There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
How do you like your murder investigations to be served up—darkly, or with generous dashes of merriment? Infamous, or Capote No. 2, retells the story of last year’s Oscar-winning film about the researching and writing of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. Writer-director Douglas McGrath, working off of George Plimpton’s oral biography Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, infuses his movie with the gossipy spirit of Plimpton’s book. But the arc of both films is largely the same, even if their tones are as antithetical as the real and purported motives behind Capote’s visits to his incarcerated subjects.
Diminutive and little-known British actor Toby Jones plays Capote, and he therefore arguably has more success bringing the author to life than the previous biopic’s star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. With Hoffman’s bulk and baritone disguised, his portrayal feels more like a studied mimicking than an effortless slip, whereas Jones’ doesn’t betray any acclimation. Here, the arrogant New Yorker is decidedly more effeminate—amusingly wearing furs and, once, a cowboy outfit that could pass for a Halloween costume—and McGrath places the character more often in his usual man-about-town habitats. And regarding Truman’s odd high pitch, the film shows Gore Vidal (Michael Panes) telling an interviewer, “To anyone lucky enough to have never heard his voice, I’d say, ‘Think of what a Brussels sprout would sound like, if a Brussels sprout could talk.’” Jones channels the vegetable rather well.
Infamous begins with scenes of plentiful drinks and socializing, then shows a series of Truman’s fellow revelers—Diana Vreeland (Juliet Stevenson), Slim Keith (Hope Davis)—talking about him to an off-screen interviewer. One-on-one, everybody is slick Truman’s “dearest friend,” but his closest confidant is To Kill a Mockingbird author Nelle Harper Lee. (A Southern-accented Sandra Bullock takes the place of Capote’s Catherine Keener, whose portrayal is plainer and more sensitive.) To the backdrop of a bouncy score, Nelle accompanies Truman to small-town Kansas, where the gruesome, baffling murder of a farming family compels him to investigate the case for a possible article. Once there, Nelle and Truman—who is once mistaken for a woman—have to battle for information from both the townspeople and stubborn police Inspector Alvin Dewey (a quietly commanding Jeff Daniels).
McGrath’s version of In Cold Blood’s birth is affecting despite its tendency toward frivolity. And the script and visual details do eventually turn the mood: Kansas’ empty skyline and closeups of blue plumes of cigarette smoke, at once beautiful and melancholy; a neighbor’s recounting that “it was strange going out [to the victims’ home], knowing what was waiting for us.” After the two murderers are caught, Truman eventually wins access to them, becoming especially close to Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), whose artistic nature belies his vicious actions. Craig’s performance is winning, lending the criminal more passion, charisma, and all-around humanity than does Clifton Collins Jr.’s turn in Capote. Yet it becomes clear that neither the crime nor the criminals are as important to Truman as how sensational his book will be—which, actually, makes all of the previous high spirits and festivities an excellent setup for this strike.
Not much fun goes on in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, an autobiographical film that’s mostly set in 1986 Queens, worlds away from the glitz of Truman Capote’s mid-century Manhattan. First-time writer-director Dito Montiel adapted the screenplay from his own book, and as the movie opens, a grown, fictional Dito is doing a reading. He tells the audience he wants to emphasize that these characters are real. He also mentions a few people who are going to die, then assures that he’s not really giving anything away: “A whole lotta other shit’s going to happen first.”
And how. Montiel’s often gripping debut is framed by the older Dito (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s been living in California for the past 20 years, returning home when his dad, Monty (Chazz Palminteri), becomes sick. Dito’s neither visited nor spoken to his parents since he left, but his gentle mother, Flori (Dianne Wiest), begs him to come back and persuade his father to go to the hospital. Dito is visibly uncomfortable as he walks around his old neighborhood and chats with a couple of friends. Then Montiel delves into the memories, and, well, they’re not so good. Shia LaBeouf, in a terrific, subtle performance, plays the teenage Dito, who mainly walks the street with his troublemaking buddies. They sometimes hang out at the chaotic but warm Montiel home, where Monty greets the kids as if he’s one of the guys and is particularly partial to the towering Antonio (Step Up’s Channing Tatum). Monty seems blissfully ignorant of the reality of their daily lives—especially that Antonio is the biggest thug of them all. Even the girls, including Dito’s steady, Laurie (Melonie Diaz), aren’t afraid of running their mouths or fighting whoever’s crossed them.
Visceral violence, accidental deaths, family turbulence, revenge—yet, sad to say, surprisingly no drugs—among the friends repeat themselves throughout the film’s slight narrative. The flashbacks of that one year make up the bulk of Recognizing Your Saints, and though their meandering presentation is arguably a reflection of an adult’s childhood recollections, the disjointedness is one of the movie’s weaknesses. Most egregiously, there’s a storyline about a slightly crazy dog walker who outsources his duties to Dito and a friend that serves only to pad out the 98-minute film. Montiel also gets arty: Some flourishes are beautiful, such as the white lights of the city and the Brooklyn Bridge against an impenetrable night sky. Others tend toward the melodramatic, such as dark, silent frames spliced into a scene of a shouting match so intense an emergency ensues.
But the heart of Recognizing Your Saints is how these experiences affected Dito and made him flee clear across the country—and Montiel’s personal investment and the blessing of a talented cast make the story gut-wrenching. A father’s great love is distilled into “You’re not going anywhere, Dito.” Downey, even without a lot of screen time, skillfully exhibits the angst of an estranged son, as well as the shitty self-image that’s resulted from both his friends and his conscience condemning him for angrily cutting off all ties. The real tragedy is that the young Dito tried to do things right, to make his dad understand that his life had twisted from rebellious kicks to matters of life and death. But Monty only reassured him that nothing bad could happen: “You’re just kids, Dito. You’re just kids.”CP