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A cut above the competition

Suture (no cert) McGehee / Segal (US) Only You (PG) Norman Jewison (US) Silent Tongue (12) Sam Shepard (US)
The most entertaining film of the week is Suture, a black-and-white post-modern thriller; the competition, admittedly, is puny (see below), but this, a first feature from the two young San Francisco artists Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is reali sed with an energy and wit that sparkle through the intellectual pretensions. Coupled with Chris Rodley's short Tropical Fish (based on one of the same Raymond Carver short stories Altman cannibalised in Short Cuts), this is one of the more diverting dou ble-bills in town.

Here's the starting point: a man frames his identical twin for their father's murder, then tries to kill him in a car crash. He survives, although he has lost his memory, and everyone takes him for his bad brother. A stock Hollywood plot, then, except that the good twin is played by a black actor, the evil one by a white: all the characters marvel at the two men's similarity, while the audience sits scratching its head.

The film reflects on our sense of self-identity and how we're perceived by others; its theoretical backbone is formed by Lacanian psychoanalysis and impenetrable French Seventies film theory. But this elegant, sophisticated piece is of interest to more than just earnest devotees of those dark sciences. Suture, for a start, looks exceedingly handsome for a low-budget picture - shot in black-and-white CinemaScope (a now-rare format which adds to the film's early Sixties feel), with high-key light ing and sleek, period-modernist design.

It's coursed through with a black, borderline sick sense of humour (Ring of Fire as the signature tune of a film about a man horribly scarred in an explosion?). But what rescues it from being a clever, heartless, cerebral exercise is the warmth of DennisHaysbert, who plays the black twin caught in a web of white intrigue. He lends the film a humane, indeed humanist, depth which compounds its other interesting contradictions.

Only You, by contrast, is strictly the mixture as before: a pale, pale carbon copy of the Sleepless in Seattle formula. Marisa Tomei plays the young woman with her head in the clouds and a deadly-dull fiance. Robert Downey Jr - an actor much more comfortable in manic, vaguely psychotic character roles (Chaplin, Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers) than as a romantic leading man - is the seductive stranger who leads her on a wild goose chase across Italy. He's a glamorous shoe buyer (there's a small runningjoke about Tomei losing her footing), and you know from the start that the fiance, a chiropodist, hasn't a prayer: how can a man who has devoted his life to bunions compete with a connoisseur of finest Spanish leather?

The secondary characters ease the many longueurs: Billy Zane as a hunky meat-head and Joaquim de Almeida, red rose in hand, cable sweater permanently slung over the shoulders, as a self-amused Roman lothario: he knows he's a cheesy cliche, and he doesn'tgive a damn. The director, Norman Jewison, once made the much superior Moonstruck.

Anyone for a supernatural prairie western written and directed (in 1992) by Sam Shepard? Silent Tongue desperately needs a good angle to attract any kind of an audience, and what better than the marquee power of the late River Phoenix? He looks heartbreakingly wasted as a young man communing with the ghost of his dead wife, but seems to inhabit the margins of the movie.

Alan Bates, sporting two impressive pigtails, plays an travelling medicine show impresario hooked on his own miracle "elixir"; he is the dead woman's father. Richard Harris, the film's other flawed father, approaches him with an unusual proposition: he would like to buy Bates's second daughter as a stand-in to console his distraught son.

These two seasoned character actors have a high old time together. Shepard shoots their scenes in big close-up; these are faces to conjure with. But he has no sense of how to pace and structure a movie - to make it more than a slightly dull curio.