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Film review: 'The Cove' a true-life horror story

Mandy-Rae Cruickshank in "The Cove," a disturbing documentary.
Mandy-Rae Cruickshank in "The Cove," a disturbing documentary.
Oceanic Preservation Society

THE COVE — ★★★1/2 — Documentary feature about dolphin slaughter in Japan; rated PG-13 (violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity); Broadway Centre

Calling "The Cove" a "mere" documentary almost sells the movie short.

It's a true-life horror story as frightening as anything seen on the big-screen all year …

And parts of it qualify as being a suspenseful, riveting espionage thriller …

But more than anything, it's a hard-to-shake story that will make you think seriously about the ethics of holding certain animal species in captivity, as well as make you seriously reconsider some of your seafood eating habits.

Made by members of the Ocean Preservation Society, "The Cove" largely focuses on Richard O'Barry, a veteran dolphin trainer who rose to fame through his work with bottlenose dolphins, especially on the set the 1960s television program "Flipper."

The years that followed have seen a repentant O'Barry become a notorious animal-rights activist.

In particular, he has tried to show the world what is happening in Taiji, Japan, a town that — on the outside, at least — appears to love aquatic life-forms, especially dolphins and whales.

However, both O'Barry and the film argue that Taiji officials have been covering up animal cruelty of epic proportions.

"Farmers" in Taiji round up thousands of dolphins and herd them into an isolated cove.

A small number of these are selected for amusement parks and for performance programs around the world. The unfortunate dolphins that don't make that cut, though, are butchered, and their meat is sold for public consumption.

Director Louie Psihoyos and his fellow filmmakers assembled an "Oceans 11"-like crew of divers, special-effects wizard and so-called "thrill junkies" to infiltrate the Taiji cove.

This group uses a few high-risk, late-night excursions and other skulduggery just to get rarely seen footage of dolphin killings. Obviously, these scenes aren't easy to watch — even if some of them were shot in a more "palatable," infra-green form. But they are necessary to get the point across.

And the film, as one-sided as it may be, is undeniably effective. Whether you agree with O'Barry's assessments of dolphin intelligence and behavior, it's hard to argue that what's going on in Japan is humane in any sort of way.

"The Cove" is rated PG-13 and features strong and sometimes disturbing violent content (footage of dolphin killings) and some gory imagery, scattered strong profanity, and a few off-color remarks and references. Running time: 92 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com