That Tom Cruise. I tell gotta tell you, the guy is just box office gold. A movie studio could release a grainy home video of him clipping his toenails and the thing'd make $100 million easy. In 2001, Cruise teamed up a second time with his Jerry Maguire director Cameron Crowe for Vanilla Sky, a remake of director/writer Alejandro Amenábar's (The Others) thriller Abre Los Ojos (also know as "Open Your Eyes" in the states). Vanilla Sky is notable for A.) coming out around the time of Cruise and real-life wife Nicole Kidman's divorce and B.) being the film where Cruise met, romanced, and starred with his future new main squeeze Penélope Cruz (Captain Corelli's Mandolin). Putting aside the Enquirer gossip, Vanilla Sky did respectable business at the box office while simultaneously confusing movie patrons who didn't know what they were getting into (because let's face it, this flick was advertised as a romance, which couldn't be more wrong). Paramount paints your sky off white with their DVD release of Vanilla Sky.
Facts of the Case
David Aames (Cruise) is a young, good looking daddy's boy who has everything. After his father passed away, David inherited his publishing company, which makes money by the boatloads. It's run by David (who owns 51% of the company) and a board of old men whom David has affectingly titled "The Seven Dwarfs." David spends his days lazily floating through life snowboarding, having casual sex with a good "friend" Julie (Cameron Diaz, There's Something About Mary), and smiling a heck of a lot more than anyone living on planet earth. One night at a party thrown for him (surprise), he meets Sofia (Cruz), a batting-eyed Latino who catches David's fancy. David and Sofia spend much of the evening either exchanging clever asides or just staring at each other's prettiness (which in turn produces nausea from the audience). After a night of unbridled bonding with Sofia (sex not included), David runs into Julie and hops in the car with her. At first David thinks this is a booty call, but grows suspicious when Julie begins to lecture David on the consequences of sex with her ("When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not," she angrily huffs). Julie then proceeds to drive her car off of a bridge, instantly killing herself and thrusting David into a coma. When David awakens from his slumber (minor spoiler alert!), he finds that his face has been disfigured into a twisted mess of flesh (not to worry, as Tom Cruise is sexy even as Mangled Tom Cruise). Suddenly David's world is thrust upside down where things aren't what they seem, and everything may be a lie. And that's all I can really say for the sake of the movie's surprises…
"What was that all about?" were the exact words out of my mouth after watching Vanilla Sky. I got it, and yet I didn't get it. I was confused, baffled, and very unsatisfied. Cameron Crowe appears to be out of his element with a script that goes on for far too long and confuses far too often. I haven't seen Alejandro Amenábar's Abre Los Ojos, though after watching Vanilla Sky I'd like to think that movie is miles above this mediocre cinematic effort.
At first Vanilla Sky grabbed me; I thought to myself, "Self, this could be interesting…I don't know where it's going, but I'm intrigued." This statement came crashing down less than a half-hour into the plot when I found myself attempting to stimulate my brain by poking knitting needles up my nose. If I could somehow make myself smarter, I surmised, maybe I'll understand what the hell is going on. No such luck. Vanilla Sky is a jumbled mess that never adds up to the sum of its parts. Certainly, Cameron Crowe (the guy behind classics like Say Anything and Almost Famous) shows that he has a working knowledge of directing; in the opening sequence, a pan over New York City is practically breathtaking. Following this is an amazing sequence where Cruise's character wanders around a completely desolate Times Square. Enjoy these shots: they end up being the highpoints of the film. The simple fact is that Crowe appears to be directing a film that isn't in his ballpark. His specialty is often mushy yet sharp-edged tales of love and youth, and with Vanilla Sky, I had the feeling that Crowe was trying to branch out and attempt something new. While I commend his efforts and artistic diversity, you can't steer around the fact that Vanilla Sky is a hard film to swallow. I'm sure that the base audience (Tom Cruise fans) had no idea that they'd end up watching their handsome leading man behind a mask of deformity for more than 2/3 of the film. In fact, this film's ad campaign touted Vanilla Sky as a completely different movie. Sometimes this can be a good thing (David Fincher's exciting The Game ended up being something uniquely different than what I anticipated); in the case of Vanilla Sky, it's wasn't. Some problems bubble from the fact that Crowe's distinct style is clashing with the material. I felt there were far too many moments where the action or drama was underscored by a particular rock/pop song that was inappropriate in lieu the material. We get it Cameron, you worked as a rock critic and you like really, really like rock music. This doesn't mean that you have underscore every emotional moment with a song by Peter Gabriel.
Tom Cruise, flashing his pearly whites as if they were his own personal boob job, gives off a better-than-average performance as David Aames. I've never been an enormously huge Cruise fan, especially after the two disparaging Mission: Impossible films. In Vanilla Sky, Cruise does a decent job even while buried under what appears to be pounds of latex and paint. The main flaw in Cruise's character is that he doesn't have many endearing qualities, in turn producing indifference from the audience. David is spoiled, lazy, and far too charming for his own good (vastly attractive people exchanging witty banter just makes us plain folks feel inadequate). Fans may also find themselves a bit peeved when they discover that Cruise also tends to wear a mask for much of the film, a prop that appears to have been stolen from George Romero's straight-to-video horror tale Bruiser.
Penelope Cruz, however, is a whole other story. I haven't the foggiest idea how this women ever made it as a major acting talent. I don't find her to be the least bit charismatic. Lava lamps tend to be more personable. She recites all her dialogue as if she's asking a question. Interestingly, Cruz plays the same character in Vanilla Sky as she did in Abre Los Ojos. The supporting cast, made up of the nutty Cameron Diaz as David's psycho bump-'n'-grind friend with benefits and the always entertaining Jason Lee (Dogma, Mallrats) as David's best friend, all weather the storm without much damage. My favorite character in the film was David's mental health "buddy" played by Kurt Russell (Escape From LA, Breakdown). Always an entertaining actor, Russell adds some much needed levity into the picture with the few scenes he shares with Cruise.
And let's talk about that ending! Actually, let's not talk about it, as it will spoil the obligatory "twist," which was started by such thrillers as The Sixth Sense and The Others and is now a permanent staple of almost every thriller/horror film released. While I won't be the unholy S.O.B. that leaks the ending, I will say that it's a bit of a letdown and something of a cheat. I also thought…but ah, that would be spoiling the surprise. Better for you to just find out than to send me hate mail for ruining the experience.
I'm not going to say that I'm unhappy that I saw Vanilla Sky; when it hit the theaters a few months back I was mildly curious as to what all the commotion was all about. Alas, the end product doesn't surpass the hype. Crowe needs to stick with movies that need rock songs in them, and Cruise needs to make sure his face doesn't look like it was hit with a frying pan if he still wants the girls to swoon over him. Not that he'd have much of a problem either way…
Vanilla Sky is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Not surprisingly, Paramount's work on this disc is excellent considering it's a brand spanking new film. With sharp colors and very evenly saturated black levels, Vanilla Sky rises to the challenge and comes close to being a reference quality transfer. Kudos to Paramount for a very crisp and clean looking picture!
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround in English and French. The 5.1 soundtrack is very thoroughly enjoyable, with plentiful surround in both the front and rear speakers. There are many moments of directional use in this film, and the soundtrack, filled with rock and pop artists, often surrounds the viewer from all sides. No distortion or hiss of any kind is heard during any part of the film. Much like the video presentation, this audio mix is a very well done effort by Paramount. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Paramount has thrown together a few extra features for fans to peruse through, though while the back cover specs look impressive, the fact is that most of these features are just a good deal of fluff. Starting off the disc is a commentary track by director Cameron Crowe, wife/composer Nancy Wilson (of "Heart" fame), with a conversation by Tom Cruise. Wilson provides some background music for the listener (uh…why? We're not sure), and Crowe seems to be exceptionally proud of his efforts as a director. At least Crowe is a chatty guy, often pointing out curious information on the production of certain scenes and how the casting choices came to be. About an hour into the film, Crowe calls up Cruise and he joins in on the proceedings for a good 10 minutes or so, though he adds little to one's knowledge of the film.
Two featurettes are included: "Hitting it Hard" and "Prelude to a Dream." "Prelude to a Dream" is a montage of behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Cameron Crowe in what appears to be a scripted discussion of the film's production history and themes. Crowe feels that Vanilla Sky is akin to The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover. On a much more personal level, I think Crowe is a certified nut. "Hitting it Hard" follows Crowe, Cruise, Cruz, and other cast members as they head overseas for an international premiere and press junket tour. This feature includes tons of screaming female fans with surprisingly horrid looking teeth. Spain, I've got two word for you: Colgate Plus. These two featurettes combined last around 16 minutes.
Finally, there is a fluffy interview segment from "Entertainment Tonight" with legendary singer/songwriter Paul McCartney of The Beatles fame (like I even need to say that) that lasts about all of one minute, a music video for "Afrika Shox" by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa, a few photo galleries with introductions by photographer Neil Preston, a theatrical trailer, and an unreleased teaser trailer for the film. Also included is an Easter egg of bloopers and outtakes located under a hidden mask insignia on the photo gallery menu screen.
Cameron Crowe really needs to stick with movies about youthful angst and rock songs. Or, if he does feel the need to expand his horizons, he shouldn't attempt to bite off more than he can chew. Vanilla Sky is a far too complicated, confusing film to be worth a viewer's two hours. Cruise aficionados will want to catch it; otherwise, my suggestion is to steer clear unless you want a headache. On the other hand, Paramount's work on this disc is certainly above passing, so pass the aspirin!
Vanilla Sky is guilty of being a movie that makes my brain hurt. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Cameron Crowe and Composer Nancy Wilson, Featuring a Conversation with Tom Cruise
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