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Independent Film Review: "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" (2006, Written & Directed By Dito Montiel)

Updated on February 1, 2015
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4 stars for "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints" Film

Author Turned Writer/Director Dito Montiel's Raw & Vivid Time Capsule Autobiographical Drama Debut Film Is An Honest Meditation On Upbringing

Writer/Director Dito Montiel, an Astoria, NYC native is, at present, sitting comfortably in the median of independent and Hollywood film making. Able to attract A-list stars like the late Robin Williams, Channing Tatum, Chazz Palminteri and veteran Dianne Wiest on a relatively modest budget is no easy feat and speaks volumes about the auteur's personable way of connecting with people regardless of their celebrity and status. As this feature-film debut makes abundantly clear, Montiel is a gifted storyteller and his output represents nothing but passion projects told with big stars on a small scale.

For his debut, Montiel didn't have to stray very far narrative-wise at all to tell this tale of a teenager in the throws of young love, family responsibility, and no-holds-barred brutality that shaped his early years. The reason is because that character is Montiel himself and who better to translate his own story to the screen than the individual who lived it? This movie is decidedly told not in the same head-space that venerable NY-based filmmakers Woody Allen and NYC by way of France import Julie Delpy ("2 Days in New York") constructs their stories. In fact, after watching this film it calls to mind the work of Spike Lee and John Singleton of "Boyz In The Hood" notoriety. It is gritty, it is real, and it is uncompromising in its accurate depiction of the crime-ridden NY of the 1980s where the murder rate was at an all time high and being burglarized or finding yourself in a street fight was an everyday occurrence. Montiel makes clear that people of that era were forced to shoulder the weight of the times and grit their teeth if they hoped to stay alive and out of harms way. The authenticity of this movie and careful documentation of the times make it all the more a fascinating and necessary watch.

The film itself is told by jumping back and forth from flashbacks to the present day of 2005. We are immediately introduced to older Dito, played exceptionally well by Robert Downey Jr., who, at this time, was just starting to rebuild his career after he positioned himself back on solid ground with "Iron Man 3" director Shane Black's crime caper "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Downey Jr. presents Dito as a man of conviction and awkwardness despite being a successful writer. Because this is pre-"Iron Man" casting, the actor has not yet gone through the Marvel transformation to Tony Stark which would influence his later roles as being an actor who frequently played arrogant characters. This is a performance from Downey more in line with his "Chaplin" biopic from the early 1990s and it is breathtaking and refreshing to see him tap into that ultra-sensitive side that he originally started with. The film mostly takes place in the 1980s and the switching back and forth still seems seamless throughout. Shia LaBeouf's younger Dito is a true revelation. His portrait of what he was like growing up is so raw and the best parts of the movie feature his chemistry with his father played by "A Bronx Tale" & "The Usual Suspects" playwright/director Chazz Palminteri. Both characters' and actors' balance each other out with Palminteri's grandiose acting complimenting LaBeouf's quiet intensity. Those two are worth the price of admission alone.

Other surprising acting gems come in the form of rough-houser pre-"Step Up" Channing Tatum. For this, he isn't whipping out his incredible dance moves or even that much swagger. He comes across as a wild kid with impulse control and anger issues but in Tatum's capable hands he is given humility and three-dimensional honesty as Dito's friend Young Antonio. Melonie Diaz, of "Be Kind Rewind" & "Fruitvale Station" fame plays young DIto's girlfriend Laurie and is also exceptional. She fits like a glove into the 80s world that Montiel creates for her and her performance is sassy, energetic and full of relish and spunk. Her love scenes with Labouf aren't truly memorable but they forward her characterization more. Rosario Dawson's present-day portrayal of Laurie is entrancing as she comes around as the moral fiber and adviser to older Dito to get his life in check. And, of course, attention must be paid to Dianne Wiest, who, as Dito's mother in both time periods imbues her character with old-world motherly sensibility and, later, in despair as her voice and performance shifts toward grief as she witnesses her husband become sick. Her phone conversations begging older Dito to take a good, hard, look at his life are extremely effective and powerful along with their in-person dynamic as the film takes a melodramatic tonal shift.

On the directing front, Montiel displays a remarkable command of framing and scenery. The 1980s scenes are alive and have a warm-hue to them in the vein of Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" which was also set in NYC in the Summertime. Montiel's aim it seems is to leave the viewer hot and bothered and his vision to transport you into that time and season is respectable. The 2005 scenes, conversely, have a blue coolness to them as the moral judgments and themes of self-sacrifice come into full bloom. The film, at this point, becomes more atmospheric and the various climaxes erupt fast and fluidly. Montiel's camera doesn't behave like a rookie director's would especially in front of all these famous and (at that time) up and coming actors. It would be easy to get overwhelmed but Montiel gives his talent the reign to do their thing and the movie, as a result, is all the better for it. All the performances seem natural and not at all hammy or overdone.

Currently, Montiel has two projects on his slate - the late Robin Williams star vehicle "Boulevard" and a bigger budget apocalyptic sci-fi film titled "Man Down" both being prepped for release within the next year or two. The former debuted at Tribeca to glowing reviews last year but hasn't been widely distributed yet while the latter is still in development. I anxiously await these two films and patiently anticipate any other project which bares Montiel's name. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Melonie Diaz (Left) as Laurie, Shia LaBeouf (right) as Young Dito
Melonie Diaz (Left) as Laurie, Shia LaBeouf (right) as Young Dito | Source
Chazz Palminteri as Dito's father Monty
Chazz Palminteri as Dito's father Monty | Source
Channing Tatum (Center) as hot-headed Young Antonio, Shia LaBeouf (Right) as Young Dito
Channing Tatum (Center) as hot-headed Young Antonio, Shia LaBeouf (Right) as Young Dito | Source

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