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last update 28.Nov.07
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Cocaine Cowboys   3/5
cocaine cowboys Documenting the true Miami Vice story (complete with a pulsating new Jan Hammer score), this captivating film is packed with accounts of what really went on during the violent Colombian drug trade of the late-1970s and early 1980s.

The key witnesses have all done prison time (one's still locked up). Roberts is a wheeler-dealer, developing from a low-level Italian mafioso into one of the biggest cocaine importers in America, but cleverly avoiding any connection to the drug. Munday is the transport genius, inventively figuring out how to fly under the customs radar. And Ayala is a hitman for the most vicious drug boss, Griselda Blanco, who noticeably lowered Miami's murder rate when she left town in 1984.

What makes this so watchable is the fact that the characters are even more vivid than anything we saw in Scarface or Miami Vice, and the film's groovy, urgent 1970s vibe pulls us straight in. The detailed accounts trace the creation of the whole Miami drug scene, as the city transformed from a sleepy retirement community to one of glamour personified--all fuelled by illicit cash. But the result was also a pirate atmosphere with general lawlessness and brutal murders in very public places.

The first-hand accounts are extremely detailed; the filmmakers somehow tracked down virtually everyone who's still alive, and their stories are riveting, assembled with whizzy, fast-paced editing, including news film of the grisly crime scenes. And they explore the situation from every conceivable angle: dealers, smugglers, drug barons, cops, federal agents, coroners and even the leggy models these guys draped over their arms. The most astonishing interviewee is Ayala, who describes cold-blooded murder as if it was just another day at the office.

It's intriguing to see how the narrative follows an almost cinematic arc, as the boom years are followed by economic collapse when the drug trade is finally shut down--corrupt cops are rounded up, traffickers arrested and kingpins chased out of town. But by this time, the film has worn us out with too much information. Even if it's fascinating, it's too long and too cluttered with detail, so by the time it finally winds to a close, we've had enough.

dir Billy Corben
with Jon Roberts, Mickey Munday, Jorge 'Rivi' Ayala, Toni Mooney, Edna Buchanan, Nelson Andreu, Sam Burstyn, Bob Palumbo, Joseph Davis, Louis Caruso, Raul Diaz, Al Singleton
miami release US 27.Oct.06,
UK 23.Nov.07
06/US Magnolia 1h58

18 themes, strong violence, language
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A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash   3.5/5
a crude awakening The facts in this documentary are astoundingly sobering, and yet society continues to keep its head buried in the sand. By avoiding any political slant, the filmmakers forcefully get the message across.

It's pretty simple really: oil is non-renewable. There's only ever been a small amount of it on earth, and in the last 150 years we've used it to fuel humanity's biggest spurt in technology, science, transportation and population growth. But we're at the end of the supply. We've known this from the beginning, and yet we've never planned ahead.

At the centre of this film is the concept of "peaking out", defined in the 1950s as the point where reserves start running out. This theory has proven true, as demand continues to grow (especially in China and India). Meanwhile, alternative fuels are too marginal to make much of a difference; our current attempts at biofuel or hybrid engines are simply not enough at this stage in the game. And they won't help us replace plastic, which is used in everything from computers to cosmetics.

The filmmakers explore through straight-talking interviews from geologists, politicians, lawyers, oil company experts and academics. No one denies that this is happening, and it's quite scary to discover how research has been slanted over the years for political and economic reasons. Politicians and corporately sponsored journalists are afraid to bring us bad news, so they just lie. Basically, we've bled the earth dry to line our own pockets, even though we are condemning humanity to a scary future.

Against all this doom and gloom, the film contains witty animation and music, historical footage and lots of fabulous old movie clips. We also travel from America to the UK, Russia, Azerbaijan and Venezuela to examine the issue on a global scale. None of this makes the news any better. Mankind is going to have to learn how to live without oil in the very near future, and we need to start figuring it out now. Lifestyles will change as the oil era becomes a blip in human history. Yes, this is an extremely bleak film. But it's not scare-mongering; it's an urgent wake-up call.

dir Basil Gelpke, Ray McCormack
with Roscoe Bartlett, Colin Campbell, Matt Simmons, Terry Lynn Karl, Matthew David Savinar, Fadhil Chalabi, Luis E Giusti, Robert E Ebel, Abdul Samad Al-Awadi, Wade Adams, Robert Bottome, Gary Yannibelli
gas guzzler release US 17.Apr.07 tv,
UK 9.Nov.07
06/Switzerland 1h23
PG themes
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My Kid Could Paint That   3.5/5
my kid could paint that This documentary takes a big step in a fascinating direction when the filmmaker actually becomes part of the story. And it examines some serious themes about the art world will telling a fascinating tale with an entertaining sense of humour and perspective.

The subject is the precocious 4-year-old Marla Olmstead, who rocketed to fame when she sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings and was acclaimed as a modern art prodigy. Her parents, Laura and Mark, seemed pleasantly surprised, as did the local Binghampton, New York, gallery owner Anthony Brunelli. Then 60 Minutes did a feature asking whether she actually painted on her own, and a full-fledged controversy erupted. Especially since Marla is too distracted to allow a camera to film her.

The film is fairly straightforward fly-on-the-wall, as Bar-Lev is allowed full access to the family. There's a terrific examination of modern art, as Marla is compared with Pollock, Kandinsky and Picasso, even though she clearly hasn't a clue why everyone's making such a fuss over her. And her parents essentially turn her into a cottage industry, booking her on shows from Oprah to Letterman, and selling her increasingly pricey paintings while talking about how surprising this journey is. So when the 60 Minutes exposé arrives, it's a huge jolt.

Then filmmaker Bar-Lev starts exploring his personal observations, and the film turns into its own investigative piece. Bar-Lev clearly isn't convinced by the "evidence", as he shows the clear difference between Marla's masterpieces and the two paintings she manages to create on camera. But then, he also digs around in the basement and looks at Mark's paintings, which are in a completely different genre.

This provocative, inquisitive film also explores the fact that modern art is more about the artist than the art, and how different marketing is from true art. Besides the issue of how we judge abstract art, regardless of who paints it, there's the whole area of expectations: can Marla and her even cheekier little brother Zane ever have a normal life when a mere rumour destroys their parents' and Brunelli's lives? The lack of certainty at the end is a little frustrating, but the film is astute and important.

dir Amir Bar-Lev
with Marla Olmstead, Laura Olmstead, Mark Olmstead, Amir Bar-Lev, Anthony Brunelli, Zane Olmstead, Elizabeth Cohen, Michael Kimmelman, Jackie Wescott, Stuart Simpson
marla release US 5.Oct.07,
UK 14.Dec.07
07/US A&E-BBC 1h24

london film fest
12 themes, language
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A Very British Gangster   4/5
a very british gangster It's easy to forget this is a documentary. The central character wouldn't seem out of place in almost any British crime drama--he'd actually liven most of them up. But this is a real man who's both a life-long criminal and a pillar of his community.

By day, Manchester is run by the police, but at night the gangsters are in charge. With more than 40 convictions to his name, Dominic Noonan has spent 22 of his 39 years in prison. He's the top mobster in the city, a charismatic figure who happily chats, Chopper-style, about his life of crime, describing bank robberies, explaining how he runs his gang, discussing his strong Catholic faith and talking about how the constant stream of courtroom trials is jeopardising his relationship with his two children. Here, people go to Dominic instead of the police for justice.

From his work in places like Beirut, Bosnia and Belfast, MacIntyre has a reputation for fearless journalism, and his nerve doesn't desert him here. His tenacious, probing footage is stylishly edited into a solid, robust film that's lively and utterly jaw-dropping. What makes the film so riveting is the way it captures Noonan's personality so vividly as a strangely likeable man who admits that he's dangerous. He also discloses that he's now exclusively gay.

As the film progresses, a narrative develops as we follow Noonan through a series of events, including police charges and trials. Through it all, he maintains his self-deprecating, ribald humour, and it's clear the people around him love him. We meet his two sons, godson and various nephews. There's also his older brother Desmond, a seasoned criminal with a crack habit; cousin Eileen, who houses the stray family members; and his 19-year-old protégé who seems to like money and drugs a little too much. Not to mention Noonan's sharp-dressed crew, with an average age of 17.

Through it all, MacIntyre's camera is unflinching, capturing every telling eye-flicker and pushing at times just a little further than most people would. The Noonans may look like a big loyal family like the Sopranos, and you don't want to cross them. As the story deepens we are completely drawn into their world, wondering along with Noonan what will happen next. And as it deepens, the film is possibly more entertaining, and frightening, than any fictional mob story could ever be.

dir Donal MacIntyre
with Dominic Noonan
noonan (left) and crew
release UK 7.Dec.07,
US Jan.07 sff
07/UK 1h37

15 themes, language
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall