Apparently, Cameron Crowe viewed Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Spanish mind-bender "Open Your Eyes" and thought a remake would be a perfect vehicle to reunite the director with his "Jerry Maguire" star Tom Cruise. Cruise agreed and event went on to produce Amenabar's "The Others", starring ex-wife Nicole Kidman.
Although I found "Open Your Eyes" fairly enjoyable, I never quite understood what many other viewers seemed to see in it. Still, I was interested to see what a director like Crowe would do with the twisty thriller, especially given the fact that Crowe has helmed nothing like it in the past.
The film stars Cruise as David Aames, the son of a publishing giant who has inherited his fathers vast empire. He occasionally appears in the office, chatting up his co-workers and fellow owners before quickly whisking himself out the door and into another party. He's even got a beautiful girlfriend, Julie (Cameron Diaz), who occasionally comes over and sleeps with him. He thinks that it's a fling, but she's falling deeper for him.
One night, David meets Sofia (Penelope Cruz, star of "Open Your Eyes") and instantly falls for her, making Julie feel hurt and a bit more than angry. On the other hand, he's also angered his friend (Jason Lee, who has become a really stellar actor since his start in Kevin Smith's "Mallrats"), who has fallen for Sofia and thinks she could be "the one".
Julie picks him up in the morning and their drive ends with a horrifying traffic accident that leaves Julie dead and David horribly disfigured and about to be charged for her murder. Or, did they have an accident? Or, did he ever meet Sofia? Or, is he dreaming? Yes, this is one of those movies and, once the twists start coming, they begin to pile up on each other. "Memento" is as highly and rightly regarded as it is because the intricate structure is easily grasped, but there are still a few questions and a few possibilities at hand once everything is all said and done. Like "Open Your Eyes", the curves and plot twists begin to spill over in "Vanilla Sky". I felt as if it started to get a little difficult to care, as the point eventually wasn't arriving soon enough. Some may be infuriated; I might have been a little more unhappy if I didn't at least enjoy the performances and look of the film.
As for the look of the film, Crowe has wisely chosen to reteam with his "Almost Famous" cinematographer John Toll, whose work here captures the beauty of New York City and every detail of the lavish locations. There is a scene early in the picture where Cruise's character stops in a completely empty Times Square and runs throughout the streets, with a light electronic tune in the background. The scene is one of a few in the movie that truly soars, really reaching a wonderful level of energy. Crowe's usual editor Joe Hutshing also returns here, keeping the plot structure fairly well-handled, even slightly better than I remember "Open Your Eyes" being, although it's been a while since I viewed the original. As per usual, former Rolling Stone writer Crowe remains Soundtrack King, hearding together an effective light electronic and alternative rock soundtrack that is enjoyable and not intrusive.
The performances are good, if the chemistry that Crowe was obviously looking for isn't quite there. The pairing of Cruise and Diaz really doesn't spark like I'd expect. Diaz is fine on her own; her declarations of love and what her relationship with David means to her are truly heartbreaking. Cruise starts off a little too subtle and a little too smug, but starts to show more depth as the movie advances. Cruise and Cruz are a more interesting pairing; they work off one another well and Cruz is at her most comfortable, haunting and engaging, which is especially pleasing after a couple of shrill recent performances. There's even a really strong performance from Kurt Russell as the psychologist who is interviewing David after the accident. Nobody gives their best performance, but the effort is obviously there.
There are still some problems that I had with the picture. "Vanilla Sky" moves slowly and could have used a few little clips here and there to aid the pace of the 136 minute picture. There's also little suspense and not enough tension, although there are some dramatic and emotional sequences that are very effective and genuinely saddening.
It's a pretty good picture from Cameron Crowe, but certainly not his best film. The film brings up themes about life and interests in those areas, but the structure of the story eventually spirals around itself one too many times, while the characters never really fully held my attention. "Vanilla Sky" is watchable, quite discussable, but I didn't feel it was entirely memorable or always involving.
VIDEO: "Vanilla Sky" is presented by Paramount in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image quality is very good, although it helps that the cinematography by two-time Oscar winner and Crowe's "Almost Famous" collaborator John Toll is gorgeous and the settings are opulent and beautiful. Sharpness and detail are usually very good, although there were a few scenes that seemed as if they were intentionally very slightly soft.
The picture displayed a few minor flaws, but nothing that was very major, or even very mild. The print used was in excellent condition, with only a speck or two and a couple of tiny moments of grain. Edge enhancement is slightly visible on occasion, but I didn't find it that annoying. No pixelation or any other flaws were spotted.
The film's color palette is a change from Crowe's usually vibrant looking pictures. While there are some interiors that are warm and rich in appearance, most of the film has a moderately cool, crisp feel that suits the sleeker material well. Colors were well-presented, appearing crisp and well-rendered, with no smearing. Overall, this is a very nice transfer that does justice to Toll's remarkable work.
SOUND: "Vanilla Sky" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, but this is not a particularly active soundtrack. Crowe's music-heavy presentation recieves the most attention, as the music is nicely spread out across the front speakers and occasionally gets reinforcement from the surrounds. Otherwise though, the surrounds go mostly unused, with the exception of some occasional ambient sounds. Audio quality was excellent, as the songs really came forth with energy and terrific clarity. Dialogue and sound effects were also quite clear. A nice soundtrack that is perfectly fine for the material.
MENUS: Paramount has prepared beautifully done menus for this release, complete with music in the background and wonderful animated transitions.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Cameron Crowe and composer/wife/collaborator Nancy Wilson. Listening to Crowe's commentary tracks reveals an interesting personality. There's a hippie-ish goofyness to his laugh and his occasional way of throwing words like "man" into sentences. On the other hand, there's also an interesting and genuine enthusiasm that Crowe displays for everything, as if making a big film is not stress, but still something new and cool. Last, but not least, Crowe is often insightful and informative. Crowe is all these things again here, if maybe it isn't his most involving discussion of one of his films (See "Say Anything" or "Almost Famous"). The director is quite funny and informative, discussing both the story and technical production issues. There's also some funny moments with the relaxed atmosphere of the commentary, as Crowe's kids run in at one point and start adding their own discussion for a little while. Wilson provides occasional comments, but often provides a pleasant, light background guitar score to Crowe's comments. Even star Tom Cruise provides comments via phone at one point later in the movie.
Prelude to a Dream: This is a wonderfully done montage of clips from the production and pre-production of the picture, accompanied by Crowe's informative and interesting voice-over, discussing his thoughts upon trying to remake the picture and the film in general. This 6-minute introduction is certainly enjoyable.
Unreleased Teaser Trailer: I'm not sure why this trailer remained unreleased; while it doesn't tell the audience much of anything about the story, it uses scenes from the movie very well and grabs the interest. The International Trailer is included as well, but remarkably didn't interest me as much as the teaser trailer, which was more surreal, told less and had a better rhythm.
Photo Galleries: Eight photo galleries are included, complete with an audio introduction from long-time Crowe friend and "Vanilla Sky"'s still photographer Neal Preston.
Hitting It Hard: This documentary about the "Vanilla Sky" press tour has been prepared by Crowe's Vinyl Films. Also, it's not something that should be watched for those who occasionally take a peak at the supplements before they see the film. Like something out of the "America's Sweethearts" outtakes, we see Cruise, Crowe, Cruz and other memebers of the "Vanilla Sky" team going across the globe to promote the film as they're met by mobs of fans and legions of reporters. Yes, there's an element watching the screaming mobs of "yes, we know everyone loves the celebs", but the documentary also provides an interesting perspective for the audience, as the viewer is looking outward at the sort of controlled chaos that accompanies pop culture, whether in the US or anywhere around the world.
Gag Reel: A 5 1/2 minute gag reel is included, but it is a hidden easter egg. (Sort of a hint: it's picture-perfect).
Also: An interview with Paul McCartney and a music video for "Africa Shox" by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa.
Final Thoughts: While I didn't love "Vanilla Sky", I thought there was a lot to like about it. It's the kind of film where, love it or hate it, it'll likely spark discussion in-between viewers. As for the DVD, those who have not seen it should try the film out as a rental first, while those who enjoyed the film in theaters should seek a purchase. Paramount still continues to show improvements in their DVD releases and "Vanilla Sky" is another very nice effort, combining a fine presentation of the film with great supplements.