[Fresh on Blu-ray] ‘VANILLA SKY’ takes a walk on the weird side, ‘RAGTIME’ links history to music in epic fashion

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James Clay // Film Critic

VANILLA SKY

Rated R, 137 minutes.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Jason Lee, Cameron Diaz

In 1996 following the massive success with Cameron Crowe on JERRY MAGUIRE (which I’d say is a more atypical prestige picture) and producing his first film, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE Tom Cruise entered into the most daring part of his career. 

He starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA, Stanley Kubrick’s sexual odyssey EYES WIDE SHUT, both in 1999. Then he recruited John Woo to direct him in the weirdest MISSION IMPOSSIBLE to date and then circled back around to working with Crowe again for VANILLA SKY. 

Quick plot description: David Aames (Cruise) is a successful 33-year-old man about town in New York City; he has it all, from money to women to a cool car filled with Radiohead CDs. He’s fallen in love with his friend’s (Jason Lee) new date (Penelope Cruz) and is trudging through some pretty sludgy moral low ground. After a gnarly car accident at the hands of an old flame (Cameron Diaz), Aames becomes disfigured and unhinged. From there, VANILLA SKY swirls into dream logic, with Aames second-guessing his reality at every turn. 

VANILLA SKY is a remake of the Spanish language film OPEN YOUR EYES which Cruise believed had a universal sensibility that could tap into the fears about mortality and choice that adults face. So who better to bring on board than the king of sentimentality, Cameron Crowe, but the film itself turned into a glitchy dream that’s challenging, shaggy, wonky, yet completely satisfying. 

Cruise alongside Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russel, Jason Lee, Tilda Swinton, and Noah Taylor wallpaper the frame with daring performances that proved impenetrable for some audience members. However, the film made a lasting impression due to its great photography by John Toll and Cruise’s overall commitment to the role. 

These kinds of studio features just do not get made anymore, and the Paramount Presents line celebrates this feat by Cruise and Crowe with one of their most satisfying releases to date. The unique features deliver, and the transfer and sound are crystal clear. Plus, the soundtrack still bumps hard and features artists such as Radiohead, Sigur Ros, R.E.M., plus a fantastic title track from Paul McCartney. 

RENT/BUY: This marks the third collaboration between the Paramount Presents line and Cameron Crowe, who had a lot of free time on his hands during the pandemic. He goes all out on this release, from the typically Filmmaker Focus feature on this disc to an audio commentary he does over a 6-minute long one-take of Kurt Russell. Indeed it is wild and should be seen to be believed. Every second of this disc is worth the price.

Grade: A-

GRADE: A-

RAGTIME

Rated R, 155 minutes.
Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Harold Rollins, Brad Douriff, James Cagney, Elizabeth McGovern

Milos Forman’s epic film RAGTIME took the history of the musical genre and funneled it through a lens of the history of America, and it ain’t pretty. Being a Czech director, Forman had a unique and unbiased perspective of America through the viewpoint of music. However, while RAGTIME boasts an incredible cast such as James Cagney, Howard E. Rolling Jr, Brad Douriff, Elizabeth McGovern, Mandy Patinkin, and the list goes on, the story from today’s perspective is oddly hollow. 

There’s loads of heart within the frame that Forman inflicts on the film, and it’s more of an impressive cultural document than an actual great film. This Paramount Presents blu ray release does the film justice by providing new artwork, the never-before-released workprint director’s cut, and fascinating special features. RAGTIME is long and will test your patience if you don’t approach it like a Ken Burns documentary. Good film, with lovely scenery and actors, but honestly a bit of a slog. 

RENT/BUY: Once again, the features hold this thing together and an incredible film transfer. But the highlight of the release is Ragtime Revisited: A Conversation with Larry Karaszewski and Screenwriter Michael Weller, which has the two screenwriters dive into the process of writing a piece of history and a piece of entertainment. Karaszewski’s (ED WOOD, BIG EYES) bread and butter have a proven track record of adapting history with humor and heart. RAGTIME may not be the most exciting film, but the film needed this recognition and proper cultural context. 

Grade: B

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.