Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

By some measures, this tiny romantic comedy about a goateed young American (obviously not Delpy) who starts up a romance with a gorgeous graduate student (that's Delpy) on a train to Vienna isn't all that bad. For one thing it's great to look at—the cinematography is clean and unfussy, not at all travelogish—and it ambles along nicely enough, as the couple stroll about the city at night. Hawke isn't much fun as an actor—he seems stuck in some sort of pupa state—but Delpy is interesting: a serene beauty whose voice and gestures are unexpectedly frank and direct.

What drove me crazy about Before Sunrise was this couple's endless talking. Or, rather, blather. The pertinent biographical details tend to be smothered—like bits of meat in a bland, glutinous sauce—by notions that sound like they were picked up from college courses in anthropology, sociology, psychology, literature, whatnot. You wouldn't think a twentysomething, leather-jacketed guy with stubble on his chin, let alone a student at the Sorbonne, could sound like pod people—earnest, impersonal, plodding—without eventually realizing that this was no way to communicate.

Before Sunrise is particularly disappointing because it was directed and written (with Kim Krizan) by Richard Linklater, the 34-year-old moviemaker who showed an appreciation for countercultural conversational flakiness in 1991's Slacker. There the young characters nattered on about conspiracy theories, Madonna's body fluids and the connection between Krishna and Smurfs. Before Sunrise has only a few such characters, and they're delightful—especially a Viennese man who's in a play about a cow that thinks it's a dog. This man invites Hawke and Delpy to the play, and you spend the rest of the movie wondering when oh when will they get to that theater? Then they forget to go. (R)

Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman

Following a failed escape attempt from Alcatraz in 1938, convicted robber Henri Young spent a devastating three years in solitary confinement in the lower, dungeonlike cells of that notorious prison. According to regulations, Young should have spent no more than 19 days. Back among his fellow prisoners, he promptly murdered the stool pigeon who had tipped off the authorities about the escape plot. Young's defense: Alcatraz had rendered him subhuman. Bacon, an underrated, boyish actor who has proved surprisingly adept at playing hardened creeps, was a good casting idea for this miserable man, but the performance is a miss. Too bad. Bacon limps, he contorts his limbs, one eye is half shut with scarring, the words dribble out in tormented syntax. But these badges of suffering feel like mere accessories not connected to the inner man. Why not a prosthetic cauliflower ear too?

This probably isn't Bacon's fault. The cast, as directed by Mark Rocco, isn't much better than so-so. That includes both Oldman, doing a banality-of-evil number as the poker-faced loony who runs the prison, and Slater, whose unvaried performance as Bacon's eager-puppy lawyer unintentionally suggests the banality of good. It doesn't help things that Christopher Young's score, which employs a lot of brooding, weepy strings, smacks at times of a stern hymn (can't an audience be trusted to sympathize with a person without having to be reminded of Jesus?) or that Bacon's last scene, which feels tacked on, is almost preposterously triumphant. It isn't Sylvester Stallone as Lazarus, but it's close. (R)

Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, David Ogden Stiers, Michael Murphy, Michael Beach, Gia Carides

The CIA may not be totally out of business, but in the gratuitous-activity standings, bashing it still ranks up there with kicking dead horses. And this brutal, cynical, often repulsive but ultimately watchable thriller is nothing if not an exercise in maligning the intelligence agency.

Fishburne plays a CIA operative fired for embezzling money meant to bribe an Iraqi. Job hunting, he joins a Seattle industrial-espionage operation run by Langella and Barkin.

Thirty-five or 40 double crosses later, State Judge Stiers has taken a million-dollar bribe from Fishburne and his gay partner, Beach, to fix an appeal. Fishburne's ex-CIA boss Murphy has shown up, Fishburne has punched Barkin around a little, and Stiers's girlfriend, Carides, has gotten embroiled in all the counterplotting.

The screenplay, by mystery writer Ross Thomas, doesn't always make things clear, and director Damian Harris, a journeyman, seems to enjoy keeping the situation muddled, as if confusion were synonymous with entertainment. Barkin, who hasn't stopped vamping since 1987, breathes heavily, throws her body around and grins her lopsided grin, yet never appears to be the femme fatale she is supposed to be.

The movie's strongest elements are Fishburne, convincingly cold-blooded and resourceful, and the young Australian Carides, who slathers on a Southern accent but effectively projects a growing awareness of her dangerous, albeit unwitting, involvement in a perilous situation.

Veterans Langella, in unctuous villain mode, and Murphy, a master at playing quietly ruthless bureaucrats (though he isn't listed in the credits), provide at least a plausible framework for the often-implausible plot. That can't be said for the painfully fey monologist Spalding Gray, as a greedy client of Langella's. (R)

Willem Dafoe, Miranda Richardson

T.S. Eliot's 1922 masterpiece The Waste Land could very well have been the story of his wretched marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Richardson), chronicled in this adaptation from the stage play.

Eliot (Dafoe) was born in St. Louis, but nothing in his manner suggested the "Show Me" state. "He tried hard to be more English than the English," wryly notes his future brother-in-law (Tim Dutton).

While a philosophy graduate student at Oxford under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell (Nickolas Grace), Dafoe falls in love with Richardson, a well-born, high-spirited woman who shares his ardor, believes strongly in his talent and marries him quickly, failing to mention some complications. She has what in more demure days were described as "woman's problems": an ungovernable menstrual cycle causing constant, humiliating bleeding and ungovernable mood swings causing constant, humiliating scenes at home and abroad.

As Dafoe begins to enjoy more and more literary success, becoming the darling of the Bloomsbury group, Richardson, his inspiration, helpmate and eager typist, becomes more and more a liability. She drinks too much, abuses her medications and on one occasion brandishes a knife at Virginia Woolf. Dafoe professes his undying love and devotion to Richardson, but there's a chill to him that central heating wouldn't help. Toward the end of her life, he has Richardson institutionalized against her will for more than 10 years and never visits her.

(PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Ralph Novak,
  • Joanne Kaufman.