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.
In November I covered one mad man's refusal to take it anymore, an infamous outlaw's assassination, a gangster's nostalgic remembrance, a lawyer's stand against corruption, and a moonlit courtship between two lovers. If you missed them, be sure to check out the November, the October, the September, the August, the July, and the June bookmark lists.
This month I'll be covering the destruction and rebirth of a fantasy world, one man's descent into paranoia, an achingly beautiful montage of love, a time traveling doctor's sacrifice, and an ape's monumental first words. For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'The Neverending Story' (Ch.24, 01:17:43 – Ch.29 01:28:28) – Wolfgang Petersen's beloved fantasy classic, 'The Neverending Story,' is a childhood staple for many who grew up in the eighties. A wonderful blend of action, adventure, and of course magic, the film is home to many memorable sequences that stir the imagination (and one particularly devastating scene involving a horse that's left a permanent emotional scar on most who've seen it). Since I'm not a sadistic bastard, I'll leave the tragedy that occurs in the Swamps of Sadness alone, and instead focus on the film's ultimately triumphant climax.
After failing to stop the destructive force known only as "The Nothing," Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is saved by his trusty Luck Dragon, Falcor, and the pair soon find themselves floating through a vast celestial sea of rubble. The once great kingdom of Fantasia is now reduced to nothing more than drifting chunks of rock flowing among a void of darkness. Somber music plays out as our downtrodden hero looks upon the tragic results of his apparent defeat. This prevailing mood of melancholy presents a rather sad predicament. After all, heroes are supposed to win, no matter what, and by placing our noble protagonist in the midst of failure (even if it's only temporary) Petersen displays a rare level respect for his young audience (a respect that is sadly missing from many modern efforts). As the two friends lament their great loss, the mystical Orin lights up and guides them toward whatever remains of the Ivory Tower. A beacon of glowing light still standing tall and proud atop a floating rock, we see the castle emerge from the debris as the music swells triumphantly in a rousing burst of jubilation. It seems that all hope is not lost after all. From here Petersen cuts to Bastian (Barret Oliver), the child reading the story, as his eyes stay fixated on the book before him, practically glued to the page, a perfect onscreen surrogate for the movie-watching audience.
Atreyu confronts the Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach) and as the walls of the tower begin to quake and thunder bellows from the darkness, she reveals Fantasia's only hope for salvation. Through her gentle words she breaks the invisible wall separating the realities of the film, connecting the "story world" and the "real world," illuminating the symbiotic relationship between art and artist, story and reader, film and viewer. While a book or movie may have one direct author, in the end, it is the audience who gives the work life, who infuses their own emotions and interpretations, who fills the pages or frames with meaning. In order to save an imaginary world, one only needs to use their imagination, and so Bastian does, giving the nameless Empress a name as Fantasia is torn asunder by the haunting devastation of apathy... leaving us in darkness. Surrounded by black, Bastian finds himself face to face with the Empress. "In the beginning, it is always dark," she says, holding a tiny, glowing grain of sand, all that's left of her kingdom. While only a morsel of greatness lost, in Bastian's innocent, passionate hands, the seemingly insignificant speck is more than enough. With one final wish, he remakes the world as only a child could, using his limitless imagination to fuel his creation. A celebration of the power and necessity of storytelling, the scene presents a stirring visual account of destruction and rebirth, of endings and new beginnings that has stayed with me vividly since childhood.
'The Conversation' (Ch.12, 01:45:59 - 01:53:47) – While it might be the least popular of his string of 1970s masterpieces, Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Conversation' is every bit as powerful and memorable as his other defining works. A tense examination of paranoia and perception, the film is home to some highly influential editing work and an exceptional performance by Gene Hackman. As isolated, impersonal surveillance expert, Harry Caul, Hackman carries us down a slow descent into anxiety induced seclusion and the film's closing scene is an expertly cut visual representation of just that.
In the aftermath of the movie's winding plot, Harry Caul finds himself alone in his apartment, peacefully playing his saxophone. This respite from conflict is short lived, however, and a ringing phone soon intrudes upon Caul's relaxation. Coppola employs simple, slow pans with the camera as Caul picks up the receiver, stretching out the event to increase tension. There is no answer on the other end and a reluctant Caul hangs up. Though Harry seems content enough to move on, the shot itself lingers on the silent phone ominously, foreshadowing the obsession that will soon commence. It rings again and this time Caul is not greeted with silence, but instead threatening words warning him to keep quiet about what he knows. Before he hangs up, the voice informs Harry that his place is bugged, and just like that, the character's last fragile thread of peaceful reality is cut. Caul instantly goes to work, combing his entire apartment for hidden devices. After a series of cuts and camera movements, we circle closely with Harry as he scans his environment, the camera itself drawn into Caul like a satellite in orbit unable to break away from his all encompassing draw and obsession. Methodically he gets back to business, taking apart the air conditioner, light fixtures, blinds and various trinkets.
Finally he comes across a tiny stature of the Virgin Marry resting on a shelf. He thinks for a moment, knowing that once he crosses this line there is no going back. The score fades away and ominous sound effects echo throughout the mix, creating an eerie electronic embodiment of Harry's state of mind. Suddenly, without hesitation Caul smashes the statue and finds... nothing. Music returns to the soundtrack but now the melody plays on in an almost mocking manner, undercutting Caul's seemingly futile efforts. The rhythm of the scene builds and builds as quicker cuts pile upon one another, showing Caul as he literally destroys the room, tearing apart the floors and the walls themselves. The creepy sound design continues to reinforce the paranoid mood until finally the montage of images stops, leaving a single, solitary shot of Harry sitting alone in the ruins of his apartment.
The film's final image is a simple panning shot, as the camera slowly sways across the dilapidated room, a visual representation of Caul's own fractured, traumatized psyche. We flow through the devastation and briefly land on Harry playing his saxophone. David Shire's haunting piano melody creeps in over Hackman's sax playing, sending the camera once again creeping across the rubble. The credits start to role over the image as the frame teeters back once more to Caul. Understated and perfectly executed by the filmmakers, this lingering image is a literal portrait of defeat, displaying the full tragic scope of Harry's paranoid behavior and personality.
'Cinema Paradiso' (Ch.20, 01:58:23 - 02:01:40) – Featuring one of the most famous and emotional finales in motion picture history, Giuseppe Tornatore's 'Cinema Paradiso' is a bittersweet celebration of passion and cinematic romance. A love letter to all things nostalgic, the film's tear-jerking climax is an almost peerless representation of the nameless, intangible magic that sparkles in between each flickering grain on a silver screen.
With Alfredo's (Philippe Noiret) gift in hand, Toto (Jacques Perrin) enters a screening room and hands off the mysterious reel of film to the projectionist. The lights dim and the movie ignites across the screen. Tornatore slowly closes in on Toto, only framing his reaction while keeping the actual identity of the images he views out of sight. Though we can't see what he sees, the glint of bittersweet nostalgia in the character's eyes speaks volumes, and before we even cut to the screen, we already know what's waiting for us. The actor's expression of sheer heartbreaking sadness and joy, coupled with Morricone's heart-tugging score are enough to clue us in, increasing anticipation for the eventual reveal. Finally, we cut from Toto's reaction and see the source of his great emotion -- a montage of black and white ecstasy, a visual chorus of excised passion. All of the censored footage of onscreen romance Alfredo was forced to cut from every film he ever exhibited plays on the screen in a collage of discarded magic. Kiss after kiss flickers before our eyes. Seductive glances, sensual caresses, and gently pressing lips form a parade of love through images flowing at twenty four frames per second. In an instant, the pain of lost youth is made palpable once more, and a disillusioned middle-aged man is reminded how to dream again. Tornatore periodically cuts back to Toto's reactions as he sees the beauty of life reflected in the footage. The music sweeps and soars along with the visuals in a kind of wistful majesty illuminating the true, unadulterated power of cinema.
As I mentioned in my full review of the film, the scene comes dangerously close to becoming overly sentimental, but thankfully doesn't. Instead, it's an achingly sweet hymn to movies, revealing film's power to reflect our own triumphs and losses. Through this unassuming montage, Tornatore presents a testament to the indefinable glory of motion pictures. The scene is, as Alfredo intended, simply a gift.
'Doctor Who: The Complete Fifth Series – The Big Bang' (Ch.9, 00:34:51 - Ch.10, 00:42:49) – With a new creative team and cast, season five of 'Doctor Who' had a lot to prove. Thankfully, head writer Steven Moffat was more than up for the challenge, turning in a strong series of episodes that ranks among the long running show's very best. With a mixture of imaginative stand-alone tales and ongoing serialized storylines, Moffat weaves an epic and emotional overarching plot for the over nine hundred year old alien time traveler, full of the writer's trademark "timey-wimey" genius. Playing fast and light with the implications of cause and effect, the climactic two-parter which caps of the season is a real highlight, and the finale, titled "The Big Bang," certainly lives up to its name with many memorable scenes. The sequence in question here, features the Doctor's attempts to restart the universe, leading to his own gradual demise... or so it would seem.
Strapped into the fabled Pandorica, the Doctor (Matt Smith), propels himself into a massive explosion caused by his own TARDIS, hoping to set off a second big bang in order to seal up some very pesky cracks in the universe. Leaving his friends with one final message, "Geronimo," his catchphrase of sorts, the ancient alien once again embarks on a one-way journey of self sacrifice. The moment is full of excitement, drama and emotion all elevated to an almost grandiose level by Murray Gold's operatic score. After the music swells and our fateful hero explodes, the Doctor inexplicably finds himself alive and well standing in his beloved TARDIS. All is not what it seems, however, and soon we realize that the Doctor is simply bearing witness to his life in reverse, forced to watch his very existence rewind before him as he circles the drain toward oblivion. As previous scenes from the season quickly flash before our eyes, Moffat chooses to freeze on one moment in particular, and suddenly we begin to understand the full extent of his brilliant, long form storytelling. A scene which made little sense from a previous installment, "Flesh and Stone," is now played back in an entirely new context. Shed in this new light, it's now revealed that it was actually this future Doctor rewinding through his life that spoke to Amy, urging her to remember what he said to her when she was a little girl. What did he say to her exactly? Well, in the next flash we find out just that, as the Doctor ends up face to face with a seven year old Amy Pond on the night he left her.
Sweet and innocent, we find "The Girl Who Waited," exemplifying her namesake, peacefully sleeping beside a packed suitcase outside, patiently waiting for her "Raggedy Doctor" to show her the stars. The Timelord picks up Amelia and tucks her into bed. Tired and out of options, he collapses in a nearby chair and gives one final farewell to the sleeping girl. The subsequent monologue spoken by Smith and written by Moffat, is a beautifully realized, wistful piece that finds the Doctor quietly detailing his own tale. "We're all stories in the end," he whispers, before recounting his own whimsical history. He tells Amy about how he "borrowed" the TARDIS, how it's "brand new and ancient," and the "bluest blue ever." The gentle, melancholy words carry a magical, poetic quality, and Murray Gold's accompanying music is full of somber mystery and wonder. In Steven Moffat's hands, the Doctor's life is distilled into a sweet little bedtime story, and it's perfect. With the cracks closing, the Doctor decides to skip the rest of his rewind. The last image of the scene shows Smith as nothing more than a shadow on Amy's wall cascading over her room as she sleeps. Slowly but surely the shadow fades away and the crack closes up, leaving Amy's "Raggedy Doctor" nothing more than a half remembered dream..
Of course, the story doesn't end there, and the Doctor does make an eventual, triumphant return, perhaps thanks to some choice words in his seemingly innocuous bedtime story. At her wedding Amy does indeed remember what the Doctor told her when she was seven, and her memory of "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," is enough to bring him and his big old blue box back into existence. Was the Doctor's story really part of an intentional plot to plant the seeds to his own resurrection or just a daft old man's final, parting words? Perhaps the answer rests in a quote from the show's recently aired Christmas special. With the Timelord caught in a dangerous situation he tells his companions to do what he usually does, "...hold tight and pretend it's a plan." Even when he doesn't know what he's doing, he does, and conversely even when he does, he probably doesn't -- and isn't that why we love him?
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (Ch.22, 01:11:53 - 01:13:43) – A great example of an intelligent franchise reboot, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is a fantastic and surprisingly thought provoking examination of the consequences of man's hubris and cruelty. Keeping only the good elements and basic mythology of the previous movies, the filmmakers reinvent the series for a new audience, presenting one of the most interesting mainstream science films to come along in quite some time. Inspired by references made in the original franchise, the entire story is actually built around one important moment -- and what a moment it is. Though fans of the series expected it, there is no denying the raw power that accompanies Caesar's first words.
The scene begins with Dodge (Tom Felton) discovering Caesar (Andy Serkis) out of his cage. Tired of the cruel treatment that he and his fellow ape companions are subjected to, Caesar stands up to the mean-spirited young man. Defiant and brave, the ape keeps his ground as Dodge charges up a stun baton. The other animals watch on, unsure what to make of the situation. Dodge lunges at Caesar, stunning him with an electric shock. The audience of apes screeches in horror, worried for their new leader. Caesar recovers and fights back. As he comes down to strike him again with another shock, the ape grabs Dodge's arm. In a not so subtle homage to the original film, Dodge recites Charlton Heston's famous line, "Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" A literal reversal of the classic film's roles, this tongue-in-cheek reference carries a slightly humorous quality that is then immediately squelched by the movie's most dramatic moment. Caesar leans up as the camera rises with him and he shouts, "No!" Even though I was expecting it, the line is still shocking and powerful. By throwing in an almost jokey reference immediately preceding the monumental instance, the filmmakers brilliantly subvert our expectations and somehow make the scene even more surprising and resonant. The raw animal voice forming human words for the first time sends a tidal wave of emotion around the room. The other apes begin to celebrate as Caesar knocks Dodge unconscious. The camera circles the triumphant simian revolutionary in a dramatic spin while he chants "no" over and over again in a chorus of freedom.
While the moment where Caesar speaks is certainly powerful, it's actually a quick reaction shot that occurs afterward that sticks with me the most. After uttering his first words, the movie cuts to a brief shot of a nearby gorilla, and the animal's facial expression is incredible. A complicated mixture of fear, awe, and hope, it's as if we can see years of oppression and mistreatment ease away in one heartbreaking instant. The amount of emotion revealed in such a fleeting quiver of a mouth and twitch of an eye is astounding and really demonstrates the full potential of motion capture technology. When I first saw the trailer for the film I was not exactly impressed with the computer generated, motion captured monkeys. They simply looked fake and unnatural to me. After watching the film (and this scene in particular), that initial opinion has been completely changed, and though some aspects of the CG work still look questionable to me, the level of nuance that the actor's bring to their performances is simply mesmerizing. Powerful, allegorical, and technically groundbreaking this scene represents science fiction and motion capture at its very best.
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?