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Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

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Santa Sangre and WUSA: Blood and Hate Speech – DVDs of the Week

Santa Sangre (Severin)

A student of Marcel Marceau in Paris, a founder of the surrealist theater Panic Movement in Mexico City, a Zen Buddhist, playwright and comic strip author, the Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky made his fame as a cult film director with his sprawling, symbolic, surreal films El Topo and The Holy Mountain, brutal and strange allegorical odysseys written and directed by and starring Jodorowsky that became staples on the midnight movie circuit and artifacts of the head film culture. They are also crude and grotesque productions that revel in the metaphysical mix of the sacred and the profane.

Blood cult: Jodorowsky style

Santa Sangre was made more than fifteen years after The Holy Mountain (and after the collapse of his attempt to bring Dune to the screen”) and his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller have improved with time. Whether or not this is the most accessible of Jodorwsky’s films (he also dabbled in more mainstream filmmaking), it is certainly the most accessible “Jodorowksy film,” a vision filled with circus imagery, surreal scenes, grotesque violence and psycho-sexual trauma. The director casts two of his sons as Fenix, his mad protagonist—Axel Jodorowsky as the grown man (introduced as an inmate in an asylum, regressed to savage behavior and pre-verbal existence) and Adan Jodorowsky as the young boy (a junior circus magician in tux and fake mustache watching the grotesque conduct of adults around him)—and then sends us into the psychodrama that sent him to the asylum. In flashback we watch his alcoholic brute of father (Guy Stockwell in slobbering degenerate mode) take time out of his knife-throwing act to seduce the voluptuous tattooed lady and his tempestuous trapeze artist mother (Blanca Guerra, all burning eyes and hissing fury) take her vengeance in a particularly personal way. In the present, he is drawn into the urban world for a field trip and wanders off to his waiting mother, who has plans to use his arms as the instruments of her continued revenge. Think of it as Jodorowsky’s Psycho by way of Fellini on shrooms.

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Guédiguian’s French Resistance, Fuller’s America and Early Corman – DVDs of the Week

Army of Crime (Kino Lorber)

Don’t let the title throw you. The heroes of Robert Guédiguian’s based-on-a-true-story French war drama are not The Dirty Dozen unleashed on the Nazis but a remarkably effective resistance cell formed of French Jews, communists and immigrants—the very “undesirables” targeted by the Nazis for the camps. Guédiguian’s previous films—at least ones I’ve had the good fortune to see—have been small dramas about communities of immigrants, underemployed and outcasts that pull together and to maintain their identities. Army of Crime offers a much bigger canvas—and a setting with profound resonance—for that theme to play out, and Guédiguian invites members of his stock company to fill out major roles.

“Army of Crime”: Battlefield Paris

Simon Abkarian is the Armenian poet, Communist and pacifist who leaves a concentration camp with a lie and takes up arms to lead a team of members not known for following orders, Virginie Ledoyen his devoted wife and partner and Robinson Stévenin and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet the reckless but passionate daredevil partisans under his command. Their stories play out slowly, the better to let the oppressive culture of occupied Paris (and of the widespread collaboration of police who support the racial policies, if not the authoritarian structure, of the Nazis occupation) sink in while sowing the tensions between the Communist leaders of the resistance and the non-Communist soldiers who fight for their own reasons: vengeance, defiance, love of country and the simple act of self-preservation under a regime dedicated to eradicating their existence. By the time the unit forms, you are ready for them to take the offensive, even as we know how it ends: the film opens with a spoken memorial to their sacrifice.

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Real People in a Virtual World: The Social Network – DVD of the Week

The Social Network (Sony)

The DVD/Blu-ray release of the week is without a doubt the much-lauded The Social Network, the favorite leading into the Oscar season. Directed with typical technical fastidiousness and textural richness by David Fincher from a verbally dexterous script by Aaron Sorkin, this story of the creation of Facebook is not really about Facebook but the people who created it and how relationships unraveled on its trajectory to becoming a national (and eventually global) phenomenon and multi-million (now multi-billion) dollar business. There’s been more written about this film than anything other American release this year (or so it appears from my unscientific survey) and Time magazine’s decision to name Zuckerberg the Man of the Year has only added to the attention. And I’m still fascinated by the film and Fincher’s exacting direction, jumping between the two separate depositions that he weaves through the flashback narrative, not so much muddying the record as revealing through the complexity of the story and the characters. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but there’s still plenty in the film worth talking about.

The excitement of friends embarking on a great adventure

The Social Network presents Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) as a self-involved nerd genius in Harvard who wants social acceptance but hasn’t a clue as to how to social interaction really works, either on a date—the opening scene of the film, where he literally drives away his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by deriding her inability to keep up with his ping-ponging monologue and responding to her comments as if they were attacks upon his identity—or with his friends. The irony inherent in the film is that this young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum, and that this seriously uncool outcast designed an online community the thrived because it was cool.

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Machete to the Catfish – DVDs of the Week

Machete (Fox)

Born of a tongue-in-cheek trailer for a border revenge movie that never was, Robert Rodriguez’s big-budget drive-in flick is a more convincing slice of B-movie love than his earlier Planet Terror, certainly more coherent.

Rousing the immigrant nation

Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez favorite) is the former Mexican federalé who turns into a one-man strike force after his family is massacred by a drug lord (Steven Seagal—who can’t keep his accent consistent, let alone convincing—as the pudgiest Mexican drug lord yet seen in the movies) and he’s framed for the attempted assassination of a corrupt Senator (Robert De Niro) by his drug-dealing campaign manager (Jeff Fahey). De Niro’s drawling politico plays the anti-immigration card as a racist scare campaign (he secretly funds a vigilante border patrol run by Don Johnson and uses the patrols as a target range with moving targets) as Rodriquez turns Machete into the protector of the downtrodden immigrants of Texas who fill the lowest-rung of the job market. It’s no coincidence that this hatchet-faced hero uses the tools of Mexican laborers to do most of his battling—hedge clippers, weed eaters, cooking utensils and his weapon of choice, the machete. Don’t call it political subtext, though. Rodriguez’s politics are right on the surface and about as complex as the film’s revenge plot, a kind-of populist response to the anti-immigration rhetoric from the more extreme margins of the political echo chamber. Rather, this is Rodriguez’s Latino answer to the blaxpoitation action films of the seventies, complete with Trejo as an accidental sweet sweetback sex machine, irresistible to every woman he meets without making the slightest overture to toward them.

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Best DVD / Blu-ray of 2010

Best-of lists are by their nature subjective things, and even more so when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. What makes a DVD release the “best”? The movie itself? The video and audio quality of the mastering and presentation? The supplements? Rarity of the title? Scope of the collection? Critical acclaim? Cult demand? Some inexplicable balance of some or all of these?

Well, I guess the latter is the closest we’ll come to quantifying the mysterious process, which is why rather than the usual Top Ten list, I’ve broken my picks into categories, so I can celebrate a box set achievement separately from a brilliant home video debut separately from a landmark restoration. Which is not to say this list is not run through with my own subjective judgments, simply that I have found my own way to spread the love around (including naming runners-up as my whims take me). I reviewed most (though not all) of these on various websites (including Parallax View) and have linked to these longer pieces wherever possible. And one last note: The picks are limited to American home video releases, simply because that’s my bailiwick and I haven’t the time or resources to explore the wealth of foreign releases that come out every year.

And for the 2010 release that I love most, allow me to present my…

DVD Release of the Year

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Criterion)

Josef von Sternberg is the great stylist of the thirties, a Hollywood maverick with a taste for visual exoticism and baroque flourishes (which prompted David Thomson to dub him “the first poet of underground cinema”), but step back into his silent work and you’ll find a storyteller of unparalleled talent and one of the great directors of silent cinema.

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Meet the Americans: John Doe and George Clooney – DVDs of the Week

Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (VCI)

Frank Capra’s last feature before leaving Hollywood to contribute his filmmaking talents to the war effort is his most populist piece of social commentary, a cynical satire of a publicity stunt that turns into a popular political movement.

Hashing out the politics of John Doe

Barbara Stanwyck is equal parts street-smart spunk and ferocious ambition as Ann Mitchell, a newspaper columnist swept out with the rest of the staff when a new owner takes over and leaves a kiss-off piece that starts a ruckus, drives sales and puts her in a prime position to negotiate a new contract, providing she keeps delivering her voice-of-the-people. Gary Cooper is at his laconic, everyman best as former minor league pitcher Long John Willoughby, now a homeless, unemployed drifter hired to play the role of Ann’s fictional John Doe, the voice of the people whose “letters” she writes for the paper. He becomes the public voice, his lazy delivery, lanky body language and homespun spirit giving her words an authenticity that raises the depressed spirits of struggling Americans and sparks a spontaneous grass roots movement.

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Inception: It’s All in Your Mind

Inception (Warner)

Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a caper film that heists dreams instead of treasure, is surely the most cerebral action thriller to become a blockbuster. It’s a genre film that reshuffles the rules and lays them out in a mind-bending pattern. Playing out on multiple planes of dream reality, it’s also another Nolan film to completely reimagine the world of cause and effect. But rather than tell a story, Nolan builds a construct and then plays within that construct. This script is more designed than written, the film constructed as much as directed, and that becomes all the more evident on repeat viewings.

Leonardo DiCaprio faces the dream

This is architecture as cinema, on every level: Narrative, conceptual, symbolic, visual, with story and characters sacrificed to the density of rules and limitations of  fantastical (meta)physical laws. It is so dense with angles and layers and details of meaning that I don’t think there is a line of dialogue in the film that does not somehow serve the exposition. Inception is so high concept that it becomes all concept and puzzle and narrative play at the sacrifice of story. By that I mean it foregrounds plot (a series of events) over story (the journey of a character).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the team leader of this psych-squad with a simple motivation (clear his name and get back home), and a head case on a level all his own. The backstory explains how he lost his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), in experiments in dreamtime, and as a result lost his life, putting him on the run as a wanted man unable to see his children. She now haunts his psyche as a phantom turned nemesis. You could call her the ghost in the machine but really Mal is a symbol of guilt, loss and self-blame as an avatar, a manifestation of his own psyche punishing itself in the most effective way it knows: not simply to remind Cobb of what happened to her, but to sabotage his capers.

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Liverpool and America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – DVDs/Blu-rays of the Week

Liverpool (Kino)

A journey through the bleak winter landscape of Tierra Del Fuego, Lisandro Alonso’s fourth feature Liverpool is part road movie and part enigmatic character piece. A sailor (Juan Fernández, a non-actor that Alonso met while scouting the area and developing the script) jumps ship when his freighter docks at the frozen port of the icy southern tip of Argentina and heads inland (to see, tells someone, if his mother is still alive). He hits a strip club, bums rides from truck stops and drinks himself into blackouts from a seemingly bottomless bottle. He wakes up one morning in an outhouse, almost dead from exposure, in a scene played for mordant humor, and takes stock of his town (less a village than a leftover community that remained behind after the collapse of a mill town) like a stranger who wandered in, without actually connecting with anyone.

Jumping ship in Liverpool

That’s pretty much the narrative movement of the film, but it’s not the story. Explanations are kept to a minimum (you have to wait for the final shot for any explanation of the title, and even then it’s no explanation, merely a suggestion of possibilities) and the motivations are vague, perhaps even to the protagonist (hero seems so inapt for this disconnected figure). The beauty is in the way Alonso observes his characters moving through space and time and measures the beats between the action. This sailor may not connect and Alonso’s removed vantage point may seem disconnected from the events, but he ends the film by leading into a new, more hopeful story family and community. He lets us connect.

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Modern Times, Night of the Hunter and The Elia Kazan Collection – DVDs of the Week

An embarrassment of riches and due to combination of late arrivals, a weekend without movies, a pesky head cold and a time-consuming website upgrade, I had less time with them than I would have liked and and my coverage is late. Thus, a major box from a seminal American director (released November 9) and two previously available essentials getting the Criterion treatment on DVD and debuting on Blu-ray (released on November 16). Submitted for your approval.

The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)

To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.

Elia Kazan

Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”

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Metropolis Reconstructed and Vengeance Dissected – DVDs of the Week

The Complete Metropolis (Kino)

Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.

With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.

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Antichrist and The Complete Larry Sanders – DVDs of the Week

Antichrist (Criterion)

I’m not sure how I manage to keep my simultaneous fascination with /repulsion for Lars von Trier in balance, but it’s back with a vengeance in Antichrist (Criterion), another provocation that is at once beautiful and perverse, personal and cynical, and filled with his sour vision of the emotional small-mindedness (small-heartedness?) of the human animal. This one, a portrait of marriage as a morass of anger, suspicion and power after she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into a pit of suicidal depression and he (Willem Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes personal charge of her treatment in a rural escape called Eden that von Trier twists into a diseased hell: paradise rotted.

Antichrist: Sex and Death

It all turns on the death of their infant child, which crawls through an open window and falls to its death while the parents are occupied in a slow-motion ballet of aggressive, feral sex. Anthony Dod Mantle is back behind the camera delivering Von Trier’s now familiar art-house look of carefully composed and stunningly sculpted establishing shots and framing sequences (like the B&W prelude of sex and death in the whisper of falling snow) while handheld photography takes us through the cover art frame and into their psychodrama.

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Chaplin Begins and the Hausu of Horrors – DVDs for the Week

Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley)

British music hall comedian Charles Chaplin made his screen debut in February 1914, playing a threadbare dandy with all physical cues of a cad in the Mack Sennett one-reel comedy Making a Living. The Tramp was born in his second screen appearance—the signature costume (baggy pants, tight cutaway coat, too-big shoes, too-small derby, bamboo cane and toothbrush mustache) built by Chaplin for his role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament—but audiences first saw him in the split-reel special Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., an improvised film shot in an afternoon with Chaplin’s tramp character constantly intruding on newsreel crews trying to shoot the races. Fitting that a comedy based on the fascination of movies and the yearn for celebrity via the screen introduced the figure who would become the biggest movie star in the world in a few short years.

Chaplin at Keystone

All this biographical information and historical detail is explored in Jeffrey Vance’s excellent essay and film notes in the accompanying 40-page booklet of Flicker Alley’s Chaplin At Keystone (Flicker Alley), a remarkable box set that collects the 33 surviving shorts (one-reel, two-reel and a couple of shorter split-reel films) and the feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, that he made for Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in 1914. (Only one Chaplin Keystone remains lost, but Vance helpfully provides notes on the short anyway.) Over the course of the year 1914, working with Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand and the rest of the directors and ensemble players in the Keystone company, Chaplin evolved from screen comedy debutante to Keystone star, even though he never received screen credit. In fact, no one at Keystone got screen credit or even images in the posters (Sennett wanted to keep them interchangeable) but Chaplin stood out and this distinctive (yet nameless to them) figure was a sought-after attraction. The exhibitors, who knew the value of a star, would simply put a cut-out of Chaplin out to let people know another of his Keystone films was playing, and audiences responded.

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Bogie and Bergman: DVDs of the Month

Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner)
The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray
(Warner)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Blu-ray
(Warner)

Sam Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”

Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. There’s not a lot new to say about the Bogie, and not much I can add to Dave Kehr’s excellent piece in the New York Times on the icon, the actor and the movie star in relation to the great new box set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner). I received the set late, just after returning from Vancouver and nursing the end days of a pesky head cold, so I’ve not had as much time and energy as I would have liked to dive into the set.

However, I can still offer a tour of the selections in the set through notes and reviews I wrote on earlier viewings of the films and coverage of their previous release on DVD. Yes, each of the 24 films in the set have been previously available on DVD, both individually and in various box set incarnations, and the supplements from those excellent Warner volumes are ported over. But the remarkable efficiency of this box set (12 two-sided flipper discs in six thinpak cases, plus a couple of extras, more on those later) and the amazing price tag ($100 retail, less with inevitable markdowns) brings the price per film to under $4 apiece.

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Paris, Texas on Criterion

Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, Paris, Texas (Criterion) was not Wim Wenders’ first American film—that would be Hammett (1982), which proved to be a dispiriting experience when producer Francis Ford Coppola decided to step in and re-edit Wenders’ vision to something more commercial (so much for the creative freedom he promised filmmakers)—but it is the first American film where Wenders carved his own vision into the American landscape (both physical and cinematic). Just two years after the Hammett debacle, he returned to the U.S. on his own terms, with a story he developed with Sam Shepard and financial backing from Europe that gave him the freedom to make his own film. Paris, Texas (a name that evokes the collision of and contrast between Europe and America) is a road movie, a drama of reconciliation and redemption, a modern western and an emotional odyssey of epic simplicity and emotional integrity set against an America both mythic (the stunning vistas of the Texas border desert are as primal as John Ford’s Monument Valley landscapes) and modern (from the lonely roadside motels and neon totems to the view down on Los Angeles from the hilltop family home).

Travis and Hunter at the crossroads of the 20th century frontier

Harry Dean Stanton (in his first and, to the best of my knowledge, only leading role to date) is Travis, a man who walks out of the desert and into civilization, parched and weak and mute but driven by purpose, even if it’s beyond his understanding at that point. Dean Stockwell is his brother Walt, who flies from Los Angeles to Southern Texas and drives him back, bringing Travis out of his almost catatonic, pre-verbal state as the journey brings him out of the wilderness and back to family, notably the son (Hunter Carson) he left behind four years before. Wenders and Shepard prefer spare dialogue that suggests more than it explains, letting the performances fill in the blanks and the images frame the drama. Longtime Wenders collaborator Robby Muller films the deserts and highways of the American southwest with a reverence for the primal beauty and the spare, expansive, seemingly unending landscape. Stanton looks carved from the same wind-scoured stone and sand when he emerges from the desert and Muller and Wenders slowly soften and humanize him as he tentatively but sincerely interacts with his family and returns to society, only to leave on a quest with the son he has just reconnected with. Nastassja Kinski is Jane, the young wife and mother first seen in the home movies that Walt shows one night, and it’s like that image of the happy family captured in warm, blurry super8 footage becomes his grail: he has to repair the broken family that, we are to learn, he himself destroyed.

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