If one has never directed a film before one should not, I repeat (with even greater emphasis), should NEVER direct an adaptation of one's work. This is because one will have enough problems trying to learn the new medium that those problems borne out of adaptation will only bog one down, especially if the work adapted, itself, has problems. That said, let me introduce you to Dito Montiel, director of the 98-minute-long 2006 independent film, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, adapted from his similarly-titled nonfiction work. Some have labeled the book a memoir, but if the film is anything like the book, it is a hagiography, not a memoir, which would be appropriate, given its title.
There's so much wrong with this film, yet I wanted so much for it to be good because I was predisposed to emotionally 'like' it. After all, it's ostensibly a tale about growing up in a tough working class neighborhood of Queens, New York, and dealing with all the varied temptations that such a life and environment offer- i.e.- a slice of my own youth. Why would I NOT be inclined to like the film? Unfortunately, my head owns my heart, and this film is bad in too many ways, from Montiel's slapdash 'style'- a bit of early Martin Scorsese aping, admixed with the 'look at me, I'm cool' style of Darren Aronofsky, to just enough pointless experimentation (such as where the main character and his new friend speak to each other on a subway train via thoughts) with inappropriate cuts, voiceovers, fourth wall breakings, odd handheld camera angles, and inexplicable subtitles for English, of his own. Even worse is the trite flashback formula, as the current day framing scenes are even less compelling than the 'memories,' and what little power the memories have is often short-circuited by a pointless flashforward.
Then there is the fact that, as someone who grew up on basically the same streets (actually meaner streets than Montiel claims to have grown up on), a few years earlier- when things were worse, too much of this film is manifest dickwaving bullshit. Now, the fact that Montiel is aggrandizing his life is not, in and of itself, a flaw of the film, nor anything artistically new (see the James Frey-Oprah Winfrey mess of a couple of years ago), but, since the film is so artistically anomic, and often bad, at least if there were some verisimilitude to reality one could claim some small triumph, or if it were well-made the distortions would not matter. Alas, this is not the case. Even worse than the fact that much of the narrative is fanciful bullshit, however, is that, in accordance with the rest of the filmic anomy, although the bulk of the tale is set in 1986, both the music and the fashions on display scream 1970s. Even the film's theme song, Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley's The New York Groove, is from a decade earlier.
Of course, the tale, such as it is, is not much. Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is a hanger-on to several juvenile delinquents, and the apple of his creepy dad's eye. His dad, Monty (Chazz Palminteri), is one of those stereotypical New Yorker types from films (see dese, dem, and dose), whose only discernible difference is that he feels he is somehow a part of his son's teenaged coterie- not in a pedophilic 'I really like boys' way, but in the pathetic and laughable old fart 'I like boys' way. While Palminteri is no great actor, this film gives him no opportunity to even stretch his limited skills. His acting is overwrought, to say the least. The film is told in the stale flashback formula I mentioned, where the older Dito (Robert Downey, Jr.) tries to get his now-dying dad to check in to a hospital, after having left the city after a series of escalating incidents of violence led to his flight. This makes up about 15% of the film, with the remainder following the younger Dito in 1986, trying to break into the music business with a Scottish pal of his, Mike (Martin Compston), while easing away from his cretinous and sociopathic teenaged mentor, Antonio (Channing Tatum), Antonio's dimwitted brother- Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), and a nebbishy kid named Nerf (Peter Tambakis). He also has the hots for one of the skanky neighborhood girls, Laurie, (Melonie Diaz as a plump teen, and played as a svelte adult by Rosario Dawson).
But, after Giuseppe inexplicably lays down on the tracks of the local El train, as the train approaches, Dito's life (if one can call the just-described as a life) changes, Antonio totally loses it, and attacks (and possibly kills- we never find out) the Puerto Rican kid, Reaper (Michael Rivera), who has spraypainted Dito's family's home, and attacked Dito with a bat, and the viewer is led to believe that this turn of events has some ameliorative power. Naturally, they don't, as Reaper's pals gain vengeance of their own by following Dito and Mikey into an alleyway, and shooting Mike dead. But, the whole narrative plays out in such irreality, and so MTV-like, that never does the viewer care for. nor even empathize with, Dito and his coterie. There is one scene, late in the film, between the older Dito (Downey) and his mom (Dianne Wiest- who is a great actor and, like Palminteri, is wasted, with even less screen time), where Montiel the director tries to get 'deep,' and have his character become understood, but it is so forced that a yawn ensues, instead. Predictably, Dito has his inevitable confrontation with his dad; the result of which we never see, and then heads off to Riker's Island to visit Antonio (played as an adult by Eric Roberts). The two seemingly reconcile and the film ends. Yes, just like that.
Yet, at film's end, only a shrug is possible, and what little stylistic energy the film imparts, on first viewing, totally drains away within minutes. After a few days, such as the time I am writing this review, the very details of the film are almost wholly lost (as opposed to whole scenes retaining themselves for months or years afterward from truly great works of cinema) for they were generic, patent examples of mythologizing, and the mythos was, itself, generic- gleaned not from the real world of upper middle class Astoria, as it was, but rather a dim hagiographer's ideal of what a lower class ethnic Astoria should have been to make one's life sexier to the mainstream of the zombified masses too sheltered from reality to notice the difference. While not falling into the blatant stereotypes of most Spike Lee films, Montiel has not a single convincing nor credible idea how to construct a compelling story nor characters. Especially bad is Montiel's depiction of a gay professional dogwalker and part-time drug dealer, and the oldest standby in reality and fiction- that Antonio and Giuseppe are so screwed up because they have a lout of a father. Perhaps the only thing the viewer can be thankful for is that the blame was put on daddy, not mommy. Well, that and the realistic depiction of Astoria's rooftop culture; although, naturally, the exaggerated cursing of the young folk only aids the lack of plot coherence, it does not hide it. One would think that South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut had proved that cursing- even excessive cursing, could be used effectively, but only satirically, or if in the genuine interest of realism.
In short, the film is not gritty, but silly; not moody, but dull; and imparts nothing to the viewer that your typical white boy wannabe rapper video could not do so, in far less time, while being devoid of the ABC Afterschool Special sort of moralizing. That this mess of a film won the Best Ensemble prize from the Sundance Film Festival shows that the problem with American cinema lies not just with Hollywood, but with the independent filmmakers, as well. There is just a need, it seems, to condescend to the Lowest Common Denominator at all times in all ways.
The DVD shows the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with an audio commentary by Montiel and the film's editor. It's solid, but too much frat-boy bullshitting goes on for too long. The best part of it actually comes when Montiel admits he really knows little about filmmaking. There are alternate starts and ends to the film, some deleted scenes, some trailers for films, a making of featurette, and a few other minor extras. Overall, a solid DVD package which tends to outstrip the actual film. Technically, the film has major problems. The film's soundtrack by Jonathan Elias, as noted, is inauthentic and anachronistic, and often so loud that it overwhelms the action- a sure sign that the director felt the power of the moment could not carry the scene. Then there is the cinematography by Eric Gautier. It is pedestrian, which is no shock since he did the cinematography for the Che Guevara hagiography, The Motorcycle Diaries; a film which, incredibly, made the beauty of the Andes Mountains seem pedestrian.
Overall, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints plays out like an updated, self-consciously artsy (watch the dot on the subway train window scene) version of The Lords Of Flatbush, save that its characters are far less appealing, and its essence is nihility. I hope that if he ever gets the chance to direct another film he heeds my advice that opens this review. I'm not holding my breath.