially with his father, and the motivations that inspired him to break away from their gravitational pull. A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints feels like memoirs of memoirs, layers upon layers of self-referencing material.
The impossible choice made by Dito between his family and friends and having a life of possibility is the lynchpin holding the film together. A foreign exchange kid from Scotland named Mike introduces Dito to another world outside of Queens in conversations about literature and poetry and music. Dito realizes exactly what a life in Queens represents: a smoldering crater, a cesspool of anger and resentment and imprisonment for its denizens. Its walls are invisible, but iron-clad. Once Dito realizes exactly who his friends are (in an amazing sequence of self-referential fourth-wall breaking) there is no turning back for him. Unfortunately, Dito is the support in this house of cards, and the more he tries to wiggle free, the more precarious things become. His family, his friends, everyone suffers in increasing magnitude, until the entire house tumbles down.
Hanging out on stoops, subway stations and street corners, drinking cheap liquor and getting into fights, these guys make the Warriors from Coney look like punks. The director's attention to detail and dialogue often creates an incomprehensible slew of hollering and cursing between characters, where the only recognizable spurts of dialogue are words starting with "F" and "S." Personally, I had to put the subtitles on just to find out what the hell was being said. Lord knows I never thought I'd be the kind of guy to ever complain about excessive profanity, but if you took all the curse words out of A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, the movie would be twenty minutes long.
The ensemble cast turn out excellent performances, notably those of Antonio (Channing Tatum) and Monty (Chazz Palminteri). Antonio's father abuses him, translating into absurd levels of aggression in young Antonio, and his over-the-top performance is quite riveting and intense. Monty, a tough kid from the neighborhood, is virtually identical to every other role Chazz plays, but his portrayal as a sickly older man is passionate and above reproach. The relationship formed between Antonio and Monty is one of the more interesting elements, Monty being more supportive to Antonio than to his old son at times, and Antonio resenting Dito for not appreciating the father figure he takes for granted. LeBeouf and Downey Jr. play perfect book-ends to Dito, mimicking the same blank face and twitchy persona well enough, but LeBeouf out-acts the veteran Downey easily with much more dramatic material to work with. Rosario Dawson is fantastic in everything she does, but her screen time amounts to mere minutes, which is unfortunate. I feel the film had much to say there, on the subject of broken hearts, but chose to focus on the father rather than the girl, leaving Dawson out in the cold.
The transfer is clean and sharp, with saturated primary colors and excellent black levels. Night shots are clean and free from grain, while daytime shots show no noticeable print damage. It is a great looking transfer for a film of this budget. The editing is aggressive and at times excessive, with quick cuts and various trickeries giving the film a very film school-looking appearance. For a first-time director, Montiel is clearly talented, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can translate his skills into a project further from his heart.
Both the 5.1 and 2.0 tracks are sharp and bass-thin, with dialogue extremely frenetic and natural, overlapping in incoherent hollers and shouting between angry family and friends. Constant volume adjustment is necessary no matter which track you pick. The 5.1 sounds better realized in space, but makes little use of its rear channels. The score is a mix of ambient piano music and a fantastic cross-section of classic rock from the late '70s and '80s that fits the film perfectly.
In terms of extras, we go all out here. The commentary track, with writer/director Dito Montiel and editor Jake Pushinsky, is extremely informative and energetic, with Montiel expressing all manner of opinion and insight into the sequences of his re-created life. A twenty-minute making-of documentary accompanies, with excellent interviews with cast and crew, as well as an alternate opening and four alternate endings (never a good sign). In addition, we get some deleted scenes, an expanded rooftop scene, some trailers and previews, an interview with the real Monty, and the audition sequence with Diana Carcamo, a.k.a. young Laurie. For a single-disc release, this is a fantastic and full offering of material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When I first saw the trailer for A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, and then failed to see the film materialize in theaters near me, I was surprised to see a movie with such an all-star cast make such a small box office impression. After seeing the film, I understand. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie so blatantly and extraordinarily self-indulgent. This guy puts P. T. Anderson to absolute shame.
Written by, directed by, based on true events from the life of, this is as personal of a project as cinema can get. It may mean something to Dito, and I would imagine it does, but it all comes at the expense and annoyance of the audience. It is a film written for an audience of one, and only one. Self-serving and vainglorious, we whine and cry our way through Dito coming to terms with…what, moving away from home? Having some friends get killed? Not connecting with their father? To be fair, this describes approximately 50% of the population of Earth, and most of them have to deal with their issues without the benefit of a Hollywood film to work out their issues with their father.
Okay, okay, I'm being slightly indecorous here. In all fairness, if I were Dito, and all this happened to me, I'd probably have to write a book and movie like this too to get it all off my chest, too. And you can bet it would be self-indulgent too. Good for him, I say.
A challenging and emotional beatdown through the memories of a jaded kid in Astoria, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints is a hard film to love, but incredibly easy to appreciate and admire. As memoirs about friends and family, bad choices, and good intentions go, it may be self-indulgent by its very nature, but its story and film making make it a well-crafted and emotionally powerful tale with its heart in the right place. Love it or hate it, most people can only wish for a cinematic debut this good.
Ah, a little self-indulgence never did any harm. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Commentary with Director Dito Montiel and Editor Jake Pushinsky
Review content copyright © 2007 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.