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Vanilla Sky

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rating: R (For Sexuality and Strong Language)

Running Time: 135 minutes

Starring: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor and Cameron Diaz

Based Upon the Film "Abre Los Ojos" Written by: Alejandro Amenabar and Mateo Gil

Written for the Screen and Directed by: Cameron Crowe

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Cameron Crowe and Composer Nancy Wilson featuring a conversation with Tom Cruise, "Prelude to a Dream" Featurette, "Hitting it Hard" Featurette, Interview with Paul McCartney, "Afrika Shox" Music Video by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa, Photo Gallery with Audio Introduction by Photographer Neal Preston, Unreleased Teaser Trailer, International Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (28 Scenes)

Released: May 21st, 2002

 

 

"You will never know the exquisite pain of the guy who goes home alone... because without the bitter baby, the sweet ain't as sweet."

 

Right after the launch of his marvelous masterpiece Almost Famous, and long before his directorial debut, Say Anything, Cameron Crowe, perhaps known as a filmmaker who waits a few years before releasing his next project, wasted no time at all in making his next project, that being an English language remake of the award winning and now classic 1997 Spanish thriller "Abre Los Ojos" ("Open Your Eyes"). With "Almost Famous" in the can and riding the wave of (unfortunate) poor box office gross and high critical claim (shooting wrapped for it in October 1999), Crowe began to shoot "Vanilla Sky" in November 1999 (while the project was kept pretty secret, the rumor swirled around during that shoot that it was indeed an English version of "Open Your Eyes.") This was quite an interesting move for Crowe, as I said, who usually takes a few years in between for launching his next project, not to mention that all of his other work has been original. Nothing wrong with an English remake though, as Crowe had such a strong passion for "Abre Los Ojos." As he made "Almost Famous" and "Vanilla Sky" pretty much back to back, and even though it's an English remake, one cannot deny that the film is pure Crowe as it features his trademark style in script and shooting throughout.

"Vanilla Sky" offers a mindbending journey as we see through the life of David Aames, Jr. (Tom Cruise). David seems to have it all. Inheriting his father's publishing company, David is the type who enjoys his life but seemingly takes that same life for granted. Yet at the night of his birthday bash, he meets Sofia (Penélope Cruz), and something begins to form there. However, his "sex buddy" Julie (Cameron Diaz) crashes the bash, and watches on. Jealous, she finds the next morning and invites him for a ride. As Julie rants on, the two get into a car accident that will forever change David's life. That is where our film really begins... twists, turns and a really bumpy ride is in store for David, as he's framed for murder, one that he's not sure he committed.

If you've read some of my past reviews where I discuss remakes, you then probably know that I'm not a giant fan of making comparisons between the new version and the original. I believe that every film should stand on its own merit and not compared to something else, be it an original, a prequel or whatnot. Yet somehow, I always end up being hypocritical and even though I don't mean to, I end up discussing, comparing and contrasting two films instead of one. I'll be trying my best to not do that here, so I'll be keeping my comments about "Abre Los Ojos" to a minimum. (And if I do go off ranting, I'll try my best to constrain myself. Or just edit down this review.)

A lot of my problems with remakes, be it of an old film or a movie from a different language is that they just don't keep true to the original. They more or less take the basic concept, fiddle around with it so it sounds vaguely familiar and then screw around with the characters, motives, scenarios, locations and what have you. I mean, you might as well just call it something else or a sequel (man, I hate sequels that have nothing to do with the original and only gains the "2" title to cash in on the original). Thankfully, "Vanilla Sky" does not travel that path (bless you Cameron Crowe). Not in the least bit. I mean, why mess with a great thing anyway? Sure, there is a good deal of new in the movie but there's a lot of old which should please original fans of "Abre Los Ojos."

Please don't get me wrong. I loved "Abre Los Ojos" and I still do. I think it's a masterpiece. However, seeing both and studying both, I must say I do prefer "Vanilla Sky" over "Abre Los Ojos." While each are more or less the same film as far as scenes and characters go, each has a slightly different feel. I found that "Abre Los Ojos" is a bit more subdued in its ways, and that it feels a bit more chilling and is a bit more darker. "Vanilla Sky," however is a bit more flashier and a bit more intense in how it uses its perceptions, themes and characters. I found that the quick cuts, the carefully maneuvered shots and the more grand scope of things makes the story all the more breathtaking.

Many critics and film buffs have criticized Crowe for staying to close to the source material, but as I ranted on before about remakes, it was probably the wisest choice he could do and I highly respect him for keeping the nature, setups and themes of the original all while making it more for a different audience and blending in his own mix of things to enhance key notes. So yes, a lot of credit must be given to Cameron Crowe. His screenplay for this English adaption is rather great if you ask me. Like I said, he's pretty much kept things scene for scene for "Abre Los Ojos," even borrowing some of the dialogue. But I think he hones the themes and points a bit better, and makes them far more direct and indirect for the audience. What I also loved is that he's expanded on a lot of crucial scenes from "Abre Los Ojos" by adding more visual flair and more dialogue that drives the story further. I really appreciated that, because Crowe has a gift for words, and in the long run, it makes the film overall better. I became more intrigued and interested with the characters than I did in "Abre Los Ojos," I found some conversations more appealing here than in the original film and he creates a sense that you really do wonder and care about the characters, let alone what is happening, what is real and what is not. This is all created through a lot of talking. Crowe's dialogue here is perfectly pitched and well rounded; his dialogue can be charming, wry, witty and all the romantic. He captures the persona of every character, and as far fetched as you may want to think the movie may be, there is no denying that the dialogue here is well crafted and fits perfectly with every character, every ordeal and every moment. Like with everything else Crowe has written, a sense of realism is quite strong throughout and continues to push the film no matter what.

I'd say more impressive though is Cameron Crowe the director. I've always been a big fan of Crowe's directing style, but as I've mentioned in reviews past, some argue he's a stronger writer than a director. For those who say that, they owe it to themselves to see "Vanilla Sky." His directing work here is phenomenal and perhaps his most impressive effort yet. Working with DP (that's short for Director Of Photography, folks) John Toll (who also worked with Crowe on "Almost Famous"), the two have created some wonderful shots that not only reflect the ideals of the film itself, but are carefully layered throughout to keep viewers guessing, forming opinions, creating theories and whatnot. I truly love that about "Vanilla Sky" because there seems to be an infinite amount of ways to view so much within the film. Still, Crowe truly offers his natural directing skills here. The film, while running a bit over two hours, is paced and put together incredibly well. Execution is key here as far as placing hints and telling the story in such a unique manner, and Crowe pulls it off all rather flawlessly. By no means is style bland here, as he offers a striking array of visuals and tells the story in a rather impressive manner which is really no easy task. He makes it so that anyone can emotionally connect with the movie, culling out feelings we all know too well, but having us question them and feeling our way through them as we watch. Like the way he sets the film up like a broken puzzle, creating vibes like that is no easy task either. Still, his directing here is really sharp and for those who have doubted him, it shows that he's just as strong a writer as he is a director and can really play with the major filmmakers.

An integral part of Crowe's films has always been the music. As we should all know, Cameron Crowe is a huge music guru and was once a key part of Rolling Stone magazine (as you should also know, his previous film "Almost Famous" was based on his experiences as a teenage rock journalist). My theory is that Crowe already has the music planned out in his head, knowing which songs he wants to use and knowing exactly where he wants to put them. I think he has a sixth sense for that, because in all of his films, his background music choices to go with scenes are perfection. The songs he uses are key, especially in "Vanilla Sky" as they come to heighten the film and show more of the story and the characters. Seriously, what he uses and where, if you listen closely, is pretty brilliant. Also, once again, Crowe teams up with his wife Nancy Wilson for the score's instrumental compositions. Wilson's score here is quite catchy, and like the music Crowe has chosen to use, fits perfectly into the film. She really gets down the mood and attitudes of the movie, and her score really compliments everything with strong, cheerful instrumental use, eerie undertones and a smooth balance in between it all. As clichéd as it may sound, music is truly a character in "Vanilla Sky" and all of Crowe's movies.

While Crowe's storytelling efforts really make "Vanilla Sky" what it is, his actors bring it to full life as they each give some of their best performances of their careers, making me scratch my head why none of these actors received major award nominations. Tom Cruise, re-teaming with Crowe, delivers one of his best performances of all time, hands down. Cruise is a very nice fit for this role, and captures all the charm and all the flaws that make up David. David is a character who goes through radical transformations emotionally and physically, and Cruise keeps up with it. Cruise really shows the frustration of David and conveys his beliefs, his confusion and the feelings toward everything that has made up his life, be it the grandest thing or the smallest detail. This is truly a bravo performance from Cruise.

However, the group of actors he's surrounded by are just as strong. Jason Lee (I'm a giant fan of his) and a new Crowe alumni (he was Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous as you may recall), is really fantastic. Lee's performance may not be the biggest, but it's certainly on par as far as depth goes. He shows the different sides of Brian in all sorts of different situations, be it happy or downright angry. Kurt Russell is particularly strong and articulate as Dr. McCabe, who helps to analyze Aames and let him recall the past. Russell is pitch perfect in this role, and I really couldn't imagine anyone else in it but him. Russell is really, really good here.

Finally, on the female side, we have Penélope Cruz reprising her role as Sofia from the original. Cruz is good here, however, those expecting for a stronger performance than the one in "Abre Los Ojos" might be disappointed. It's more or less the same, however, I must admit I did like her performance in "Abre Los Ojos" better. Perhaps because the mood offset something different from Cruz than what in this remake. But perhaps I saved the best for last. We have Cameron Diaz in a somewhat brief but utterly convincing and intense role as Julie. Yes, she was nominated for a Golden Globe, but I think she deserved a lot more kudos for her work. The character of Julie only calls for a certain amount of screen time, but I would have loved more. Diaz hits all the right notes as she is downright angry and jealous in the role, and who can blame her? The mannerisms she pulls off, let alone her monologues and slyness works very well. Diaz is a very talented actress, and despite how small the role is, it's incredibly crucial and is one of her best performances to date.

What I also loved so much about "Vanilla Sky" is that it features a number of unique and rather intense symbolisms throughout. Be it that one may think they're just plastered throughout for obvious reasons, I am one to believe that they are there for their own reasons and have deeper meaning than one may originally think. There is so much to be found within the movie that comes to represent so much. Be it the mask that David wears (and when, this might be the film's strongest symbolism), his scars, the gray hair he plucks, Times Square... I was profoundly moved by their own representations which are quite unique and come to hint yet really represent what the film is all about. As much as I would love to list them all and go into them all in perhaps provoking discussion within you (I'm serious about the love part, I love talking about meanings in movies), but this is a film review and not a giant film analysis (I'd hate to bore you all).

Something which is a bit easier to go into though is the themes that "Vanilla Sky" features, and it sure has a lot of them. All of them are particularly strong, but some are more emphasized and articulated than others. The movie is essentially about appearances, and how they can always be deceptive. It's also about trust and knowing who your real friends are. Still, it's really about taking life for granted, and if you don't think of the future or even consider it, it can truly affect your life. David is a bit lost and his personality changes constantly, however, Sofia, who knows who she is and what she wants, counteracts that. In retrospect, the film is really about the small detail and knowing yourself, for you may not trust the appearances of others, even if you do a little masking of yourself. There is a lot to behold in this area.

Still, the key assets of "Vanilla Sky" is what it does to its audiences. This is a movie that makes you think and rewards paying attention, and for those confused and looking for more will no doubt have to watch it a few times over. The word diction is very key here. The film is filled with hints and setup that are very clever in being true, false or just plain manipulating the viewer. This must be Cameron Crowe's most ambition film to date, as he tends to capture so much of the human experience throughout. This is a film that will perplex, will confuse, will frustrate and will really have your gears turning.

I could go and on and on about "Vanilla Sky." I really could and I think just about anyone who sees it could. Perhaps that's the film's greatest strength. This is one of the best discussion movies I've ever seen in my life (When the film first opened, friends of mine would have long discussions for days on end about the ending and a variety of things the film features). Everything about "Vanilla Sky" is debatable, from the always shifting plot right down to the smallest hint of dialogue. Yet perhaps what's so great about all of this is the film really turns out to be how deep you end up making it. It can seriously go as deep as you want it to go. You can stop at a short distance and it could all add up, or you could go the longest yard that never seems to end and all your ideas, theories and thoughts could still very well work. While the film does offer a lot of hints, a lot of clues and a lot of explanations if you watch it all carefully, I suppose it's up to you in the end as far as how you perceive the film.

But like I said, there's so much to talk about with "Vanilla Sky" and I think I've only really scratched the surface. Honestly, I think you could analyze every single part of this film. Every little detail. And that is a wondrous thing. Have debates with those you know. Gain new ideas. Express your thoughts. For that's the power of movies... when you can talk to anyone else who's seen it and just recall it all, as if you knew it like the back of your hand. To relate to the story, the themes and the characters. Not to mention that you can just keep talking about it and gain something from it. Some movies you can talk about a few things and that'll be that. But when something like "Vanilla Sky" hits, it's timeless in many senses. So many different emergences have formed from it, and more are sure to come. Like I mentioned, this movie can really be cut down to a microscopic size. To really have people communicate and interact over something in so many ways, it's a mark that you've created something special. And if you do talk with others, you just may see things you never noticed before. Kind of like life, right? Kind of like David Aames perhaps? Or maybe just one of those days where you just have to look up and truly see that vanilla sky...

 

"Vanilla Sky" is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the end result gives off a rather glorious image that is sure to please. However, one must note that while the transfer is pretty steady, it can definitely be a little inconsistent at times which might annoy some home theater enthusiasts. The image can be a little murky and grainy for some key scenes, but I am assuming this was Crowe's intended vision for obvious reasons. The picture is mostly soft throughout too and does look a little "filtered out", but I'm not quite sure if the former was also part of Crowe's intended look for the movie (if it was, I wouldn't be surprised at all). While I think a sharper image would have been more suitable, given the kind of "states" the film does feature, I must say the softer, if not flawed look isn't bad and really works rather well in the context of the movie.

But as I mentioned, the inconsistencies may be a bit cumbersome for those big home theater fans as while the tone of the picture there, it seems to jump around a little bit, kinda like the film itself. There are a good deal of marks on the print throughout the movie such as pieces of dirt, blemishes and the like throughout. They're there, but I never found them too distracting. There is also some shimmering too here and there, but there is a lot of noise that can be quite minuscule or excessively large. I did find that to be a bit annoying after a bit.

Still, the transfer has a lot of good going for it. Shadow detail is wonderful, and the film features a wide variety of colors which the transfer does keep up with throughout. There is a lot of dark color use, and they are quite strong. Other colors themselves are pretty gorgeous and well saturated, capturing the variety of feeling the film does happen to offer incredibly well. The shot of the park with David and Sofia after the crash, with the trees and the leaves falling is quite lovely. Fleshtones are great too that are natural and realistic. Overall, "Vanilla Sky" pleases with its images, despite the flaws throughout. Overall, this transfer embodies the film quite nicely and in ways you may not expect.

 

"Vanilla Sky" also includes a rather wondrous, chilling but very thrilling English Dolby Digital 5.1 track which I must say really made me surrender and become trapped in the surreal story even more as if I was personally trapped into David Aames's incredible ordeal. The mix is a bit haunting at times, and filled with a variety of active surround sounds. Be it the life changing car crash or the ending that hits many of the senses, you truly get a feel of almost being there, but almost not, as if it was a dream of sorts (oh no, I hope I didn't ruin anything by saying that). Dynamic range and fidelity is very good, while dialogue is clear and easy to hear. The music is also well mixed through the channels as they have their own sense of power. The .1 LFE is very good too.

Overall, this is truly a superb mix that hits its mark in what it's going for. Also included is an English Dolby Surround mix and a French Dolby surround mix, plus English subtitles and English closed captions through your television.

 

For a Paramount release, "Vanilla Sky" is pretty packed, but it doesn't have the "Special Collector's Edition" label on it for whatever reason (that's Paramount's way of saying "special edition"). No matter though, it's just a title and the film has received superb treatment in the supplements department. Open your eyes and I'll guide you through what's on the disc...

On the main menu, you have the choice of two different featurettes, sandwiching the play button (entitled "Vanilla Sky") for the movie. Both of these featurettes, while short in length, deliver the goods and are simply fantastic. The first, Prelude To A Dream, lasts a little over six minutes and is presented in full frame. Cameron Crowe narrates this piece, which gives us a glimpse of the production. I really wish this one was longer, and perhaps made into a full documentary of sorts, but works for what it is. I suppose this is more like Crowe's introduction to the flick. Crowe describes his feelings toward the film, about what it represents and what as well as who it speaks too. Filled with nice stills from the film, stills from the press tour, stills from behind the scenes, clips from the movie and a load of behind the scenes footage from the casting, to the shooting (some nice Time Squares stuff here) and much more. A very solid watch.

Hitting It Hard lasts a bit longer at a little over ten minutes, and is in full frame. This featurette covers the film's mega press tour around the world. As you can imagine, there are a lot of clips from the filmmakers, stars, journalists and screaming fans. There's a lot here. From a Crowe story in the back of a car, interviews, a little opening stuff from Larry King and Charlie Rose shows, shots of planes, autograph giving, press sitdowns and the like. This is really sharply edited and very cool, as you get a feel of what the tour was like (and how many screaming Tom Cruise fans that exist in this world). Very enjoyable stuff here (oh, and the title of this piece refers to some Australian girl who asks "Are you hitting it hard?") overall.

Besides those featurettes, another big draw to this DVD is the Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Cameron Crowe and Composer Nancy Wilson featuring a conversation with Tom Cruise. I've really enjoyed Crowe's other commentary tracks, and while all the others are rather strong, this just may be his best one yet. Nancy Wilson provides some background music which sounds very pleasant and is really cool. She chimes in with a comment here or there, but this track is basically all Crowe. Crowe always keeps things going and talking, and you get a sense of what making the film was like. Crowe pinpoints some inspiration and ideals, but he basically goes on to explain clues and what some things mean. This may ruin your perceptions, and I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. Yes, people were confused by the film and will want some detailed explanations. I've gone on how this is a discussion film, and some may not want to let Crowe's meanings interferes with there own. Despite the comments that discuss the film's meaning which may put off some, there is a lot here as Crowe offers a lot of praise for his own work and his cast and crew's work. Crowe talks about music (one of his favorite subjects, of course), getting shots and just some very nice tidbits, details and his thoughts. Tom Cruise joins the two during the club scene portion (at about an hour and two minutes, in fact) of the film for about ten minutes or so (Crowe calls him up). Cruise's comments are pretty funny and enjoyable. Yet with that, Cruise gets into discussing the scene, planning it out and what the scene means. Cruise does a fair amount of talking here and really has some very nice things to say, and the interaction he and Crowe share is quite good (I wish Cruise could have stopped by and do the whole track). There is a great amount of insight to be found here, and I was thrilled with every word that was spoken here. If you liked the film and want to explore it more, do listen to this track.

Under the Music section, we are treated to An Interview with Paul McCartney. This interview is directly from Entertainment Tonight from what seems a Golden Globe special of sorts. His song, "Vanilla Sky," is played in the background (as well as "From A Lover To A Friend."). No new information is given here. Crowe approaching McCartney is mentioned, and then McCartney seeing some footage and it branches out from there (oh and there's some bit on Paul's inspiration). Too bad the actual music video isn't presented here, let alone that this interview is a mere minute and thirty-six seconds.

But we do get a Music Video for Africa Shox by Leftfield and Afrika Bambaataa. Presented in full frame and featuring non-anamorphic letterbox clips from the film, it's actually a rather nifty music video that has some cool rave-ish qualities to clips. It's a bit trippy, but very well done. It lasts two seconds under four minutes.

In Photo Galleries we are presented with an Optional Audio Introduction by Neal Preston. Preston, a long time friend of Crowe and photographer of him, discusses knowing Cameron, his work and shooting shots. There are eight galleries of stills here (!), which results in dozens upon dozens of photos (I think close to the number 200, actually). There are some standard publicity shots, but there are some cool raw shots and behind the scenes footage. Also in the section is a nice easter egg... a montage gag reel which is fun to watch. This lasts about five and a half minutes.

Finally, we have the Trailers section. The Unreleased Teaser Trailer (in non-anamorphic widescreen and two channel sound) lasts a minute and forty-two seconds, and is really good, so I have no idea why it wasn't released. Then there is the International Trailer (the one you probably saw in movie theaters, I know I did), also in non-anamorphic widescreen and two channel sound. This one is about three minutes, and is just as good. Finally, we have some Credits for the DVD, featurettes, music video, clips, commentary... and that's about it.

Overall, the supplements here are sure to please and do give a great amount of insight onto making the film, not to mention that they are quite entertaining. Still, if you hate buying DVDs twice, you may want to wait for another announcement before going out and purchasing "Vanilla Sky." According to the incredible Cameron Crowe fansite The Uncool, not everything made it onto this DVD release due to the short time frame they had to work with. Perhaps "Vanilla Sky" will get re-released into an even grander DVD set, or have a separate release filled with supplements only. Stay tuned for more on that (another supplements disc or a re-release does seem a bit off for now), but I think what's given here for now is quite satisfying and fans of the film will surely enjoy what's given.

On a different note, the menus are really terrific. The musical backdrops are dead on, while the simplicity of their design while conveying the themes, points and objects of the film are truly wonderful. Very nicely done.

 

"Vanilla Sky" is a film that simply mesmerizes all while transcending barriers (Cameron Crowe has done it again!). The film was a mainstream hit grossing a little over 100 million dollars, yet Crowe has created a film that will appeal to anyone with its great acting from big stars, an entertaining story, deep themes and art house sensibilities. True cinema geeks may be surprised of what "Vanilla Sky" does offer, as those looking for a different and surreal experience that you usually don't see in highly publicized movies from the big boys in Hollywood will find a lot to enjoy here. This DVD is quite wonderful itself with a strong transfer, a well mixed 5.1 track and a strong array of supplements. "Vanilla Sky" is a movie that will frustrate you, astonish you and question yourself all with some sense of wonder... open your eyes and be sure to check it out.