Sharon Stone in bad hair nightmare

also showing: LAST DANCE Bruce Beresford (18) THE SILENCE OF THE HAMS Ezio Greggio (15)
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The Independent Culture
The title of Last Dance gives away this prison picture's watery undercurrent of romance. No-one actually dances, unless you count the stripper (later a vital witness) who wiggles her pendant breasts in a circle before commanding: "Lay down a five and I'll show you my kitty- cat." Instead, the Last Dance is an unconsummated affair between Rick Hayes (Rob Morrow), a neophyte lawyer working in the clemency department of an unnamed Southern state, and Cindy Liggett, who has spent 12 years on Death Row for a bloody double murder. Liggett, though, is now a changed woman, and Hayes launches a series of appeals to stay her incipient execution.

On hearing that Liggett is played by Sharon Stone, one's first thoughts course eagerly through some ripe Bodacious Babe Behind Bars scenario. Not a bit of it. Our Shazza, after her scowling leather-trews-and-six- shooters turn in Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead, and her just Oscar nomination for Casino, keeps those jail-issue denims buttoned in her most credible bid yet for thespian recognition. This will have to mean bad hair. Our first sight of Stone, therefore, is as a pair of mugshots in Morrow's case-notes: with dark brown, fringed tresses, and a crazy stare - she certainly looks more capable than usual of multiple homicide.

The specifics of Cindy's crime (she beat two teenagers to death while high on crack) are not disclosed until halfway through; the first half focuses on Hayes. He gets the clemency job through his elder brother John (the reliably slimy Peter Gallagher), but with the Governor angling for re-election in a red-neck state, Hayes is not actually expected to get his Death Row clients off, simply to schmooze the smart parties. However, he insists on rocking the boat, thanks to his impish obsession with morals.

Eventually, Stone (now with an improved, dirty-blonde coiffure) and Morrow fall, if not in love exactly, at least in sympathy, while Morrow's quondam girlfriend is swiftly jettisoned. These two central performances are wonderfully delicate, with Stone in particular negotiating her way gracefully from despairing rage through girlish reminiscence and nascent hope, to a touching quasi-maternal concern for the procedurally impotent Morrow.

Ron Koslow's literate, playfully ambivalent script is an indictment of the death penalty, which works brutally well during the tense finale of last-minute appeals, buckled leather straps and computerised lethal syringes. But it is also a paean to the prison system as a means of rehabilitation. As Stone sulks: "When ah was out'n the free world there wudn't anything good about me." Now, however, she's more into Goya than Goth, taking a correspondence course in drawing and sticking her sketches up in the cell. Horses, her lawyer, the Taj Mahal: that kind of thing. The film-makers obviously worried that we wouldn't give two figs for the murderess's fate if she were talentless and ugly.

During most of the picture, there is only the occasional grimace of sentimentality from director Bruce Beresford. The opening credits are your standard pretentiously grainy little-girl-in-a-field job; later we spy a darling sparrow nestled on a barbed-wire fence. But Stone's art thing is the excuse for a veritable tidal wave of feeling in a woefully misjudged coda, filmed in India during the worst heatwave of the last 30 years. Maybe the crew just needed a holiday.

The Silence of the Hams is a new Hollywood comedy written and directed by an Italian, Ezio Greggio. You might think Italian comedy is a bit like Norwegian pop music. Well, this is a glorious mess of a spoof psycho-killer movie, sending up The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, among many others, with a sort of bare-arsed continental surrealism which veers from the hysterically funny to the plain soporific.

The plot centres on one Jo Dee Fostar (snort), a raw FBI recruit played by Billy Zane, a strangely inhuman actor who oozes around like he's made of heavily-drugged Plasticene. Fostar must find the infamous Psycho Killer, and so descends into the bowels of The Hollywood Nuthouse to seek advice from chef/murderer Dr Animal Cannibal Pizza. Meanwhile his belle, Charlene Tilton (the Poison Dwarf from Dallas), has disappeared with $400,000, falling into the clutches of Dr Antonio Motel (Greggio himself), who, in a nod presumably to the classical Greek name-as-fate topos, runs a baroque motel with his dead mother.

The unrelenting sight gags are seventh-hand from Airplane!, as are the nugatory snatches of wordplay. The genuinely funny strain of childishly fresh humour owes much to Greggio's own hammily-accented voiceover. When we see a dismembered corpse in a barn, Greggio clues us in: "It was Pavarotti, 'oo 'ad eaten a cow and farted 'imself to pieces." His is a superbly laconic voice, mixing deadpan with a smidgeon of sub-operatic emotiveness and, despite some energetic star turns from such as Shelley Winters and John Astin (Gomez from The Addams Family), it is altogether Greggio's movie. Which proves that, though it have no tongue, ham will speak with most miraculous organ.

n On general release from tomorrow