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At Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge

Dec. 17 to 20

David Aames is the cocky, ingratiating, high-living heir to a New York publishing empire—a little bit Jann Wenner, a little bit Jerry Maguire. As Vanilla Sky begins, David (Tom Cruise, of course) is having a strange dream, and he spends most of the rest of the movie—even when seemingly awake—trying to ascertain just what’s going on. But moviegoers who have seen Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes will immediately understand what’s happening to David: He’s living in a note-for-note remake of that 1997 film.

Well, not exactly note-for-note. In addition to relocating the story from Madrid to New York, writer-director Cameron Crowe and the movie’s music coordinators—including his wife, Nancy Wilson—did bring their own sonic sensibility; they meld the work of contemporary neopsychedelicists such as Radiohead, Spiritualized, and Sigur Rós with head-music oldies such as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the Monkees’ “Porpoise Song.” Crowe also trades on his knowledge of the Manhattan celebrity-journalism world, sending David swaggering through a slick magazine’s offices—borrowed from Vanity Fair—as an assistant chirps, “Courtney Love called.” The wannabe-hip repartee mostly sputters, however, and as soon as the plot kicks in, Crowe pledges allegiance to Amenábar’s original scenario.

That scenario, for those who didn’t see Open Your Eyes, finds David abandoning compliant but secretly needy casual-sex partner Julie (Cameron Diaz) for Spanish-born dancer Sofia (Penélope Cruz, who played the same role the first time around). Sofia is brought to David’s 33rd birthday party by his best friend, Brian (Jason Lee), a would-be novelist whose principal function is to keep telling David what a golden boy he is. After one chaste night in Sofia’s loft, David is confronted by Julie, who insists that they go for a ride. As she reveals that David has broken her heart, Julie begins to pick up speed, until she sends the car over a retaining wall and crashes to the ground. Casualties: Julie’s life, David’s face.

Despondent, agitated, and sometimes masked, David is reluctant to approach Sofia and in danger of losing his company. He comes to depend on Brian, a company lawyer (Timothy Spall), a court-appointed psychiatrist (Kurt Russell), and a squad of plastic surgeons to help him retrieve his life and repair his scarred features. The shrink appears because David has been accused of murder, although exactly whose murder is a secret the film keeps for another hour or so. Of course, those who have seen Open Your Eyes will already know everything, including the unsatisfying Twilight Zone-style ending. Vanilla Sky has a bigger budget and more special effects than the movie it remakes, but is in no way an improvement.

Amenábar’s film apparently made quite an impression on Cruise, whose production company hired the director to make The Others, starring ex-wife Nicole Kidman. That thriller was a commercial hit, but co-producer Cruise’s instincts failed him when he selected Crowe for Vanilla Sky. All the director brings to the project is a pile of pop-cultural references, some of which he doesn’t even seem to have a feel for. Crowe, who apparently aspires to be the Billy Wilder of ’70s-rock fans, references Truffaut and Godard, but before remaking Amenábar’s ode to dislocation, maybe he should have studied Resnais and Roeg instead.

At best a pointless English cover version of the original, Vanilla Sky lacks propulsion and the necessary ominousness, and not just because Crowe is essentially a romantic-comedy guy: Cruise also made the mistake of casting a lead actor who doesn’t possess the tragic depth to make David’s plight seem anything more than a gimmick.

Although Visions’ Film Feast has proved a welcome antidote to mass outbreaks of Harry Potter and Brad Pitt, most of its entries rate only as curiosities. The principal exceptions are Audition and Signs & Wonders, two haunting movies about male vanity and female conspiracies. The second feature from Sunday director Jonathan Nossiter, Signs & Wonders opened in New York 10 months ago but barely made it here at all; it was pummeled by reviewers, notably in the New York Times, and quickly written off. Indeed, the movie is something less than a success and is almost guaranteed to exasperate art-film detractors—yet its mastery of image and sound is thrilling.

Shot on digital video, often from a stalker’s remote but intimate point of view, the film opens in a crowded Anycity, identified only by American fast-food signs. It gradually becomes clear that the metropolis is Athens, where Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) works at the U.S. Embassy and her husband, Alec (Stellan Skarsgård), is a commodities trader. Alec is a compulsive reader of signs, sure that the market will provide the necessary clues to its upcoming fluctuations. He also looks for such intimations in his nonwork life, a peculiarity he has passed on to his devoted preteen daughter, Siri (Ashley Remy). Alec loves his family, which also includes a son, but he’s having an affair with a co-worker, Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

Tormented, Alec confesses his infidelity to Marjorie, who agrees to continue their marriage. While on a family skiing trip, however, Alec encounters Katherine and is convinced that the meeting is proof that the two are fated to be together. He leaves his family, divorces Marjorie, and moves to a generic U.S. suburb with Katherine. When she confesses to Alec that she arranged the meeting, Alec returns to Athens. This time, Marjorie won’t take him back; she’s begun a romance with Andreas (Dimitri Katalifos), a local journalist who was imprisoned and tortured by the American-backed junta that ran Greece in the ’60s and ’70s. Alec hangs around anyway, unaware that Katherine has come to Athens to meet Marjorie, or that someone else is trying to influence the course of his relationship with his ex-wife. Alec’s search for signs, which include excursions into the jabberwocky of Alice in Wonderland, has turned into self-delusion.

Written by Nossiter and James Lasdun from a story by the latter, who also co-wrote Sunday, the story builds to a thriller payoff that doesn’t quite work. (Oddly, the climaxes of both Signs & Wonders and Audition recall Roeg’s paranoid fantasias.) The film also has an anti-American subtext that’s not sub enough; the legacy of U.S. policy in Greece certainly justifies the movie’s outlook, but Nossiter (the son of a former Washington Post foreign correspondent) obstinately hits the same note again and again. Amid the ominous product placements, Andreas is given too many opportunities to lecture on the arrogance of Americans, even though bewildered Alec—played by a Swedish actor and carefully identified as a naturalized Yank—hardly seems to exemplify any particular national character.

Still, such miscues barely slow the film’s insistent cadence. Nossiter presents the events in short scenes, forgoing the Hollywood schema of master and establishing shots and sometimes jumping past major developments as if he just doesn’t have time to tell you everything. The elliptical editing is matched to a cut-up, found-sound score by Portishead’s Adrian Utley, which stammers and surges in dazzling emulation of the visual style. Detached yet driven, the movie draws in the viewer by not spelling everything out. Rampling’s assured performance grounds the tale, but it’s the director’s insistence on rushing to the edge—both literally and stylistically—that makes Signs & Wonders mesmerizingly watchable. CP