A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

Director: Dito Montiel

Nominated for several independent film awards, this autobiographical film by Dito Montiel, adapted from his own memoirs, earned both a Special Jury Prize for the ensemble performance of its cast and the achievement award for directing at the Sundance Film Festival. In telling the story of four teens growing up way too quickly in the violent mean streets of 1986 Astoria, Queens New York, Robert Downey Jr. plays the author Montiel as an adult returning to the neighborhood after a long period of estrangement as we go back in time to see the struggles the kids faced on a daily basis trying to avoid the far too common reality of friends who end up as addicts, convicts, or corpses on the sidewalks. The entire cast, most notably the relative newcomers taking on the 80’s roles, is wonderful and the brutal urgency and sense of accuracy about a specific time and place helped inspire major talent support in the form of Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri, Eric Roberts and Rosario Dawson who turn in fine, if somewhat smaller in scale portrayals. The film is a challenging one to view that felt reminiscent of Spike Lee’s similarly plotted Do The Right Thing in its telling of a melting pot of mixed ethnic tensions and stressors reaching a boiling point during the humid summers in the city—while Lee’s is obviously the masterpiece, Montiel’s film is all the more riveting on its own when you realize it’s true. Check it out!

Musical Selections from A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

“Native New Yorker” by Odyssey
Odyssey - It Will Be Alright - Native New Yorker

“Welcome Back” by John Sebastian
John Sebastian - The Best of John Sebastian - Welcome Back (Theme from Welcome Back, Kotter)

“Baby Come Back” by Player
Player - The Best of Player - Baby Come Back - Baby Come Back

“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John & Kiki Dee
Elton John & Kiki Dee - Elton John: The Greatest Hits 1970-2002 - Don't Go Breaking My Heart

“My Maria” by B.W. Stevenson
B.W. Stevenson - Radio Hits of the '70s - My Maria

“Trouble” by Cat Stevens
Cat Stevens - Footsteps in the Dark - Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 - Trouble

“Rock and Roll” by Lou Reed
The Velvet Underground & Lou Reed - Gold: The Velvet Underground - Rock and Roll

“Brother Louie” by Stories
The Stories - Best of the 70s - Brother Louie

“Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty
Gerry Rafferty - City to City - Baker Street

“New York Groove” by Kiss
Kiss & Ace Frehley - The Very Best of Kiss - New York Groove


Director: Edward James Olmos

Angered by the prejudicial and inhumane treatment faced by Mexican-Americans in her 1968 East Los Angeles high school where administrators use paddles to beat kids who speak Spanish and lock the bathrooms at lunch time forcing desperate classmates to urinate in the bushes, honor student Paula Crisostomo (Alexa Vega) decides to fight back. Although her grades and intellect make her one of the two percent of Chicanos during that time period who would probably continue on to higher education, Paula rejects the idea of simply coasting through her senior year and, inspired by her compassionate teacher Sal Castro (the wonderful Michael Peña), joins other students from all five East L.A. high schools to stage a walkout in the hopes of bringing about change. Risking threats of expulsion and dishonoring her proud father, Paula sticks to her convictions and although the student movement begins peacefully, soon, fearing intimidation by number exhibited in other protests of the era, law enforcement officials begin to attack and arrest, sending some high schoolers to jail and others to hospitals but the walkouts continue until finally the school board begins to listen… although not before Paula and her cohorts inspire the entire nation. The fact-based HBO film is a moving human drama directed with passion by Edward James Olmos (who also plays a small role) and it’s a wonderful contribution to the genre of civil rights era cinema, especially because-- as the students are taught in the film—without any visual or written proof, it’s as though it didn’t happen and the East L.A. walkouts are a chapter of that tumultuous 1968 that hasn’t really been publicized over the years. Olmos's Walkout is well worth a rental and the end of the film is filled with updates and interviews with the actual participants in the walkouts that helps give viewers a sense of the impact the protests had on the rest of their lives.

Le Divorce

Director: James Ivory

After Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman bowed out of starring in this Merchant Ivory production of Diane Johnson’s novel, the casting director turned to Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson to play two American sisters in Paris. As Hudson’s Isabel arrives in the foreign land preparing to lend a hand to her pregnant poetess sister Roxanne (Watts), we discover that Roxy’s painter husband has abruptly decided to leave his wife for a married Russian woman. However, Le Divorce is not only tale of heartbreak but one that also celebrates the fluttering of new love on an adopted land as Hudson’s adventurous Isabel bed-hops from adorable young Frenchman Romain Duris (star of L’Auberge Espagnol and Russian Dolls), to becoming the mistress of one of Roxy’s in-laws, the prominent, older, married politician Thierry Lhermitte. Overall the film benefits largely from bubbly leading lady Hudson who does wonders to breathe extra life into this otherwise stiff but classy comedy drama. Watts is quite good as Roxy but without the insightful back-story of Johnson’s novel, we’re never quite with her on why she is so adamantly opposed to divorce and therefore struggle to understand her motives in remaining the wife of such a creep. Although the book did a far superior job of depicting the intense culture clash and hypocrisies faced by Americans in Paris including the double standards of gender and age, the film succeeds mightily on a purely aesthetic level thanks to the inclusion of gorgeous French scenery and a lively soundtrack. In addition to its two excellent leading ladies, Le Divorce also boasts a stellar cast that includes Leslie Caron, Glenn Close, Bebe Neuwirth, Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston and Matthew Modine.

From Le Divorce

“L’anamour” by Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg - Love and the Beat 1 - L'amour à la Gainsbourg - L'anamour

Checking Out

Director: Jeff Hare

Jeff Hare’s unusual film, adapted from Allen Swift’s play by screenwriter Richard Marcus turns what could easily have been a melancholy piece about a man in his nineties who invites his three adult children to his Manhattan apartment for one last soiree before he plans to take his own life, into a quirky, winning and surprisingly life-affirming comedy filled with heart and unexpected warmth. Peter Falk is wonderful as a former actor and thespian who wants to end his richly lived life on his own terms instead of succumbing to an inauspicious and typical elderly death in a hospital or nursing home. The three actors playing his offspring—Judge Reinhold, David Paymer and especially Laura San Giacomo match Falk’s exuberance and spirit well and while it never fully loses the original staginess of the play, it’s a lot of fun once you get past the Harold and Maude-esque morbid premise and realize that all of the characters, including Falk’s, will undergo profound changes as the film evolves. Winner of several critical awards including Best Picture and Screenplay at the 2005 Phoenix Film Festival, Checking Out also earned recognition for director Hare and actress Giacomo (Palm Beach Film Festival) and was also named the Best Comedy Film at Houston’s Worldfest. Surprisingly funny and filled with wonderful dialogue and great moments, Hare's Checking Out helps reaffirm the human commitment to keep moving forward and the realization that the most precious motivator in life is our ability and gift to inspire and encourage others.

The Weather Man

Director: Gore Verbinski

Before he wrote the inspiring crowd pleaser The Pursuit of Happyness, screenwriter Steve Conrad wrote a much darker comedy helmed by Pirates of Caribbean director Gore Verbinski. The film tells the story of a Chicago weatherman (Nicolas Cage), who despite forcing a believable fake smile for the camera is the perpetual target of angry viewers hurling food at his person, waking each day to a family life in shambles with marriage to Hope Davis on the rocks, a constant struggle to relate to his adolescent children and the difficulty of living in the shadow of a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning father, Michael Caine. Verbinski and Cage fought Paramount’s request to film in the more economical location of Canada in favor of keeping the shoot in Chicago for authenticity sake. Using the same type of first person voice over narration he perfected in Pursuit of Happyness, Steve Conrad’s bitingly razor-sharp dialogue is performed to excellent effect by Cage who recorded all audio prior to shooting and then had it fed to him onset. The film makes for a grueling viewing for those expecting something a bit lighter and carefree in its humor based on the misleading trailer that played for a full year in theatres while the release date kept changing (which is never a positive sign that Hollywood is confident about its value). Similar in theme to About Schmidt or a much more twisted offering by Schmidt and Sideways director Alexander Payne, we’re instantly intrigued by Cage’s unlikable character mostly because of his star power and natural charisma which makes us want to root for him no matter how frustrating his role can be and his performance causes The Weather Man to succeed. Hope Davis and Michael Caine also turn in fine performances in their less showy supporting roles that also help make the film worth a viewing, despite its dismal tone, for those who genuinely enjoy the increasingly popular American Dysfunctional Family genre.

Songs featured in The Weather Man

“The Passenger” by Iggy Pop
Iggy Pop - Lust for Life - The Passenger

“Transitions” by Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys - Ill Communication - Transitions

“Sweet Lorraine” by Chet Baker
Chet Baker - My Funny Valentine - Sweet Lorraine

Brooklyn Lobster

Director: Kevin Jordan

When the bank defaults on the loan that lobster farm owner Frank Giorgio (Danny Aiello) took out to add a restaurant on to his business, the farm that’s been his family for generations is forced into public auction. Presented by Martin Scorsese, this intimate character-driven indie, based on a true story, emphasizes themes of family duty and neighborhood loyalty as Giorgio’s son Michael (Daniel Sauli) returns home for Christmas with his girlfriend in tow, only to find himself in the middle of the situation. Michael quickly learns that his entire family is at a crossroads with mother Maureen (Jane Curtin) who, separated from Frank and living with her daughter’s family, decides she wants to get an apartment of her own, adding even more conflict to the business situation. While not as plot-heavy as most traditional contemporary films, Brooklyn Lobster feels like witnessing life unfolding and it’s a fine New York story that small business owners-- who are without a doubt the backbone of this country-- will definitely appreciate as Aiello’s stubborn and albeit flawed but proud man does everything in his power not to franchise his ancestral legacy, borrow from shady investors or lose his business in the name of his family.


21 Grams

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Before he released the Best Picture Academy Award nominated Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu followed up his startlingly bold debut Amores Perros (which helped usher in the Mexican New Wave) with this amazingly ambitious, intimately powerful human drama. The film centers around three strangers whose lives intersect after a freak car accident that leaves suburban wife and mother Naomi Watts a widow after both her husband (Danny Huston) and two daughters are run down accidentally by ex-con and overly devout born-again-Christian Benicio del Toro. After Huston’s heart is implanted into critically ill mathematics professor Sean Penn’s chest, Penn becomes determined to find out who gave him a second chance at life, tracking down Watts, only to become increasingly obsessed with discovering just what exactly happened that fateful night, much to the dismay of his wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, with whom he’s already beginning to drift apart. Although nearly completely photographed with hand-held cameras (adding to the overwhelming sense of chaotic urgency) and filmed chronologically, the finished film is assembled like a puzzle moving around in time, much to the credit of not only the director and editor but especially the inventive writer Guillermo Arriaga who managed to keep everything he wanted in the order he’d originally conceived it when his brilliant script was transferred to film. Raw, powerful, and difficult both on a cinematic and visceral humanistic level, this must-see masterpiece uses the same ideas of fate, revenge and emotion introduced in Perros (a film that inspired Watts so much that she accepted this role without even reading the script) and 21 Grams is even more effective on a second viewing. The film’s title, which comes from the theory that 21 grams is the weight of a human soul, boasts many fine performances not only from the main trio but the entire supporting cast as well, most notably Melissa Leo as Del Toro’s long-suffering wife. Ineligible for traditional inclusion for the Independent Spirit Awards due to its budget, the film nonetheless received a Special Distinction Award, a Discovery of the Year Award for composer Gustavo Santaolalla from the World Soundtrack Awards and Oscar nominations for both Watts and Del Toro. Sean Penn’s fine turn in the film was overlooked by the Academy in favor of his Oscar winning role that very same year in Clint Eastwood’s thematically similar tragedy and revenge epic Mystic River.

From 21 Grams

“Some Devil” by Dave Matthews
Dave Matthews - Some Devil - Some Devil



Director: Patrick Creadon

In summing up the reason why over fifty million Americans do crossword puzzles every week, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns makes a fascinating guess by saying that in New York people live in a city of grids, in box-shaped apartments, riding the box-like subway to work, where they sit in boxy cubicles, therefore it’s no wonder why people love to fill in boxes for fun. No newspaper is as popular to avid puzzlers than The New York Times and in director Patrick Creadon’s wonderfully fresh documentary Wordplay, fans including not only the aforementioned Burns but former President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, comedian Jon Stewart, musicians The Indigo Girls, and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina are interviewed along with non-celebrity enthusiasts who are so successful at unlocking the boxes that some are able to complete a single puzzle in under three minutes. We meet the genius behind-the-scenes, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz who creates, edits and sifts through stacks of both puzzle submissions and regular reader feedback (ranging from irate to complimentary) on a weekly basis along with his second professional position as “Puzzle Master” on National Public Radio. In researching the evolving popularity of the puzzles, we learn from the film that Shortz, along with some dedicated and like-minded friends, created a national crossword contest held annually at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford Connecticut where each year hopefuls gather to test the limits of their brains in a marathon competition. Wordplay is a surprising crowd-pleaser and it’s illuminating to learn more about the statistics surrounding puzzles such as the rules involved in creating one, Shortz’s “laws” about what constitutes an easier Monday puzzle as opposed to the hair-pulling monster challenge of a Sunday, and I especially enjoyed trying to figure out just what made the successful puzzlers's minds tick as one interviewee informs us that the two most prolific occupations for puzzle champions are mathematicians and musicians. The film introduces us to not only new hopefuls including a whiz kid college student able to complete puzzles ridiculously fast on his computer, but also past champions and near-champions who aim for the top seat as the documentary progresses and we find ourselves at the nail-biting competition, rooting on the various participants that we feel we’ve come to know intimately as the filmmaker spends ample time interviewing the charismatic figures. The film is a real treat and one that had me reaching for a puzzle book once it was over!

Check out Shortz's Most Popular Puzzles from Alibris




Stranger Than Fiction

Director: Marc Forster

In Marc Forster’s exquisitely crafted comedic drama, Will Ferrell turns in his best performance so far as IRS auditor Harold Crick. As we meet Harold, we witness his seemingly mundane existence filled with obsessive compulsive numerical preoccupation that is soon altered by his odd encounters with two very different women—the politically rebellious but sweet natured tax dodging baker Maggie Gyllenhaal and more curiously, the voice of a narrator and author played by Emma Thompson who is writing a book she assumes is fiction when in reality, the audience along with Harold realize that somehow she’s managing to pull the strings of his very life. When Harold overhears her proclamation that his eventual death will close the “book,” he undergoes a soul-searching journey trying to unravel just who the author is by first meeting with mental health professionals Tom Hulce and Linda Hunt until finally seeking out the help of a warm but eccentric literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. In addition, this new element of doom adds an existential air to his plight as Harold takes a step back from his work to reevaluate the way he’s been living his life, which thus far has primarily consisted of counting toothbrush strokes and tying his ties in a way of ultimate efficiency in order to save time that he’s since learned he may not have. In addition to Zach Helm’s highly original National Board of Review award-winning screenplay that will immediately strike a chord with fans of The Truman Show and Adaptation, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is one of the most visually imaginative releases of last year, which is apparent from the get-go with an initial bravura sequence that zooms in from the outer realm of space all the way inside Harold Crick’s apartment (in a way that recalls the amazing opening of Kieslowski’s Red and the famous segue from the dawn of man into space in Kubrick’s 2001). Utilizing the geniuses from MK12 Studios, Forster's film is bursting at the seams with wild graphics that help bring viewers inside Harold's number obsessed world in a method of onscreen additions reminiscent of David Fincher’s brief IKEA scene from Fight Club. Film lovers will want to go behind the scenes of the DVD at once to check out the features including a short MK12 GUI piece that helps clarify the inventive graphics we may have missed the first time around, while dazzled by the overly involving layers of information Forster admirably displays for an audience whose intelligence he obviously respects. Aside from the deft portrayal by Golden Globe nominee Will Ferrell who actually wore an earpiece during filming in order to hear Thompson’s narration and react accordingly, the entire cast (especially Gyllenhaal, Hoffman, Thompson and Queen Latifah) is simply wonderful. Enhanced by a clever selection of songs, this bright, fun, and highly entertaining film raises some valid existential questions regarding whether or not people have been sleepwalking through their lives without passion, living only for their work, and of course the eternal creative question (usually attributed to the filmmaking career of Francois Truffaut) of whether or not we’re living in a society where art is more important than life. Book lovers and those who simply enjoy something a bit different in their film viewing will want to be sure to track it down as it’s one that I knew instantly was worthy of not only a second viewing but a permanent place in my DVD library.

Songs Featured in Stranger Than Fiction

“The Way We Get By” by Spoon
Spoon - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - The Way We Get By

“The Book I Write” by Spoon
Spoon - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - The Book I Write

“That’s Entertainment” by The Jam
The Jam - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - That's Entertainment

“I Turn My Camera On” by Spoon
Spoon - Gimme Fiction - I Turn My Camera On

“My Mathematical Mind” by Spoon
Spoon - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - My Mathematical Mind

“Bottles & Bones (Shade and Sympathy)” by Califone
Califone - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Bottles & Bones (Shade and Sympathy)

“Vittorio E.” by Spoon
Spoon - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Vittorio E

“La Petite Fille De La Mer” by Vangelis
Vangelis - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - La Petite Fille de la Mer

“Love You” by The Free Design
Free Design - The Best Of - Love You

“Death or Glory” by The Clash
The Clash - London Calling - Death or Glory

“Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric
Wreckless Eric - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Whole Wide World

“Going Missing” by Maximo Park
Maximo Park - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Going Missing

“Dubbing in the Back Seat” by The Upsetters
The Upsetters - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Dubbing In the Back Seat

“Mind Your Own Business” by Delta 5
Delta 5 - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - Mind Your Own Business

“Democracy” by Adolescents
Adolescents - Adolescents - Democracy

“On The Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter
Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks - On the Nature of Daylight

“Horizon Variations” by Max Richter
Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks - Horizon Variations

“In Church” by M83
M83 - Stranger Than Fiction (Music from the Motion Picture) - In Church

Two Family House

Director: Raymond De Felitta

Winner of the Audience Award at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, director Raymond De Felitta found inspiration within his own family tree for this sweetly earnest romantic drama about a dreamer and an outsider who fall in love in 1950’s Staten Island. Michael Rispoli is excellent as Buddy Visalo, an aspiring businessman who, after being denied his big break to become a singing sensation when he was discovered in World War II, eagerly tries and fails at several ventures within his Italian community. As the movie gets going, Buddy buys a large rundown two family house with the intention of turning the lower level into a bar, much to the dismay of his wife (Katherine Narducci) who is resistant to change and secretly hopes Buddy will fail. However, when the two move in, they soon discover that they have squatters in the form of unhappily married Irish immigrants-- an aging alcoholic and his beautiful, much younger wife Mary (Kelly Macdonald)-- who have taken residence of the upstairs with no intention of leaving as Mary is nine months pregnant. Once the husband abandons Mary after her baby is born half African-American, Buddy falls prey to both the prejudices of his community and familial pressures, forcing the mother and her newborn out of his home, only to have his conscience get the better of him as he realizes an attraction to what he sees as a fellow outsider and risk-taker in Mary. A beautifully, touching, sensitive and tender film, Two Family House is filled with the overwhelmingly positive messages of acceptance and standing up for what is right even when the majority is against you and it’s a true gem of a romantic indie. The warm performances of both Rispoli and the wonderful up-and-comer from the UK, Kelly Macdonald help add to director De Felitta’s intention of making viewers feel like temporary residents of the film’s community and he heightens his story with an enjoyable soundtrack of 50’s era crooning classics.


The Baxter

Director: Michael Showalter

As defined on the box, a Baxter is: “a compromise ‘to true love.’ The epitome of ‘settling.’ Shorthand for a bachelor with lots of exes, who’s kind of a loser.” Writer/director and leading actor Michael Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a quintessential Baxter whose relationship with beautiful blond and fellow Young Turk Caroline (Elizabeth Banks) is jeopardized when her confident, attractive ex-boyfriend from high school (Justin Theroux) shows up to throw a wrench in their planned nuptials at the start of the film. Taking us back in time, Sherman leads us to the stages of the unraveling of their relationship from the moment they met onward. The Baxter is a simply hilarious film with highly quotable “geek speak” that should appeal to both fans of the former NBC show Ed (and two of the stars show up here) as well as the films of Wes Anderson. This IFC Films/MGM production benefits greatly from the utterly original script and a lovely eccentric turn by Michelle Williams as Minnesota native and office temp, Cecil Mills, the slightly mousy, dictionary reading, stage fright prone aspiring singer who becomes the close friend and confidant to Sherman. While of course, you realize at once who will end up together in the film’s merry-go-round of romantic comedy and disastrous coincidences, getting there is the ultimate fun and this roughly ninety minute film should have you fully engaged within the first few minutes. It’s the type of movie that will eventually build momentum on DVD by word-of-mouth as it’s so infectious that I found myself ready to recommend it to friends immediately after viewing. Great soundtrack selections as well!

iTunes Songs from The Baxter

“Beautiful Child” by Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright - Want One - Beautiful Child

“Down Down Down” by Peter Salett
Peter Salett - Paintings of These Days - Down Down Down

“Born Curious” by Craig Wedren
Craig Wedren - Lapland - Born Curious

“My Whisper” by Peter Salett
Peter Salett - After a While - My Whisper

“Don’t Run Over Me Baby” by Peter Salett
Peter Salett - Paintings of These Days - Don't Run Over Me Baby

“Just a Body” by The King of France
The King Of France - The King of France - Just a Body