The Center of the World (18),<BR></BR>The Circle (PG),<BR></BR> Crazy/Beautiful (12)

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Wayne Wang's The Center of the World is preceded by its reputation as a no-holds-barred exploration of sex, the likes of which we haven't seen since, er, the last one (though I still haven't met anybody who paid to see Intimacy). Shot in the grainy, digital-video style that announces "art-house movie in progress", it plays out a faltering pas de deux between a pair of strangers. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard), a slob entrepreneur who's just made a fortune on the stock market, is driven by loneliness to ask a lap-dancer named Florence (Molly Parker) to share a three-day vacation in Las Vegas. She warily agrees, on certain conditions: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration, no discussion of feelings, her own bedroom, and strict adherence to business hours (viz 10pm to 2am). Oh, and she'll be paid $10,000 for her trouble. Not your usual weekend mini-break, then.

The close-quarter grappling that the couple get down to is mildly arousing, although, as ever with this kind of story, interest really fastens on which of them will crack first and fall in love. Could this be a Pretty Woman done Dogma-style? Florence, while distant in manner, wears an electric blue sheath on their first night, and white latex on the second – she takes the job seriously. Richard tries to read her for signs, and when he helps out her friend (Carla Gugino) who's been sexually abused, he suspects that he's made an emotional connection. What transpires, unfortunately, is a huge anticlimax as Wang and his team of writers (including novelists Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt) back right off from enquiry or complication and simply return to first base.

That the movie has any friction at all is down to the principals' performances. Molly Parker, a redhead with a willowy dancer's body, maintains a teasing ambiguity as Florence, and I was only sorry that she put so much of herself on the line in such a mean cause. Peter Sarsgaard is also admirable as the rumpled nerd millionaire whose good nature the film betrays and then humiliates. And to what purpose? It says nothing about sex other than: be careful of the sort you pay for. Well, thanks awfully for that.

The shrieks of a woman in the agonies of childbirth open the astonishing Iranian film The Circle, and spiritually, if not vocally, set the tone of pathetic distress. Shrouded in black, a trio of women on the streets of Tehran dodge behind cars and scurry along back alleys to hide from the police. They have just been released from prison, and all the signs point to the likelihood of their going straight back. Their crime? Difficult to know, though it has something to do with being unmarried, or being pregnant, or, simply being female. We follow one young woman as she tries to buy a bus ticket, which she manages with great difficulty, only to be foiled by a line of policemen checking IDs. Another is thrown out of her home by her own brothers, because her pregnancy has brought shame on the family. In despair, she sneaks into a hospital to arrange an abortion, but her nurse friend is herself too terrified to help.

The director, Jafar Panahi, who made a disarming debut in 1995 with The White Balloon, seems able to conjure tension out of nowhere. For long periods his camera simply lingers upon the anxious faces of his central characters, and though we see no actual violence, there is a palpable undercurrent of dread throughout the film. It's quite mesmerising. In a scene towards the end a woman, possibly a prostitute, is arrested and driven off in a van. Panahi stays with her, and we hear the accompanying policemen tell her to put out a cigarette she's just lit (smoking in public is one of many hundreds of things forbidden to women); moments later, the policemen start smoking and chatting and the woman, completely ignored, quietly lights up again. Hard to say why, but her lonely stoicism, and her stillness as the dark streets flash by the van window, are deeply affecting. Is The Circle an accurate picture of the plight of women in Iran? Who knows – but few Westerners will feel inclined to check.

I heard myself groaning through most of crazy/beautiful, a cry-baby teen drama which tries very hard to be likeable. High-school tearaway Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) falls for fellow student Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a working-class Latino with ambitions to be a pilot. The twist is that Nicole's father (Bruce Davison) is a liberal congressman who can help Carlos with an entrée to a flight academy, but he also insists that the boy, for his own good, steers clear of his troublesome daughter. Dunst, who appears not to have washed her hair for the entire shoot, is good as the sluttish, self-loathing wild child, but director John Stockwell's preference for pop music-led montages of young love, troubled feelings etc are a limp cover for the deficiencies of the script. Not so much crazy/beautiful as tiresome/mawkish.

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