A sensation when it premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints portrays the coming of age of its director-writer, Dito Montiel, who grew up on the mean streets of Queens' Astoria neighborhood in the mid-1980s. If even a third of the movie accurately represents Montiel's youth, the guy is probably lucky to be alive. Even so, the film, which is based on Montiel's 2003 memoir of the same name, is a mixed bag -- a raw and gritty saga that too often feels like a pastiche of other flicks about the urban jungle.
If nothing else, you've got to admire the audacity of dramatizing your own life on the big screen. Hopping back and forth between the present and a fateful summer in 1986, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints follows how a teenaged Dito (Shia LaBeouf) escaped rough-and-tumble Astoria and went on to chronicle his experiences as a critically lauded writer (portrayed as an adult by Robert Downey Jr.).
The crux of the story, however, takes place during that muggy July of '86. Dito and his buddies hang out, get drunk, hit on neighborhood girls and let tensions with some Puerto Rican guys escalate into violence. The Astoria area seems to be nothing but tension. Dito and his irascible father (Chazz Palminteri) do their share of shouting back and forth, and increasingly Dito finds himself torn between volatile pal Antonio (Channing Tatum) and a new Irish kid at school named Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston). Crude jokes are made, blood is shed, tragedy unfolds and Dito gradually comes to realize that he must get out of this place and head out to the promised land of California.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is graced with a solid cast -- from LaBeouf, Downey and Tatum to Rosario Dawson and Dianne Wiest in smaller roles -- but the real star is Dito Montiel himself. In his directorial debut, this former punk rocker opts for an invigorating, if pretentious, kitchen-sink aesthetic. Jump cuts and shots out of chronological order contribute to the film's jittery rhythms. Characters routinely break the fourth wall to address the audience. Text of dialogue appears onscreen while we hear it spoken in voiceover. And throughout it all is a soundtrack saturated with Seventies-era classic rock.
The overall effect is lyrical, but if you scratch past the atmospherics and canned drama, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints feels a little hollow. It is haunted by Mean Streets, Saturday Night Fever, Boogie Nights, Do the Right Thing and a slew of other flicks that similarly buttressed Bruce Springsteen's pronouncement that it's hard to be a saint in the city. Or, rather, it's hard to be an original saint in the city.
Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreens, the picture beautifully preserves Eric Gautier's (The Motorcycle Diaries) lovely camerawork.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is top-notch. The DVD also offers a 2.0 Stereo track, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.
First Look Pictures gives A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints its due with a gaggle of worthwhile extras. Montiel and editor Jake Pushinsky offer a talky and informative commentary track that illustrates just how meaningful a project this was for the writer-director. "I love this freakin' movie," he gushes. "I love everything about it."
Shooting Saints: The Making of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (20:10) is a good behind-the-scenes featurette that includes on-set interviews with Montiel, his producers and various cast members. The commitment of the actors to the filmmaker's vision is impressive, with Downey having served as the catalyst for getting the movie off the ground. Channing Tatum recalls that when he first read the script he alternated between "crying my eyes out and laughing my ass off." That must've been disturbing to see.
One alternate opening and four alternate endings have optional commentary by Montiel and a combined running time of 13 minutes, 30 seconds. The would-be endings are primarily notable because they feature more of actor Eric Roberts, who plays grownup Antonio. Eleven deleted scenes (19:19 aggregate length), again with optional commentary by the writer-director, are largely superfluous (duh).
Other oddities include a six-minute, two-second rooftop scene from the script that was shot as part of the Sundance Labs. Montiel, who provides optional commentary, directs and acts in the scene with actress Helen Dallas.
And there's more. The disc also includes one minute and 52 seconds of a young Laurie audition played by Diane Carcando (who didn't get the part, apparently). Fans of A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints might be interested in glimpsing Montiel's real-life father in a clip dubbed the Full Monty interview (1:31). Finally, the DVD includes previews of Journey to the End of the Night, Wilderness, A Little Trip to Heaven and The Proposition.
A definite mixed bag. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints is alternately impressive and frustrating, a work of audacity that isn't as moving as it would like to be. Still, Dito Montiel's has enough directorial flair to warrant a look, and the DVD packs more than its share of supplemental material.