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A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

dir: Dito Montiel
[img_assist|nid=827|title=The saints can't help you if you watch this movie. But they will hate you.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=669]
This is a film by Dito Montiel, about the life of Dito Montiel, based on the book written by Dito Montiel. Wow, this Dito Montiel is some kind of wonderful guy to want to bring Dito Montiel to the attention of millions, isn’t he?

After all, Dito Montiel won the Nobel Peace prize for solving the Sonny and Cher crisis back in the 70s, and also won the Nobel Physics prize for inventing the tubes that power the internet. He cured all cancer, discovered the clitoris and came up with a tasty breakfast cereal high in fibre but low in sugar to boot.

If it wasn’t for those obviously fabricated highlights of Dito Montiel’s life that I just made up, we wouldn’t have any clue why we’re watching a film about Dito Montiel’s life. Having watched the film, I still have to ask myself why anyone is supposed to give a good goddamn about the fucker.

Dito, played by Shia LaBeouf in the 80s, and Robert Downey Jr in the 2000s, hasn’t really done anything worthy of note that I can figure out apart from write a book about himself and having directed a film about himself. These are achievements, don’t get me wrong, I just can’t for the life of me see what in his life justified such endeavours or why we should be interested.

Dito grows up in Astoria, Queens, surrounded by a lot of morons, Italian-American and otherwise. We know from the start that he eventually escapes his life, because now, in the present, he is being called back due to his father’s illness. We sense his reluctance in returning. This process of returning means telling a lot of the story leading up to his departure in flashback.

Dito has a saintly mother (Dianne Wiest) and a pig-headed father (Chazz Palminteri) who listens to not a word anyone says and babbles constantly. Every time the father opens his mouth, the first word that comes out of his mouth is usually “Antonio”. It’s never explained why the father has such a fixation on this chap, but we sense at least that in Dito’s eyes, maybe Daddy wishes Antonio was his son instead of Dito.

Antonio (Channing Tatum) is a friend of Dito’s. Antonio is a violent moron with no other determinable facet or aspect to his character apart from being the product of a violent home. Antonio has a moron brother, Giuseppe (Adam Scarimbolo), who does dumb things routinely. They have another moron friend called Nerf (Peter Tambakis) who doesn’t do anything that I can remember.

Would it be that surprising if I said they were a group of morons united by geography and ethnicity rather than any other traits?

Dito doesn’t seem as unrepentantly dumb as the people around him, and when he makes friends with a new kid at school, Mike (Martin Compston), he sees new horizons opening up for him if he can just manage to leave home. Mike is not as much of a moron as Dito’s every other friend and acquaintance, despite being a heavy dope smoker, which is kind of ironic.

The Italians in the suburb seem to resent the encroachment upon their turf by the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants, and conflict ensues when Dito crosses paths with a violent graffiti artist calling himself Reaper (Michael Rivera). Reaper, not surprising anyone, tells Dito he’s going to kill him.

And that’s about it. Whenever more than two characters are in the same place together, they babble like a group of crystal meth addicts walking on hot coals. It’s hard to work out if any of them is saying anything more important than just “rhubarb, rhubarb, Antonio, rhubarb”.

I’ve watched the film, haven’t read the book, and I can tell you that it really comes across as half of a film. I don’t want a sequel to get made that explains why any audience member should give a fuck about any of the characters, or why we should care about the lives and deaths of some of the characters, since the other characters don’t seem to care.

So there’s a group of friends, and we’re supposed to care about the group for no other reason than they’re the group of friends the film focuses on. If they don’t possess qualities of interest, and if they don’t do or say anything interesting, why exactly would I care what happens to them?

If someone calls me up on the phone at random and starts telling me a story about someone I don’t know, enumerating the bunions on their feet and the difficulty they face in finding a pair of flared pants that fit right, I’m not really going to care. Because there’s nothing interesting about the character, and it’s not an interesting story, despite its importance to the protagonist.

This is that uninteresting story about people you never grow to care about told in a haphazard and clumsy way down a static-filled phone line by a drunken relative you avoid at parties. The editing veers from passable to incompetent on more than a handful of occasions, and much of the acting by everyone except LeBeouf, Palminteri and Wiest is excruciating. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve seen this kind of coming of age story done so incompetently.

He also “borrows” liberally from enough other similar films that it’s obvious he lacked the filmmaking skills to bring the story to life without making it look like every other New York story focussed on the lives of teenagers from Mean Streets to Basketball Diaries to Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo to Larry Clark’s Kids and everything in between.

There probably is an interesting story hiding under the layers of crapness, it’s just that the film does its level best to ensure none of it gets out. Powerful scenes like a confrontation between father and son are well-acted but poorly directed by an amateur director who has no idea how to direct humans. Clearly, apart from being too close to the story, Montiel just cannot see how to develop and shoot the material so that it is good drama rather than a good approximation of what happened twenty years ago.

And it’s not like the details really matter: this isn’t the Kennedy assassination we’re talking about here. We’re looking at the story of Montiel’s life to see and hear him tell us how he ended up who and where he is. What we need is a reason to see why any of this should matter to an audience, and we never get it. Does he really think the fates of Antonio, Giuseppe and the other retards are going to have any resonance with us just because they had resonance with him twenty years ago, but not to the character representing him on the screen?

I hazard to say this, since I found the film more than long enough in its present, painful form, but the film needed at least another half hour to feel complete. So much is never dealt with and never elaborated upon in favour of an abrupt ending that seems to come out of nowhere. I felt the curious ambivalence of being immensely grateful that the agony was over, but also irritated that there wasn’t more to resolve the conflicts Dito faces going home. The film seems to be building, in the past and the present timelines, to a climax or a resolution that never comes. The adult Dito, especially, never gets a chance to really live, breath and matter.

As it stands the film is a pointless mess that never convinced me it was worth watching. It never even explains its cumbersome title, which is an even bigger sin, since it would have given some resonance at least. Not much. Just a little, just a little, widdle, tiny bit. It's so completely different from the author's own recollections in his book, with so much actual interesting material missing, that I wonder why they bothered, let alone why I bothered.

Avoid. Just avoid.

3 times I wished more characters in this flick had thrown themselves onto the train tracks out of 10

This is where you live, this is where you die –A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.