In an attempt to foster a true spirit of international amity (Lord Reith would surely approve), I'm proud to present our first 24LAS with simultaneous translation into Spanish. Well, not quite, obviously, but it sounds good and is sort of appropriate as this week the films under my beady bloodshot gaze are Cameron Crowe's new Vanilla Sky and the film it's based on, Alejandro Amenabar's 1997 Abre Los Ojos (which, in a vain attempt not to sound pretentious, I shall hereafter refer to as Open Your Eyes).
Unsurprisingly, both films tell the same story: that of a young, wealthy and handsome playboy who's led a feckless, hedonistic life prior to the start of the movie. All this changes when he meets the gamine Sofia (Penelope Cruz in both versions), a beautiful young mime artist/dancer (depending on whether she's subtitled or not). Our hero feels the twingings of true love for the first time - but one of his former casual conquests goes all Fatal Attraction on him and commits suicide by crashing her car with him inside it. He awakes from a coma to find his face destroyed. And, as this is all related in flashback by our hero to the prison psychologist who's trying to determine whether or not he's fit to stand trial for murder, it's clear his troubles are only just beginning...
One thing I really like about European cinema is the way it isn't restricted by genre conventions, often blending elements of several different types of fim with a deftness that often eludes the more commercially-minded American studios. And Open Your Eyes is a shining example of this - it starts like a bittersweet romance, turns into a drama, then a thriller, then a psychological horror film... before ultimately revealing itself to be something else entirely. This is a really solidly made, keenly focussed, hugely inventive piece of filmmaking. Amenabar's direction is superb - which should come as no surprise to anyone who saw last year's The Others - and there are sterling performances from Cruz, Eduardo Noriega as the hero, and Chete Lera as the psychologist.
Hollywood has a tradition of jealously eyeing this kind of quality foreign-language picture and then doing a remake of it - with results that are often almost unrecognisable (True Lies) or nearly unwatchable (Point of No Return) - there's another one along soon, Just Visiting. Caution would therefore seem advisable regarding Vanilla Sky.
Well, let joy be unconfined, because in many ways Vanilla Sky is every bit as good as the film it's based on. As a major studio production it has a sheen and polish that helps the cinematography no end, and an eclectic supporting cast (Timothy Spall, Kurt Russell, Tilda Swinton and Jason Lee) gives the film's thesping real strength-in-depth. Up front, however, it's pure Cameron-Cruise, as Camerons Crowe and Diaz direct and play the stalker respectively, and Tom and Penelope Cruise/Cruz play the leads.
Crowe gets a credit as screenwriter for Vanilla Sky which seems, at best, a bit impertinent as most of his time seems to have been spent copying down the subtitles of Open Your Eyes. It's frequently scene-for-scene, even word-for-word identical, although there are a few subtle changes - Cruise's work gets more attention, Spall's character is wholly new, and the ending is slightly different. But his electrifying direction excuses this hubris: it's a bravura job, grandstanding and flamboyant, every bit as effective as Amenabar's more minimalist approach. This extends to the soundtrack, one of the most memorable of recent years1 - after seeing Vanilla Sky you'll never listen to The Beach Boy's 'Good Vibrations' in the same way again.
But is it better than the original? Well... not quite. And this is largely down to Tom Cruise. Not that he gives a particularly bad performance, far from it, but... I think Cruise is a major actor whom we've yet to see the best of, but he still seems to carry with him an aura of palpable self-satisfaction, almost to the point of delighted narcissism. When a film engages with this quality, either by working with or playing against it, Cruise can give a terrific performance (just see his Oscar-nominated turn in Magnolia). But this doesn't happen in Vanilla Sky, and as a result his got-it-all playboy comes across as rather smug and dislikable. Even after his accident he still seems a bit spoiled and petulant (and, possibly to stop the audience from shouting 'Oh grow up and be grateful!' at the screen, he also suffers from a smashed arm and incapacitating migraines - both of which are new to this version). This isn't anywhere near enough to spoil the film, but it's still a bit of a problem.
It doesn't help that his love interest is Penelope Cruz. She's definitely speaking Spanish in Open Your Eyes, but while I'm fairly sure she's speaking English in Vanilla Sky I'm by no means certain. There are definite shades of 'Scorchio!' to her delivery at times. The romance takes up more screen time in Vanilla Sky (the films are notably different in their pacing) and unfortunately it occurs between a man I frequently wanted to smack and a woman who spoke English like she was attacking the language with a hatchet. But on the other hand this is largely based on my personal reaction to Tom Cruise's screen persona, and you may disagree entirely.
I enjoyed Vanilla Sky hugely despite all the above. The best thing about it was... well, regular readers will know that there's a certain type of film the passing of which I've frequently lamented, and any signs of a revival in its fortunes can bring me to happy idiot jigs. And, yes, Vanilla Sky is such a film. However, the producers have - probably quite wisely - not mentioned this at all in the film's advertising (it would take a lot of the bite out of the ending, for one thing), and it would be discourteous of me to spoil the film for you. So let's just say that movies like Vanilla Sky are always welcome, even if they're remakes of foreign films that are charmingly coy about their true nature. Recommended - the first great film of 2002.