Telling Lies in America
Small, quiet virtues are rare enough in American movies these days, but to find them in a bittersweet autobiographical script by none other than Joe Eszterhas–about growing up as a green Hungarian immigrant in early 60s Cleveland–is a genuine shock. Yet I have to admit that earlier Eszterhas-scripted movies such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, for all their grotesqueries, have gradually become guilty pleasures of mine; there’s something touching about his honest primitivism. When the grotesquerie’s removed–as it has been under the thoughtful direction of Guy Ferland (whose only previous feature is The Babysitter)–what emerges is solid and affecting. Brad Renfro plays a shy, 17-year-old compulsive liar who goes to work for a master, a payola-happy rock DJ (Kevin Bacon in his prime) named Billy Magic. What the kid winds up discovering–like the hard discoveries in Elia Kazan’s America, America–is more nuanced than you might think. The period detail is mostly perfect and the casting of certain minor parts (such as Luke Wilson as an egg-market manager) sublime, and the purity of feeling recalls exercises in nostalgia on the order of The Last Picture Show. Everyone here gives a good performance; as the hero’s father Maximilian Schell plays beautifully against the expected stereotype, and Calista Flockhart is equally impressive as the coworker the boy has a crush on. I don’t know if I could call this movie profound, but most of it feels true, and I’ve loved every minute of it all three times I’ve seen it. Fine Arts. –Jonathan Rosenbaum
As the Chicago International Film Festival draws to a close this weekend, the remaining schedule includes plenty of things worth seeing. Most of these, however, will open here in the weeks or months ahead: 4 Little Girls (to be shown at the Music Box and eventually on HBO), The Sweet Hereafter (expected to open around Christmas), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (sometime next year), and Love and Death on Long Island (February). Less likely to turn up in the foreseeable future and eminently worth seeing are The Life of Jesus and the short film The Spitball Story. And though I can only recommend them guardedly, Artemisia (which Mirimax, in a burst of inspiration–and with its usual indifference to the workings of festivals, the press, and filmgoers–has just decided to rename Untitled Agnes Merlet Project) and Post coitum, animal triste are also unlikely to return. For the rest, check out the capsules below and follow your instincts. (Reviews preceded by a check mark are especially recommended by the reviewer.)
The festival runs through Sunday, October 19, with screenings at the 600 N. Michigan theater. Tickets can be bought at the festival store (located in the Viacom Entertainment Store at the theater) or at the box office an hour before show time. They’re also available (with a service charge) by phone at 312-332-3456 or at Ticketmaster (312-902-1500); on-line at www.ticketmaster.com or www.chicago.ddbn.com/filmfest/; by mail at 32 W. Randolph, suite 600, Chicago 60601; or by fax at 312-425-0944. General admission to most programs is $3 for weekday matinees (before 5 PM) and $9 for most of the other screenings ($7.50 for Cinema/Chicago members). Passes and other savings of various kinds are also available; call 312-332-3456 for information. Our on-line guide to the festival, at www.chicagoreader.com, will provide the complete remaining schedule and whatever last-minute changes we can uncover.
God save us when director Taylor Hackford decides to become a metaphysician and Al Pacino decides to demonstrate his genius by reading the phone bookor, to be precise, a script only slightly less repetitive and long-winded. Keanu Reeves plays a hotshot Florida lawyer who’s lured with his wife (Charlize Theron) to sin-filled Manhattan aka Babylon by a huge law firm overseen by Satan aka John Milton (Pacino), who rolls his eyes and gesticulates to show how clever and charismatic he is. Hackford makes this awkwardly told story go on forever, throwing in special effects whenever he suspects we might be napping, and eventually turns it all into a (you guessed it) cautionary fable with a couple of glib twists at the end. At half its present length it might make an OK midnight camp item. With Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, and Craig T. Nelson; written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy from a novel by Andrew Neiderman. (JR)
A charming, watchable, but ultimately unsatisfying British feature (1997) about celebrated photographs of fairies made by two little girls in 1917. The gullible Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played here by Peter O’Toole) fell hook, line, and sinker for this hoaxconfessed to much later by one of the perpetrators on her deathbed. But rather than set about explaining or describing the hoax (as science writer Martin Gardner has cogently done), this film, as the title coyly suggests, prefers to treat it as fact or metaphor or fable about real fairiesanything but the actual boondoggle it was. If you can’t swallow this malarkey, at least you can enjoy the special effects and Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. Directed by Charles Sturridge from a screenplay by Ernie Contreras; with Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath, Paul McGann, and Phoebe Nicholls. PG, 97 min. (JR)