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review added: 5/20/02



Vanilla Sky
2001 (2002) - Paramount

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Vanilla Sky Film Rating: D+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/B+

Specs and Features

135 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:25:47, in chapter 18), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary track (with director Cameron Crowe and composer Nancy Wilson), Prelude to a Dream featurette, Hitting it Hard featurette, interview with Paul McCartney, Afrika Shox music video by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa, 8 photo galleries (with audio intro by set photographer Neal Preston), unreleased teaser trailer, international theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menus with music, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"Wake up, David."

It's damn rare that I watch a film and don't have an immediate opinion. I feel so strongly about cinema, and have seen so many movies, that 99 times out of 100 I know concretely if I love or hate a particular film and why. Vanilla Sky represents that one time out of 100 that I had to think long and hard about how this film spoke to me, and what exactly I'm going to say back to it. As much as I loved certain aspects of this rather brave cinematic endeavor, there were several glaring inefficiencies that outweighed the positives. I would be remiss, and a lackluster critic, if I didn't say what's truly in my heart... which is that Vanilla Sky disappointed.

Vanilla Sky is writer/director Cameron Crowe's adaptation of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (a.k.a. Open Your Eyes) by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil. Tom Cruise plays David Aames, a wealthy, immature womanizer who inherited his father's publishing empire. It seems that he has it all - a great car, a swanky apartment, hip friends and all the beautiful women he could ever want. One of these women is Julie (Cameron Diaz), except she's obsessed with David and misinterprets their casual, just-friends-sex as more meaningful than David ever intended. When David meets the ravishingly charming and gorgeous Sofia (Penélope Cruz), he's ready to give up the womanizing and settle in with this seemingly perfect woman. But Julie will have no part of it and decides that the best alternative is to commit suicide... and take David with her. Fortunately, David makes it out alive, except he's terribly disfigured.

After living a life of vanity, David has trouble coming to terms with his disfigurement. Making matters worse, this is one spot of trouble from which his money can't save him. On the bright side, he becomes more dedicated to his company, and begins to earn the respect of the mistrustful board of directors. His attempts to rekindle the flame with Sofia start off rocky, but their relationship quickly becomes ideal. David's life seems to be going better than ever... until he begins experiencing terrifying hallucinations that lead to serious ramifications. All that David wants to know is, what the hell's going on?

I have to question why Abre Los Ojos needed to be remade, and lament the time and energy Crowe put into Vanilla Sky when he could've been working on another project. Crowe is a very talented storyteller, and one of my favorite filmmakers. He has knack for bringing out the most personal performances from his actors, writing endearing dialog and generally enveloping the audience in whatever situation he has created on-screen. Pretty much only known for romantic comedies, I respect and applaud Crowe's decision to branch out into other genres. What's so right about this movie is that Crowe's spirit is entirely present within the moving dialog and touching performances for which he has such great talent in molding; Vanilla Sky is a suspense/thriller with Crowe's touch of romantic comedy. It sounds like a bad combo, but for this story it completely works. Cruise, Cruz and Diaz all turn in stellar performances. In fact, the acting in this film is perhaps its greatest strength. I became invested in the story because the words on the page, and the way the actors painted them in front of the camera, really worked to make them identifiable. Further, these characters are fairly distant from what these stars are used to playing, and I applaud the brevity and effectiveness with which they tackled the gritty subject matter. Topping it all off, John Toll's photography and Catherine Hardwicke's production design are sweeping, majestic works of art that become very important to how the story plays out.

But, the rest of the film is a mess. Be aware that I will be discussing some spoilers, so avert your eyes if you're so inclined. Editor's note: he's not kidding folks, don't read this next paragraph if you haven't seen the film and wish to do so unspoiled. I'll probably catch some flack for this, but the one phrase that continually popped into my head during the last fifth of Vanilla Sky was Total Recall. God, I hated that film. But you know something? At least the entire concept of creating your own fantasy was acceptable in Total Recall, because it was set in the distant future. It was a sci-fi movie that reveled in its own campiness. But such a concept has no place at all in a work like Vanilla Sky. Forget for a moment that this far-fetched concept is, in my eyes, a storytelling cop out. But Vanilla Sky's plot plays out in the modern day. I think that if the technology existed for a human to engineer and live out their own dream or fantasy, we'd all have heard about it by now. But what's even more damaging to the film is that we, as the audience, are supposed to suspend our disbelief so far to accept this concept solely on the basis that a dog was accidentally frozen for three months, and was successfully revived. This is the foundation for the entire dénouement, folks. Yes, just because a little doggie survived being frozen for three months, we're supposed to accept a modern technology that 1) somehow revives you after you've been dead for dozens of hours, 2) erases any recollection of your death from your memory, 3) sustains your existence for 150 years, and 4) manufactures your own personal fantasy so your brain believes it's real. Sorry folks, but I never safely made it to the other side of the chasm that this ridiculous leap of faith asked me to reach. Bottom line is this twist entirely destroyed an otherwise intriguing, beautiful film. Any moral lessons that were trying to claw their way to the surface during the film's final minutes were there in spirit, but were effectively squashed and negated by the eye rolling silliness of the ending. What a terrible shame!

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this Paramount DVD is one the best I have seen. The video is crystal clear, boasting wonderful detail even in the darkest of scenes. The image has a wonderful three-dimensional quality, and is appropriately sharp or soft depending on how the filmmakers shot each scene. The print is pristine with nary a scratch or blemish, and colors are effectively vivid or muted, again, depending on the filmmaker's intentions. And the best part is that this is all achieved without a single iota of artificial edge enhancement. Can I get an "Amen?" A film so dependant on color palettes and gorgeous imagery calls for the best treatment DVD has to offer. Paramount answered that call.

The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also very effective. The rear channels are used quite liberally for subtle ambient effects, as well as for more aggressive action sequences. Dialog is always clear and intelligible, and the low end is used tastefully. The various classic rock songs used in the film were very nicely mixed into the track, as is composers Nancy Wilson's score. This disc represents some of Paramount's best technical work.

As with most of his other films on DVD, Cameron Crowe has provided a commentary track on the Vanilla Sky DVD, and the film's composer (and Crowe's wife) Nancy Wilson comes along for the ride. Crowe does most of the talking, and is forthcoming about the film's strengths and weaknesses. He provides his thoughts on what the film means to him, and offers several alternate interpretations. About mid-way through, he gets Tom Cruise on the phone, and they discuss the dance club scene. A pair of featurettes are also present, the first of which is a 6-minute piece called Prelude to a Dream. Short but sweet, Prelude highlights the casting process of the film, and shows some behind-the-scenes and rehearsal footage. The second featurette is called Hitting it Hard. It runs about 10-minutes, and focuses on the international press tour for the film. Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, and Cameron Crowe are shown attending premieres, interviews and indulging fans. This home video footage goes a long way in demonstrating how exhausting these press tours can be, best exemplified by a zombie-like Cruz. A 2-minute interview with Paul McCartney from Entertainment Tonight features the veteran rocker explaining how he got the gig for writing the end titles song. A collection of 8 photo galleries is included, with an audio intro by set photographer Neal Preston. This is one of the better photo galleries I have seen on DVD, as the pictures are more than publicity shots; many are striking images worthy of display in your home. An Afrika Shox music video by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa, unreleased teaser trailer, international theatrical trailer round out the nice array of extra features.

Vanilla Sky is a film that had the ingredients for success, but was cursed from the start by an absurd story mechanic. The acting, direction and aesthetics of this film are truly magnificent, but what's it all mean if the story's no good? I liken it to owning a Ferrari F355 that lacks an engine - it's breathtaking to look at, and nestling yourself within its interior is engaging, but the entire experience comes up totally empty and unfulfilling since the car lacks the very thing that makes it what it is. If you liked this film, then you'll love the DVD, as it represents some of the best work to come from Paramount. If you decide to give this film a try, go into it with the most open of mind that you can, and be prepared to suspend your disbelief like you never have before.

Greg Suarez
gregsuarez@thedigitalbits.com




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