Just as quickly as the small, independent drama about Irish Travellers living in the deep south of the United States finds its footing and finally gets going, so too does it trip on its own heels and run out of gas. This is both the film's blessing as well as its downfall because just as the narrative starts to get winded with no place else to go, the filmmakers smartly cut their losses and scram. The drawback in all this is that audiences are left unsatisfied and feeling as if hustled — unbeknown until it's too late. Then again, in a plot that centers on the ongoings of a tight-knit nomadic clan of swindlers, scammers and con-artists, this could be seen as part of the point in watching 'Traveller.'
The story follows Pat O'Hara, played by a young Mark Wahlberg still making the rounds towards screen stardom (he didn't get his big break until later that same year with 'Boogie Nights'), learning the ropes and customs of this highly secretive community. Bill Paxton volunteers to mentor the kid, and together they start hustling people of their money by pretending to repave driveways, sealing roofs and selling used caravan trailers which fall apart months later. When on one swindle costs the job of a single mother (Julianna Margulies), Paxton suddenly grows a conscience but strangely figures the best remedy for that is by developing an intimate romance, somewhat complicating his partnership with Pat.
Overlooking this rather drab storyline, the movie from long-time and well respected cinematographer Jack N. Green making his directorial debut manages to entertain until the unexpectedly abrupt conclusion. Much of the humor comes from the pair's scams, and when a throaty cowboy (James Gammon) becomes the third wheel, promising the sting of a lifetime, the high stakes are the source of some engaging suspense. But the best aspect of the one-and-only produced screenplay by Jim McGlynn is this small glimpse into the lifestyle and culture of this little-known band of grifters existing in the Unites States. Most moviegoers will be familiar with this way of life thanks to Brad Pitt's satirical performance as Mickey in Guy Ritchie's 'Snatch.' The depiction of travellers in 'Traveller,' however, is a more sympathetic and honest portrayal, making it all the better. (Movie Rating: 3/5)
Telling Lies in America
I can't think of any other movie where the proper pronunciation for the article "the" comes at such a pivotal moment of the story as to be inspiring. But in 'Telling Lies in America,' that's precisely what director Guy Ferland does, working from a script by Joe Eszterhas ('Basic Instinct,' 'Showgirls'). Prior to that scene with a lawyer frustratingly asking Brad Renfro about allegations of payola at a local radio station, we see the teenage kid struggling with the English word and often embarrassed of his accent. We're made not to think much of it, other than it being a quirky character trait he sees as the reason for his failures, one which leads to desperate measures like tying a rubber band on his tongue.
For anyone whose second language is English and knows how tricky correctly pronouncing "the" can be, it's easy to relate and sympathize with Renfro's 17-year-old immigrant Karchy Jonas. Struggling to finish high school with decent grades and an outcast at an all-boys Catholic school, he hides his insecurities and the daily bullying by classmates from his educated father (Maximilian Schell), who's busy studying nightly for his citizenship test. As it is for many boys growing up in America, easy money and flaunting one's wealth becomes synonymous with success. And Kevin Bacon's pretentious, fast-talking radio DJ is the man to teach him how to achieve it — by telling lies and talking big.
'Telling Lies in America' is a unique and terrifically entertaining coming-of-age drama with only a few minor hiccups in Ferland's directing and a middling performance from Calista Flockhart as a grocery-store employee crushed after by Renfro. Eszterhas's story, purportedly semi-autobiographical, does go through the usual motions of the genre — a boy is made to grow-up much faster than he's ready to and forced to deal with mature emotions and decisions — but glosses over any clichés in favor of the unusual relationship of Bacon and Renfro, where one sees a younger version of himself while the other sees his future. With the backdrop of early 1960s Cleveland and lots of great rock tunes, the film is personal morality tale with a great deal of heart and emotion. (Movie Rating: 4/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings this double feature of 'Traveller' and 'Telling Lies in America' to Blu-ray on a single Region A locked, BD25 disc and housed inside the normal blue keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to a still photo of the both films and with only the option to play either one or the other.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this AVC-encoded transfer of 'Traveller' sadly looks more like an upscaled DVD than a Blu-ray — and at 1080i/60 no less. Thankfully, there aren't any apparent issues with the interlaced video, but the high-def picture is poorly resolved nonetheless with very noticeable black crush in many of the shadows, ruining much of the fine details in the background. Contrast is pretty dull with uneven brightness levels overall, creating a very listless and uninteresting image while making the skin tones of actors appear sickly and unnatural. Scratches, dirt and white specks are evident everywhere as well. About the only positives are the bright primaries, though the softer hues are terribly wanting, and a generally pleasing grain structure. But even that tends to fluctuate somewhat, looking a bit like noise in some spots. (Video Rating: 2/5)
Telling Lies in America
'Telling Lies' also arrives in similar shape as the first movie, a transfer made from a either a poor source or quickly slapped together from an aged master. The AVC MPEG-4 encode in 1080i/60 is generally soft and blurry. There are a couple spots where the high-def picture looks good with strong definition around the 1960s clothing, the hair of actors and the surrounding architecture, but for the most part, the image doesn't look much better than DVD. Contrast and brightness falls on the low end of the grayscale, and flesh tones are sickly pale. Blacks are sometimes true and other times murky with lots of crush in the shadows. The color palette is by and large pleasing but nonetheless disappointing, giving viewers an overall lackluster presentation for very good independent drama. (Video Rating: 2/5)
The movie arrives in a tad better shape with this DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack. Being a dialogue-driven story, the conversations of characters are clean and precise in the center of the screen. In fact, the entire lossless mix feels as if constrained right down the center of the screen, creating a very narrow soundstage. The mid-range is noticeably limited at times, failing to impress during musical numbers or the few moments of action. Surprisingly, bass is pretty deep for several of the country songs played throughout, but it isn't all that tight and accurate. Discrete background effects are present, but they come in pretty low and sometimes barely audible, creating a rather boring and lackluster high-rez track. (Audio Rating: 2.5/5)
Telling Lies in America
Showing a bit more life than the video is a fairly decent DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack. Much of the time is spent in the center of the screen with strong dialogue reproduction, which is to be expected of a character-driven film. Discrete ambient effects are audible in the background, giving the lossless mix a good sense of space, yet it isn't wholly convincing or impressive. What actually energizes the track is the great song selection of classic rock 'n' roll music, creating a broader and more engaging soundstage. Dynamic range isn't very extensive or as sharply detailed as it probably should, but the tunes are well-balanced across the front speakers, supported by an ample low-end. (Audio Rating: 3/5)
This is a bare-bones release.
Shout! Factory presents a double feature of two forgotten independent dramas. Starring Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg, 'Traveller' is a good but rather unsatisfying look at the culture and lifestyle of a little-known social group living in the deep south of the United States. 'Telling Lies in America' features good performances from Kevin Bacon and Brad Renfro and tells the coming-of-age tale of an immigrant teen learning about success in America. Of the two, 'Telling Lies' is the better film with more dramatic impact and memorable story. Both share the same space on a single Blu-ray disc, and they look pretty poor in high-definition video. The audio is a bit stronger but still unimpressive, and there are no special features included, making this bare-bones release worth the bargain price only for those already familiar with either film.