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Monday, January 2, 2012

A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS -- movie review by porfle

Writer/director Dito Montiel (THE SON OF NO ONE) based his film A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS (2006) on his autobiography of the same name, though he says the movie is a fictionalized version that alters and combines characters and events.  What he mainly wanted to convey was what it was like growing up in Astoria, Queens in the mid-80s, when racial tensions, violence, and an overall air of hostility and hopelessness seemed to be part of the fabric of everyday life. 

The adult Dito (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) has long since escaped the clutches of his old neighborhood and found success in California.  But when his mother Flori (Dianne Wiest) calls one day and implores him to come home--his father, Monty (Chazz Palminteri), has grown ill and she can't get him to go to the hospital--Dito must return to the place and the people he left behind.  In doing so, he realizes how much they mean to him, how their influence helped shape the person he would become, and what a void was left in his life when he turned his back on his roots and cut off all contact with his past.

As he makes the trip back home, he relives old memories.  We see the young Dito (Shia LaBeouf) aimlessly roaming the streets with his pals Antonio, Nerf, and Guiseppe.  Antonio (Channing Tatum), Dito's best friend, is an unstable, hotheaded tough guy who is beaten regularly at home and takes out his aggression by punching his way through life as though they were opponents in the ring.  But he's a loyal friend, and anyone who messes with Dito has to answer to him.  Even when a shocking personal tragedy turns Antonio against Dito temporarily, all it takes is for Dito to be threatened by a mutual enemy for Antonio to come racing to his defense once again. 

Antonio hangs out at Dito's house a lot because Monty and Flori Montiel are the parents he wishes he could have had.  Monty, especially, is a pal to all of Dito's friends, holding court and basking in their company.  They, in turn, hold him and Flori in very high regard--more so than Dito, in fact, whose burning desire to break away from home and escape to a new and better life often puts him at odds with Monty, who fears losing not only a son but a best friend.  Dito's final break from his father, after life in the neighborhood has become intolerable for him, is ugly and bitter.  It's a wound that has never healed, and the adult Dito dreads seeing Monty and dredging it all up again.

Dito's everyday world is vividly evoked by gritty, authentic locations--I would hate to live in this sweltering mass of conflicting humanity--and a uniformly excellent cast.  Chazz Palminteri has never been better, and it's great seeing him play this lovable, gregarious "my old man"-type instead of the usual gangster role that even he seems tired of.  Dianne Wiest, always a skilled actress, is quietly effective in her own subtle way.  The younger cast members really get into their roles, especially Channing Tatum, whom some critics have compared to a young Brando, as Antonio. 

They bring their characters to life so well that it's sometimes jarring when Robert Downey, Jr. and Rosario Dawson (as Laurie, the girl Dito left behind) take over as the adult versions.  Anthony DeSando is particularly good as the flamboyantly-gay Frank, who employs Dito and his Scottish friend Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston) in his dog-walking service.  Frank is wonderfully talkative, animated, and full of life until his spirit finally succumbs to the harshness of his surroundings.  Another casualty is Antonio's mentally-unbalanced brother, Guiseppe, played brilliantly by Adam Scarimbolo. 

First-time director Dito Montiel does a great job bringing his own story to life, and he's good at telling it in visual terms that are often very compelling.  Sometimes his characters speak directly to us ("My name's Dito...I'm gonna leave everybody in this film" we're told at the beginning, while Antonio, who's had his self-respect beaten out of him on a daily basis, later sums himself up by informing us: "I'm a f**king piece of shit.  And that's who I am.") 

An important subplot concerns their increasingly vitriolic conflict with a Puerto Rican graffiti artist who calls himself The Reaper, who finally attacks Dito one night with a baseball bat.  This is too much for Antonio to bear and he loses it, giving full rein to his violent tendencies.  What happens then is not only startling, but also leads to one of the most unexpected musical segues ever to the lush strains of Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street."

The older Dito eventually reconnects with the survivors of his past life, including Laurie, Monty, and finally, Antonio--all the people he left, but who never left him--and a painful succession of suppressed feelings and emotions are brought to the fore once again.  Some of them are left unresolved, at least for the time being.  But when he sees Antonio, the luckless friend whose neverending bout with life has left him on the ropes, it's cathartic.  (I won't tell you who plays the older Antonio, in case it comes as a pleasant surprise to you as it did me.) 

If you wait through the closing credit crawl of A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS you'll hear the real Dito and Antonio in a phone conversation.  And at the very end, there's about twenty seconds of video footage featuring the real-life Monty Montiel, talking about Antonio.  "He's a good guy, though," says an off-camera Dito.  "Oh, yeah, I like 'im," the frail Monty affirms.  "But, good guys don't get out of here."

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