Mar 7, 2015

60 more Magic Movie Moments Part 3

Lawrence of Arabia: Match cut

It took me a long time to get around to seeing Lawrence of Arabia, and by the time I had decided to address the oversight we were only about a year away from the inevitable 50th anniversary re-release, so I waited.  I'm glad I made that choice for so many reasons, but mainly for this tiny moment.

I am often of the opinion that the best editing is the editing you don't notice (for proof, in the form of a counter example, see Tony Scott's late films).  That, however, is not always the case and an impactful, well chosen, cut can be as powerful as anything in cinema.  The cut from Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) blowing out a match to a low sun turning the desert sky red is something no other medium can do in the same way.  It instantly transports us thousands of miles, alters our context.  

I would argue this is the best single edit I've ever seen.  It was lodged in my head for weeks after I saw the film, and jumped immediately to mind for this list despite the fact I've not yet rewatched it. 

Little Children: Blind date
Jane Adams is a great actress who seems to specialise in scene stealing; think of her college admissions secretary in Orange County or her topless conversation with John C. Reilly in The Anniversary Party.  This, the second historically bad date of her screen career, may be her finest bit of scene theft.

Adams plays a woman on a blind date with Jackie Earle Haley's Ronnie; a paedophile who has recently been released from prison and seems to be trying to make an effort at a normal life on the outside.  The scene starts out quite touching, with Adams and Haley both utterly convincing as people who are both a bit damaged and bruised, but it takes a sinister turn when Ronnie drops his date home.

The turn the scene takes should turn the focus on Ronnie and his now apparent inability to function as a normal person, even after a quietly successful date, but in fact it's Adams you end up watching.  Her silent hurt and disappointment at the turn a nice evening has taken is dveastating, and she plays it with customary subtlety and reality. 

Lord of War: The life of a bullet

The quality of Andrew Niccoll's ideas often outstrips the quality of his films, and Lord of War - though it's certainly better than Simone, or In Time as a whole - is no exception.  That is perhaps made more acute by just how strong this opening title sequence is.

These titles, by showing the journey from manufacture to firing in a single POV take, graphically illustrate both the enormity of what one bullet can do and the miniscule part of the larger issue that is represented by that one bullet.  It's a perfect lead in to a film with an arms dealer as its main character, largely because this title sequence then lies behind everything else in the film. 

Lourdes: Christine sits down

At 2009's Venice Film Festival Lourdes won several awards, but two were especially notable.  The Signis award, which is presented by a Catholic group and the Brian award, presented to a film that, among other things, "highlights and enhances the values of rationality".  I wouldn't be surprised if the two judging panels usually felt that their aims were diametrically opposed, and that's what is so brilliant about Lourdes and about this, its final scene, in particular.

Sylvie Testud gives a brilliant performance as Christine; a woman in her 30's now paralysed due to multiple sclerosis.  While on a pilgrimage to Lourdes she suddenly is able to walk again.  The film asks, but never answers, whether this is permanent nor whether it is a medical phenomenon or a miracle.  In the closing moments, Christine has been dancing with a man she's attracted to.  Then she goes to sit down.  The camera stays with her for a long time.  

Is Christine resting, will she be able to get up and start dancing again or has her paralysis returned?  Again, the film leaves us to decide for ourselves, and Testud's performance suggests that even Christine may be unsure.  It's a brave and endlessly thought provoking ending, the only one this film could have.

Millennium Actress: Trip through history
As I've said before, the death of Satoshi Kon at just 42, with only 4 completed films to his name, was a tragedy for movie lovers.  This sequence (and this film) is just one more example of why that's the case.

Millennium Actress is a film that thinks in much the same way as this list does; filtering experience through cinema, seeing cinema as a series of moments that resonate with the audience (in this case a documentary filmmaker interviewing a legendary actress).

In this hugely energetic sequence, through a series of match cuts, we see the main character Chiyoko ride through her iconic roles, and 1000 years of Japanese history, all the while observed by the filmmakers.  It's an astonishing sequence of animation, it develops the characters and comments on the relationship between film and reality that lies at the film's heart.  One of Kon's finest sequences.

Mr Smith Goes to Washington: Filibustering

Perhaps it's because it's election season and I'm feeling that the best thing I can do is spoil my ballot that this popped into my head.  That and the fact that, corny and idealistic as it may be, I love this movie and this scene.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington, I'm sure, was never anything but a fantasy and Jimmy Stewart's naive and self-scaracficially idealistic Jefferson Smith a ridiculously optimistic vision of a politician, but I can't help wishing we had a few like him to vote for whenever I watch this scene.

James Stewart's Oscar for The Philadelphia Story was widely seen as an apology for failing to give him the prize the year before for this performance.  That's probably unfair to The Philadelphia Story, but Stewart is magnificent here; at the height of his persona as the fundamentally decent American everyman, pouring passion and fervour into his every word.  I defy anyone not to be rooting for him throughout this brilliant scene.

The Muppets: Fozzie's dressing room
The reboot of The Muppets managed to find emotional engagement and pathos in amongst an almost non-stop chain of gags, almost every one of which hits, and for me the combination is seldom better done than when Kermit and Fozzie see each other for the first time in years.

It's already apparent that Fozzie has fallen on hard times, reduced to featuring in a tribute band called The Moopets, but that is hammered home when he and Kermit go to Fozzie's dressing room to talk.  It turns out that the dressing room is outside.  It's a funny visual, but it's also deeply sad.  The puppetry here is masterful, as Steve Whitmire suggests how embarrassed Kermit is that he's allowed his old friend to end up here and Eric Johnson gives us a sheepish Fozzie trying to put the best face on things, even when it begins to rain.

The scene as a whole is a perfect encapsulation of why this film works.

The Naked Gun: Driving lesson

I don't have any deep, meaningful rationale for this one.  It's not a moment that contributes to some overarching metaphor, it's not a particularly virtuoso piece of cinematic technique.  It just makes me laugh, a lot, and has done for more than 20 years.  That seems a good enough reason to list it here.

Natural Born Killers: Diner

As a teenager I was a much bigger Quentin Tarantino fan than I am now, at that time Natural Born Killers wasn't available here, having been pulled by Warner Brothers in the wake of the Jamie Bulger murder, so my first experience of the film was at double speed, played back on my basic VCR at long play speeds an a pirated tape.  What's remarkable is that it's only marginally less insane watched at normal speed.

This sequence establishes what the film is going to be.  Even before the violence begins it's off kilter; the angles canted, the picture switching between colour and black and white seemingly at random.  When L7's Shitlist blares on to the soundtrack the scene explodes  in violent energy.  The whole thing; performances, soundtrack, angles, cutting speaks to Oliver Stone letting himself completely off the chain.  It's bravura stuff, and something it's hard to imagine appearing in a relatively mainstream release in the days of PG-13isation.

A Nightmare On Elm Street ['84]: Freddy on the wall
If you ever want an example of how a remakes cheapens its source, look to the abysmally awful 2010 take on A Nightmare on Elm Street and the way it replicates this moment from the original.  In Wes Craven's film we have built up a dread of Freddy Kruger and when he emerges from Nancy's wall it's a small moment; a presence that threatens but isn't powerful enough yet to act on that threat.  It also looks amazing, clearly present in the same physical space as actress Heather Langenkamp.  The effect was achieved by the film's effects coordinator leaning in to a wall made of spandex, and it might be the creepiest image in 80's horror.

In the remake that dread of Freddy is absent to begin with, but worse is the fact that what emerges from the wall (and comes much further out into the room in this case) is clearly fake; a blob of CGI that hasn't appreciably advanced since Peter Jackson made The Frighteners, 15 years previous.  This is a cinematic equivalent of a Pepsi challenge, and the winner is clear.

Nymphomaniac: Mrs H

Much of Lars Von Trier's work is darkly funny, and Nymphomaniac is no exception, with a mischievous streak of humour running through even the film's more unforgiving passages.  This scene, from Volume 1, is perhaps the film's best moment and the one that combines the duelling tones of Von Trier's work best.

Uma Thurman plays the wife of a man who has been having an affair with Joe (played here by Stacy Martin) and now wants to move in with her.  Mrs H. has come with her husband, their little boys in tow, to see "where Daddy will be living".  Her wounded screed to Joe, her husband and their children, culminating in her asking Joe "would it be okay if I showed the children the whoring bed?" is both funny and painful.

Thurman storms the screen, giving her most vital performance in years (one which, in a just world, would have won ALL last year's best supporting actress prizes) , but Stacy Martin is great here too; discomforted as Joe's ordered promiscuity comes home to roost, perhaps for the first time, and giving the scene an extra layer of awkwardness making it plain through her body language that she doesn't want H to leave his wife.  

It would be great if we can see more of this reinvigorated Uma Thurman.  To be honest I'd forgotten she was this god an actress.

The Piano Teacher: Toybox
I'm not sure that this will be the scene that leaps to most people's minds from The Piano Teacher.  I hear discussion of the last shot and of the unparalleled coldness of the scene in the public toilets more frequently, but this moment has always stuck with me thanks to Isabelle Huppert's incredible performance in it.

Huppert, as piano techer Erika, has become obsessed with her student, played by Benoit Magimel.  In this scene she has written him a letter, detailing the s and m fantasies she wants him to help her enact.  As he reads, clearly more and more appalled as he goes on, Erika begins to lay out the contents of her toybox for him.

I have always found this a crushingly sad moment, casting Erika as a child, pleading with one of her peers to play with her, to make sure that she's no longer left out, as she has been in the past.  Huppert expresses this without dialogue, often without her face actually being on camera.  It's all in her posture, in the systematic way she lays the contents of the box out for Magimel.  That she can do so little yet say so much is proof of just how gifted Huppert is. 

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