Cinema: If you go down to the Tube today...

THERE ARE parallel universes out there where Rome never fell, where Hitler won the war and where Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow lived happily ever after. In Sliding Doors (15), writer-director Peter Howitt brushes up his quantum physics to demonstrate that the tiniest events can generate a variety of different futures. Navigating the sort of inter- dimensional anomaly that regularly plagues the cast of Star Trek, he pursues two possible versions of the life of his heroine Helen (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). In the first version of events, she misses her Tube, and so returns home too late to catch her boyfriend, Gerry (a beetle-browned John Lynch), in bed with old flame Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn, a terrifying woman with neck sinews as tight and prominent as Deirdre Barlow's). Or maybe it doesn't happen at all ...

In an alternative time-stream, Helen squeezes through the train's closing doors, gets home early and finds Gerry "up to his nuts in Lady shagging Godiva" (her words, not mine). And while Helen One languishes in a dead- end job, Helen Two puts her life in order. She gets a smart new haircut, and starts her up own business - facilitating some brazen product placement for NatWest bank loans - and, most crucially, forgets Gerry in favour of James (John Hannah), a charming man with similarly prodigious eyebrows. James takes her out on the Thames and woos her with an anecdote about how, when he was a child, his eight-year-old sweetheart left him for another man. Rather uncomfortably, this turns out to be Gary Glitter. (Presumably, in this dimension, the Leader never took his computer in for repairs at PC World.)

It's lucky that Hannah has such an agreeable screen persona, because the part must have looked fairly gruesome on paper: James is a rower who speaks in Monty Python quotes, a combination which would make most people want to jump on a chair and scream. (In my experience, when people start shrieking "the comfy chair!", it's time to get your coat). As for Paltrow, her impersonation of the strangled vowels of a west London poshgirl is pitch perfect - it's as if she's spent years earwigging on ditzy conversations in the lounge bars of Notting Hill.

Unfortunately, Howitt's script lacks the same geographical precision: it contains a number of clunky transatlanticisms - phoney-sounding references to Jeopardy and Seinfeld that were presumably included to make American audiences feel at home. An overconfident in-joke also jarred with me: quite early on, we see Paltrow reading a copy of the London Evening Standard which bears the headline "A VERY ENGLISH OSCAR TRIUMPH". It's a pleasant enough movie, but only in some weird parallel universe would it ever win an Academy Award.

The real class comedy act of the week is Wes Craven's Scream 2 (18), a self-referential slasher movie that's so knowing it could probably review itself. Get this for postmodernity: set two years after the so- called Woodsboro' murders committed in the first Scream, it opens as a young African-American couple, Maureen and Phil (Jada Pinkett and Omar Epps) are queueing for a screening of a movie called Stab. It's a gory shocker starring Heather Graham, Tori Spelling and David Schwimmer, and based on a book about the Woodsboro' killings by tabloid hackette Gale Weathers (played by Schwimmer's Friends co-star Courteney Cox). Still with me?

Despite the fact that they really should know that it's the black characters who get killed first in this sort of movie, Maureen and Phil stay put in the cinema, and are soon bleeding all over the upholstery. Someone in their sleepy university town is plotting a real-life sequel to the original murders, and the killer seems as keen to dissect the conventions of the horror genre as he is to disembowel the young cast. Craven's scam is to make you feel superior to the predictability of the stalk-and-slash flick, and then use it to shock you senseless all the same. He gives you a scene of know-it-all film students discussing how sequels never match their originals, then he sets off a white-knuckle sequence in which one of their number is hacked up by a masked fiend and thrown off a third- floor balcony. Bloody marvellous.

Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown (15) is also made from 90 per cent recycled B-movie, but it wouldn't know a postmodern gag if it started passing round the biscuits at the script conference. It's the tale of a smart Bostonian (Kurt Russell) whose wife (Kathleen Quinlan) is kidnapped by a pack of dungaree-clad desert highwaymen (led by sinister trucker JT Walsh). The locals, of course, deny she was ever in town. Mostow loads his film up with every available car-chase and why-won't-they-believe-me cliche, but there's something rather comforting about his refusal to pander to Craven ironies. This is strangely gripping stuff, even at its most ludicrous moments - such as the scene in which Russell and Walsh are fighting with lengths of chain while clinging to the side of a truck that's suspended over a ravine. And there are star-watching pleasures to be had, too: Mostow gives you a chance to take a good long look at Russell, a matinee idol approaching a tricky period in his career. The camera is fascinated by his quaffed, going-to-seed cutesiness, that doubling chin, those piglety eyes that are now almost visibly disappearing into his face. What roles does the future hold for Russell? Sleazeballs for the next 10 years, smalltown sheriffs for the 10 after that? Personally, I hope there'll be a part for him in Scream 3.

A character piece now. (Remember them?) Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic (15) is a fresh, unpretentious social comedy about jazz-loving Pakistani cabbie Parvez (Om Puri), and his son, Farid (Akbar Kurtha), an unblinking convert to religious fundamentalism. While Parvez swigs Scotch to the sound of Louis Armstrong, Farid prays to Mecca with the help of a Teach Yourself Islam cassette. But their antagonism really gears up when Parvez begins an unlikely romance with a local prostitute (Rachel Griffiths), just as Farid is organising an attack on the brothel where she works. Written by Hanif Kureishi, the script has a good ear for the elaborateness of Anglo-Indian syntax, and contains much smart material on race, class and manners. For instance, when out visiting their prospective (white) in-laws, Parvez forbids his wife from going to the toilet: "Not again, they'll think we're Bengalis!"he snaps. Actually, I'll admit I didn't really understand that joke. But the gags about "the Satanic Arseholes" cracked by a blue comedian in a club called Manninghams were all too comprehensible.

"Show me a Japanese Proust and I'll take their culture seriously," Anthony Burgess once said. Would a Japanese Dickens have done him? Shunji Iwai's Swallowtail Butterfly (18) is a panoramic, multi-plotted thriller about death, money and rubbish, like a Manga version of Our Mutual Friend. Its themes are linked in a gruesomely literal manner: the plot hinges on a yen-producing strip of magnetic tape, secreted in the stomach of a dumped corpse. Like Dickens, Iwai's trick is to give you everything from the boardroom to the bordello: he finds room for gangsters, business executives, a disgraced schoolteacher, a pop starlet and a demi-monde of tarts, trash-sifters, swells and ne'er-do-wells. And a scene in which the teenage heroine, Ageha (Ayumi Ito) sends her band of street urchins out into Toyko to embezzle money from the city's cash machines (accompanied by a rousing, martial score by Takeshi Kobayashi) would have warmed the heart of any Fagin. Anthony Burgess might have been tickled, too.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 10.

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