Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, reaches further back into Los Angeles history for this dreamy adaptation of John Fante's autobiographical novel about his early years as a struggling writer. Set in the Bunker Hill neighborhood during the Depression, it focuses mainly on the hero's troubled affair with a Mexican waitress, played out as a kind of erotic grudge match between Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Towne, who also directed, romanticizes the material yet preserves Fante's critique of his own anti-Mexican bias--an attempt to cover his sensitivity about being Italian-American. The period ambience is wonderful, and the story is even sexier than Personal Best (1982), Towne's directorial debut. With Eileen Atkins, Idina Menzel, and Donald Sutherland. R, 117 min. Reviewed this week in Section 1. Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark's Century Centre.