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THE STRANGERS (R) In the opening scene of writer/director Bryan Bertino's debut effort, two young boys stumble upon a crimson knife and a blood-splattered wall, the gruesome aftermath of the film's ensuing "based on true events" cautionary tale, which focuses on a young couple, Kristen and James (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) who are terrorized by three masked strangers while they are visiting their country home. The next 90-minutes takes the audience on a tension-filled, albeit often predictable, ride that finds the couple involved in a violent struggle with the strangers. Though the protagonists are relatable and sympathetic, the suspenseful peaks are disappointingly trite. And despite having all the plot devices and miraculous escapes associated with horror films, The Strangers lacks that final "I get it" moment. The villains' motives (and their identities) are never revealed, and when Kristen repeatedly asks why she and James are being attacked, the reply is simply "because you were home." The film seems to be commenting on the void of human compassion and connection in the modern world, but instead, it just comes across as a cheap and easy fix. 2 stars —Franki Weddington

THEN SHE FOUND ME (PG-13) Helen Hunt's directorial debut is one of those movies people like to call a "dramedy," and even the actress/director's face seems in on the game; gravity has tugged so furiously on the corners of the former Mad About You star's mouth that she now looks heartbroken even when smiling, as if the twin masks of comedy and tragedy were somehow simultaneously inhabiting the same face. Hunt's mug is just right for April Epner, a 39-year-old schoolteacher with a ticking biological clock, a failed marriage, a local talk show host (Bette Midler) claiming to be her birth mother, and the divorced father (Colin Firth) of one of her students hitting on her scant hours after the break-up of her marriage. All of this plays out in some nebulous zone midway between melodrama and sitcom, as the movie ricochets back and forth between April's developing relationships, and a series of improbable plot twists causes everything to fall apart before coming together again. The movie flirts mightily with formula and shtick but the performances (particularly Hunt's and Midler's) give the characters weight; the balance between bitter and sweet is generally effective; and even when the rapid-fire dialogue sounds so pleased with itself it resembles a dinner theater adaptation of The Gilmore Girls. Hunt can usually be counted on to temper it with something worthwhile. At one point we even get a cameo by Salman Rushdie as a frazzled obstetrician and then all is forgiven. Also stars Matthew Broderick and Ben Shenkman. 3 stars

THE VISITOR (PG-13) In some ways, writer-director Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor seems like an attempt to re-tell the story of his debut feature, The Station Agent, albeit with a more conventional narrative focus and a plainly drawn political message that plays a little too neatly into contemporary passions. As in The Station Agent, The Visitor features a painfully self-aware loner — sullen, repressed, college professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) — whose self-imposed isolation is finally eroded by the good counsel of an earthy ethnic more in tune with the vibrations of mother earth. Walter's redeemer is Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), an Arab percussionist found squatting in his apartment, and the two men are soon hanging out like best buds, sharing falafels and sitting in on the drum circles in Washington Square Park. McCarthy is too good a filmmaker to allow this to feel like a typical Hollywood odd-couple bonding scenario, but the movie does become a little too reductive, often eschewing the thornier dynamics and more nuanced approach of The Station Agent for an oversimplified infatuation with the Exotic Other. The politics are a bit black and white, and the movie isn't exactly shy about manipulating our emotions, but The Visitor is often very good when discreetly demonstrating its finer points, particularly how seemingly dissimilar peoples are sometimes more alike than not. The film's real success, however, can be attributed to Jenkins (the balding, pockmarked character actor best known as the ghost-dad from HBO's Six Feet Under), whose beautifully underplayed performance exudes an authenticity that transcends the various clichés with which the film flirts. Also stars Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, Hiam Abbass, Richard Kind and Marian Seldes. 3 stars

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