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Not-So-Funny People

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Thirst won a jury prize at the year’s Cannes Film Festivalpretty impressive for a vampire flick. The movie’s evolution from somber spiritual torment to icky body horror to fetishistic sex to wild lyricism (vampires pogoing off buildings) to Grand Guignol splatter is exhilarating. The disjunctive editing catches you off-guard, the actors surprise you with their animal intensity. But this is still basically a B horror picture with the addition of a film-noir femme fatale to spice things up. It’s fun (if overlong), but for all the noisy slurping, there’s no fresh blood.

Director Louie Psihoyos knows the secret to making a boffo activist documentary: a kick-ass narrative, surprising twists, heroes you root for, and bad guys you despise. The Cove is built like a slick caper melodrama (someone onscreen invokes Ocean’s Eleven), its protagonist a man who has sinned in his own eyes and now spends his life trying to atone. He’s Ric O’Barry, the trainer who got rich training the dolphins that would be Flipper (in the original series) and had a crisis of conscience when the show went off the air and one of the five dolphins who played him went into a downward suicidal spiral (really) in an aquarium tank. Dolphins, he says, don’t belong in captivity. They’re too smart, too soulful, and that smile isn’t really a smile. They’re crying on the inside.

The movie takes place on the coast of Japan in the village of Taiji, where most of the dolphins destined for the world’s aquariums are trapped. That’s bad enough, but the ones that don’t look as cute as Flipper are driven by a wall of sound into a secluded cove and don’t come out. The cove, otherworldly in its beauty, is heavily guarded: No one gets near it when the deed is being done. The head of the International Whaling Commission and sundry Japanese lackeys deny, deny, denyand minus pictures of the slaughter, who can prove them wrong? O’Barry and his team need footagea game changer.

The Cove is that game changer. The assembly of the teamdivers, technicians, getaway driversis stirring. When savvy folks at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic build fake rocks to hold video cameras, you’ll forgive them for The Phantom Menace. Weeks before the mission, diver Mandy-Rae Cruikshank watches a bleeding dolphin that somehow escaped the cove as it expires in the waves; as she weeps, Taiji fishermen point at her and laugh. The perfidy is infinite: The dolphin meat is saturated with mercury, which goes straight into the brains of little kids and fetuses. The killing, when seen, is indescribable. You’re almost grateful the cove turns red because the carnage is partially obscured.

The end of The Cove is as rousing as anything from Hollywood. Manipulative? Surebut isn’t that fitting? Capitalism has driven an entire village to massacre dolphins and keep its work hidden. Now comes the exciting crossover-hit documentary to bring on the Mother of All Outrages. You can’t get away with killing Flipper: It’s the bad guys who are dead in the water.

Near the end of Geoffrey Smith’s superb documentary The English Surgeon, the title figure, Henry Marsh (he looks like a shorter John Cleese), performs brain surgery in Ukraine on a young man, and the camera gets in close on the open skull. At first I had my hands over my eyes, but as the scene went on I peeked and finally stared full on at the gray, gelatinous mass as the surgeon poked around, lifting up wet stuff in search of the huge sticky tumor that would, if left in place, eventually end the patient’s life. The man is conscious, and now and then Marsh prods a lobe to see if he can make a leg twitchit looks kind of fun. Since up until then the film has been utterly heartbreaking, you take your laughs where you find them. For fifteen years, Marsh has traveled to Ukraine to help the underserved or the served-too-late. He has to tell women who bring in EEGs of their grandchildren that there’s nothing to be done, the tumor is on the brain stem, too advanced, inoperable. You stare at his impassive face, wondering how he can utter such words without breaking down. But he did oncehe lost his objectivity and tried to operate on a young girl and made a mess of what was left of her life. He has never gotten over it. So he shows his compassion by the travel and long days and patients he sees who line up for hours. Heroes are often inscrutable, so who knows why he does what he does? All I know is the happiest sight of my week was a man with the top of his head sawed off.

Funny People
Directed by Judd Apatow.
Universal Studios. R.

Thirst
Directed by Park Chan-Wook.
Focus Features. R.

The Cove
Directed by Louie Psihoyos.
Lionsgate. PG-13.


The English Surgeon
Directed by Geoffrey Smith.
Indiepix. Unrated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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