Film

On Screen

'A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,' 'Nearing Grace,' and 'Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker'

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

dir. Dito Montiel

At first blush, first-time writer/director Dito Montiel's A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints—an adaptation of his book chronicling the tough New York childhood of a kid named... well, Dito Montiel—may suggest Vincent Gallo levels of self-absorption. Whatever the nature of the filmmaker's private relationship with his mirror, however, his sprawling, chaotic, carefully punked-out memoir could honestly use a little more oddball narcissism, and a lot less Mean Streets rehashing.

Told in an artfully fragmented, frame-dropping style, Montiel's semifictionalized narrative follows grown-up L.A. hotshot writer Dito (Robert Downey Jr.) as he reluctantly returns home to make peace with his estranged father (Chazz Palminteri). En route, he flashes back to his teenage years, in particular the volatile relationship with his hotheaded thug of a best friend. His heartfelt remembrances may have worked like gangbusters on the page, yet cinematically it all feels curiously synthetic, from the ever-present Larry Clark–ish teenage eroticism to the clockwork-regular violent outbursts—and even the way that these meathead kids of the '80s seemingly spend all of their time listening to way-cool, Scorsese-deified '70s music. (Where's the Scritti Polliti?) To give credit, Montiel does display a real touch at times with his teenage cast (especially Shia LaBeouf in the demanding central role), but his indulgence toward their junior-gangsta improv proves wearying. Far too often, the deses, doses, and fuggetaboutits just pile up into a hash of unpleasant yammering.

An award winner at Sundance, Montiel's high-energy calling card has its virtues, to be sure, especially evident in an unvarnished confrontation between Downey and his childhood girlfriend (a brief, lovely appearance by Rosario Dawson). On the whole, however, his film feels less like an honest memoir and more like a jacked-up memory of cool movies past. Now that he's written what he knows, let's go ahead and see what he's got. ANDREW WRIGHT

Nearing Grace

dir. Rick Rosenthal

A typical coming-of-age story, set in 1970s New Jersey but filmed around Portland, Nearing Grace is about a young man named Henry Nearing (the unremarkable Gregory Smith) and his lust for a tanned cocktease named Grace (Jordana Brewster). Henry is, of course, troubled—his mother, glimpsed only in color-drenched Super-8, is dead, and his father (David Morse) has transformed himself into a drunken loon. (As a glaring sign that this movie was specially designed for smart people, drunk ol' dad owns a motorbike called θνατος—ancient Greek for "death.") An older brother, mostly absent, glamorizes his own sorrows with LSD and magic-mushroom tea. No wonder Henry holes up in the basement and refuses to go to school.

Compounding the situation are Henry's two ladies: Merna, Henry's childhood buddy, and Grace. Polar opposites ('cause girls only come in two kinds), they share but one feature—forthright desire for Henry. While Henry is a cipher who "always sounds like he's quoting fortune cookies" (he's what they call "precocious"), Merna and Grace are painfully obvious. Merna wants love: "Learning to do it with an old friend is the only hip, undecadent thing in this world." (Come again?) Grace wants power: "You never know the exact nature of a woman's nipples," she coos, "until you've seen her naked."

This plot would be intolerable—especially since Henry is meant to be a total narcissist—were it not for Ashley Johnson (as Merna), who has that moony skin the camera always adores and a wry, corner-of-the-mouth delivery that crinkles even the silliest of lines. As a viewer, you itch for Henry to throw Grace to the wolves (Brewster isn't worried about giving her character a sympathetic core) and come home to his sweetheart, who's just so damn cute, even in her most grandmotherly clothes. ANNIE WAGNER

Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker

dir. Geoffrey Sax

For a kids' movie, Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, based on the popular Bond-lite novels by Anthony Horowitz, is awfully heavy on the cold-blooded killing. After the line-of-duty assassination of British intelligence officer Ian Rider (an underused Ewan McGregor), the bosses back at MI6 recruit the only human living on earth who could possibly complete Rider's mission: his incredibly handsome 15-year-old nephew Alex (Alex Pettyfer). Duh.

Armed with hereditary ninja skills and a bionic yo-yo, Alex faces off against the ostentatious villainy of orange megalomaniac capitalist Darrius Sayle (Mickey Rourke, literally orange). When Sayle was growing up, the kids at his fancypants school—including the future prime minister—were a bunch of dicks (they called him Darrius Smell!). So now that he's big, rich, orange, and in possession of a giant Portuguese man-of-war (least convincing puppet... ever?), Sayle is preparing for an oddly misdirected revenge: the systematic murder of every single schoolchild in the UK.

Stormbreaker is enthusiastic, but doesn't quite deliver. The mass-murder plot—something involving remote-controlled virtual-reality educational supercomputers, poisonous gas, and Russians—is too convoluted to be interesting. Small roles by British funnypersons Jimmy Carr and Stephen Fry are enticing, but lean. Alicia Silverstone, as Alex's American nanny, proves herself to be still alive (who knew?). And though Bill Nighy—he of the acrobatic eyebrow—is fun to watch as icy MI6 director Alan Blunt, too much of his ham power is wasted on dead-end lines like "He's about as charming... as a SNAKE."

If you have a special thing for orange Mickey Rourke (skin! orange!) murdering babies while spangled with blue Tammy Faye eye shadow, then run—don't walk—to Stormbreaker. Otherwise... wait a minute. That sounds like the best movie ever. LINDY WEST

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