My place of birth was in Jamaica, NY in the summer of 1975. However, my parents decided to move me around a bit and where I grew up was actually a lot more south than that. Many times in my youth I visited New York to see my grandmother and wondered (often aloud) what it would be grow up in New York rather the suburbs of a southern state. My grandparents would tell me stories, my dad would tell me stories as well as people within earshot of my curiosity. Films helped in this respect too and another fine film about that experience ended up in my hands.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints was released in 2006 and is based on the true story of Dito Montiel.
Dito (played by Robert Downey Jr) is a successful writer and lives in California. His book speaks of his youth, living in the heart of New York. After all of these years, his mother Flori (played by Dianne Wiest) calls Dito up and tells him that his father, Monty (played by Chazz Palminteri) is ill and will not go to the hospital. After calls from friends and family, Dito decides to make the journey to New York. In the film and his mind, he really travels back to 1986 when he was just a teenager struggling to get by.
The young group of Dito (played by Shia LeBeouf), Antonio (played by Channing Tatum), Nerf (played by Peter Tambakis), and Guiseppe (played by Adam Scarimbolo) are a group of boys growing up in the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. The group is lead by Antonio, rough but he’s a good boy. They spend a lot of time hanging out with a trio of females lead by Laurie (played by Melonie Diaz). The group’s eyes are opened up by a wave of gang violence that threatens them directly and leaves them scrounging for a solution and their lives.
Meanwhile, Dito meets a Scottish boy named Mike (played by Martin Compston) who is new to the area. He’s a wannabe writer and encourages Dito to go to California for a month and see that there is another world outside of the frightening one he is living in. Dito has also fallen for Laurie and finds him wanting her to come along. But in doing so, he must express his love for her. The story answers the questions of why Dito left the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. But it also answers why he comes back and what happens when he confronts the demons that plagued his youth.
This film is excellent. The place of Astoria in Queens, New York is no picnic. It is a harsh reality; full of violence, racism and strong brotherhood as well as hatred from those who are different. It brings a gripping truth to the viewer and doesn’t let go until the credits role. The cast also stands out as one of the best assembled in recent memory. Most of the movie is spent in Dito’s youth and the young cast carries the movie and does so in a pleasing fashion. This is an interesting contrast because most people mention the older Robert Downey Jr as the star of the film when the true stars are Shia LeBeouf & Channing Tatum. Shia & Channing’s portrayal of Dito & Antonio were the most convincing roles in a cast of highlights. Even bit parts like the modern day Laurie (played by Rosario Dawson) did great things with minimal screen time.
My only beef with the movie is that I felt that some of the older characters simply did not coincide with their younger counterparts. This was the most evident in the Nerf & Antonio characters. The young Nerf was a good sidekick and even though he looked to stay in Astoria he never looked like he would be broken by it. Heck, he looked like he was going to end up a used car salesman. The older Nerf (played by Scott Campbell) is nothing more than a strung out stoner. The same can be said of Antonio’s two counterparts. The first is a brash but strong man who leads the pack and is a leader in every way except of his own deadly temper. The older Antonio (played by Eric Roberts) seems lost and a shell of the man he used to be. I agree with him being in jail, but I expected him to be surer of himself and his stature.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen. Despite the awesome casting, the movie is an independent piece and the film isn’t everything in the video and the audio department. The video is the stronger of the two and colors are about as good as can be expected. Some of the night scenes are difficult to make out what is going on but make it through the process alright. It’s far from bad but you do secretly hope for a little better.
The weakest point of the film is the audio piece. Supplied in 5.1 or 2.0 English Dolby Digital, the sound is very low; especially the 5.1 piece. Normally on my audio dial, most movies I only need to place in the mid 50’s, this one has to be pushed to well above 60. Dialog is clear once you get the volume up but don’t expect there to be any real surrounds except for the occasional music piece. Subtitles are in English and Spanish for those who need it.
- Automatic Trailers: Strays, The Dead Girl, Hard Cash & the Contract.
- Commentary with Director: Dito Montiel & Editor: Jake Pushinsky: Dito does a very good commentary piece here full of nice anecdotes about the cast as well as his own life. He makes an interesting reoccurring joke about that he doesn’t know what Impressionistic means. Don’t worry Dito, I really fail to understand it either. He also seems to read all reviews of his work (maybe he’ll read this one) and keeps referring to the fact that he hopes certain extended scenes made the extras. It’s a good thing cause most of them did. One would think in an indy film that they would have more control over the input into the dvd.
- Shooting Saints: Making of a Guide to Recognizing Your Saints 20:10: A good making of feature that goes more into detail that is based on a true story. Many things were embellished for the sake of good filmmaking and they essentially had to truncate an autobiography of his whole life into a powerful single story. It’s also interesting that the director, Dito had trouble casting a lot of the parts. He simply felt that the person chosen wasn’t always the right one. This is understandable when dealing with something based off a life story. I’m not sure who I would get to play me in a movie; though for some reason, Screech from Saved by the Bell comes to mind. (okay, that’s an exaggeration)
- Alternate Opening / Alternate Endings (w/commentary) 13:30: A good collection of one additional opening and four alternate endings. The film picked the right ones in the beginning and the end. This isn’t to say that the material wouldn’t have been good if they had used something different but the best choice was clearly made.
- Deleted Scenes (w/commentary) 19:19: A collection of eleven scenes that in parts would have accentuated the movie. A lot of extra older Nerf here. To be honest, this would have helped to expand his character greatly and it would have been nice if more of it made it to the final cut.
- Rooftop Scene 6:01: Dito Montiel & Helen Dallas perform the rooftop scene that Robert Downey Jr & Rosario Dawson do towards the end of the actual film. This was performed at the Sundance Screenwriters & Director’s Lab. Good stuff and nice to see how a director acts in his own written scene.
- Saints Trailers 2:20, 2:33, 1:13: There is the Theatrical Trailer, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints #2, and Wouldn’t You Like to Go Back to 1986? Let’s see, I was 11 years old, in the sixth grade and had my first real crush (Jolene Jennings, I wonder where she is now). I was also still in North Carolina and among friends that I had known for 6 years. However, the Mets won the Series; I guess we can’t have it all, can we?
- Full Monty Interview 1:32: This is presumably Dito’s real father and it’s a brief interview with him. This part is also included at the tail end of the film’s credits.
- Young Laurie Audition, played by Diana Carcamo 1:52: Kinda filler stuff here, but another actress playing the part of young Laurie. I’m sure there is some significance here but I can’t find it in the short two minute feature.
This would mark the third steelbook I’ve reviewed for First Look Studios. This is the first movie I’ve watched that has actually deserved the steelbook packaging. It’s a great film that is only made better by the strong list of awesome casting choices. There is a mixture of unknowns, knowns and great bit actors that round out an intriguing bit of storytelling. The flaws are minimal with the video and audio sections failing a bit due to the low budget. The extras are near perfect and my only gripe is I wished for Robert Downey Jr to be involved in the commentary. However, this is purely a selfish one. I bring a hearty and easy recommendation to this film and I encourage anybody to take a gander at this picture. To take a quote from the film: “In the end – just like I said – I left everything, and everyone. But no one, no one has ever left me.” I take my leave of the film now, but this film is so powerful, it will never leave me.