by Steven Cohen
Welcome back to another edition of High-Def Digest's favorite bookmarks, where we spotlight some great scenes from various Blu-ray titles that we've found ourselves revisiting again and again.
With bookmarking capabilities allowing viewers to save their favorite scenes becoming such a common extra among many Blu-ray releases, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be fun to take inspiration from this popular feature by spotlighting some of the scenes that we've personally bookmarked.
We're talking about the kind of scenes that literally reach out and grab you, that make you forget you're just watching lifeless pixels ignite and fade, that make your house rumble and eyes open wide with wonder. The type of scenes that simply make you smile from the sheer, infectious passion for filmmaking in their images and sounds.
Last month I covered an eclectic mix of scenes that included a lovelorn robot, a famous Ferris wheel, an eleven year old "superhero," Don Corleone himself, and some no good Nazis. If you missed it, be sure to check out the July bookmark list.
This month I'll be covering a professional hitman with a gentle soul, a clairvoyant chase through a shopping mall, a demonic talking goat, a madman's emotional breakthrough, and an esoteric journey through space and time. For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'Léon: The Professional' (Ch.14, 01:25:08 - 01:33:29) - Luc Besson's action packed masterpiece is loaded with great sequences, but perhaps none more memorable than its explosive and emotionally charged climax. Throughout the entire film we have seen contract killer Léon (Jean Reno), pull off some amazing stunts, effortlessly displaying a cool, collected aura of deadly control, taking out his targets with precision and stealth. Little did we know that all this time, he was actually holding back. Here, Besson unleashes his creation's full, unrestrained rage, giving the lonely hitman true motivation not only to kill, but much more importantly… to live.
The scene starts off with a heavily armed SWAT team knocking on the Italian assassin's door. Just around the corner they have Léon's young protégé, Mathilda (Natalie Portman), captured. The door slowly opens and the team cautiously enters. Besson expertly chooses his angles for maximum suspense, showing only what he wants us to see. We don't know where Léon is exactly, but we know he's in the room. Suddenly, a previously hidden hand comes down from the ceiling and gently closes the door. With this tiny, beautifully chosen detail, the director has revealed where our hero has been hiding, while still keeping his location a secret to his enemies. We now know exactly what's coming, but they have no idea. This leads to another great directorial decision, where Besson stays fixed on the closed door as a barrage of bullets blast through. By not showing us exactly what happens on the other side, the director is able to prolong the suspense while adding an almost mythic layer of mystery to Léon's actions. The door slowly opens, and as the camera catches a glimpse of the bloody aftermath, we, and the SWAT team, start to understand the full gravity of the situation. A couple of cops are simply no match for the killer that waits patiently inside. To even stand a chance, they're going to need, "EVERYONE!"
The wonderful score by Eric Serra fits perfectly here, carrying us through the escalating ballet of bullets and blood, while staying completely in tandem with the flowing camera movements and marching cuts. Mathilda is set free and rushes to Léon, and the building's sprinklers get set off, adding a whole new layer of visual drama, drenching the scene in chaos and confusion. The unlikely pair scrambles for an exit, as ominous red beams bounce around the room, promising quick death. While Léon prepares Mathilda's escape, and the two share a heartfelt, emotional farewell, Besson cuts to a rocket launcher being assembled, juxtaposing their goodbye against the immediate threat that lurks just around the corner. Again, we the audience now know what's coming, and the director knows exactly how to frame his shots, move the camera, and transition between the footage for the most potent and powerful effect. The scene ends with a literal explosion, and for the first time we see Léon totally bare, stripped of his usual calm, full of rage, and ready for war, as he belts out a primal, passionate scream. The sequence is a masterful display of stylized violence that is not only exciting but emotionally relevant, for we are now fully invested in the characters and their relationship. The scene works as well as its does because each gun shot fired carries real stakes. This is violence with purpose, and an endlessly re-watchable artistic achievement in action filmmaking.
'Minority Report' (Ch.17, 01:35:42 - 01:39:08) - Based on the short story written by Philip K. Dick, Steven Spielberg's 'Minority Report' is home to several demo worthy sequences, but the scene in question, is actually one of the film's quieter set pieces. After kidnapping Agatha (Samantha Morton), fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) flees from the police through a shopping mall, and it is here that the movie displays some of its most clever and intelligent scripting.
As the pair attempt to outrun their pursuers, Agatha puts her precognitive skills to good use, allowing her to see several steps ahead of the game. Each decision they make, each suggestion she gives, is a carefully, fully calculated maneuver that perfectly sets up their future escape. Each stride is an important piece to a larger puzzle, developing right before Agatha's eyes, giving the audience a creative peek into the immediate benefits of seeing the future, creating one of the most unique and interesting cat and mouse sequences in modern cinema.
A perfectly timed stop behind a man holding balloons is enough to keep the duo out of harm's way, and another deliberately judged drop of some change buys just the right amount of precious seconds needed to slip by the police. The sequence is then beautifully capped off by the helpful use of a once seemingly unnecessary umbrella, that ends up masking the pair in a faceless crowd.
Though the scene may not have the visual flash or sonic immersion of some of the movie's more aggressive action sequences, its creative and genuinely smart writing is a perfect illustration of how to use high concept science fiction ideas in an exciting and intelligent manner, giving the audience a unique and memorable experience that has garnered numerous repeated viewings on my player.
'Drag Me to Hell' (Ch.34, 01:10:48 - 01:17:53) - A deliciously fun mixture of classic horror genre sensibilities and slapstick, gross-out humor, Sam Raimi's 'Drag Me to Hell' is a darkly funny and thrilling throwback to the director's early work. The séance scene, which sees Christine (Alison Lohman) and her accomplices attempt to conjure up the infamous Lamia, is a great showcase of the director's unique blend of styles and cinematic techniques, making it one of the most memorable and technically impressive sequences in the film
The scene begins by playing with classic horror film conventions, and Raimi infuses the séance with just about every tried and true bullet point from the supernatural thriller playbook. You want shaking furniture? Rattling doors? Billowing drapes? How about creepy laughs permeating the soundstage? Well, you got it. As the group commences its communication with the dearly departed, lingering spirits wreak mostly harmless havoc around the room, evoking other classic scenes from cinema's ghostly past. Really though, this is all just light, cinematic foreplay, whetting our appetite for the main attraction.
Once the actual Lamia is called upon from beyond, Raimi kicks it into overdrive, immediately throwing in some of his trademark POV tracking shots and shaky camera tricks, adding a new dimension of visceral energy to the scene. As the demon possesses the medium's body, Christine attempts to transfer the evil spirit to another host so that it may be killed. That other host of course, happens to be a goat, which brings us to the real reason this scene made the list -- it features a demonically possessed, trash talking, evil goat. It's bizarre, absurd, hilarious, and somehow fits in perfectly with the rest of the irreverent, gooey mayhem Raimi has injected the film with. As if the evil goat wasn't enough, the proceedings escalate even further into slapstick terror, as the demon transfers to another human host and begins to maniacally dance in midair, taunting his victims with his ridiculous convulsions. As a grand finale, the Lamia confronts a terrified Christine and proceeds to spit up a dead cat directly on our heroine. It's a perfect and wonderfully grotesque way to finish off the frenzied sequence, enthusiastically cementing the return of the 'Evil Dead' era madness that the director was once known for.
'Mad Men: Season One' - Episode 13 "The Wheel" (Ch.4, 00:38:10 - 00:41:36) - Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a complicated man (so complicated in fact, that Don Draper isn't even his real name), and throughout the thirteen episodes that make up the first season of AMC's critically acclaimed 'Mad Men,' we slowly get to know him. As each new layer of mysterious back-story is revealed, and each new, cryptic, ambiguous, intimate conversation plays out, the series begins to paint the picture of a contradictory soul, capable of simultaneous great strength, and glaring weakness. The season finale, titled "The Wheel," features an important, defining scene for the character that is riddled with subtext and emotion. As the expert adman pitches a campaign for Kodak's new slide projector, the outward walls that mask his emotions slowly crumble, giving the audience a brief but potent look into his core.
Don demonstrates the device by showcasing slides from his own family, while espousing its incredible link to the limitless influence of nostalgia. His words are soft and comforting, and the music subtlety underscores the melancholy twinkle that sparks from the visuals and speech. Each image that flashes before the screen is a snapshot of a happier time, and a brief reminder of everything that the character has fought so hard to earn, and now stands so easily to lose. In many ways, the entire season has been building to this one moment of catharsis, as Don looks upon the flickering images of his loved ones and finally seems to understand what truly matters.
Or then again, perhaps not. The man is paid to lie, after all, and he is quite good at it. It's possible that he was merely caught up in his own pitch, momentarily sold on the empty manipulations that he swindles day in and day out. Still, despite his faults, Draper's telling, misty eyes speak volumes, and even if it doesn't last, his fleeting epiphany does seem genuine. The scene ends with one copy writer exiting the room in a burst of tears, and the clients nearly speechless. After such a heartfelt and eloquently written presentation, it's certainly no surprise. In just a few brief moments, the writers are able to capture the true essence of the character, making this a memorable scene that demonstrates all the nuance and emotion that the series is capable of.
'The Fountain' (Ch.20, 01:19:53 - 01:30:04) - A dense and occasionally impenetrable film, 'The Fountain' tends to be a love it or hate it type of movie. With its selection here, I think it's safe to assume which side of the fence I fall on. A bold and visually arresting rumination on grief and the impermanence of life, director Darren Aronofsky weaves a multi-narrative web about everlasting love and the unstoppable hunger for immortality. The director has a habit of concluding his films with powerful, rhythmic montages ('Requiem for a Dream,' 'Black Swan') and 'The Fountain' is no different, leading to an awe-inspiring conclusion that sees past, present, and future collide into a symphony of esoteric imagery and dazzling music.
The scene begins with space traveling future Tom (Hugh Jackman) still haunted by his long since deceased love (Rachel Weisz). Her bittersweet words flow all around the soundscape, pleading for the ageless man to finally, "finish it," and with a deep breath, he does. Memories blur into one another and Aronofsky cuts freely between time periods, fusing the film's mixed chronology of fact and fiction into a single story, which like all tales, needs and end. As Tom continues to write the conclusion he has put off for far too long, Clint Mansell's amazing score starts to quietly build beneath the surface, guiding the visuals and cuts, pulling the very strings of the characters themselves, forcing them forward even where they might otherwise hesitate. Otherworldly images of future Tom floating within a star-blazing bubble, like some sort of bald temporal monk, are juxtaposed against present day Tom, revisiting a memory he refuses to let play out, and the past Tomas, finally reaching his destination. As the three worlds merge, future Tom literally invades the story of the past, writing his own destiny. Tomas reaches the Tree of Life and proceeds to gorge upon its precious nectar, suffering the heavy price of immortality. The music explodes with the imagery, thrusting us one final time into the distant future.
The score momentarily dies down, and with the past now dealt with, we can only look forward. Future Tom heads toward a dying star, extends his arms, and finally embraces his fate. The screen condenses into a single white dot, like the first atom of creation itself, ready to expel. Silence fills the soundscape, and then… the music bursts forth in a thunderous climax as Tom burns apart in a fiery supernova. The final image of present day Tom bidding farewell to his dead wife, provides an ambiguous but thematically rich conclusion that gently rides the last of Mansell's fading notes to a gradual fade to white. The scene as a whole is a mesmerizing marriage of image and sound, and though its full meaning may remain elusive, the visuals themselves weave a kind of understanding of their own, evoking emotions and ideas through pure cinematic mastery, making this a sequence worthy of numerous interpretations and viewings.
We'll be back next month with some more of our favorite bookmarks, but for now, what do you think of these picks? What are some of your own favorite bookmarks?