More sinful than saintly

Stylish visuals aren't enough to save this grimy memoir

<strong>A Guide to Recognising Your Saints

If there's one thing the world doesn't need, it's another story of intractable fathers and rebellious sons. But it would be unfair to criticise A Guide to Recognising Your Saints merely for setting out its stall in this crowded thematic territory. Especially when the film has so many other shortcomings to choose from.

It's the first feature from Dito Montiel, a former underwear model who adapted the screenplay from his memoir about growing up smart and sensitive in Queens, New York. The main character, Dito Montiel (Robert Downey Jr), is the author of a brilliant memoir about growing up smart and sensitive in Queens, New York. Dito hasn't seen his parents since leaving for California 15 years ago, and now his father (Chazz Palminteri) is ill, and his mother (Dianne Wiest) is begging him to return home.

On the flight over, Dito suffers a severe attack of the flashbacks. Occasionally, and absurdly, these flashbacks are interrupted by shots of the adult Dito wandering around his old neighbourhood - such as when he peers into a shop, mutters to the cashier, "Do you know this used to be a candy store?" and then shuffles off before the woman has a chance to reply, "If you hum it, I'll strum along on the banjo." It's the kind of irrelevant moment rendered delightful only by Downey's eccentric shtick.

Mostly the film is set in 1986, where the boom-boxes are big, the shorts are small and the clichés are plentiful. Teenagers in vests swap backchat on tenement stoops and swig from beer cans wrapped in brown paper bags. Dialogue conforms roughly to the following pattern: "Whatsa madder witchoo?" "Nuttin'. Whatsa madder witchoo?" The teenage Dito (Shia LaBeouf) is busy absorbing everything around him for future inclusion in that brilliant memoir of his. He hangs out with his buddies, including the psychotic Antonio (Channing Tatum), and earns small change helping out a gay dog-walker (Anthony DeSando). He also finds time to get into scrapes with a violent graffiti artist, and to make goo-goo eyes at the sultry Laurie (Melonie Diaz).

A Guide to Recognising Your Saints soon becomes a guide to recognising the pitfalls awaiting a first-time film-maker. Nothing happens for much of the picture. The scenes are like acting assignments: everyone crowds into a room, voices are raised, then everyone leaves. And when something tangible does happen - the death, halfway through, of Antonio's brother - it doesn't reverberate for more than a few seconds. Antonio goes off the rails, but then he was going off the rails anyway; if you removed his brother's death it wouldn't alter the film, except that even less would be happening.

At least there's a nicely eclectic soundtrack. Elton John and Kiki Dee are here alongside the Velvet Underground; someone even gets high to Gerry Rafferty, which I always imagined was physically impossible. And the film looks decent enough. But you come to resent the energy that has been lavished on the visuals at the expense of such small matters as writing plausible relationships, or helping the actors discover the point of their scenes. Montiel has secured the services of a fine cast, but it's hard not to feel embarrassed for Dianne Wiest, who is called upon to deliver a long speech patching up the holes in the screenplay, or for Chazz Palminteri who, unaccountably, has to blow a fuse when Dito wants to go on holiday. "Why do you want to go somewhere?" he fumes. "If you wanna go to China, go to Chinatown." If that's not the stupidest line in the film, it can't be far off.

Most viewers will have blown their own fuse by the time the adult Dito catches up with his old man for an exchange that is somewhat less illuminating than either of them might have hoped. It goes like this: "I'm your son." "You're my son?" "Yeah, I'm your son." "You're my son? You're not my son!" At which point it would have been expedient for someone to dig out Dito's birth certificate and put the matter to rest.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis