To watch, or not to watch this critically acclaimed Spanish picture? Especially now, three months away from the release of “Vanilla Sky”, Cameron Crowe’s remake of it starring Tom Cruise and the female lead of the original, Penelope Cruz. As a huge Crowe fan, I’m really, really looking forward to his latest, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the whole story before hand. Then again, I figured I’d rather discover whatever surprises to come while watching Alejandro Amenábar’s picture than reading about it somewhere on some internet gossip site.

Verdict? Whoa. Double whoa. Total whoa. And then some more whoa on top of it. See this movie, now. It’s out on wide-screen DVD, you should be able to pick up a copy somewhere. I mean, God! This is the kind of movie that, the second you’re done watching it, after only a few minutes to find your breath back, you just have to watch it again. I knew next to nothing about it, and that’s the way it should be. The film totally took me by surprise. Here I thought I was watching a good but unexceptional little melodrama about a handsome young man who steals away his best friend’s girl and, in a cruel, ironic twist of fate, is horribly disfigured in a car crash. But then… Don’t worry, I wouldn’t dare go on. Just know that this is one trippy movie.

Yet… I *have* to write some more, just to free my mind of all the amazement and confusion I’m experiencing. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but I still urge you to see the movie ; you can always resume reading this later. Ok, where to start. Well, let’s get going with some general appreciation. This is an utterly superb movie, which not only looks and sounds gorgeous, but which is also cinematically twisted and inventive. The editing and camera angles all work to create various moods through the film, giving out an almost surreal impression. One of the major themes of the film is what is real? What isn’t? Where do dreams begin, where do they end? In that sense, the film has some similarities with movies as varied in tone as “Total Recall”, “Lost Highway”, “The Game”, “The Truman Show”, “Dark City”, “The Matrix” or, most recently, “Memento”. Amenábar is making the best kind of science-fiction, the kind where special effects are irrelevant but ideas are central. The film plays with concepts which could come true, things that could actually already be happening.

Another major theme is the importance or the futility of outside appearances. Now, you could think of “Darkman”, or of Mel Gibson in “The Man Without a Face”, or the godfather of all deformed souls, “The Phantom of the Opera”. So, this isn’t new material, but it’s interestingly and touchingly played out in the film. That’s another thing: for all the “out there” and complex stuff in his film, Amenarar the visionary is also apt to get down to the simpler but essential things, like writing characters we care for and good dialogue and getting strong performances out of his cast. Eduardo Noriega stars as Cesar, and he’s convincing though all the difficult phases his character goes through, from cocky playboy to desperate freak to raging madman. Penelope Cruz, who plays Sophia, has been getting some really bad reviews for her recent American work, but I personally think that she’s a more than decent actress, especially here, where she’s charming, moving and always believable. Her screwed up relationship with Cesar is very affecting; it’s like “Vertigo” on acid ! Actually, I’m sure that’s one of the things Amenarar was going for; there’s one shot in particular, where Cruz enters a room in a greenish glow, which is right out of Hitchcock’s picture.

I’ll stop now before I reveal anything. It basically comes down to this: see the freaking movie! The only question that remains is, what to make of “Vanilla Sky” now? It’s one thing to remake a flawed film, it’s another when the original is near-perfect. Then again, I think I can trust Cameron Crowe. He did, after all, direct “Say Anything”, which makes my Top 5 of all time, as well as “Almost Famous”, which was one of my very favorites from last year. And I have to admit that I’m curious to see what Hollywood actors, American pop music and locations will bring in term of tone and style. Anyways, that’s in December, and that’s another review. Today’s lesson is that “Abre Los Ojos” is a masterpiece, hear?