This week, first-time presenter Katelynn decided to start things off with a movie she had only first seen within the week!  The film, as you probably know if you clicked on this link, is Vanilla SkyCameron Crowe‘s 2001 remake of Alejandro Amenábar‘s 1997 “Abre Los Ojos“.  Interestingly (at least to me) Vanilla Sky features Penélope Cruz reprising her role in Abre Los Ojos, but this time in a different language.  While it’s not uncommon to see a well-regarded foreign language film get remade in English in relatively short order, I can’t off the top of my head think of any instances where the same actor/actress gets the same role in both versions.  If anybody can think of any, I’d love to get a heads up in the comments, whether it’s something obscure or something obvious that I’m totally missing.

But…on to Vanilla Sky.

Another of the “punch my mom in the face” actors

I understand why Katelynn wanted to see Vanilla Sky again having just seen it – it’s a bit of a “puzzle film” as it were, and once you know the solution you can immediately think back to scenes that are going to make more sense the second time around, and the temptation to see just how the film fits together with that hindsight is pretty high.

I haven’t done that, so this review will rely on what I can piece back together from a single-shot viewing.

Tom Cruise plays the has-it-all playboy David Aames, the wayward heir (and, following his parents’ untimely death, 51% and controlling owner) of a major New York publishing firm.  Aames is devastatingly handsome, richer than Crœsus, and he’s dating Julia who not only looks just like Cameron Diaz but also is totally into the whole casual relationship commitment-phobe thing.  About the only trouble he’s got is that the Board of Directors, who control the other 49% of the company, think he’s a putz of a businessman and may be trying to push him out.

Well, there’s that, and there’s the fact that the film suddenly starts jumping timelines to a version of Aames who is imprisoned, wearing a creepy featureless mask, and insisting to a psychiatrist that not only did he not commit a murder, there wasn’t any murder at all.  That’s actually a pretty big negative.

saAWEG

It appears that the whole trouble starts when a close friend of his brings a woman (Sofia, played by Penélope Cruz) to a party as a date and Sofia and Aames start to hit it off.  Aames bails on his party and spends a somewhat shocking platonic night at Sofia’s before being accosted outside her apartment the next morning by the jealous and suddenly psychotic commitment-phile Julia.  Aames unadvisedly gets into her car to attempt to calm her down, which leads to her attempting a murder-suicide by driving them off of a bridge.  Julia dies.

Yep, STILL “punch my mom in the face”-worthy

Aames ends up in a three-week coma and comes out of it with a horribly disfigured face and mangled right arm.  Despite it all, he finally gets up the courage to call on Sofia once more (after her having been rebuffed from seeing him during his initial recuperation) and they arrange to go clubbing.  The budding romance between them might still be on, it seems.

Wait, is this now Eyes Wide Shut?

But, in the meantime, for some cockamamie reason, Aames’ doctors want him to wear a prosthetic mask, which is supposed to…geez, I don’t know, it didn’t make a lot of sense.  And while it is supposed to mimic his real face and even to move along with his facial movements in reality it’s just a bland, motionless, completely freaky mask that ends up putting everybody off – everybody being Sofia and that buddy from the party who she asked to come along as a third wheel because, well, she really wanted Aames to throw his self-confidence out the window.  And he does!  He gets completely sloppy drunk, he says some things he probably will come to regret as they’re all walking home from the club, and both the buddy and Sofia bail out, leaving Aames to pass out in the street outside Sofia’s place.

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Things, of course, are destined to get better before they get worse.  Sofia finds him in the morning, greeting him with the exoneration to “open your eyes”, she takes him back in, they fall in love all over again, he gets his face surgically repaired, and things seem to be getting back to rich-playboy-with-supermodel-girlfriend territory when things start going all wrong.

There’s pretty much NOTHING about Mary

You see, Julia shows up – you know, the dead girl? – claiming to be Sofia, and everybody around Aames seems to agree with this proposition.  Aames goes crazier and crazier, finally falling into a bunch of trouble when in his mania he beats up Sofia/Julia pretty badly.  Sofia switches back to the Penélope Cruz version just long enough for Aames to hop in the sack with her, and then switches back, causing him to smother her with a pillow, which of course leads to his imprisonment in a psych ward and imminent murder trial.

A round trip journey in your head

Then suddenly, however, comes the solution to the puzzle.  A recurring commercial he has seen for a cryogenic company triggers him to gain a flicker of understanding of the flashbacks and jumpcuts littering his dreams and he goes to the headquarters where in the midst of a cryo sales pitch he realizes that he is in fact cryogenically frozen and has elected the “lucid dream” package.  A nice tech support fellow informs him that following the night where he passed out on the street he signed up for freezing and then pilled himself – the “open your eyes” moment was in fact the start of the lucid dream.  But something has gone wrong, turning his dream into a nightmare.  As this point they’ve got a handle on the whole thing, and he can either go back to his nice happy place with Sofia, or he can wake up (now some 150 years into the future where his face CAN be reconstructed) by jumping off the top of a really tall building, a challenge he set for himself seeing as he’s acrophobic.  He jumps, he doesn’t splat, and the film ends with Aames being woken in a surgical facility to the tune of “open your eyes”.

Vanilla Sky has some neat touches, but it left me cold in a lot of ways.  I think one important way that Crowe blew it was to reject the title of the original foreign-language film – “Open Your Eyes”.  Vanilla Sky as a title is explained but really has no tangible connection to the story.  The movie could have been called “Haystacks” or “A Doorway That I Run To In The Night* ” or “Golly, Thanks For The Great Tip On My Paper Route This Christmas” as long as some throwaway explanation was given and it really wouldn’t have had any impact, for better or worse, on the film.  Yet, “Open your eyes” is a crucial line of the film, delivered as the opening line of the film, the opening line of Aames’ lucid dream, and the opening line of Aames’ new life in the future.  It’s a clue to everything that’s going on, but  by rejecting it as the obvious title, Crowe leaves anyone who didn’t know the original film in the dark about the line until  it’s explained.  In fact, when I heard it as the opener I thought, “Oh, what a nice callback to the original film.”  I suppose I subconsciously rejected the idea that it could be a meaningful line simply because the film had passed on it for a title.  If it was important, I must have imagined, the film title would have been retained.

There are several other details that seem to get lost in the shuffle in much the same way.  The film ends in a challenge to Aames in his lucid dream to face his acrophobia.  OK, fine, but let’s not pretend that his fear of heights was mentioned exactly once, the same number of times that he was shown (or so I seem to recall) hang-gliding and parachuting as ways to act out his playboy life before inheriting his family’s company.  There’s no depth to it, it’s just a detail thrown in for sake of a detail.  Add to that his right arm injury, which is mentioned and then seemingly forgotten.  The idea that the Board of Directors didn’t like him?  Played up a bit in some paranoia, but ultimately any meat that is there is happening during the lucid dream anyway.  And then, there’s his insistence to the psychiatrist that there was no murder.  I mean, that sounds like a juicy storyline coming as it does early in the film and we are led to believe that we’re going to get some sort of explanation that will lead us to understand why the authorities think he has killed somebody when there’s nobody dead at all.  Nope.  That just gets thrown away too.

I’m not done!  Ultimately, it’s a puzzle film, but there seems to be little way at all to actually solve the puzzle as a viewer.  Obviously we get multiple references to the “Life Extension” company, and it’s brought up enough times to figure that it has to be involved, but the lucid dream aspect (and that’s the whole point of the film) doesn’t get introduced until the last five minutes of the movie when the lucidly-dreaming Aames actually goes to check out the cryogenic corp.  The premise of the film is in fact so obscure that our dream-interloping tech support guy has to actually narrate it in excruciating detail to Aames so that the audience can understand.  It’s similar to the cliché old villain-sums-up-his-plan motif, but like five times longer.  Look.  If you have to give me an appendix so I can understand the film, maybe you didn’t really do so great a job of just writing the stinking film.

And of course the final straw in the coffin for me is that fact that only three years later a film with a similar premise – the whole corporation messing with someone’s brain at their own request and then things go wrong – was done again, but this time in what I consider to be a much better film, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.  For Vanilla Sky, the point of the film is to solve the puzzle (and the clues given really seem to be insufficient).  In Eternal Sunshine, the solution to the puzzle is revealed quite early on and the point of the film is how Carrey’s character deals with it when he realizes what is happening and furthermore that he can’t stop it.  It puts a humanity into Carrey’s journey that just isn’t possible in Vanilla Sky because Aames just doesn’t know what he’s dealing with until the very end, and neither did we.  That worked in The Sixth Sense, but never again in M. Night Shyamalan’s career, and not here, either.

*One complaint I don’t have about the film is the soundtrack, which is at worst about a half-step short of epic.  Somehow, Silent Lucidity didn’t make the cut, but then again, that might be pretty much a giveaway.

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