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87. La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) (#–)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Phil Bagnall, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode thrown in.

This time, Gillo Pontecorvo’s La battaglia di Algeri.

Unfolding primarily between November 1954 and December 1957, La battaglia di Algeri follows the chaos in the streets of Algiers as revolutionary nationalist forces struggle against the control of the French colonial forces.

At time of recording, it was not actually ranked on the Internet Movie Database, having dropped out between its selection as a film to be covered and the recording of the of the episode.

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Non-Review Review: Whitney

Celebrity documentaries can be tricky.

There are so many forces that pull narratives in so many directions; the attempts by those in the celebrity’s orbit to shift the story in order to favour their account of events, the yearning for a tabloid sensationalism to feed the impulses of the public, the difficulty separating personality from persona, and the fact that deceased celebrities cannot speak for themselves. Whitney has to contend with all of these challenges in its attempts to construct a portrait of one of the most vocal artists of the twentieth century.

Director Kevin MacDonald does a remarkably job in structuring his account of the troubled singer’s life and times, of capturing what it was that made Whitney Houston such a compelling figure for so long in the public consciousness, and the forces that contributed to her rise and her eventual implosion. Working with interviews of friends and family, and drawing from a variety of interviews both public and candid, MacDonald manages to sketch an outline of an intriguing figure and to explore a deeply harrowing story of fame and self-destruction.

Whitney is a deeply moving, sincerely soulful and truly heartbreaking piece of documentary cinema.

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Non-Review Review: Citizen Lane

Citizen Lane is the latest documentary from director Thaddeus O’Sullivan, following the life and times of Hugh Lane.

Essentially combining documentary discussion of the central character with dramatic reconstructions of moments both key and incidental, Citizen Lane sketches an intriguing portrait of a fascinating figure. Lane is perhaps best known as an art collector and dealer, whose name adorns one of the more prestigious art galleries in the city centre. However, Lane is something of a mysterious figure to all but the most devoted of Irish cultural historians, lurking at the edge of the frame in stories about artists like Yeats or Synge.

Turn of the Century City.

Citizen Lane pulls back the curtain a little bit, illuminating both its subject and the world around him. Citizen Lane closes on an imagined image of Lane wandering through the gallery named in his honour, unassumingly travelling through a series of interlocked rooms, largely unnoticed by those in attendance. This image captures what Citizen Lane suggests is the most compelling facet of its central figure, the manner in which he seems to move through early twentieth-century Dublin intersecting with the grand sweep of Irish (and eventually global) history.

Citizen Lane is an enlightening and entertaining piece of work, and a compelling argument for how works of art (and even those who engage with art) seem to turn a mirror back on the culture around them.

Painting a picture of life in twentieth century Dublin.

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Non-Review Review: Filmworker

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

What must it be like to surrender a life in service of somebody else pursuing their dreams? It is a challenging and provocative question; very few people are willing to risk everything to chase their own dreams, so what level of devotion must be required to do that in service of somebody else’s aspirations?

This is the central question of Filmworker, the documentary charting the life and times of Leon Vitali, who essentially surrendered his life to director Stanley Kubrick, to help the director fulfill his creative vision and realise his dreams on celluloid. The opening voiceover, lifted from Matthew Modine’s diaries working on Full Metal Jacket, likens Leon Vitali to a moth drawn to Stanley Kubrick’s flame. It’s an apt metaphor, one that plays through Filmworker.

For years, Leon Vitali was Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand man, the film offering varying labels; some call him an “assistant”, others a “factotum”, while Leon’s own official classification of his job for paperwork and applications was “filmworker.” Whatever title might have been applied to Leon, the man did everything did everything. The jack-of-all-trades coached actors, he oversaw casting, he restored negatives, he documented decisions, he engaged with distribution. He was essential to the operating of Kubrick’s creative machine, yet he remains mostly anonymous.

Filmworker engages with this relationship, with the sacrificing of an individual’s autonomy to enable another’s creative vision. The film is refreshing frank in some respects about the demands of such a life, of the temperamental impositions made by such artists of these devotees. The film captures the romance of working with genius, but also the toll that it exacts.

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Non-Review Review: Dawson City – Frozen Time

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

In 1978, the city of Dawson was demolishing an old ice rink to make room for a new recreational centre. During the demolition, the construction crews stumbled on something remarkable. Reels and canisters of films buried in the old swimming book, sealed away and forgotten about. This was a treasure trove for cinema historians, the unearthing of a collection that included films that had been presumed lost to history. It represented a tangible and literal connection to the rich history of cinema and – through that – to the history of American popular culture.

Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary looking at this archeological discovery, but it is also so much more. Using footage taken from the recovered films, and from other contemporaneous materials, Morrison takes the audience on a trip through the cultural history of the eponymous settlement, from its origins at the end of the nineteenth century through to the unearthing of these nitrate film reels in the late seventies. The result is a beautiful and compelling exhumation of something much more than those invaluable and long-considered lost silent films.

Morrison weaves a fascinating and compelling narrative that seems to tie all of this together into a convincing and expansive social history. The result is a documentary with startling ambition and scope, in some ways reflecting the approach taken by those earliest of settlers panning for gold in the Yukon territory. Dawson City follows both the social evolution of the settlement and occasionally digresses to follow some of its most important inhabitants. Some of these digressions introduce players who will return to the narrative later in the film, both others suggest a broader social context for the film.

Dawson City is occasionally just a little bit too unfocused for its own good, casting its net just a little bit too wide to bring everything back together for an otherwise satisfying finale. Nevertheless, Dawson City is a powerful ode to a community and to cinematic history, one with big ideas and provocative insights.

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Non-Review Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is incredibly light and fluffy.

In many respects, Kent Jones’ documentary about the eponymous piece of classic film literature plays like something of a late night infomercial populated with nerdiest film endorsements imaginable. Hitchcock/Truffaut is not so much interested in exploring and expanding its source text, instead settling for celebration. Wes Anderson boasts that his copy of the book is so well-used that it is held together by rubber bands; Kiyoshi Kurosawa explains that the only thing holding him back from blatantly stealing from the book is a promise to himself.

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There is not anything particularly wrong with this. There is something quite fun in watching film-makers get evangelical about their craft. All of the talking heads offer some insight into their own work when they expand upon what Alfred Hitchcock means to them. Martin Scorsese’s joy as he journeys shot-by-shot into Psycho is infectious, and it is clear that everybody involved with the project holds Hitchcock in the highest possible regard and embraces him as a cornerstone of modern movie-making.

Hitchcock/Truffaut‘s biggest issue is also its strongest virtue; this is a cheerful and superficial acknowledgement of its subject, one that decides particularly in-depth coverage of the auteur is secondary to rendering the material accessible to neophytes.

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Non-Review Review: Aonrú

Aonrú offers a fascinating insight into life on Cape Clear Island off the west coast of Cork. The small community had subsisted for years on farming and fishing – as the documentary notes, “the farmers were fishermen and the fishermen were farmers.” Now, due to a number of intersecting and overlapping hurdles – both natural and man-made – the community finds itself struggling to provide a future for itself. The thirty minute documentary examines what it must be like to live on Cape Clear.

Skilfully constructed from a myriad of first-person accounts, archive footage and beautiful images of the region, Aonrú explores the pace of life in one of the most remote parts of the country.

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