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 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. If you missed them, be sure to check out the January, the November, the October, the September, the August, the July, and the June bookmark lists.
This month I'll be covering a tense plea for mercy in an empty woods, a horrifically comical battle between a man and his own hand, a hauntingly bizarre rendition of a classic Roy Orbison tune, an endearing and exciting homage to moviemaking, and a very infamous box's tragic contents. For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'Miller's Crossing' (Ch.15, 00:58:23 - 01:01:46) - A twisting, winding gangster film from the Coen Brothers, 'Miller's Crossing' remains my favorite flick from the talented siblings and one of my favorite movies period. As Tom Reagan attempts to maneuver through a maze of criminal politics, he eventually forges his own path, playing his enemies against each other. Not all of his dealings seem to go as planned, however, and a particularly dramatic decision in one of the film's most famous and important scenes proves to have long lasting ramifications.
After arriving at Miller's Crossing, gangster advisor, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), is charged with whacking the troublesome Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro). Not used to getting his hands dirty, Tom is hesitant at first but eventually relents, slowly leading the terrified man out into the woods. The music grows ominous as the camera focuses on Tom's emotionless face, his hat partially obscuring his eyes, making it hard to completely read the character. Bernie desperately pleas as they slowly trudge along, trying to appeal to Tom's humanity. The camera will periodically cut back to Tom's blank stare, as if searching for any sign of humanity, of any sign that Bernie's words are getting through. If they are, he doesn't show it. Tom says nothing. He just remains silent, continuing the pair's dark descent into the deep woods. Tension increases as Turturro's performance becomes increasingly impassioned. Bernie pathetically begs for his life, "I can't die out here in the woods like a dumb animal!" The camera returns to Tom, his expression remains steady, he continues to hold the gun. The music grows more threatening. Bernie continues to grovel, "I'm praying to you!" The cuts back and forth between his feeble prayers and Tom's icy gaze are expertly timed, creating an escalating rhythm. The pair ultimately stops and we transition to a wide shot of Bernie kneeling before his would be executioner. The gun is pointed down at Turturro's character and nothing surrounds them but empty woods, emphasizing the apparent certainty of his impending fate. Bernie makes one last plea, "Look into your heart." The line seems to bounce right off of Tom and will be the source of an absolutely chilling callback in the film's final act. Tom readies his gun and holds it suspended, thinking. Throughout the whole movie the character's true motivations remain ambiguous, even to him, making it hard for the audience to anticipate his actions, ramping up the suspense. We close in on his steady face, and then hear a loud, permeating gunshot.
Suddenly the camera is back on Bernie, his eyes tightly closed but completely unharmed. He looks around, realizes he's still alive and then thanks his reluctant savior. They agree Bernie must disappear and then he flees through the wilderness. Tom stands still, lets out a few more shots into the trees, unsure whether he's made the right play. Perfectly paced, shot, and acted, the scene remains one of the film's most memorable and oft-referenced sequences. It serves as a dramatic turning point for the script with consequences that inform every subsequent scene. Turturro's sniveling, desperate performance is powerful, and Byrne is able to evoke so much by revealing so little. Even after the credits role, it's hard to completely grasp the full scope of Tom's various machinations and motivations, making it unclear how much was truly planned and why. Mercy or manipulation, we may never know for sure, but a clue might be found in Tom's delayed response to one of Bernie's desperate pleas -- "What heart?"
'Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn: 25th Anniversary Edition' (Ch.6, 00:28:24 - 00:30:34) - A highly influence horror classic, 'Evil Dead II' helped to pioneer an entire subgenre of humorous terror that fused slapstick comedy with gross-out thrills. Led by Sam Raimi's exciting direction and a wild performance from Bruce Campbell, the movie remains as shockingly hilarious as ever. Though filled with numerous examples of over-the-top, blood splattered comedy, perhaps no scene is as indicative of Raimi's unique blend of styles than the movie's famous duel between a man and his demonically possessed hand.
Following a skirmish with the severed head of his undead girlfriend, Ash (Bruce Campbell) nurses a nasty bite on his hand. Unfortunately for him, said bite has caused said appendage to become demonically possessed, taking on a life of its own. The character heads to the kitchen where he attempts to wash the wound, but suddenly his hand grabs some nearby plates and proceeds to smash them over his head one by one. This marks the beginning of a Looney Tunes-esque display of physical comedy from Campbell that's bolstered by Raimi's kinetic, frantic camera work and some amusingly exaggerated sound effects. Ash wrestles with his hand, which then smashes his head into the wall. Campbell starts to punch himself, and then in a rather impressive display of physical dexterity, he actually flips himself over onto the ground. Throughout it all, the actor totally sells the outlandish scenario with amusing sincerity, revealing a genius sense of comedic timing and physicality. The hand really does appear to become an entirely different character, independent from Ash. Campbell essentially becomes a one man Three Stooges act with a horror twist, engendering simultaneous gasps and laughs from the audience. Eventually the evil hand manages to knock the character unconscious. Seizing the opportunity, it slowly claws its way toward a nearby hatchet. Before the hand can grab the weapon, Ash stabs it with a knife, pinning the evil appendage to the ground.
Campbell's eyes go wide with insanity as he maniacally asks, "Who's laughing now?!" It's at this point that the character grabs a chainsaw and proceeds to cut off the five fingered nuisance, creating one of the film's most iconic images. Instead of showing the full brunt of the gruesome carnage, Raimi instead closes in on Campbell's crazed expression, blood splattering all over his face as he continues to scream and laugh. The over-the-top reality of Ash's reaction to the event proves to be even more powerful and entertaining than actually showing the hand's removal. The perfect marriage of a director's unique vision and an actor's willingness to go all-out, the scene really makes the movie and cements Ash as one of the horror genre's greatest characters.
'Blue Velvet' (Ch.18, 01:13:40 - 01:21:16) - A darkly disturbing descent into suburbia's hidden underworld, 'Blue Velvet' gnaws at the brain like a surreal fever dream. Culled from the inexplicable mind of David Lynch, the film moves in and out of reality, presenting a slightly skewed reflection of our own world. While the movie is home to several notable sequences, there is no denying the lasting impact of one particularly eerie musical number.
The scene begins after Frank (Dennis Hopper) catches Jeffery (Kyle MacLachlan) and Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) together. He takes the pair to visit Ben (Dean Stockwell), an eccentric friend of his. From the moment we enter Ben's apartment, it's as if we are suddenly transported into a slightly skewed universe. The room is full of an odd assortment of bizarre characters simply sitting around, seemingly misplaced in space and time with very little moving behind their eyes. Ben greets his guests in a subdued, dreamy haze. Stockwell's lethargic, laidback performance perfectly counterbalances Hopper's uneasy, manic temperament. As the gang gets situated, Frank's thugs playfully taunt and threaten Jeffery, creating a sense of uncertainty. Various odd interactions enhance the uncomfortable, strange mood with non-sequiturs and random bursts of rage. Ben attempts to calm Frank down with his "suave" demeanor, resulting in mixed success. Eventually Frank lashes out violently at Jeffery. Again, it seems like Ben might placate the situation as he starts to kindly console MacLachlan's character. After lulling the poor man into a false sense of security, Ben casually punches Jeffery in the stomach. Immediately all bets are off and the unease ramps up. In this world even the seemingly innocuous characters are prone to fits of cruelty, shattering the illusion of safety. There is no one to turn to.
While all this insanity continues, Dorothy's child is kept in the backroom, unseen and separated, but still part of the insane environment. Ultimately, Dorothy is allowed to visit the child, and the camera creepily pushes in toward the closed door as an eerie music cue plays on, marking a tonal shift. Lynch doesn't let us see what transpires on the other side, we simply hear Dorothy desperately plead with her child, furthering a disturbing air of mystery. Back in the main room, Frank puts on a tape of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." Ben begins to lip sync to the song in an almost otherworldly performance. He holds up a light bulb to his face like a microphone, illuminating his pale skin. The haunting performance plays on like some kind of phantom theater distilled from a parallel world, faintly out of phase with our own. Frank moves his lips along, overcome with sadness. Jeffery simply stands and watches, unsure what to make of the bizarre situation. All the while, Lynch employs a dreamy but slightly retrained visual style with simple cuts, letting the inherent madness of the scene speak for itself.
The sequence ends with Frank abruptly entering a fit of rage, stopping the song. The group leaves the apartment, and Hopper promises his companions a "joy ride." The whole scene feels like a deceptively mundane nightmare, with its more disturbing elements boiling just beneath the surface, hidden between outwardly harmless nooks and crannies. At first glance the room and characters almost resemble our own world, but upon closer inspection they reveal their true, unsettling nature, making the whole scenario much more disturbing. As the characters leave the apartment, they end their brief stopover in the "twilight zone," before descending into even darker territories.
'Super 8 ' (Ch.3, 00:11:03 - 00:19:25) - J.J. Abrams' heartfelt homage to all things Spielbergian, 'Super 8,' is littered with an unbridled passion for filmmaking. By mixing a sweet family story with extraterrestrial excitement, Abrams evokes all of the "Bearded One's" most memorable classics while imbuing every frame with a genuine love for the craft. This is perhaps no better evident than in an early scene which sees our misfit gang of characters attempt to shoot their own amateur film.
The group arrives by the train tracks and sets up all of their makeshift equipment for the shoot. Each young character sparkles with personality and excitement, and the cast plays brilliantly off of one another with natural, unaffected performances. Lots of tongue-in-cheek references are made as the various characters practice their clichéd lines and argue over the director's approach to the scene. The sheer, collaborative joy of moviemaking is perfectly distilled through the kids' interactions, illuminating the friendly conflicts and mutual triumphs of the art form. Eventually the young actors get in position, the camera rolls, and the magic begins. Alice (Elle Fanning) starts to recite her lines and gradually her acting proves to be surprisingly moving. The camera slowly closes in on her impassioned performance and the humorous mood slowly changes. The other kids look on in awe, blown away by her talent. Suddenly, an actual train comes by, and not wanting to miss an opportunity for genuine production value, Charles (Riley Griffiths) scrambles to get it in the shot. It's at this point that the scene takes a dramatic turn and all hell breaks loose.
What started out as an amateur, endearing homage to genre filmmaking now becomes a big budget embodiment of just that. The scene literally transforms into the cinematic big brother of the kids' makeshift production, showcasing moviemaking at its most simple and innocent, and at its most extreme and spectacular. The train goes off the tracks and crashes, creating an all-out audio/visual explosion and genuine treat for the senses. By seamlessly juxtaposing the two polar opposites of film production, Abrams affectionately celebrates everything we love about moviemaking while illuminating the ageless, innocent, thrilling joys that the medium has to offer. In a sweet, exciting, and very personal scene, we see the type of movie the director once made as a kid, with all of the simple tools and toys he had at his disposal, immediately followed by an example of what he can make now, with all of the much more expensive tools and toys at his disposal. Thankfully, the scene, and film as a whole, demonstrate that Abrams has yet to lose his inner child, resulting in a kind of wish fulfillment for his twelve year old self.
'Se7en' (Ch.36, 01:56:56 - 02:00:57) - David Fincher's rain soaked, noir influenced thriller, 'Se7en,' takes its audience through a disturbing mystery seeped in sin. A kind of counterpoint to the first scene on this list, even after seventeen years, the movie's shocking climax remains as powerful as ever. While Tom Reagan spared Bernie from execution (at least momentarily), John Doe is not so lucky, but the toll his death takes on his killer might prove costly.
The scene begins with Somerset (Morgan Freeman) opening the film's infamous box. Fincher doesn't show us its contents, but already we can start to form our own tragic conjectures. Somerset looks back to Mills (Brad Pitt) who holds a gun toward murder suspect John Doe (Kevin Spacey). The mood immediately changes as Somerset races off toward the duo. Doe starts to toy with Mills, subtly planting the seeds for his big reveal. Fincher employs a series of uncomfortable angles, quick cuts, and frantic camera movements, putting the audience on edge, placing us within Mills' own uncertain frame of mind. Spacey's creepy, lifeless performance fuels the fire as Mills starts to put the pieces together. Somerset finally reaches the pair, but it's too late. Mills brandishes the gun around recklessly as a barrage of emotions swell and build within him. "What's in the box?" he asks, repeatedly, each time growing more certain of the answer. Doe reveals that he's murdered the detective's wife, becoming the embodiment of envy. Mills refuses to believe the confession as his rage grows. Somerset attempts to talk him down. Just when it seems like he might relent, Doe tells the distraught man that his wife was pregnant. It's enough to push him over the edge, and with that, Mills becomes wrath.
Fincher cuts to a close-up of Pitt, his face oscillating between unspeakable rage and total anguish. The music builds and builds, and after a quick image of Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) flashes on the screen, Mills becomes resolute. Doe closes his eyes, satisfied, and is then executed on the spot. Mills shoots him several more times, emptying his rage onto the lifeless murderer. Somerset simply stands, helpless to intervene. Mills looks around as if in a daze and then walks off. We cut to a wide, overhead shot, emphasizing the extreme physical and figurative gulf between Mills and Somerset, reinforcing the tragic path the former has now chosen. Led by Fincher's tense editing and Pitt's heartbreaking performance, the scene literally grabs hold of the audience and doesn't let go, leaving us breathless in the process. All the while, we never explicitly see what's in the box, letting our imagination fill in the blanks, making its tragic contents all the more devastating.
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?