New films: The Independent film guide

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BREAKDOWN

(15) HHHH

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Starring: Kurt Russell, Kathleen

Quinlan, J T Walsh

At some point in the mid-1980s, American film-makers discovered that they were running low on partially undressed teenage girls willing to be chased around haunted houses by men in ski-masks, so they found a new breed to terrorise: the smug, white, middle-class male. Any character with a mobile phone and a sliver of ambition was immediately a candidate for torture; so many of them were making the trip to Hell and back that there was talk of establishing a frequent-flyer programme for them. And now, just when you thought it was safe to start eating sun-dried tomatoes again, along comes Breakdown to put the cat among the yuppies.

Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan are crossing the barren American Southwest when their gleaming new four-wheel drive stutters to a halt. You know they're heading for trouble because (a) they're blissfully happy; (b) they've just had a close encounter with a tobacco-chewing hick; and (c) the trucker who stops to offer them a lift is played by the late J T Walsh, an actor who probably gave his own mother nightmares. Quinlan hitches a ride with Walsh to the nearest payphone while Russell waits with the car, but once he gets the vehicle started and drives off to meet her, she has apparently vanished into dust.

What begins as a simple kidnapping becomes a disturbing cosmic conspiracy when Russell tracks down Walsh and harangues him about the whereabouts of his wife, only for the bewildered trucker to claim that he has no idea what Russell is talking about. To reveal any more of the plot would be to weaken its tightly interlocked chain of surprises. Suffice to say that the wearing of gloves is strongly advised while watching the picture, lest you chew your nails down to the bone.

Breakdown shares a sparseness and cruelty with its main influences - North By Northwest, Deliverance, The Vanishing and Steven Spielberg's first feature, Duel. Like those films, the picture utilises open space to menacing effect: the vulture's-eye compositions showing Russell dwarfed by mountains and canyons that would have made John Ford swoon are enough to inspire agoraphobic tendencies.

Although the director and co-writer, Jonathan Mostow, introduces some salient commentary about masculinity, gun culture and the crumbling family unit, he does so without once putting the brakes on the action's juggernaut velocity. And, in a year when the trend is for interminable running times, it's comforting to find a picture which fights the flab and doesn't waste a single frame. Mostow ties it all together with such panache that you can find yourself wracked with gleeful giggles.

SCREAM 2

(18) HH

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell

Wes Craven has made an astonishingly complex dissection of the modern horror genre. Unfortunately, it isn't his new film, Scream 2, but the far superior Wes Craven's New Nightmare, a picture which spawned and smothered the post-modern horror movie in one go. Scream 2 attempts to pull off many of the same tricks, but it's that genuine rarity: a sequel that's smarter than its predecessor, but infinitely less satisfying.

The picture begins with the premiere of the (fictional) movie Stab, based on the events which comprised the original (real-life) movie, Scream. But, at the screening packed with fans wearing the killer's distinctive howling-ghoul mask, a woman and her date are knifed to death, and it becomes clear to Sidney (Neve Campbell), the put-upon heroine of Scream, that a copycat killer is on the loose, his appetite whetted by art's imitation of life. And so a hall-of-mirrors effect is set into motion, and embellished by the movie-nerd screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who litters his script with references to other movies, and even the ritual of sequels, putting the overly-ironic statement "Sequels suck" into the mouth of one character.

Whereas Scream functioned as both an investigation of the genre of which it was a part, and a frivolously frightening scare-fest in its own right, Scream 2 fulfils only the former criteria. The interplay between the double- fiction of Stab and the implied reality of the characters in Scream 2 is fascinating, particularly when we see scenes from Scream played out again, with substitute actresses like Tori Spelling and Heather Graham, within the boundaries of Stab. But Craven and Williamson don't know where to take the film - they've run out of things to say. By the time the identity of the killer is revealed, the movie has descended into a series of generic machinations which comply with the horror-movie codes without trying to subvert them.

SLIDING DOORS

(15) H

Director: Peter Howitt

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah

Sliding Doors is a romantic comedy set in the space-time continuum, sending its heroine Gwyneth Paltrow (with a very respectable English accent) off into two separate realities at the same time, with two different suitors (John Hannah and John Lynch). Just what the world needed: a humorous reinterpretation of Kieslowski's Blind Chance.

MY SON THE FANATIC

(15) HH

Director: Udayam Prasad

Starring: Om Puri, Akbar Kurtha

In My Son The Fanatic, Hanif Kureishi establishes an Absolutely Fabulous- style opposition between an agreeable, progressive Pakistani taxi driver (the wonderful Om Puri) and his son (Akbar Kurtha), who has his sights set on becoming a fundamentalist Muslim. This section of the film has great sensitivity and originality, but Puri's relationship with an unfeasibly pure prostitute (Rachel Griffiths) and a domineering German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) is too sketchy and hackneyed to really convince.

Ryan Gilbey

SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLY

(NC) HH

Director: Iwai Shunji

As part of the Pan-Asian film festival at the ICA and the Lux cinemas, this futuristic Japanese fable explores the themes of social exclusion in the context of a multicultural shanty town, home of Chinese immigrants and Japanese outsiders. The story concerns two women who discover the means for printing Yen in the guts of a dead gangster. Endless riches for the pair allow them to explore, and then be exploited by, the world of money, with dystopian results. Iwai Shunji, a former TV and music-video director, who describes himself as "a visual media artist", has a flair for poetic imagery and a keen eye for the Japanese zeitgeist. The Pan- Asian Film Festival (0171-930 3647) runs to 10 May

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