the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

First Look presents

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

"I want to remember who these people are, and what they meant to me. What they mean to me. And they are real."- Dito (Robert Downey Jr.)

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri
Other Stars: Dianne Weist, Channing Tatum, Rosario Dawson, Melonie Diaz, Eleonore Hendricks, Anthony DeSando, Julia Garro, Adam Scarimbolo, Scott Campbell, Peter Tambakis, Martin Compston, George Di Cenzo, Michael Rivera, Eric Roberts
Director: Dito Montiel

MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, some violence, sexuality and drug use
Run Time: 01h:39m:39s
Release Date: 2009-02-03
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB-B B-


DVD Review

I never read Dito Montiel's book A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, but apparently Robert Downey Jr did, though. And he liked it. A lot. Enough, that is, to co-produce and star in Montiel's directorial debut of his own life story, a gritty coming-of-age story set in the tough neighborhood of Astoria, Queens in the 1980s.

And no doubt the presence of Downey Jr helped pull in the rest of the rock solid "name" cast, ranging from Chazz Palminteri to Diane Weist to Eric Roberts; even the oft-maligned Shia LaBeouf delivers a nice turn here. Montiel is also helped by a few lesser known names, most notably Channing Tatum, Julia Garro and Melonie Diaz, in a film with a large ensemble cast that drops viewers back a few decades.

Downey Jr plays the modern-day adult Dito, now an author living in Los Angeles, who is reluctantly drawn back to his old neighborhood after his father Monty (Palminterri) is hospitalized. Through flashbacks, we se LaBeouf in the role of the 1980s-era Dito, a young kid who spends his days with his ragtag group of friends Antonio (Tatum), Nerf (Peter Tambakis) and Guiseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), wandering the streets, causing trouble, flirting with the neighborhood girls (Diaz, Garro, Eleonore Hendricks) and having their personas shaped in ways that will clearly define the rest of their lives. Dianne Weist and Palminteri are Dito's well-meaning parents—seemingly frozen in time like a lot of mothers and fathers—and it is their fragmented relationship with young Dito that is the centerpiece of his own personal rift that prevents him from returning.

I'm generally fairly hesitant about having to endure a project from a first-time director helming a period film they wrote based on their own book, especially one about their own life, starring characters that are supposed to be them. That just seems like a whole lot of stumbling blocks that as a viewer I don't necessarily want to sit through. Montiel does nail the 1980s period element—the clothes, music, cars all seem right without blatantly screaming "this is supposed to be vintage"; even the small details in young Dito's family apartment look properly retro, in a subtle way.

The dialogue flows crudely and honestly, often overlapping to create the sort of natural cacophony found in everyday life, while his directorial style employs a few stylized tricks here and there to prevent the visual flow from becoming too stagnant. That's a lot of plates to be spinning, but somehow Montiel manages to keep it all in movement, lending A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints a calloused New York texture found in the look and feel of films from big guys Scorsese and Lee.

Check off another strong performance from Downey Jr, and though he's not in the film as much as his young counterpart LaBeouf, when he is he's a commanding bundle of personal issues. But he's not alone in the acting chops department here. Watch for Tatum as thuggish teen pal Antonio who has some major issues with his father, as well as high marks for a comparatively small moment with the now grownup Nerf (Scott Campbell), who is the first person adult Dito sees upon his return to Queens. Those two share an awkwardly revealing moment in the front seat of a car that is bleak and depressing, only poor Nerf doesn't seem to get it. It's like a fast-forward of 20 years, except that nothing has really changed. To be fair, there's not a soft role in the entire film, and all of the actors (no matter their background) all step up with performances that don't look so much like acting.

Good book or not, Montiel should be thanking his lucky stars for Downey Jr's involvement, because he becomes the focal point of a talented, prominent cast that kicks the material up a few notches, and gives this film the kind of foundation that attracts eyeballs.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: First Look has issued Montiel's film in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the transfer here is the same found on the 2007 release. As one might expect from a period film set in the early 1980s, colors are washed out and textures are gritty, giving this a wonderfully aged appearance. No major issues with dirt or blemishes—and to be honest those would have only made the film look that much more vintage.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Two English language audio options, in either 2.0 stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Neither are necessarily showcases, though the 5.1 mix does give a neat pop to Montiel's vintage soundtrack. Really, who would have thought Back In The New York Groove could sound so good? Not much in the way of dramatic surround cues, and instead the track is markedly subtle in the use of ambient cues. Voices hold their own upfront, and even with the NY accents and characters talking over one another dialogue is easy to understand.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Strays, The Dead Girl, Hard Cash, The Contract
15 Deleted Scenes
4 Alternate Endings
1 Documentaries
8 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Dito Montiel, Jake Pushinsky
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: All of the same extras are here that are found on the 2007 release, only this time the whole thing is packaged in smart-looking steelbook case. It kicks off with a commentary from writer/director Dito Montiel and editor Jake Pushinsky, and the track is fairly ebullient, in the same sort of casual way the characters in the film speak. There's not a whole lot of mind-altering revelations, but it's an easy and enjoyable listen, with Montiel not shy about voicing his feelings about Richard Roeper or his disappointment at the way a "pistachio dick" joke routinely fell flat in theaters, while moments later a tender moment between Shia LaBeouf and Melonie Diaz generated unexpected audience chuckles.

Shooting Saints: The Making Of A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (20m:10s) is your standard issue peek at the development and shooting of the production, and more importantly spills the beans on co-producer/actor Downey Jr's involvement, such as how he felt his "day job" could bring a bit more attention to Montiel's book/film. An alternate opening (03m:53s) represents a curious editing move that fails to match what was eventually used in the final print, while four alternate endings (ranging from :55s to 04m:41s) all deliver truly unique codas to Montiel's story, all of which are worth a look. The alt open and endings are also available with an optional Montiel commentary. A set of eleven deleted scenes (19m:20s)—also with optional Montiel commentary—don't carry the cachet as the alt open/endings, and represent the kind of material best left from a film that already is running a bit long.

An weird entry is the Roof Scene (06m:02s), shot as part of Montiel's participation in the Sundance Labs program. It features the director as actor, appearing with actress Helen Dallas performing a scene, and is available with optional Montiel commentary. Ditto the weirdness for Young Laurie Audition Played By Diana Carcamo (01m:52s), a test for an actress who doesn't appear in the final cut—in the role played by Melonie Diaz. A bittersweet moment is found in the Full Monty Interview (01m:33s), a heartbreaking interview Montiel's real father, played in the film by Chazz Palminterri. It's never easy to see a parent age, and this footage of Montiel's dad is heartbreaking.

There are three trailers for the feature, and a set of four other titles, too. The disc is cut into 12 chapters, with optional subtitles in English or Spanish.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

If I can borrow from the lyrics of Kiss' Ace Frehley, then Dito Montiel is indeed "back in the New York groove" with A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. Coarse, violent and oddly sweet, this one benefits from a strong cast that accentuates Montiel's life story.

This 2009 re-release comes packaged in neat-looking steelcase, though all of the extras are the same as the previous 2007 edition.


Rich Rosell 2009-03-13