Review: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Exactly one year ago today, I posted here about the filming of a movie in the neighborhood. That movie, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, written and directed by Astoria-native Dito Montiel, has its official premier today downtown, and opens in New York and LA on September 29th. It won two awards each at the Sundance and Venice Film Festivals, and had a sneak preview last weekend here in Astoria, at the Museum of the Moving Image, with Mr. Montiel and actor Chazz Palminteri in attendance.
Along with a number of neighborhood friends, I got to see the movie last Friday night, and am very pleased to say that I very much enjoyed the film. (Contrary to my predictions of a year ago...) The movie tells a dramatized version of Dito Montiel's life as a teenager in Astoria in the mid-1980s, the violence and family drama that propelled him away from Astoria eventually to LA, and the experience of returning home from LA, 15 years later, to see his ailing father. Although Astoria, Queens was not exactly the center of urban violence in NYC 20 years ago, Dito and his friends were definitely on the rough side. There is plenty of violence and anger in the film, including several beatings, several murders, and much domestic strife.
The movie managed to create a series of remarkably compelling characters in only 98 minutes, including Dito himself, his violent friend Antonio, his sorta-girlfriend Laurie, and his old-school father and rather sweet mother. The cast was uniformly well-cast and remarkably good, especially the core actors, Chazz Palminteri as Dito's father, Diane Wiest as his mother, Robert Downey Jr. as the older Dito, and Shia LaBeouf as the younger Dito. The film-making and editing showed a number of non-traditional turns that worked for me, although friends disagreed. The beginning of the film was an Altman-like set of overlapping conversations. There were dramatic blackouts in one scene, and dreamlike offset dialogue and video in another. About 20 minutes into the movie, several of the major characters introduce themselves to the camera. All of these gave a feeling of recollection to the movie, rather than a feeling of being on the scene as it happened. A signficant draw, of course, were the location shots.
The movie was shot entirely (I think) in Astoria, with many of the outdoor scenes less than a block from my house, and Dito's house an actual neighborhood house, not a soundstage. Although this gives a striking realism, it was also quite distracting to viewers familiar with the neighborhood! It was somewhat difficult to stop saying "ooh, look, the corner deli!" in order to concentrate on the dialogue. Several scenes were shot at night on a building 100 feet from my apartment, and the back of my building was visible in a wide shot for about a second. This alone would have made the film worth the cost of admission, but it was a compelling drama above and beyond that. This was Montiel's first film of any sort, and it will be interesting to see if the likely success this movie will have will push him to make additional movies.
Three and a half out of four lamb chops.