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Paramount Studios presents
Vanilla Sky (2001)

"I like your life."
- David Aames (Tom Cruise)

Review By: Brian Calhoun  
Published: May 19, 2002

Stars: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Other Stars: Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor
Director: Cameron Crowe

MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and strong language
Run Time: 02h:15m:53s
Release Date: May 21, 2002
UPC: 097363393641
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+A- B+

DVD Review

Quite a departure from the feel-good fare expected from writer/director Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky represents a much darker side of his talents. Does this mean that it's a bad film? Absolutely not. It marks an exciting new direction for the profound filmmaker, one that has me greatly anticipating his next effort. Crowe's vision is closely based on the original Spanish film by Alejandro Amenábar, titled Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) and many believe that the original is better on all accounts. While this may be so (I have not seen Amenábar's film), I am here to review Vanilla Sky, which I found altogether intriguing.

Vanilla Sky examines the life of David Aames (Tom Cruise), who seems to live a perfect life. He has charming good looks, substantial wealth, and steady sexual companionship but—is he truly happy? A fateful incident is the setup for the answer to this question. After David's vanity and self-esteem are compromised, the film spirals into a journey through his subconscious fears of alienation and a longing for true love, which eventually leads to a startling discovery.

I wish I could disclose more, but Vanilla Sky is one of those films that must be experienced with as little forehand knowledge as possible. I knew virtually nothing about the film prior, and viewing it with this mindset kept me consistently fascinated by what was occurring on screen, despite not understanding its meaning. When the startling revelations unfurled before my eyes at the end of the film, it hit me like a ton of bricks. As the end credits began to roll, I wanted to immediately watch the film a second time and enjoy what I had just seen in an enlightened state. This is the type of experience I long for from all films.

Though Vanilla Sky is a brain-burning attack on the senses, there is still an admirable focus on the importance of its characters. Tom Cruise, in particular, does a terrific job of playing the cocky yet bewildered David Aames. Throughout much of the film, Cruise has to rely on emoting without the use of an actor's most valuable physical feature; a difficult task that Cruise tackles commendably. Penélope Cruz plays Sofia (revising her role in Abre Los Ojos) with an inherent sweetness, while Cameron Diaz plays the obsessive Julie Gianni with venomous flair. I was also impressed with the performances from Jason Lee, Kurt Russell, and Noah Taylor, all of whom convey a mysterious presence.

There is much to digest within Vanilla Sky; the non-linear structure works in a way that keeps the film exciting, albeit puzzling. The filmmakers have honorably succeeded in the daunting task of creating a jumbled chain of events that not only confuse but captivate the viewer, and seem quite rational the second time around. I now have a heightened appreciation for the art of editing.

I was thrilled to experience a film that had been created by someone who understands the importance of music. In the past, Cameron Crowe has proved he does implicitly, and Vanilla Sky is no exception. The melancholy tones of Radiohead creep through at the appropriate moments, conveying either an eerie chill or a quiet sense of redemption. Nancy Wilson has created one of her best film scores yet, specifically the downcast, recurring acoustic guitar theme, which sounds something akin to psychedelic folk music.

Most effective is the frenetic and ornate visual style. Not only has Crowe created stimulating landscapes, he has also exposed internal emotions on the visible plane. Particularly impressive is how he is able to visualize the way that the subconscious can dominate logical thought.

One could complain that tidying up all the loose ends is the film's greatest fault, leaving the audience no chance to formulate their own answers. Would the film honestly have been better had it been an unexplained montage of bizarre images? While that may be neat at a rock concert, a motion picture needs a stronger sense of purpose. Vanilla Sky gives that to us. Yes, it does tidy up at the end. Yes, the final revelation is a bit hokey, but without it, Vanilla Sky would have been an inextricable mess. Instead, the closure allows the film to take on an entirely different perspective upon a second viewing. All of the moments that once seemed like nonsense take the form of visual poetry. Repeat viewing had me amazed by how much detail is engrained in every scene. This is certainly not to say that a first viewing of the film is unpleasant. Whether watching it for the first, second, or tenth time, Vanilla Sky is a polarizing event. There is so much I want to discuss about the film, yet cannot in fear or ruining the experience. See Vanilla Sky. Open your eyes to its many messages, and most importantly, open your mind.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very good, yet far from perfect. The image displays quite a lot of grain, and at times appears fuzzy and overblown in the brighter scenes. The cinematography goes along with the usual aesthetic of Cameron Crowe's films, with a fiery warm visual flair that many may find bothersome. Compression artifacts and shimmering are occasionally noticeable within fine details, and while miniscule, they are quite irritating when evident. The strongest quality of the transfer is increased black level, which displays a thick and rich presence that practically engulfs the viewer. Unfortunately, uneven contrast plagues these dimly lit scenes, and shadow delineation suffers slightly. The picture is genuinely pleasing, but I suppose I was expecting a bit more from such a recent film.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a fully enveloping, multi-channel experience. The surround speakers are active when necessary, yet never overused to the point of sounding artificial. Split surrounds create a wide sense of separation and are particularly effective during the many dream-like sequences. The soundtrack is dominated by full and aggressive music, and is remarkable in its fidelity. Dialogue, on rare occasion, sounds harsh, yet it is typically natural and smooth. Low end is somewhat absent, but there are times where it kicks in with tremendous depth and clarity, such as the dance club sequence. The soundtrack is highly commendable in terms of fidelity, creativity, and subtlety; I can find no major flaws.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by writer/director Cameron Crowe, composer Nancy Wilson, and a conversation with Tom Cruise
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:25m:47s

Extra Extras:
  1. Music Video
  2. Photo Gallery
  3. Interview with Paul McCartney
Extras Review: At first glance, I was quite upset with the lack of special features for such a worthy film. While the two mundane featurettes and other insignificant extras confirmed my disappointment, they were counterbalanced with a fantastic audio commentary and a hilarious five-minute hidden "gag reel."

The feature-length commentary is the icing on the cake that makes this lackluster collection worthwhile. Cameron Crowe watches the film with his wife and film composer Nancy Wilson, and they seem to have a good time revisiting the film. Crowe dominates the track while Wilson interjects on rare occasion. Her presence is not unnecessary, however. She has brought along her acoustic guitar, and offers audio commentary background music over Crowe's endless wealth of information. Crowe covers everything about the film one could want to know without spelling it out. The most entertaining moment comes when Crowe calls Tom Cruise on the phone, and Cruise joins in on the commentary for a good fifteen minutes. It is all staged of course, but amusing nevertheless.

Prelude to a Dream is a short featurette narrated by Cameron Crowe. The images consist of behind-the-scenes footage and stills from the film, while Crowe speaks about his inspirations to undertake the project. Judging by its placement on the DVD menu and Crowe's comments, I get the impression that he wants the viewer to watch this before watching the movie, but I would not recommend it.

Hitting it Hard is the second featurette, documenting portions of the Vanilla Sky promotional tour. This ten-minute film follows Cameron Crowe, Tom Cruise, and Penélope Cruz as they travel the world to appear at the many premiere screenings. Even at its short running time, Hitting it Hard is an unexciting look into the hard work that still goes on after the finishing touches have been made on a motion picture. About the only moments I found interesting were those that reconfirmed my thoughts of just how frightening star-struck fanatics can be.

The interview with Paul McCartney is merely a 90-second excerpt from Entertainment Tonight where he briefly discusses his inspiration for writing the Oscar®-nominated title song. Why this inconsequential piece is included instead of the video for Vanilla Sky is a greater mystery than any contained within the film.

Next is a music video for Afrika Shox by Leftfield/Afrika Bambaataa. The psychedelic nature of this video makes a nice companion to the feature. Furthermore, clips from Vanilla Sky are creatively edited in a manner that coincides with the rhythms and lyrics of this strange song.

The trailer gallery contains two fantastic trailers complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. The unreleased teaser is a brief, mind-altering event, while the international trailer covers the core of the film without disclosing too much. Both are presented in nonanamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.

Rounding out the special features is a photo gallery, consisting of hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos shot by Neal Preston. Preston gives an audio introduction that tells of his inspirations for the shots as well as his intent to capture spontaneity within the production. The introduction is a good idea, but the audio simply plays over the still menu screen. It would be nice if his comments and thoughts corresponded with the photos that he is speaking about. Be sure to look for the "gag reel" easter egg while in this section.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Though it is not the joy-filled experience one might expect from a Cameron Crowe film such as Almost Famous or Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky is a stunning, passionate vision. I have not stopped thinking about it. This dense and thought-provoking film is a wonderful experience on DVD where the viewer can slowly and repeatedly work through its many intricacies.

Highly recommended.


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