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Open Your Eyes (1997)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Vanilla Sky (2002)
Director: Cameron Crowe
reviews by Gary Couzens
In Open Your Eyes (aka: Abre los ojos), we're in Madrid. César (Eduardo Noriega) is very handsome and knows it rather too well. He's the sort of man whose looks have given him an easier path through life. Friends, such as the ever-loyal Pelayo (Fele Martinez), make endless allowances for him, and he doesn't find it hard to pick up women. While he's having an affair with Nuria (Najwa Nimri), he meets the beautiful Sofia (Penélope Cruz). Nuria becomes jealous and confronts him, crashing a car with both of them in it. Nuria is killed, but César survives, badly disfigured. He attempts to rebuild his life, but soon begins to see Nuria (or her ghost?) wherever he turns. Is he going mad?
The less you know about Open Your Eyes the better, as it relies heavily on surprise. The film is told in a series of flashbacks from César�s sessions with a psychiatrist (Chete Lera). For most of the second half of the film, we don't know whether what César sees is reality or hallucination. A final twist, which naturally I won't give away, turns the film into science fiction.
The first thing you notice about Open Your Eyes is the confidence it displays, especially considering it's a second feature from a director still in his twenties. (Amenábar's first film was Tesis.) It may be little more than an elaborate box of tricks, but it's a very stylish box of tricks without a doubt. Amenábar's visual language is very American rather than European, with short-held shots and cutting telling the story. The only real difference between this and a Hollywood film (budget level apart, though it certainly doesn't look impoverished) is the nationality of the cast and the fact that the dialogue is in Spanish. It's easy to see how well Amenábar could adapt to the US studio system.
Tom Cruise saw Open Your Eyes and did two things. First of all, he hired the director to make the English-language ghost story The Others, starring his then wife Nicole Kidman. Secondly, he bought the remake rights to Open Your Eyes. The remake would be written and directed by Cameron Crowe (who had previously worked with Cruise to great effect on Jerry Maguire) and would star Cruise and his current partner Penélope Cruz, who would reprise her role from the original.
Crowe, a rock fan to the last, refers to Vanilla Sky as a "cover version" of Open Your Eyes. Evidently recognizing that the film's structure is the film, and too much tinkering might cause the whole edifice to collapse, his script is very close to the original, with the major changes being the setting and character names. We're now in New York. Cruise plays David Aames, a publishing tycoon. Cruz's character is still called Sofia. Best friend Pelayo is now Brian, and is played by Jason Lee. The vengeful Nuria becomes Julie (Cameron Diaz).
Comparing the two, you have to give the nod to Open Your Eyes, and not just because it was first. It shows a very talented filmmaker showing off a few moves, and there's something very winning about such exuberance. On the evidence of this and The Others, I'll certainly be looking out for what he does in the future.
Vanilla Sky is the sort of film A-list stars and directors should do more often: a film that does take a few risks and doesn't follow tried and tested, market-researched-to- the-hilt paths. If it doesn't really come off � and it doesn't � then Cruise and Crowe at least deserve some credit for trying. You can see why the role of David appealed to Cruise: a chance to show off some acting moves for start. (Cynical voice at the back: 'Oscar bait'.) Eduardo Noriega even has a passing resemblance to Cruise. However, Cruise doesn't seem completely comfortable, and is out-acted by other cast members. I've always found Cruz to be a bland actress, and she remains one here. However, the supporting cast � with one vital exception � is much stronger. Jason Lee does what he can with the thankless, rather underwritten (in both versions) best-friend role, whose behaviour is only really explicable as a crush. Kurt Russell is solid as the psychiatrist, McCabe. The weak link is Diaz, especially when you compare her to Najwa Nimri in the equivalent role in Open Your Eyes. Nimri (one of the leads in Julio Medem's stunning Lovers Of The Arctic Circle) is both seductive and frightening (and that red dress is memorable too): Diaz simply can't compete, and lines like "I've swallowed your come" won't do to suggest derangement. Casting is a Crowe trademark and Vanilla Sky has, in small but effective roles, such distinctive actors as Timothy Spall, Tilda Swinton, Alicia Witt and Noah Taylor. Look out for Steven Spielberg's cameo in a party scene.
As for Crowe, his films up to now have been largely or entirely in the romantic comedy genre. You can sense he's most at home in the first three quarters of an hour, which is closest to that genre. Another plus is his use of music: looking at the soundtrack listing it's clear he has an impeccable pair of ears. If anything the music fanboy side of Crowe (Almost Famous was a fictionalised account of his teenage years as a Rolling Stone journalist) is taken too far in Vanilla Sky. David's music fandom � as if Crowe is attempting to show that David has a soul beneath the surface flash � seems imposed on the character rather than growing from it. Vanilla Sky certainly looks good, due to John Toll's cinematography. It's certainly a little too long � notice the extra quarter-hour gained in crossing the Atlantic? But if it's a failure, it's certainly an ambitious and interesting one.
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