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Cherry Pop

'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints'
(Robert Downey Jr., Rosario Dawson, et al / DVD / R / (2006) 2007 / First Look Pictures)

Overview: The movie is a coming-of-age drama about a boy growing up in Astoria, N.Y., during the 1980s. As his friends end up dead, on drugs or in prison, he comes to believe he has been saved from their fate by various so-called saints.

DVD Verdict: Writing a memoir has always seemed like a deeply narcissistic act to me. It's troubling when people view their own existence - the story of their life - as something others should read about and learn from. Perhaps it's because my own life has little to offer others in the way of meaning or entertainment. Obviously there are plenty of lives worth reading about and learning from, but maybe the people who have them shouldn't be the one's writing about it. Have a little humility: if you want to write, be creative and make something up.

Meet Dito Montiel.

Not only did this enterprising chap write a memoir, he gave it the wordy pretentious title 'A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints,' then adapted that memoir into a screenplay which he then directed as a feature film. Dito Montiel did not cast himself as the lead in My Life as a Book the Movie, so there is still hope for him. Besides: despite such rarely-observed hubris, first-time filmmaker Mr. Montiel managed to make a strong motion picture.

Guide consists of two rather conventional stories told unconventionally; each centers on the director at two formative stages of his life. We're first introduced to the elder Dito (Robert Downey Jr.), a successful author in his thirties having just released the novel of this film's title. He gets a call from his Mother (Dianne Wiest): Dad (Chazz Palminteri) is sick, so it might be a good time for the prodigal son to return (he hasn't been there in twenty years). Home is about how Dito left it - filled with things that need to be made amends with, including ex-girlfriend Laurie (Rosario Dawson).

The second story, forming the larger portion of the film's 98 minutes, concerns the young Dito (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager coming-of-age in Astoria, Queens during the mid-1980s. His entire being is confined to a few dingy inner-city blocks; riff-raffy friends like Antonio (Channing Tatum) occupy his time with assorted bouts of troublemaking and run-ins with a local Puerto Rican gang called the Reapers. Dito's father can't understand why his son would ever want to leave - everything there is to see in the world can be seen in Queens. Why fly to China when you can walk to Chinatown? Dito doesn't disagree until a new classmate from Scotland (Martin Compston) with a fondness for poetry and punk rock makes him question whether there actually is a world inaccessible by the New York transit system.

Considerably more running time is devoted to teenage Dito and it is the more consistently entertaining of the two central narratives because of it. His story never feels like it is barreling toward a typical Garrison finish - perhaps because it does not have one. Characters are allowed space to breathe; scenes do not begin and end at points mandated by some plot-driven movie factory foreman (I imagine Montiel has seen much of David Gordon Green's oeuvre and taken detailed notes). Some strange editing decisions aside (some conversations play out non-chronologically, pieced together seemingly at random a la the Nicolas Roeg SNoB whirligig), it appears Montiel did not so much try to live his life like a movie as make movie that looks like life - in this, he is quite successful.

It's unfortunate then that young Dito's story is so consistently interrupted in order to visit with his less-compelling older self; Downey (who resembles LaBeouf little in way of appearance or speech) and Montiel never truly elevate the material above its intrinsic, underdeveloped moldiness. The presence of such well-known faces (like Downey, Dawson, and a cameo by Eric Roberts) undermine the naturalistic atmosphere Montiel is so good at creating elsewhere. There are some nice moments, but they're not worth our diverted interest - the picture as a whole would likely improve had the flash-forwards been excised entirely. No great creative loss: being as the Downey Dito is the acclaimed author of the memoir this film is ostensibly based, one assumes his scenes are not in the book. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Director and Editor Commentary
Alternate Opening and Endings
Deleted Scenes
"Shooting Saints: The Making of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" Featurette