Movie Review: “The German Doctor”

ImageAs plain and simple as the title is, it still gives the story away.
“The German Doctor” is set in South America — Argentina — in 1960. And you’d have to have slept through years of history classes and skipped past every re-run of “The Boys from Brazil” to not guess who that doctor might be.
But writer-director Lucia Puenzo, adapting her own historical novel, concocts a disquieting and chilling thriller out of what might be a lost chapter in the infamous career of Nazi Doctor Joseph Mengele.
Yes, the stranger’s moustache is faintly sinister. His attentions, especially for the Argentine family’s daughter Lilith (Florencia Bado, precocious and terrific), suggest a perverse degree of scrutiny.
He doesn’t say why he’s on this lonely road in the middle of Patagonia. But this fellow who calls himself “Helmut” (Alex Brendemühl, guarded, excellent) drives a Chevy and keeps a doctor’s bag handy at all times. And all he wants to do is follow them so he can avoid the dangers of being stranded. Sure, says dad Enzo (Diego Peretti).
But as the family arrives in the alpine setting where an inn their relatives used to run is located, Helmut reveals a detail, here and there. He studies animal genetics. He’s insistently curious about mother Eva (Natalia Oreiro) and her pregnancy. Is she having twins?
“There’s nothing more mysterious than blood,” he purrs as he fills his journals with drawings, diagrams and charts. He’s sure a little hormone treatment would help the undersized Lilith grow, and spare her the teasing she endures in school.
Because that’s just what happens in Aryan High, down South America way.
Lilith narrates the story, describes herself as a “perfect specimen” in the German doctor’s eyes, and watches as he ingratiates himself into her family’s lives — underwriting Enzo’s doll-making hobby so that he can mass produce little Heidi look-alikes (nice metaphor) — slipping treatments for Lilith in between his many meetings with “the neighbors” and all the other blue-eyed folks who make this corner of Argentina a touch Bavarian.

Puenzo’s cinematographer, her brother Nicolas Puenzo, captures scenery that seems straight out of a Leni Reifenstahl movie, snow-capped mountains that attracted Germans there long before the Austrian corporal’s Reich sent others seeking a refuge that looked like home.
A passing acquaintance with history doesn’t spoil the film’s suspense, not when the first swastika pops up at an unexpected time from an unexpected source. And melodramatic touches like organized, bullying and secretive school kids and a too-nosy school photographer (Elena Roger) don’t weigh down the film any more than Enzo’s anachronistic ’70s haircut or Helmut’s ’65 Impala in a movie set in 1960.
“The German Doctor”, in Spanish, German and Hebrew with English subtitles, is still a cracking good thriller. Because as that title implies, whatever gifts Germany has given modern culture — and the film’s scene of young teachers twisting to a German version of “The Purple People Eater” certainly counts — in the movies, there’s still no villain like a Nazi one.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief nudity
Cast: Florencia Bado, Àlex Brendemühl, Diego Peretti, Natalia Oreiro, Elena Roger
Credits: Written and directed by Lucia Puenzo. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:33

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Movie Review: “The Railway Man”


In Hollywood parlance, they “meet cute” — he stumbles into her first class
seat on the train to Edinburgh.
She (Nicole Kidman) is a bit taken aback, but only for a moment. She offers,
way too soon, that she’s “newly single.” He is bookish, awkward, slow to pick up
on that. His encyclopedic knowledge of rail schedules gives away that he’s
really into trains.
“I’m not a train spotter, I’m a railway enthusiast.”
His small talk is pattering on about the history of every village, hamlet and
landmark they pass by.
“Lancaster — known as the hanging town.”
He is smitten, she in intrigued. So it’s not really a coincidence when he
runs into on her home bound train some days later. Thus begins an adorable love
affair and marriage.
But Eric has night terrors, paralyzing seizures of fear set off by a phrase,
a song on the radio. Patti, who loves him, needs answers.
“The Railway Man” is about the horrors the people who lived through the “Keep calm and carry on” era didn’t talk about. This slow, uneven drama is a different sort of British prisoner of war movie. And even if it stumbles on its way to its fairly obvious, politically correct conclusion, it’s still worthwhile as a
closer read on history than the decades of WWII movies that preceded it.
Because it’s good to remember that the construction of the Bridge over the
River Kwai wasn’t all British stiff upper lips, jolly good sport playing head
games with the Japanese, whistling the “Colonel Bogey March” as they did.
For those who lived through it, prisoners of war worked to death as slave
labor under inhuman conditions in the jungles of Thailand, it was a fetid,
living hell.
Patti Lomax has to pry information out of Eric’s peers, the men who meet to
not talk about what they went through together building that Thai-Burma Railway.
Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) is dismissive, but eventually he fills her in on what
they all have been living with for 40 years (the movie is set in 1980).
In a long flashback, we see the shameful, seemingly premature surrender of
Singapore, which Churchill called “the worst disaster” in British military
history. The young radio operators, Eric and Finley (played by Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid) pocket vacuum tubes and other radio parts as they line up to march into captivity. But once there, they see the awful consequences of getting caught doing that. They may be needed to keep the few machines the Japanese are using to build this rail line going. But beatings, torture and summary executions are a constant threat.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky cast emaciated men to play many of the prisoners, and took care to get the Japanese right, too, historically. These weren’t the best and the brightest. They were small men, physically, mentally and spiritually, raised on a diet of rice and racism. And they behaved barbarically.

“The Railway Man” vividly, if unevenly recreates that horrific past. And then
Teplitzky and the screenwriters very clumsily document the way the real Eric Lomax came to terms with it and his chief tormentor, a secret police
interpreter/interrogator, played by Tanroh Ishida in the war scenes and Hiroyuki Sanada in the 1980 “present.” Those scenes, whatever their moral rectitude, ring hollow and false. The actors bring no conviction to them.
Shifts in attitude and tone are abrupt, as Firth plays Lomax as utterly
broken, teetering on the brink of madness at one moment, lucid and calculating the next. Kidman is beguiling in the courtship scenes, given too little to play in the “Why won’t you talk to me?” ones.
Skarsgard brings gravitas to his fellow survivor role, and the younger
players — Irvine, Reid and Ishida — acquit themselves nicely playing
characters who are either dehumanized or dehumanizers.
But “The Railway Man” is more interesting as history, re-written, than as the
moral parable this true story became. As a generation dies out and the tests of those who lived through that era are forgotten, movies like this, even the less satisfying ones, help us remember and appreciate the great wrongs, the scars and the healing power of forgiveness in the face of World War II’s unspeakable cruelty.


MPAA Rating: R for disturbing prisoner of war violence
Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid,
Hiroyuki Sanada, Tanroh Ishida
Credits: Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, written Frank Cottrell Boyce and
Andy Paterson. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:54

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Movie Review: “Blue Ruin”

ImageEvery homeless man has a story. And in the case of Dwight Evans, the “Duck Dynasty”-bearded hermit of the minimalist thriller “Blue Ruin,” it’s a minor epic.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s film is about a blood feud, the crippling impact of long-ago murders on a drifter who is only spurred to action when he learns that a murderer who destroyed his family is getting out of prison.
Dwight, played by Macon Blair in an utterly unaffected performance, has mastered laying low in the little Delaware town where he lives. He sneaks baths in the odd vacant beach cottage, dumpster dives for food and amusement park tickets and lives in his rusted, bullet-hole riddle car far off the beaten path.
But as sneaky as he is, the cops know him. And when they warn him a killer is about to get out of jail, Dwight sells recyclables for gas money, pulls the car battery out of mothballs and sends his sister a postcard of warning.
He doesn’t have enough for a gun, so he rummages through pickups in the parking lot of a local honky tonk. “Blue Ruin” is a ringing endorsement for the virtues of keeping a trigger lock on your pistol. Because without a firearm, revenge comes with a knife and a brutal encounter in the men’s room of the bar the ex-con visits the minute he’s out of prison.
We pick up Dwight’s story in bits and pieces, his obsession with old photo albums and high school yearbooks, some of it from a chat with his sister.
“I’m not used to…talking this much.”
The violence is immediate, bloody and personal. Blair and his writer-director limit Dwight’s cunning to things he picked up being homeless. He sets a simple trap here, clumsily fails to cover his tracks there. This is just how somebody living off the grid might get away with a revenge killing. Until the other family comes hunting (shotguns, crossbows) for payback.
The dialogue is hard-boiled in the extreme, never more than when Dwight tracks down an old high school buddy (Devin Ratray, excellent) because he remembers the guy’s into guns, as indeed a lot of the people in Dwight’s corner of Virginia are.
“No speeches,” Ben (Ratray) warns about revenge killing. “No talkin’. You point the gun, you shoot the gun.”
“Blue Ruin” stumbles only when it violates Ben’s rules in the third act. Repeatedly. The fact that one of the people Dwight is feuding with is an unrecognizable Eve Plumb, from the 1970s TV series “The Brady Bunch,” makes up for some of that.
It’s a patient film, taking the time to set up Dwight’s manner of living, the hows and how-tos of homelessness. He tracks Dwight from the dumpy beach town onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, from the seedy bars to the remote homesteads where violent people can target practice with no neighbor to fuss at them for the racket.
Saulnier wastes barely a moment of screen time in this grim and gripping slice of Southern Gothic. “Blue Ruin” joins “Shotgun Stories” and “Joe” as vivid reminders that however homogenized American culture seems, there are still pockets that are distinct, with people who live by their own rules and their own bloody code.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, and language
Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves, Eve Plumb
Credits: Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier. A Radius/TWC release.
Running time: 1:30

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Movie Review: “Last Passenger”

ImageA runaway train tale is a disaster made for the movies. It happens in real
time, a ticking clock thriller where “the end of the line” is literally the end
of the line for its victims. We learn which characters have “character” over the course of the crisis.
The special effects don’t have to be exotically special. And every now and
then, this sort of thing really happens. So yeah, we buy into it.
It’s no wonder that movies from “Runaway Train” to “Unstoppable” have
succeeded with this simple plot line.
“Last Passenger” is a London commuter train runaway tale, a handful of people on The Hastings line who notice they’re skipping stops, that something happened to the porter/guard on board, that the brakes don’t work. What will, what can they do?
Lewis (Dougray Scott of “My Week With Marilyn”) is headed home to Tunbridge Wells, a doctor who expects to drop off his kid (Joshua Kaynama) and be in surgery “in 47 minutes.” It’s the holidays, and he’s in a rush. Then, suspicious people show up and suspicious things start to happen.
Sarah (Kara Tointon of “The Sweeney”) is a friendly and somewhat flirtatious
blond who indulges the doctor’s kid and suggests a perhaps too-keen interest in who he is and what he does. His son “outs him” as being able to read people’s medical history by just looking at them.
“Guess my condition,” Sara flirts.
“Heart murmur,” he says. He could confirm it by doing this and that, checking
her chest, her heartbeat to listen for a symptom called a “thrill.”
“So, you’d feel me for a thrill?” she flirts some more.
Then there’s Jan (Iddo Goldberg), an aggressive Polish punk who seems to have a grudge against the world.
The prickly businessman (David Schofield) furiously demands that they wait
for “the authorities” to solve their woes. Too furiously?
So the doctor scrambles to keep the kid calm and find a way to get to the
engineer or whoever is making the train hurtle through the London suburbs at 100 miles per hour.
Director Omid Nooshin gives this story harrowing touches largely through
arresting camera angles and aggressive editing. He ensures that “Last Passenger” features a couple of jaw-dropping moments even as it traverse familiar ground.
Too little is done with the mystery and the mysterious passengers. Is one of
them in on it, and if so, why? Is there a faceless someone in the locomotive, an entity/driver straight from Steven Spielberg’s breakout film, “Duel”?
As the few passengers frantically try to break open this door or that hatch,
deafening blasts of the horn scare them off and jolt the viewer.
And as familiar as this set up is and these “types” are, “Last Passenger”
works, a modest thrill ride that may make you reconsider your public transit
plans the next time you need to get from London to Tunbridge Wells or further on down the line.
MPAA Rating: R for language
Cast: Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, Iddo Goldberg, David Schofield, Lindsay
Credits: Directed by Omid Nooshin, written by Omid Nooshin and Andy Love. A
Cohen Media release. Running time: 1:36

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Box Office: “Heaven is for Real” opens big, “Transcendence” doesn’t, “Bears” bombs

This spring’s steady diet of faith-based films has apparently gotten SOME folks back in the habit of going to the movies. The faithful are tithing to Tristar as Sony’s “Heaven is for Real,” based on the best seller about a preacher who insists his little boy visited heaven, had a big Friday, and with an Easter holiday weekend behind it, could hit $26 million+ by Monday night, according to

Since they always overestimate, let’s assume it does a solid $22-24, at this stage.It’s not a very good film, but it is touching, and it does leave adults and atheists plenty of wriggle room in suggesting the kid’s upbringing and coaching/prompting has more to do with this “amazing true story” than facts.

That’s a lot more than the heavily hyped “Transcendence,” which plays very much like an April sci-fi film should play — not good enough for summer release, with the box office to show for it. If it clears $12 by Sunday night, or even by Monday, it’ll be a miracle.

“Bears,” the other new opening, had a weak Good Friday, but Saturday will really tell for this kid-targeted nature documentary from Disney. $6 million or so by Sunday now, maybe $7 if it has a big Saturday, and Monday should pay off, too. It’s a good movie and deserves better than that. Cannot tell you how many parents are worried “does a cub die?” in comments to me about this one. We’re a long way from the emotional maturity of “Old Yeller.” Parents shield their kids from the grim reality of animals dying that these days.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” is back on top of the box office race doing about $26 over the long weekend. Close to $200 in the U.S.

“Rio 2″ is managing $24 or so. It will hit $100, or close to it, before the serious summer cinema season start.

“God’s Not Dead” will be close to $50 million by next weekend.

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Easter Weekend Box Office: Can “Heaven is for Real” transcend “Transcendence”?

Neither of the major openings this weekend has a prayer of catching “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or “Rio 2.”

The bad reviews for Johnny Depp’s last film in which he does not play a pirate (merely a prediction) won’t help “Transcendence.” You have to squint extra hard to find real names on the critics’ “quotes” on the TV ads endorsing this stinker. Never a good sign.

Box Office Mojo still figures Depp doing sci-fi will pull in $20 million. I doubt it.

Box Office Guru makes the case that “After Earth” and “Oblivion” opened bigger than that, and based his $25 million prediction on those precedents. We’ll see. I think Depp, as much as I’ve enjoyed him over the years, is done. And he’s particularly bad in this part.

“Heaven is for Real” is the last of this Easter season’s faith-based films, and with the director of “Braveheart” and Greg Kinnear and a god supporting cast, this child’s view of the afterlife earned far better reviews than the dreadful “God’s Not Dead,” which will end up earning $50 million or so, when all is said and done.

The Guru figures “Heaven” could open at $16, which would be impressive. Box Office Mojo is thinking $15 million. Will the faithful embrace it? “Noah” made nearly $100 million despite being pounded by evangelicals and Fox News blondes. “God’s Not Dead” had a lot of church-based marketing behind it. Will “Heaven” get that sort of boost? 

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Next screening: “Belle”

A period piece about an illegitimate, mixed-raced beauty raised by her aristocratic uncle (Tom Wilkinson), “Belle” could be a breakthrough role for Gugu Mbatha-Raw, of English and South African ancestry. And in a posh period piece, no less. Matthew Goode, Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson also star in “Belle.”
It opens in early May.

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Movie Review: “Gabrielle”

ImageGabrielle is 22 and impulsive. But who isn’t, at that age?
She wears her heart on her sleeve and a grin on her face. She loves her bracelets, and she loves to sing.
Gabrielle has perfect pitch, “just like my father.” And when she sings in the choir she belongs to, The Muses, she loses herself in the music.
Because Gabrielle is in love — for the first time. And that’s where things get complicated.
“Gabrielle” is a French-Canadian romance about love in a Quebec group home. It’s a detailed character study about someone who has been mainstreamed into Canadian society, and her discovery of love as she strains at the limits her disability puts on her life and her world.
Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard) is fairly independent and testy about what she thinks she can do “by myself.” She has an office job, a seemingly full social life, especially when Martin (Alexandre Landry) is around.
Her sister, Sophie (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) wonders if Gaby is “autonomous” enough to get her own place and be responsible for her own life. Sophie, a teacher, longs to join her beau teaching at a charity school in India. Gaby insists she’ll be fine on her own. She wants her own apartment. That’s what she equates with having a full life, and love.
And she cannot wait for her choir’s big show, in which they’ll join legendary Quebec pop singer Robert Charlebois on stage for one of his quirky love songs at a festival.
Marion-Rivard was born with Williams syndrome, a developmental disability characterized by an “elfin” appearance and a cheerful demeanor, as well as learning disabilities. It might have helped the film to have someone come out and explain that, at least about her character.
The people who supervise her and Martin and several others in their group home are frank about matters of sexuality and treat the curiosity she and Martin share as no bigger deal than this resident who has seizures or that one who doesn’t understand privacy. There are rules about that sort of thing, but “l’amour” is “l’amour,” they suggest.
Martin’s mother isn’t convinced. And with Sophie determined to give Gaby a chance to prove she can live on her own and Martin’s mom determined to keep the couple apart, we’re treated to some nervous moments as Gaby, who is also diabetic, stumbles head-on into her limitations.
Marion-Rivard has won honors in Canada for her performance, which is natural and unaffected. It’s not a “stunt” turn any more than Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance in “Children of a Lesser God.” She is an engaging personality, even if you can’t tell where the performance begins or ends.
But director Louise Archambault’s custom-built film for Gabrielle breaks no new ground in its depiction of people with disabilities. The singing is nice, the peripheral characters interesting. But a love that others don’t approve of, that may get in the way of a big concert debut? That makes “Gabrielle” a bit too Lifetime Original Movie for its own good.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality
Cast: Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin
Credits: Written and directed by Louise Archambault. An eOne release.
Running time: 1:43

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Weekend movies: Thumbs up on “Bears,” but “Heaven” isn’t for real and “Transcendence” is trashed”

No surprise that another of Disneynature’s engaging, kid-friendly documentaries has earned universal thumbs up from critics. “Bears” has really good photography, faintly cute (ok, cloying) narration by the ursine John C. Reilly, and no bear dies. What’s not to love? Or at least, in my case, like?

The critics — myself included – have been brutal to “Transcendence.” There are plenty of actors, like Kevin Spacey, who have a hard time playing “dumb.” A few, like Matt Damon and Cameron Diaz, are adept at both dumb and smart or at least cunning. Johnny Depp does dumb, and nothing about his performance here suggests “brilliant scientist.” No chemistry with his adoring “wife” (Rebecca Hall), a thriller lacking thrills or suspense. Paul Bettany acquits himself, but the rest? Not so much. Early fanboy raves for this only reveal why fanboys don’t make good critics.

“Heaven is for Real” earns some points for being so unlike the shrill, anti-intellectual screed “God’s Not Dead.” It won’t make nearly as much money, I predict, because shrill sells — when it comes to conservative, evangelical-aimed faith-based films. BEn Stein is still laughing all the way to the bank for the rubes who bought into his Creationist documentary, “Expelled.” But the sweet, embracing and childlike “Heaven” works well enough to earn meekly respectable reviews.

“Fading Gigolo” goes into release this weekend, and John Turturro scores points for giving Woody Allen his most Woody-like role in ages. Other than that? Pretty forgettable movie, a poor mishmash of genres, tones, etc. Still a passing grade on the Tomatometer, but aside from that.

And hey, “Under the Skin.” the weirdest spin on the “Starman” story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) among us, opens wider this weekend. If you’re into sci-fi, this is what challenging science fiction looks and sounds like. Pretty good.

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Movie Review: “Transcendence” doesn’t transcend cliches

ImageFor years, the rumor about Johnny Depp was that he wouldn’t take a role that
required him to get a haircut. “Chocolat,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Once
Upon a Time in Mexico,” “Sleepy Hollow” — unchallenging, mop-topped
coincidences, or a career vanity?
With “Transcendence,” he’s got a part that requires a shaved head in some
scenes. And acting. He needs to suggest a brilliant scientist, the first to
crack “the singularity,” a very smart man transferring his mind to a machine and
thus achieving “Transcendence” — immortality.
Depp cuts it off, but he doesn’t pull it off.
This thoughtful but windy and winded sci-fi thriller shortchanges the science
– understandably — and the thrills. The directing debut of “Dark Knight”
cinematographer Wally Pfister is a mopey affair with indifferent performances,
heartless romance and dull action. It transcends nothing.
Depp is Dr. Will Caster, a mathematician, computer genius and artificial
intelligence theorist who, with the help of his brilliant wife Evelyn (Rebecca
Hall), is close to a computer that might “overcome the limits of biology.” It
will think.
That troubles his equally brilliant neuro-scientist/ethicist pal, Max (Paul
Bettany) who doesn’t give voice to fears of a machine that wants to jump from
tic-tac-toe to “Global Thermonuclear War,” SkyNET and HAL not opening the “pod
bay door.” But you know he’s thinking it.
And since this tale is told by Max in flashback, from a desolate,
off-the-electrical-grid San Francisco five years in the future, we figure Max
knows what he’s talking about.
Terrorists have decided that this project is a threat and try to blow it up
and kill Dr. Caster. They almost succeed, sentencing the not-so-mad scientist to
a lingering death. That gives his friends the chance to try and skip a few steps
in their research. They’ll load the electrical and chemical contents of his
brilliant mind — his thoughts, memories, ethics — into a vast machine and save
his life.

In a manner of speaking.
And since we’ve seen a San Francisco where keyboards are only useful as door
stops and cell phones are just so much worthless litter, we know this is where
the trouble starts.
Kate Mara suggests nothing fanatical, clever or fearsome as the leader of the
RIFT revolutionaries who tried to kill Caster and who then kidnap Max.
“What is it you want?”
“Just some clarity.”
Depp and Hall are supposed to have this “Ghost” level love, a romance of
death-defying longing that drives her actions to save him, in spite of Will’s
warnings to her.
“Don’t lose yourself in this.”
They don’t set off sparks.
Morgan Freeman shows up as a grandfatherly skeptic scientist, Cole Hauser as
a dull military man brought in to deal with the growing problem that happens
when Will’s insatiable brain gets on the Internet, manipulates Wall Street and
starts to plan a technological revolution.
The script suggests the miracles that bio-tech has in store for us —
repairing injuries and infirmities with nano-technology, 3D laser printers and
the like. The lame will walk and the blind will see.
But there will be a cost, well, a cost common to sci-fi stories about “the
singularity” and the unlimited power it promises.
Depp is a bland presence as a disembodied face on a computer screen. Hall
seems to wish she had a flesh and blood actor to emote to and Bettany spends far
too much of the time with Mara, who has never been worse in a movie.
As Max says, in his narration and elsewhere, this sort of dilemma seems
“inevitable” given the state of our wired-in world. But we knew that from “The
Terminator.” The trick is to transcend sci-fi tropes, get past bogey-man
“People fear what they don’t understand” and get into the experience of Will’s
existence across the digital divide.
“Transcendence” doesn’t.

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for
sci-fi action and violence, some bloody images, brief strong language and
Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman
Credits: Directed by Wally Pfister, written by Jack Paglan. A Warner Brothers
Running time:1:59

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