Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lost Treasures: A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints

As I scrolled through the "Watch Instantly" feature on my Netflix account, I stumbled across a 2006 film that I had never heard of, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. I noticed that it starred Robert Downey Jr. (just before his big breakout) so I decided to give it a shot. And I'm glad I did. It turns out the movie is actually pretty good. It's just that nobody has heard of it (well, nobody except the higher-ups at Sundance who gave it the Director's Award and Special Jury Prize in 2006). The film is a well-paced 100 minutes full of terrific acting (actually done by some very famous actors that would make for a huge movie if it was coming out today) and scenes of life in Queens, NY during the 1980's that seemed very genuine, but often heartbreaking and terrible at the same time.

I won't go into the details of the plot too much because, honestly, there isn't a lot to it. The movie is essentially a myriad of flashbacks from the real life of Dito Montiel (played in present day by Robert Downey Jr. and played in the past by Transformers star Shia Labeouf), and the events that led up to him leaving his hometown behind on a bus to California. Dito's day-to-day basically consists of hanging out with his friends, especially his best friend Antonio (basically the thug of the group; played really well by an actor I generally don't care for -- G.I. Joe and Fighting's Channing Tatum), during the day and getting into minor trouble here and there. They often spend time at Dito's house, talking to his father (played by Chaz Plaminteri from The Usual Suspects) and mother (played by Dianne West). And their nights are generally filled hanging out with a group of neighborhood girls, including Dito's high school girlfriend, Laurie (played in present day by Rosario Dawsome and in the past by relative unknown Melonie Diaz).

But, as the film progresses, tragedy strikes in various ways, including a conflict with group of neighborhood grafiti artists that really escalates in large part to Antonio. As things get worse and Dito's relationship with outsider Mike O'Shea (Martin Compston) begins to influence his thinking, Dito realizes he wants out of New York and wants to escape his troubles to flee to California. It is there that he becomes a famous writer before finally returning home 15 years later.

As I said before, the movie honestly doesn't have a great or powerful plot. It really is just a series of memories from Dito's life. But most of the scenes are compelling in their own way, and you aren't left feeling shortchanged at all. On top of that, the acting is really very good. Despite my opinion that he is usually not a very good actor, Channing Tatum may have had the best performance of the movie. And Labeouf does an admirable job as well.

The movie also used a couple of unique effects that I really liked. For one, it highlighted important dialogue between Dito and Mike as well as Dito and his father by silencing out all background noises so you only heard the two talking. That may not be the best way to describe it, but you'll see what I'm talking about if you ever see it. Another unique thing that the movie did was have its characters periodically look into the camera and say simple things that really define their characters (for example, Antonio looks into the camera and says, "I'm Antonio. I'm a piece of shit, and everyone knows it"), and, for reasons I can't explain, these seemed to resonate with me as I watched.

Bottom line: It's hard for me to understand why a movie packed with so many stars and so well received by critics flew under the radar like this one did. It's definitely worth checking out. (B)

Here's the preview:

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