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Hollywood has never shirked from taking foreign films and giving them a new spin, sometimes for the better though usually for the worse. The experimental film styles and visionary filmmakers outside of Tinseltown are not tethered to the strict formulas and multiple studio heads input that tend to weaken many American films and group them into stale genres. But when creative writer and director Cameron Crowe, who had already broke a few rules and released many acclaimed films, was announced as heading the remake of the much-lauded 1997 Alejandro Amenábar Spanish film, Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), there was reason to be excited.
How it came to be starts with the film’s star. Tom Cruise and his production partner Paula Wagner, optioned the film rights to Open Your Eyes after its debut at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Cruise called Crowe, who had just directed him to high praise in the drama Jerry Maguire. Crowe, who had to this point, famously written his own material, instead found the ambiguousness of the project too appealing to pass up and joined Cruise in making an English-language version.
Using the source material as a start, Crowe adapted his own screenplay and photography begin in late 2000. The film’s altered title derives from the work of impressionist artist Claude Monet, who tended to use a vanilla color in his skies, most particularly for The Seine at Argenteuil, a painting featured in the final film.
The story follows David Aames (Cruise), who begins the film in prison for murder. Wearing a smooth, nude-colored prosthetic mask, he talks to court psychologist, Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell) about how he came to be as he is. The film then shifts to a flashback where we learn that David is a very wealthy publisher in New York City, a company he inherited from his father, and to which he leaves its daily operating functions to others. He instead enjoys the fruits of his income, living a life of excess of parties and women.
Soon, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz), a dynamic, and sensual women who wins him over at a party. Also, there is Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz), a woman David has had sex with more than once but has no feelings for, though she is quite the opposite. Wanting to avoid her and becoming enraptured with Sofia, he offers to walk her home where he spends the night with her, talking. Meanwhile, Julie, watched them go.
The next morning, as David heads for work, Julie pulls up and offers him a ride, and since he’s guilt-ridden about ignoring her the previous night, gets in the car. Not a good idea. It’s not long into their conversation that Julie reveals that their sexual relationship had much deeper meaning to her than to him, and in a moment of desperate obsession, she speeds the vehicle up and drives it off a small bridge onto the street below. It kills her and though he survives, his face mangled.
From here, the movie shifts and to say much more would be a disservice to those who have not seen the film, but it’s safe to say that what we see is not always what it appears to be. And here’s where the film begins its unusual path to what amounts to a somewhat dissatisfying end, especially for those who, like me, prefer movies with mystery that have a more grounded explanation. It’s not that Vanilla Sky pulls the rug out directly, but it offers a resolution that is far less practically achieved than it should have been. Sure, it has a sufficient gut-punch effect for a moment, but feels unearned, especially the more times you watch.
That said, Crowe and Cruise are a good team, and they put together several great moments, including the famous reproduction of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover, and a scene where Cruise is seen running through Times Square after he realizes that he is all alone in the world. Done without computer enhancements, the scene was shoot with unprecedented approval from the city to close the famous location down for three hours. It’s a chilling sequence. Crowe expertly frames the entirety of the film with Cruise at its center, and is patient and clever with the slow reveals that begin to unhinge the norms of David’s life.
Vanilla Sky could have been a timeless classic, and while it is a well-acted and directed film that offers great fun the first time through, its pay-off comes up short. Films like this, where what we see is empirically unreliable, work only if the collection of evidence we gather as observers fit to properly solve the conundrum. Making our efforts to get there superfluous, only deflates the good will earned while taking the journey to its end. Theories abound as to the real explanation, but none really make it work they way it should. Impressive for its vision and great performances, this was all the talk on release, this day in 2001.