THE OTHERS (2001) 3 stars
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Christopher Eccleston, Alakina Mann
During its theatrical release, The Others made headlines mainly for being produced by Tom Cruise and starring his then-wife Nicole Kidman. But one detail that was lost in the ensuing off-screen divorce and tabloid scandal is how good the movie really is. Kidman delivers a strong performance as Grace, a fiercely protective mother looking after her two children in the days following World War II. With her soldier husband missing and presumed dead, Grace has her hands full: The staff has fled in the middle of the night without explanation, the kids suffer from a rare skin disorder that prevents them from being exposed to sunlight, and Grace is starting to buckle under the pressure of the rigid and solitary lifestyle she's been forced to adopt. Relief seems to come when a trio of strangers answers Grace's ad for caretakers, but their arrival summons a new problem, as the oldest child, Anne (Mann), confesses to communicating with ghostly spirits. From a technical point of view, there is little in The Others to find fault with. Writer/director Amenabar nails the eerie atmosphere, the pacing is deliberate and engrossing, and even though this is Kidman's show, the limited supporting cast comes through when needed. My biggest complaint is with the way the story is told. Whereas The Sixth Sense jolted audiences with its seemingly out-of-nowhere twist ending, Amenabar chooses to drop several not-so-subtle hints that something unexpected is coming, which just made me expect it all the more. It's almost as though he (or the studio) was worried audiences would be bored and felt compelled to let us know that our patience would be rewarded with a big payoff. Even if this bit of spoon-feeding is more insulting than helpful, The Others is still a clever and effective addition to the genre, one that all fans should scope out.
THE SKULLS II (2002) 1 1/2 stars
Director: Joe Chappelle
Starring: Robin Dunne, Ashley Lyn Cafagna, James Gallanders
Producer Neal Moritz may not be responsible for turning "sequel" into a four-letter word, but he has done nothing to make the term respectable. After all, this is the man who has given us unnecessary (and unwanted) follow-ups to such mediocre movies as Urban Legend, Cruel Intentions and I Know What You Did Last Summer. His latest attempt at a franchise is The Skulls II, another useless continuation of a forgettable film. In this rehash, Ryan Sommers (Dunne) is trying to join a secret college society known as the Skulls, an elite group of students whose members have gone on to become rich and successful world leaders. Even though the initiation is putting a strain on his relationship with girlfriend Ali (Cafagna), Ryan feels obligated to do it for his brother, Greg (Gallanders), an alumnus of the organization. One fateful night, Ryan witnesses a fellow pledge murder a young woman, and his investigation into the homicide leads him to discover just how far the Skulls will go to protect their inner sanctum. Director Chappelle, no stranger to lame sequels (Halloween 6, Hellraiser: Bloodline), should be given credit for making this cheapie look like a real, honest-to-God movie, but films with a decent script, interesting characters and a climactic ending continue to elude him. Although touted as being "the sexiest thriller of the year," The Skulls II is neither sexy nor thrilling. Fans of the original might be attracted by the title, and the prominent picture of the buxom and beautiful Cafagna on the cover will surely draw a different kind of attention, but whatever your reason for viewing, you're bound to be disappointed by this lackluster effort that fails to deliver on any level.