REVISITING GENIUS is an ongoing discussion of brilliant movies that deserve another spin in your DVD player. I’ll be pleading the case for some of my favorite under-appreciated films, and occasionally belaboring the accolades already heaped on established classics. Enjoy!

Those who know me know that I watch a lot of movies. Over the years, I’ve immersed myself in the Hollywood classics, obsessively pored over the achievements of the Italian Neorealists and the French New Wave, meticulously picked apart vapid summer blockbusters, and dutifully schooled myself in genres that don’t even interest me, all for the sake of expanding my internal cinematic encyclopedia. Though by no means an expert, I adore the art of cinema, and I’ve laughed, cried, flinched and sighed at more flicks than most people I know.

I mention this, not to brag (I don’t imagine most people would consider such preoccupation laudable), but to put the following essay into context. I’m a very critical audience, and I don’t spew superlatives casually.

Tonight I re-watched a movie I’ve seen, I don’t know, maybe twenty-five times. At first glance, it’s hardly a unique specimen: it’s fairly recent, stars Hollywood A-listers, was widely perceived as a box-office underachiever, was poorly reviewed and forgotten quickly by audiences. But, folks, that tattily-shrink-wrapped DVD in the bottom of the bargain bin at your local Wal-Mart is nothing less than buried treasure.

It’s a movie that gets better with every viewing. It never fails to move me, and make me consider the most important things in my life. It deals in themes both timely and timeless, and asks us to examine who we are, what we’re living for, and how we can be better people. It shames us for the careless things we’ve done, it laughs with us at the absurdity of modern life, it weeps with us for the people we’ve lost, and it reminds us that every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around. It may very well be the most haunting film I’ve ever watched.

Also, it stars Tom Cruise.

Wait! Now, just hang on a second. Before you snort and click that little Back button on your browser, consider that this movie was also written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the man responsible for insightful, funny, tender films like Say Anything…, Singles, and Almost Famous.

Guessed it yet? If you said Jerry Maguire, well, you’ve seriously overestimated the merits of that particular film. I’m talking, of course, about Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe’s reimagining of Alejandro Amenabar’s Spanish thriller, Abre los ojos.

Vanilla Sky is a movie often dismissed out of hand. (And, yes, the original is good, but it’s more of a straightforward mindbender than this superior remake.) It’s a complex and convoluted film, yes, but all the more rewarding for it. Complicated ideas can be expressed simply (and too often are), but simple ideas often yield their richest rewards when examined through long lenses.

The simple ideas in this movie are easily identified: Be good to the people who love you. Listen to your conscience. Let go of the things you should not hold, and hold on to the things you should not let go. And, of course, open your eyes.

As we all know, these simple ideas are often obscured by the influences of the world around us, and we often don’t even know which choices are the right ones until after we’ve made them. It’s so easy to substitute external stimulus for self-reflection, and as a result we find ourselves chasing love, ambition, or indulgence. We splash through life, swimming as hard as we can for the far shore, and sometimes the worst happens along the way–sometimes other people drown in our wake.

I can’t talk much about the plot without giving away key secrets, but there’s a perfectly good summary on the back of the DVD box:

“Young, handsome and wealthy, publishing tycoon David Aames can have anything his heart desires. Still, David’s charmed life seems incomplete. One night, David meets the woman of his dreams and believes he may have found the missing piece. But a fateful encounter with a jealous lover suddenly sends David’s world out of control, rocketing him on a roller-coaster ride of romance, sex, suspicion and dreams… to a shocking, final awakening you will never forget.”

The film dresses up, first like a romance, then like a thriller, and finally like an extended dream sequence, but when its secrets are finally revealed, when the themes I’ve been talking about are finally addressed, this movie becomes something more than the sum of its parts.

The final fifteen minutes are hypnotic, harrowing, and devastatingly beautiful. All the chaos that has been building, louder and more frenetic with every passing minute, finally collapses in on itself. Rather than climaxing with a series of explosions, the movie closes its eyes, bows its head, and whispers.

It’s no wonder that audiences didn’t embrace Vanilla Sky. It asks more of its audience than your average December Oscar-bait. The movie doesn’t simply deliver trite platitudes, it opens a dialogue with us, and expects us to respond. It invites us to shut out the world and ask questions about our lives. Abre los ojos, indeed.

For evidence that the marketing department had no idea how to sell this film, see the two different trailers they released, neither of which capture the spirit of the film:

Teaser Trailer  •  Theatrical Trailer

(That theatrical trailer is particularly schizophrenic. It seems to be advertising three totally disparate flicks.)

On top of all the thematic goings-on, this movie is gorgeous to look at and listen to. Crowe’s directing skills have grown by leaps and bounds since his early work, and the imagery in this movie is nothing short of iconic. John Toll’s photography is an embarrassment of riches, fusing light and color into a palette that is, at times, surreal. Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Jason Lee and (especially) Penelope Cruz have never looked more gorgeous than they do here. The photography is so good, it enhances their characterizations, creating perfect environs for the performances.

It would be unforgivable not to mention the music. Cameron Crowe is renowned for his ability to choose the perfect song for every moment in his films, and his sensibilities are at their peak here. More than once he chooses dissonant music for the scene at hand, creating a sense of unease and confusion, and it’s an effective choice. But, man, when he’s ready to turn the screws, look out. Never has pop music been more effective at wringing every last drop of emotion from a scene. This, incidentally, is the movie that introduced me to Sigur Ros, something for which I will always be grateful.

Vanilla Sky worked its magic on me slowly. The first time I saw it, I thought it was odd, but intriguing. The second time, I thought it was moving. The third time, I thought it was genius. Today, I think it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

This a movie that deserves to be seen. It deserves to be listened to. It deserves to be thought about. I don’t believe I have ever made it through the last reel without crying–not from sadness, but from its sheer, overwhelming beauty. It tells the story of the human condition, and leaves us with the notion that we can be born again; that, as we swim for that far shore, we needn’t drown ourselves or others with all our splashing.

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