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The Door in the Floor

Writ. & dir. Tod Williams, based on a John Irving novel; feat. Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger, Jon Foster (R)

When Eddie O'Hare, a junior at Exeter, obtains a summer job as assistant to Ted Cole, his father advises: "Do whatever it is he wants you to do." An aspiring writer, Eddie (Foster) reveres Cole, and is eager to learn whatever he can from the famous children's author. But what Ted, a boozy philanderer, wants Eddie to do is serve as chauffeur, romantic go-between, and gigolo. Eddie resembles Ted's 17-year-old son, also a student at Exeter who, along with his younger brother, died in an auto wreck five years before. Ted's wife, Marion, is still so traumatized by losing two sons that she neglects their 4-year-old daughter, Ruth. Ted uses Eddie to prove that Marion is unfit for custody of Ruth.

Car crashes and fictional novelists are trademarks of John Irving, and The Door in the Floor is Tod Williams' adaptation of the first section of Irving's 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. The film's title comes from one of Ted's books, as well as the sense of subterranean secrets that lurk beneath any household.

It is no secret to anyone in their posh community in Long Island's Hamptons that Marion and Eddie, who could pass for mother and son, become lovers. Affectless from immoderate grief, Kim Basinger's gorgeous Marion nevertheless manages to be flawlessly coiffed and clothed and to take charge after glimpsing virginal Eddie masturbate to her photo. In The Last Picture Show, the formidable Jeff Bridges played just such a callow adolescent initiated into sex by an older woman. Here he is a rich old ram tupping as many ewes as he can. "I'm just an entertainer of children, and I like to draw" is Ted's pickup line.

Veering between angst and farce, The Door in the Floor opens up on domestic dysfunction but earns a few knocks. — Steven G. Kellman


Maria Full of Grace (Maria, llena eres de gracia)

Writ. & dir. Joshua Marston; feat. Catalina Sandino Moreno, Guilied Lopez, Patricia Rae (R)

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Maria Alvarez contemplates the packets of heroin she is about to ingest in exchange for a ticket to America.
Lovely Maria Alvarez (Moreno) might seem full of grace, but during a gut-wrenching flight from Bogota to Newark her stomach is full of heroin - 62 packets that she swallows to smuggle past customs. Ill-disposed to smell the roses in the cut-flower factory where she works on an assembly line scraping off thorns, and exasperated with a boyfriend devoid of either imagination or love, 17-year-old Maria is eager for change. She accepts an invitation to travel as a mule, an illegal drug courier, and the experience highlights her mulish refusal to let others - even a drug lord - determine her life.

In the first of the film's three sections, set in a small Colombian town, Maria resists exploitation in a meager household consisting of her grandmother, mother, sister, and sister's baby. The second part of Maria Full of Grace details how a seemingly guileless South American girl manages to ingest the costly contraband, overcome acute anxiety during her first airplane journey, and allay the suspicions of federal agents in the United States. In the final section, set in the "Little Colombia" neighborhood of Jackson Heights in multi-ethnic Queens, where a fugitive is able to survive without English, Maria makes a fateful decision and performs an act of grace.

Like El Norte, Maria Full of Grace offers an acrid take on immigration of the innocents. Three other young smugglers board the same plane as Maria, but this is her story. When customs officials discover she is pregnant, regulations constrain them from using X-rays to test their hunch that drugs lie hidden beneath her smooth skin. But novice writer-director Joshua Marston, a native of California and graduate of New York University who insisted on making his film in the language his characters would speak, uses a camera in place of MRI to bare the soul of a brave and brazen traveler. — Steven G. Kellman


Seducing Dr. Lewis (La Grande Séduction, 2003)

Dir. Jean-François Pouiot; writ. Ken Scott; feat. Raymond Bouchard, Dominic Michon-Dagenais, Guy-Daniel Tremblay, Nadia Drouin, Rita LaFontaine, Roc LaFortune (NR)

Until eight years ago, the island of St. Marie-La-Mauderne, Canada, was an industrious fishing village where hard work was met with dedication, and tradition was celebrated with great storytelling. The evening air above St. Marie was velvety with romance and smoke as the town's couples celebrated their mutual bliss with a shared cigarette. Life was simple but happy. Until the fish stopped biting.

Today, St. Marie has lost its mojo; the townsmen line up for their welfare checks as the mayor skips town for a job in the city, and wives threaten to do the same. The fishermen's only hope is to woo a corrupt plastics company, only too willing to build a factory on the island for a tax exemption and free land - if the fisherman can convince a full-time doctor to live on St. Marie. A serendipitous run-in with a traffic cop lands the coke-snorting, cricket-obsessed Dr. Christopher Lewis on the island for a month. The tricky part is keeping him.

As the song goes, many fish bites if you got good bait. Hilarity ensues as the villagers devise ways to not just catch the big fish, but convince him that he wants to get in the boat himself. The best of these is a series of scenes in which the ladies of St. Marie bug the affable doctor's phone in order to establish what he likes, and an ad hoc cricket team that resembles a French-Canadian Monty Python.

Urbane doctor in a tiny village filled with quirky locals is a scenario we know, and the film may be a bit heavy-handed with its messages of small town goodness and corporate vileness. Yet, with it's slow pace and sweet wisdom - that honesty and hard work, whether it's fresh fish or Tupperware, will lead to a contented life of good sex and simple pleasures - it is still refreshing. Susan Pagani


The Village

Writ. & dir. M. Night Shyamalan; feat. Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson

One of the baser pleasures of watching M. Night Shyamalan's previous three films comes from seeing which overdone cinematic cliché he's updated and reinvigorated through his own take on the material: Ghost stories, superheros, space aliens. And now, things that go bump in the night.

By demarcating a line between civilization and savagery, the early colonial settlers of North America defined their humanity - as free whites - in direct opposition to a dehumanized Indian population; here, the residents of the (presumably) Colonial-era Pennsylvania Dutch settlement in The Village talk of the difficult decisions they made founding their community, of the people they left behind, and of the deal they struck with "those we don't speak of." So much of their dialogue is stilted and forced between emotionally distant characters who have worked hard their entire lives to restrain themselves and protect the dark secrets they hold.

Appropriately, Shyamalan knows the greatest fear comes from within, literally and figuratively. The woods surrounding the settlement are suitably creepy (much like the surprisingly menacing cornfields in Signs), and at first the audience only gets fleeting, blurry glimpses of the unspoken menace, thereby heightening the shock and surprise. Their settlement's perimeter, marked by a row of lanterns, blazes at night, in the hopes that the light will keep "them" out; like all borders, this early American barrier goes both ways, holding the settlers captive to their fears and contained in this world of their own making.

Ultimately, The Village fails to deliver the shock its premise promises (Shyamalan foreshadows the twist almost from the onset). Audiences expecting the chills of The Sixth Sense may be disappointed by their absence. But those looking for an allegory about isolationism, racialization, and enemies, real or imagined, will find myth, metaphor, and message here, in the monsters and the men who made them real. By Alejandro Pérez


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