Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Abre Los Ojos vs. Vanilla Sky

I first saw "High Fidelity" and "Vanilla Sky" around the same time and each a few years out from initial release, and my initial response to both was unfavorable. I readily admit I was unfairly prejudiced against "Fidelity," because I'd gone in expecting "Grosse Pointe Blank 2: Greatest Hits" and got a 30-something dramedy. The film stewed in the back of my brain for a week or two, but it wasn't until a friend pointed out how much I had in common with lead character Rob Gordon that I decided I didn't give the film a fair shake. My second viewing was revelatory, and it's now a much loved DCD in the collection (the deleted scenes are outstanding.) "Vanilla Sky," on the other hand, took me years to reevaluate. It seemed to me Crowe had overreached, attempting to apply his rose-tinted worldview to a jarring, unpleasant narrative so removed from his own sensibilities as to create cognitive dissonance throughout the picture. I still think of the movie as an ambitious failure, but aspects of the work softened my heart over time (not the least of which the Jerry Maguire team chemistry and Penelope Cruz's lovely warmth.) I also love comparing films, especially remakes, and had always regretted not picking up the original Abre Los Ojos for $10 at Best Buy, especially when I recalled the unusually buxom Ms. Cruz on the box cover. Infrequent discussions with a co-worker for whom "Sky" was a favorite movie and a proposed DVD trade with a friend who hated the film but never delivered kept it in mind for years before I finally plunked down $5.50 for the thing this year. I really enjoyed the reacquaintence, and the wonder of Netflix put "Ojos" in my hands shortly thereafter. I do so love comparing movies...

Amenábar: You hear a disembodied Spanish voice repeat "abre los ojos" over a black screen. Switch to a Point Of View shot of an arm shutting off the pre-recorded verbal alarm clock. Return to black. A young man wakes in his bed. He checks his face in the mirror, showers, mirror again, dresses. He climbs down the stairs of his impressive two story home, then exits his garage in a vintage VW Bug. As he drives, he begins to notice a complete absence of other people in a major city at 10:00 a.m. Concerned, he stops his car in the road, steps out of his vehicle, and begins looking around. The camera pans up above high above the street, as the man's tiny figure jogs down the lifeless lane, an ominous score swelling to silence and a black screen. You hear a disembodied Spanish voice repeat "abre los ojos." Switch to a POV shot of an arm shutting off the pre-recorded verbal alarm clock. A young man lies in his bed, as the disembodied voice of an older fellow asks "Why tell me that dream?". The voices of older and younger man argue with each other, as we watch the young man of nearly 25 with common interests repeat the events of the related dream. That is, up to exiting the bathroom, when it is revealed a woman is lying his his bed. He coldly chastizes her for leaving the annoying spoken word alarm, then climbs into his car, this time driving through a living city (Madrid?) Amongst the city, in an understated bit of foreshadowing, is a mime. Generic score plays over title and credits.

Crowe: A series of metropolitan arial shots seperated by black screens. The camera finally settles on a mini-mansion, and you hear a Spanish voice say "abre los ojos." The voice then begins repeating "open your eyes" as Radiohead's "Everything In It's Place" is cued. Pan through Tom Cruise's apartment to him sleeping in his bed. He shuts off the cd/alarm, which kills the voice but not the tune. Cruise shuts off his flatscreen television, which then receeds into the floor. He checks himself in the mirror, unrooting a single, disconcerting white hair from his head with tweezers. Dresses, leaves opulent mansion, exits garage in vintage jaguar. Music receeds, as Cruise begins to notice a complete absence of other people in all of New York at 9:05 a.m. on a weekday. Stops in the middle of Times Square, steps out of his car, and begins running down the street in a frantic search for a single living thing as Mint Royale's "From Rusholme With Love" jarringly plays. Quick cuts to the panicked Cruise and various automated signs and lights highten the tension. Unerving audio effects come in as the cuts become more irratic, ending with Cruise arms spread wide as he turns in circles, screaming. Suddenly, cruise awakens in a similar pose, crying in shock, but still in bed. His alarm clock sounds, this time with the voice of Camron Diaz. Cruise repeats his previous routine, this time with Kurt Russell's voice trying to psychoanalyze the dream. "Loneliness?" Cruise, as David, discusses how he was turning 33 and still an irresponsible magazine tycoon who believed he would live forever. David firmly chastizes the woman in his bed, Diaz, about her message. The two begin to banter about their hearty fuck session the night before, then Diaz, as Juliana, answers her cell and engages in a bit of girltalk regarding her afterglow. The banter continues, with Juliana showing her need for affirmation and David clearly keeping things light and uncommitted before heading to his car. No title or credits.

Victor: Crowe takes an early lead over his source material by force of scale alone. An emptied Times Square is more impactful that virtually any other location on Earth, and the production already reeks of money. Crowe's editing is much more dynamic, the source music is highly effective, and characters have already been established where Amenábar is still working with cyphers.

Amenábar: César's VW rolls in front of his friend Pelayo's house, whom he picks up for a game of racketball. Pelayo is the whiney bitch submissive male of the two, as he complains about his own average looks and César's fortune and womanizing. It is established that César has slept with the woman in his bed, Nuria, a record two times. Cut to the future, where César is in meeting room in a prison/asylum, his face covered in a fleshy mask. His psychiatrist is trying to determine César's fitness to stand trial for murder. We learn César's dead parents left him a restaurant franchise, a tidy fortune, and that he has three other cars way better than his "shitty" VW. Also he's an atheist, and an asshole in general, with few redeeming qualities. The doctor is fatherly, despite working with a aggressive dick. Cut back to the past, where César hosts a birthday gathering in what now looks like a mid-sized apartment. His rather unappealing friend Pelayo brings a date astronomically out of his league, a 22-year-old Penélope Cruz as Sofia. She easily outshines everyone in the room, including the immediately smitten César, without actually showing much charisma. César is confronted by Nuria in his bedroom, where the tension is thick as he rejects her advances and asks her to leave. There is no ambiguity here. César uses Nuria as an excuse to get Sofia alone to talk. A drunken Pelayo finds the two, and takes exception to his friend's betrayal, but leaves without incident. César and Sofia abandon his home for her apartment, where we learn she is an actress and a mime. To show his softer side, César has Sofia draw an amateurish doodle of him, while he does a lovely and fully realized pencil rendition of her. The two continue to bond until morning, when César leaves after enjoying only a single kiss.
Crowe: David picks up his buddy Brian (Jason Lee) for racketball, and he's a real sport about unspooling a heap of clunky exposition regarding David's backstory (mogul father dies, leaves him Maxim magazine and publishing empire, but he must contend with an evil board of directors.) Brian is also a whiney bitch, but more entertaingly so. We learn Julie Giani is David's regular fuck buddy, and nothing more, cheapening Brian's dream girl. The pair almost get in a car wreck, then hit the gym off-screen. David reports to work after 11 a.m. You're given reasons to hate David, or at least envy him wildly, despite his overwhelming charm. Cut to the future, where David is in meeting room in a prison/asylum, his face covered in a fleshy mask. Is psychiatrist, Russell's Dr. Curtis McCabe, is trying to determine David's fitness to stand trial for murder. A quick montage of images establishes David's father as New York's preeminent publisher, socialite, and adventurer, before his passing ten years prior. David reveals he's afraid of heights and taking his current situation poorly, while Dr. McCabe is only interested so far as he's doing his job. Cut back to the past, where David hosts his birthday celebration in his gigantic, lavishly decorated mini-mansion. Brian arrives with a 26-year-old Penélope Cruz as Sofia, emmersed in a comically oversized hooded jacket. She easily outshines everyone in a room full of gorgeous but plastic women with her grounded presence and shining charisma. David takes to her immediately for her guillessness, exotic accent, and stunning smile. This is to the obvious chagrin of Brian, but Sofia clearly returns David's interest, while also showing appropriate disdain for his materialism and immaturity. David is also confronted by nearly nude fuck buddy Juliana, who gets her passive-aggression on about not being invited while still offering her body as present to the disinterested and increasingly concerned David. Knowing something about passive-aggression himself, David continues to toy with Julie, while also flirting with Sofia to both gain ground and hopefully lose his newfound stalker. The pair are eventually busted by Brian, who whines some more but eventually gives his blessing as the couple run off to her apartment. David looks at pictures on Sofia's wall, including those showing her as a ballerina with a dance company. Sofia suggests they draw one another's flaws, wherein she produces a professional quality caricature, while his is a soulful sketch.The two continue to bond until morning, when David leaves after enjoying only a single kiss.
Victor: Crowe
This round, Amenábar gains points for understatement and clarity, as the turmoil Pelayo and Nuria are experiencing due to the selfish and careless César is crystaline. Crowe also loses points for his excessive and sugery musical choices, especially more Peter Gabriel after his famed and oft-imitated appropriation of the artist's work for "Say Anything." Crowe's dialogue feels overly scripted, and David's sudden turn toward depth comes off as very Jerry Maguire. However, the chemistry between Cruise and Cruz is undeniable, with the latter showing a vibrancy and wit that demolishes her original take on the role. Despite being in the prime of her hotness after "There's Something About Mary..." Diaz absolutely sells her thoroughly offputting obsession. In fact, the excellence of performances more than make up for Crowe's overselling of the romance, though he deserves credit even for that. Amenábar's movie is all plot, so the viewers' interest is mostly academic. If Nuria's suicide wasn't such a left hand turn, you'd have had the time to see it coming from miles away. Crowe can tip his hand because he's worked so hard to invest you in his somewhat dubious characters, that knowing the bottom is about to drop out hightens the experience. Crowe has engaged the viewer enough that telegraphed plot points get forgotten, where Amenábar allows too much time to begin figuring out pretty accurately where he's going.

The spoilers start to kick in now, so if you haven't seen either movie, you may want to think about steering clear now.

Amenábar: Nuria is waiting in her car outside Sofia's apartment, and offers to make up for the sex César missed out on the night before until he can't get into Sofia's pants. At first César refuses, but Nuria eventually goads him into getting into the car with her. Nuria offers César some pills, which he refuses. Nuria scarfes them all down, complaining about his innocent act and unwillingness to get to know her as more than a lay. She tells him happiness for her is being with César, and asks if he believes in God before suddenly plowing her car down a hillside and into a barricade wall. César dreams the preceeding never happened, only to be wrenched back to a reality where he spent weeks in a coma to find his face a shade more disfigured than Quasimodo's. The doctors insist they've done all modern medicine will allow, prompting César to theatrics on several fronts. He begins stalking Sofia, until he gets the nerve to trap her while she's performing a mime routine in public and stare her down. She agrees to see him that night at a club. Recognizing her discomfort, César digs out a face masks the doctors presented to him as a "facial prosthesis." He also finds the doodle Sofia once drew of him, and tellingly wads it up. César is still a self-centered jerk, allowing himself to fixate and project on Sofia in the manner Nuria had done with him. César finds Pelayo waiting with Sofia at the club and at her request. Aware of how uncomfortable he makes Sofia, César opts to get drunk with the bartender away from his friends. César desperately attempts to reconnect with Sofia, and fails, leaving her to run home with Pelayo in pursuit. César passes out alone in the gutter, waking up the next morning to a voice demanding "abre los ojos." At first, he thinks it's Nuria, but it turns out to be Sofia, who kisses César and asks forgiveness. I have to mention that Cruz really plays down her looks here, but César and I are still panting. Moving on, the pair stroll through the park, César noting an inescapable feeling of deja vu.

Crowe: Julie is waiting in her car outside Sofia's apartment, playing up both her whiles and David's guilt to get him in her car for a nightcap. Julie continues to feel David out for affection, only to have her heart bludgeoned by David's callousness. Julie begins to meltdown as she tells David happiness for her is being with him, and gives a speech about the impact sex has on a life. The tension is pulled tighter as David becomes fully aware that Julie is coming unhinged before his eyes. She asks if he believes in God, and guides her ride toward a bridge. The pair wrestle for control of the wheel as the car tears through a rail and off the overpass. The car strikes earth and a brick wall with two devastating thumps. David dreams the preceeding never happened, only to be wrenched back to a reality where he spent weeks in a coma to find his face and arm have been terribly disfigured by the accident. Through migranes, David begins studying from home every aspect of his father's empire, and starts making power plays via teleconferencing. He also makes a uncomfortable play for Sofia at her dance studio. The rests progresses pretty much as above, but flashier. Specifically, Cruz continues to look irresistable and urbane.

Victor: Amenábar
Diaz's "your body makes a promise" speech was career defining for me, as it was embedded in my mind with the impact of that car jumping the bridge. This alone almost puts Crowe up, until his take is all downhill from there in this portion. Probably fearing audience backlash, Cruise only went half deformed, so he's still reasonably attractive. Tom tries to sell us on his mental instability, which works, but he's still kind of charming. The asshole groundwork laid out in Amenábar's take pays off here, as you kind of enjoy César's comeuppance, but are ashamed by your sadism. Since your sympathies have always been with Cruise, here you just wince at his awkwardness and creepy aggression. Jason Lee is more enjoyable in this portion, to the point where you root for him getting together with Sofia. Pelayo meanwhile remains a loser, so its clear his association with Sofia goes no further than César's jealous, paranoic fantasies, and illustrates the Latin machismo that has been part of the character's hubris from the beginning. Cruz has been so vivacious as Sofia up to this point in Crowe's vision, her shutting down on Cruise makes him look like a complete idiot for not realizing how wrong the situation is. With Amenábar, Cruz has been more the girl next door, so her emotional check-out is more subtle, and yet also illustrates again that César is less interested in the person as what she represented in his former life. Finally, Crowe hues so closely to Amenábar's framework in this portion, even shot composition, that you're hyperaware that when he's not going Gus Van Sant he's remaking Cruise in "Cocktail," including the mass-market retail soundtrack. Let's just hope he leaves the Beach Boys out of this.

Amenábar: While the production values continue to underwhelming, a nice, inexpensive technique to show César's dream state is employed. Unfortunately, this serves to draw attention to plot mechanics, one of several tells at this point that tip the director's hand in a big way. Following another surgery, César teases the earnest and deeply concerned Sofia. The two make love to score, though it mostly feels like an opportunity to ogle Cruz's naked breasts. César kisses his way up Sofia's back and neck, until he slowly realizes her hair appears shorter, just like... Nuria! César immediately turns violent, demanding to know where Sofia is, while Nuria insists she is Sofia. Exposition comes fast and furious, but is handled about as well as one would expect from a twisty thriller where you're unsure who's perspective to trust. Amenábar returns to effective use of score to close out this portion.

Crowe: While the production values continue to be overwhelmingly slick in a distinctly Hollywood way, even some hamming from Kurt Russell doesn't spoil the twists to come. Following another surgery, Sofia inapproriately teases the deeply anxious David. The two make love to Bob Dylan, setting up a dramatic turn in a later scene that partly hinges on Cruz's naked breasts. Crowe continues to use repetition to highlight a surreality to the proceedings. Hidden under the covers, "Sofia" moans softly without an accent as she kisses her way up David's back, and Crowe finally succumbs to "the tell" thanks to his casting choices. David jumps out of bed with the very Anglo Cameron Diaz, proclaiming that she's Sofia. However, she fades in and out of character, taunting David. Exposition comes fast and furious, bungled by overwrought delivery that tries too hard to sell David's mental instability. Jason Lee's great, though.

Victor: Amenábar
I love the bit Crowe does where Sofia appears before David as a muse in the psyche ward, and he's generally better at showing the deterioration of his protagonist. However, his problematic use of source music continues, everything is played big, and a lot of Vanilla Sky's goodwill coasts on its name actors. Amenábar proves much more adept at suspence, and the consistent of his work pays off here where Crowe comes off as scattershot. Also, comparing Chete Lera's psychiatrist with Kurt Russell's makes for an excellent demonstration of the difference between an actor and a movie star.

Amenábar: After some confrontations and a bit of violence, all of the loose ends are tied up. You've certainly earned it, because there's just entirely too much going on in the second hour, and you're ready to wrap it up already.

Crowe: The director sets his iPod on the audience like Burns would unleash the hounds, and makes sure you never forget you're watching a movie by casting even more well-known actors in even the smallest parts. The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" marks to my mind what may be the single worst, most distracting "ironic" use of source music in movie history. Less happens in Crowe's finale, but it seems to take three times as long to tell. Crowe feels the need to explain every single detail of the previous two hours for another twenty minutes, including music/movie geek touches specific to his telling of the tale. He even tells you what happened to all the supporting characters. He explains everyone's internal motivations at length. Peter Jackson didn't have so many endings for "Lord of the Rings," even throwing in "The Wizard of Oz" for good measure.

Victor: Amenábar
I expect I'll watch "Vanilla Sky" more often than "Abre Los Ojos." There's money all over the screen, I'm previously endeared to nearly all the actors, they speak my language, and Penelope Cruz is hotter the second time around. However, I'll do so while wincing at Crowe's many missteps, which I observed at first viewing as the first "mind fuck movie with a heart of gold." If "A.I." was an awkward melding of Steven Spielberg's aesthetic with Stanley Kubrick's, this would be an even more unweildy mass of Kubrickian plot processed through Crowe pop culture sentimentality.

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