What I’ve Been Watching: Sin City, Watchmen, and Heavenly Creatures

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This post covers a few films that I recently watched for the first time but that I haven’t yet written about. All three of these movies deserve more thought than I can muster at the moment, but hopefully my brief initial reactions to them will prove interesting to some.

Film: Sin City
Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (and Quentin Tarantino)
Primary Cast: Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Brittany Murphy, Alexis Bledel, Elijah Wood, Jaime King, Nick Stahl, Josh Hartnett
US Release Date: 1 April 2005

I recently read Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew. While reading it, I realized that with the exception of Spy Kids (which I saw in 2001 and never again), that the only Rodriguez film I’d really watched was Planet Terror. And while I’m not yet sure if I really like Rodriguez’s sensibilities as a director or not, I do plan on watching at least a few more of his works so that I can find out.

As for Sin City, I like it more than Planet Terror (the aesthetics of which put me off just a tad); in fact, I like certain aspects of it quite a bit. That said, I still get the since that the film belongs to a specific moment in time—or at least, in popular culture and film history—which has me wondering if I would have enjoyed it more if I saw it when it was initially released. It’s a visual spectacle, and its one of the most distinctly styled film’s I’ve ever seen, but lightning only strikes once, and watching Sin City for the first time a decade after its initial release left me with the strange sense that I was receiving some of its magic secondhand.

For what it’s worth, I watched Sin City without any exposure to Frank Miller’s comics. That said, even if I somehow managed to watch the film without knowing that it was based on a series of comics, I probably would have figured it out before the title sequence. The visuals in the film are stylized to the max, and Rodriguez has no interest in hiding the original medium of the story he is telling. Instead of bending Miller’s comics to fit the conventions of film, he and Miller use Sin City to show that film is capable of being transformed to evoke the look and feel of comics and that the results are worth experiencing.

I also watched Sin City as someone with only limited exposure to film noir, and I do wonder if that prevents me from appreciating certain aspects of its script.

Sin City has its problems; certainly, some of the facial prosthetics are distracting, and some of the narrative arcs are more effectively executed than others. It’s also mostly (but not all) surface. Still, it’s worth watching at least once, though I expect that I’ll skip the sequel.

Film: Watchmen
Director: Zack Snyder
Primary Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino
US Release Date: 6 March 2009

I bought the Watchmen graphic novel a rather long time ago, but I didn’t get around to reading it until late last year. In keeping with my tradition of taking too long to do everything, I didn’t watch film adaptation until earlier this week.

Though it’s impossible for me to say precisely how reading Alan Moore’s novel impacted my experience of Zack Snyder’s film, I’m fairly certain that it had an effect. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that my prior knowledge of Watchmen’s characters and story made it much easier for me to follow the film. That said, even if some viewers do have a hard time making sense of Watchmen’s plot, that difficulty stems more from Moore’s writing than it does from Snyder’s attempt to turn a massive work of literature into a single film. Though it has a plot—and though that plot is sensible once you take it all in—Watchmen is much more about a time, a mood, a set of characters, and a set of ideas than it is about some simple or easily summarized story. The conversations in Watchmen and the themes that it explores are worth much more than figuring out who killed The Comedian, and that’s certainly a good thing.

While watching Watchmen, I repeatedly experienced a very strong sense of déjà vu. I’ve watched plenty of adaptations of books I’d read before, but Snyder’s commitment to replicating the visual elements of his source material so vividly—while also sticking pretty closely to Moore’s story—resulted in an adaptation-viewing experience unlike any I’ve had before. Why anyone ever thought Moore’s graphic novel was fit to be turned into a film is beyond me, but Snyder’s attempt is about as faithful as it could have been, all things considered.

Snyder’s distinct visual style (dark, sleek, bloody) is certainly present in Watchmen, and it works exceptionally well. In fact, the look of the film may be the very best thing about it, and I hope that I am one day able to see it on something bigger than my 13-inch laptop. The world of Watchmen is dark and gritty and in some respects, isn’t too far from the realms of film noir, but it’s also bold, slick, and almost futuristic; Snyder’s film combines all of this seamlessly, and in doing so, it respects Moore’s work while providing viewers with a uniquely satisfying visual feast.

Most of the performances in Watchmen are what the film calls for, and I was rather impressed with the casting. Haley’s Rorshach, Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, and Wilson’s Dreiberg are particularly memorable. And while Gugino’s performance feels rather stilted, and while Akerman falls a bit flat, the rest of cast are good enough to keep audiences from focusing too intently on any weak links.

Watchmen may not be the best standalone film, but I don’t think that it was made to be one; it was made for fans of Moore’s work, and as such, it works pretty well.

Film: Heavenly Creatures
Director: Peter Jackson
Primary Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Peirse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor
US Release Date: 16 November 1994

I may have never watched Heavenly Creatures if Netflix hadn’t suggested it to me, but I’m glad that I’ve finally seen it. Though its primary claim to fame is as Kate Winslet’s debut, it also introduced the world to Melanie Lynskey. On top of that, Heavenly Creatures is one of Peter Jackson’s pre-LotR works, and it may just be the film that established his potential for a wide-reaching career.

Heavenly Creatures is a dark character study that blends the bright colors of fantasy with dark shadows of obsession and murder without ever missing a beat. The film’s biggest success is in presenting a pair of complex psyches for viewers to examine and become intimate with. The film also works as an exploration of a relationship that for all its occasional beauty, is also exceptionally dangerous.

Now that I’ve watched it, it’s a tad difficult for me to accept that Heavenly Creatures was Kate Winslet’s first movie. She’s undeniably captivating in the film, and she steals just about every scene that she is present in. It would seem that she arrived on the cinema scene fully formed and ready for powerful leading roles. Though it took me a few scenes to adapt to the particular awkwardness of Lynskey’s character, she is also very good in the film. Together, she and Winslet present viewers with two distinct, but strangely compatible young girls who embrace each other and their imaginations wholeheartedly and who are much more dangerous together than they ever would be apart.

Jackson has made a number of missteps since The Lord of the Rings (see The Hobbit films and The Lovely Bones), but Heavenly Creatures is a reminder of how much he is capable of; that is, when he doesn’t over-do the CGI or stuff his work with so many tonal inconsistencies that it all falls apart. After seeing some of Jackson’s more recent work, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much he allows to remain just under the surface of Heavenly Creatures. That said, as comparatively restrained as the film is, it still contains enough of Jackson’s fantasy and visual flair to set it apart from more conventionally told dramas. In fact, Heavenly Creatures is proof that the fantastic can be incorporated into a heavy, fact-based tale without cheapening it, as long as it is held in check. Now that we are all free to forget The Hobbit trilogy, someone should remind Jackson of what he once did; not all of his choices in Heavenly Creatures work, but he would do well to rewatch his own 1994 film.
Watch Heavenly Creatures.

Until Next Time
I’ve been working evenings and late nights a lot lately, which has made it pretty difficult for me to get to the movies. The last film I watched in a theater was The Witch, and if I don’t change this pretty soon, I may start breaking things.

That said, it’s a lot easier for me to make time for movies available on Netflix on the moment, so if you’d like to recommend anything that is currently available to stream, please do!

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