Dito Montiel’s ‘A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints’ (2006)

17Mar07

A Guide to Returning Your Saints has a very odd and disparate collection of reviews attached to it.

“The film’s strongest performances come from Chazz Palminteri, who avoids slipping into the gangster role into which he has been stereotyped; Channing Tatum, whose Antonio is equal parts charisma and violence; and Melonie Diaz, who’s a firebrand. It’s hard to make much comment about the acting of Robert Downey Jr. or Rosario Dawson, since their screen time is limited. (Dawson, for example, is in only two scenes.) Shia LaBeouf doesn’t always seem to ‘get’ Dito; there are times when his acting strikes a wrong chord.” –James Berardinelli

“While ambitiously set in two time zones, the past comprises the bulk of Montiel’s autobiopic, with superb performances by Shia LaBeouf as his younger self and Martin Compston as his tearaway Scottish pal.” –Empire Reviews

“The director exhibits less interest in narrative than in allowing his cast to create their own loose, impressionistic ‘truths,’ which amounts to a great deal of mumbling, cursing and fighting. I can’t recall a movie in which improvisation has been so wildly and ruinously indulged: it’s the actors’ workshop from hell. The bittersweet atmosphere that Montiel aims for as Downey Jr walks around his old stamping ground would be so much more effective if we didn’t fear the big set-piece barney between father and son waiting round the corner. Giving actors freedom is one thing, but Montiel has allowed them so much rope that some have gone right ahead and hanged themselves with it.” –The Independent

“Also infuriating is the tendency of the performances to swing wildly out of control; Montiel instructs his cast to overact, leaving some scenes, including a cringe-inducing moment of teenage lust in a humid stairwell, resembling an acting workshop for 9th graders. Occasional moments are decimated by this directorial mandate, because, to be blunt, it’s uncomfortable to watch a limited talent like Tatum try to improv or attempt to convey complexity.” –FilmJerk.com

“Sometimes it seems like Dito’s father Monty — played by Chazz Palminteri, trading his usual gangster menace for a heartbreaking fragility of body and spirit…Tatum is vivid as this tragic jackass, though it’s hard to tell if the actor’s range extends beyond wounded brutes…The gifted Downey, a sleazy American’s Johnny Depp, makes the most of his screentime…” –filmcritic.com

So what did I think?

Downey – eh. Tatum – good. Palminteri – good. Dianne Wiest – amazing. LaBeouf – decent. Diaz – good. I’ve only seen Shia LaBeouf outside of this film in a brief guest starring role on Freaks & Geeks and a small (and annoying) role in Constantine. While I was not overly impressed with his performance in this movie – often it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on inside – I do see potential. The scene between him and Chazz Palminteri after Mike’s death is heartbreaking.

I’m not in love with the flashback structure of the film — I think that it could take place completely in the 1980s. I do love the underdog group of main characters. These kids are not the tough guys of the block — they constantly have new wounds appearing. And they seem very real. I also like that this film challenges the notion that escaping an oppressive childhood home is heroic and courageous. In the case of this film, Dito’s escape is an act of cowardice.

The critics panned some of the cinematic techniques that Montiel used, but I liked some of them. I thought that the dialogue displayed on screen was effective for the message from Antonio and the conversation between him and Dito. I think that the film is very much told through Dito’s eyes. Because of how he left things, Dito has refused to think about Antonio, to form a picture of how his friend has turned out. Seeing a representation of Antonio on screen before their face-to-face meeting at the end of the film seems appropriate. Yes, a one-sided conversation would have served the same purpose, but I also like that the audience did not see Dito’s reaction to an adult Antonio until late in the film. The to-the-camera confessions were a little heavy-handed. I didn’t mind the surrealistic camera tricks used when Mike and Dito met, but I thought that they suggested a bit of homoeroticism between the pair, but Montiel never followed through.

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