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There comes a moment in every massively popular movie star’s trajectory when his or her movies become expositions on the fermented psychology of fame and popular anointment. For every icon, the ultimate subject is his or herself. In this sense, the new Tom Cruise project, Vanilla Sky, may be the most vividly discomfiting star vehicle since Yentl. The faith that it displays in the transcendence of essential Tomness is astonishing. Those eyes, those teeth: With a fervor and passion we haven’t quite seen before, Cameron Crowe’s movie treats Cruise like a visiting archangel on hormonal overload. Though a by-the-letter remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Dickian psychodrama Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky is the weirder film, if only because of its contexts: 2001 America, Hollywood, and, most vitally, Tom’s brainpan, where human life as we know it is empowered toward glory by the sheer effulgence of the man’s generously availed grin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so hauntingly frank about being a manifestation of its star’s cosmic narcissism.

Calling it a parable on the brittleness of a gorgeous celebrity’s biodome is going easy: The movie’s tone is Emerald City fake and its mechanics are predicated on opportunities acquired by physical allure and paid for with traumatizing damage. Inhabiting a wealthy, consequence-free Manhattan, Cruise’s high-living hero David Aames is a hedonistic, babe-magnetizing publishing-empire heir who, like many movie stars, beds and discards beautiful women for even more beautiful women on a dime. Crowe and Cruise obviously find this behavior pattern roguishly adorable, even after the movie delivers its comeuppance in the form of a wild-eyed stalker-vixen (Cameron Diaz), who, once she’s sidelined by David’s newest desire object (Penélope Cruz), drives the giddy libertine off an Upper West Side overpass and into a brick wall.

Prefaced by a dream of an abandoned Times Square and framed by a psychological interrogation (performed by shrink Kurt Russell) of David wearing a latex “facial prosthetic,” Vanilla Sky seeks out disorientation, particularly when Cruise reappears post-crash with a wretchedly scarred puss and not-entirely-earned John Merrick affect. You don’t have to be Umberto Eco to read the resulting crisis as Cruise’s own worst-case scenario: losing the world’s adoration (and the passion of new inamorata Cruz) by having suddenly become terrifically ugly. (Along with the ubiquitous Godard movie posters, the film has Godardian implications all over it, but Crowe works obliviously past them.) This kettle of fish becomes even more nightmarish once David begins awaking into various scar-free, identity-swapping alternate existences—ricocheting, as it were, between Cruise-ified versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Fatal Attraction.

Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Amenábar’s original film was preemptively one-upped by an episode of the old Star Trek, so Vanilla Sky‘s sci-fi-ness seems particularly turgid and bogus. Still, it installs a redoubtable paranoid buzz, and its hyperreal finale, complete with Tilda Swinton deranging things further as a corporate shill, sticks to your skull wall like a wad of thoroughly chewed Bazooka. That Hollywood has finally managed to capture Cruz’s endearing charms on film sans crude stereotype is a relief. For better or worse, Vanilla Sky is a genuine, albeit jejune, statement of star consciousness—blustery with self-awe and feverish with cataclysmic self-doubt.

Unreality bites: In Leon Ichaso’s Piñero, the robust, chiseled Benjamin Bratt playing dissipated funky-junkie Miguel Piñero scans as disjunctively as the fine-boned, sleepy-eyed Will Smith pretending to be Ali. Standard bottom-shelf hagiography shot on crummy digital video and rock-skipping through its subject’s predictable life, Ichaso’s movie is under the impression that Piñero’s ethnic cachet somehow outweighs his status as literary pocket change; one overrated play and some episodes of Kojak are all that stand between him and the void of obscurity. (An opening title self-importantly informs us that Short Eyes “became a movie.” It doesn’t take much.) In any case, biopics about inebriated artists are always stranded by their own non-stories, and Piñero’s short life was apparently little more than a series of dimebag mooches and public stumbles.

Trying to grind his Method ax, Bratt performs Piñero’s witless scat-rap as if he was doing an impression of Sammy Davis Jr., and indeed strains for what, say, Paul Calderón could’ve done before his first cup of morning coffee. Without a narrative, Ichaso tries to give his movie a jivey groove, but it’s all typewriter keys, drunken grandstanding, clumsy flashbacks, pointlessly compiled news footage (Nixon, Khomeini, Lennon, Ali), and boppy sax punctuation. At its most indulgent and posturing, Piñero plays like a movie the man himself might’ve made, between scores.

Related story:
That Puerto Rican Swing: A Talk With Leon Ichaso and Benjamin Bratt” by Ed Morales

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