The Intern ***

the-intern

Life is grim in times of austerity, especially for those facing their autumn years in life. So what better than an uplifting film from the Nancy Meyers’ collection of ‘cosy life stories’ that embraces the more mature in the technology world. Yes, it may seem a little far-fetched in reality as we all know over thirty-somethings seem over the hill in this environment, cast aside for the energy of youth. However, The Intern takes this sorry premise and cynically pokes fun at it. Remember, with age comes wisdom, it seems.

70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Whittaker finds a new romance along the way while saving another.

Meyers magic returns for fans now living in the faster-paced 21st century and with life online. The rest of the scenario is much the same in The Intern, with cosy settings that we all dream of living and working in, ‘beautiful’ people to match, and events that spark a collective ‘sigh’ of contentment – but not without a little ripple or two to resolve first.

The Intern is the perfect vehicle for a mature De Niro to do his trademark ‘told you so’ frown and head tilt, while Hathaway flaps and talks ten to the dozen in her Devil Wears Prada way, complete with perfect painted pout – only this time she’s the Streep ‘Miranda Priestly’ character, the boss. Except, Ostin is flawed and struggling to keep it together, perhaps an analogy for the fickleness of the online business world too? Apart from ‘older and wiser’, it seems ‘old ways are the best ways’ too, the latest Meyers’ moral to be taken away here – or a reassurance for anyone approaching the ‘ancient age’ of 30+.

The Intern oozes charm, warm wit and cuteness in massive Meyer mounts; either let yourself bathe in it and come out feeling the world is not such a cold and hopeless place, or refrain and encounter every cliché in the sentimental book that you’ll feel like you’re drowning, while none of the scenarios have an ounce of believability – expect, perhaps, the workaholic partner endangering their idyllic family life, and the naivety of youth played out by some ‘clown-like’ characters.

The latter feeling rises to the surface here quite often, but does give the more cynical viewer a good chuckle at the characters’ expense. Hence, there is enjoyment to be had by either party watching. The actual reality here is a Meyers’ moment reaches the hearts others cannot reach, without investment in the story. There’s something for everyone, however much some try to fight it. It’s harmless escapism that we secretly wish to be true; The Intern is just the current Meyers tale in her emotional arsenal – nothing more, nothing less.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Grudge Match **

grudge-match

It is with very heavy heart to inform those whose interest has been pricked by the union of two screen ‘boxing’ legends, Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) and Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) that Grudge Match is a lacklustre attempt at capitalising on the ringside magic that made them famous. The fact is the actual fight takes an age to get going, and if it weren’t for some cheap sideshow entertainment from the likes of Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, there would be no clout. The latter are the film’s much-needed energy, with the top-billed stars – and the filmmakers – in their debt.

Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Stallone) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (De Niro) are a pair of old-time boxers in their sixties who loathe each other. Dante Slate, Jr. (Hart), the son of their former unscrupulous agent coaxes them out of retirement after cultivating media interest to see them fight one last bout, 30 years after their last meeting. But can they put their differences aside to stage one last match…

Much like its leads, the film mainly mopes about with a deep-set grudge that is never fully explained – except the falling out over a girl (now a woman) called Sally, played by Kim Basinger. Admittedly, there is nothing wrong with seeing Stallone and De Niro having a grump on, and the pair gets quite a few sniggers at their underhand retorts, like two pensioners who can get away with saying anything. The outrageous is left to filter-lacking trainer Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon, played with devilish glee by Arkin, who injects the naughtiness, while Hart does his rapid-fire verbal performance to keep things lively.

There is enjoyment to be had at watching two ‘dinosaurs’ out of their depth in the new world of technology that catapults them into online stardom. However, much like Lightning’s jokes, you start expecting this in the very next line uttered. Coupled with this are the standard training montages, but with some nice nods to De Niro and Stallone’s iconic boxing characters.

Director Peter Segal and screenwriting team Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman shamelessly tug on our heartstrings with some ‘self-discovery’ moments for the pair, with the importance of family: It seems you are never too old for a journey of self-reflection or to be ‘reborn’, and this is the film’s heartbeat.

The fight scene is more wince inducing than blood-thirsty thrilling as you watch two older guys knocking seven bells out of each other. There is a respect for both actors who strip down to their shorts for the very physical finale, potbellies and all exposed. However, what is missing is a real hunger to see the pair go at each other that the previous scenes are presumably meant to be building up to.

Grudge Match leaves you gunning for more, where the line-up delivers more than the event itself. De Niro and Stallone do the best they can and we applaud them for that; it’s the script that is limp. Relying on the star draw is the laziest kind of filmmaking and quite criminal here with two heavyweights of the big screen.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Last Vegas ***

last-vegas

Jon Turteltaub’s Last Vegas is obviously pitched as a ‘mature’ The Hangover with a crowd-pleasing, all-star cast of Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline, and Mary Steenburgen as the love interest. It has the potential of being quite a geriatric farce, and there are parts that are very funny in a sort of ‘ah, bless them’ afterthought. Much of the rest is not so much comfortably entertaining but sometimes a little flat. That said, each actor brings an element of what makes him uniquely special on the big screen, and that’s the key to the film’s box office success, not the story itself.

Billy (Douglas) is a wealthy, sixty-something playboy who is set to marry a woman half his age. He wants to have his bachelor party in Sin City but his circle of childhood friends, Paddy (De Niro), Archie (Freeman) and Sam (Kline), remains broken after a long-standing feud between him and Paddy who fell out over a girl. The group manage to reunite nevertheless, and give their friend a weekend to remember.

Like The Hangover, the four use the time away from worrying family members to let loose, except this film has none of the outrageous high jinx of the former, more age-comparison gags a plenty. True, there is a certain poignancy to the whole affair of how quickly time passes so cherish youth, and watching the ‘oldies’ in more youthful situations has its obvious amusement factor and is done in a respectful, almost cynically observed manner. The funniest of the bunch is Freeman who seems to use the opportunity to let his own hair down, with a particularly hilarious dancing scene at a nightclub – sadly, the trailer features part of that punchline.

Last Vegas has no less bromance to enjoy, with the moral of the story being the importance of friendship overriding everything. The same ideals surface where certain members rediscover themselves after having the space to release, but some of those ‘releases’ are naturally predictable, such as the mandatory babes-in-bikinis parade and Viagra jokes. It’s perhaps the fault of writer Dan Fogelman for not coming up with more unique scenarios for the boys to find themselves in, even though he does play to the screen personas of each actor. It’s all very safe in that respect, which seems a tragic waste of legendary talent.

Still, Last Vegas has some old-timers we love to watch and the opportunity for them to get a little naughty and decadent (for their age), even if you do wish for more absurdity.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Family ***

the-family

The ‘most Hollywood of French directors’ Luc Besson has some fun with his new black comedy, The Family, toying with an impressive A-list cast, and placing lead actor Robert De Niro straight back into his Mafioso comfort zone – even spoofing it at the end. The film may seem a tad odd tonally, but it has a certain European quirkiness and double the trademark Besson ‘tough cookie’ character in both Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianna Agron’s roles. The issue some might have is the marrying of slapstick comedy moments and sporadic brutality that feels unsettling, rather than gleefully deviant.

The Blakes, Fred (De Niro), Maggie (Pfeiffer), Belle (Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo, is an American family living in the heart of rural France, but there’s something different about them: They are part of the notorious mafia clan, The Manzonis from New York, under witness protection and the watchful eye of weary Agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) who has to pick up the pieces. The trouble is, once a mobster, always a mobster and each family member can’t help using their skills to get their own way with the locals. However, Fred or Giovanni Manzoni is being hunted by the men working for a big boss who has been disrespected and has sent out a hit squad. The Blakes are trying to move on but their past just keeps catching up with them, even when Fred decides to turn writer and pen his will past.

The buzz you get from watching this film is seeing the interplay between De Niro and his belligerent family cast members who individually make their sinister mark in a dramatic fashion on certain members of the local community. There is a reaction to the usual Yank tourist gibe that gets wonderfully explosive. It just all gets too cartoonish at the very end when the Blakes are found out, even though there is a nice comeback action scene involving the younger Blakes, with Argon doing a Nikita impression.

The cast is a fabulous collection of talent, especially Pfeiffer who takes the sinister matriarch role in her stride, and exudes both icy chills and friendly demeanour in equal, delightful measure. De Niro almost takes a passive aggressive stance, leaving the stage to his relations, and there is a standout performance from D’Leo who holds his own in the confidence stakes. The actors do their best with Besson’s material, but it could be argued that it could have been darker or funnier but never quite reaches either mark.

That said as a piece of comedic light entertainment, The Family gives a decadent account of Mafioso hiding out in a foreign country, and the cast is a tonic to watch in action.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Red Lights ***

Headline-grabbing cast of Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy and rising ‘horror/thriller star’ Elizabeth Olsen, Buried director Rodrigo Cortés’s new film, Red Lights, promises another intriguing delve into the supernatural unexplained. It pitches the sceptics and the believers against each other as it twists and turns and convolutes its story of exploration.

Psychologists Margaret Matheson (Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Murphy) study paranormal activity and try to blow the lid on the psychics’ methods once and for all. After successfully questioning the acts of some, they are faced with the world-renowned psychic Simon Silver (De Niro) who not only has a large following and respect, but has amassed a fortune, and who has resurfaced years after his toughest critic mysteriously passed away.

What starts out a fascinating and ambiguous premise of supernatural study on film, expertly acted by the stellar cast, falls victim to its own paranoid disbelief at the end, as Cortés feels the need to reiterate pointers in glaring flashbacks in his finale, rather than leave a cerebral air of mystery. Indeed, he does well to challenge all our perceptions within his narrative but is also guilty of tripping himself up in his quest to unravel the world of the psychic – or ‘red lights’ (facts that prove a psychic is a fraud).

What Cortés does deliver is a powerful sense of doubt along the way on both sides of the argument – as well as some confusion as the theories become overly complex, while leaving other answers unexplored and hanging in the ether. One example in particular, is when Buckley visits Silver’s sinister quarters, and the blind psychic gives a chilling monologue. Rather than filling you with further intrigue, it merely feels wordy and wasted in its power from the ever-dynamic De Niro.

Thankfully for the writer-director, like the coin trick that Murphy as Buckley does on Olsen’s student character, Sally Owen, we are always momentarily blind-sided by the engaging performances, stopping us giving up all together on the film’s ideas. It’s a shame as Red Lights has so much more potential to give than it delivers, and you wonder whether a more experienced screenwriter who have moulded it all far better, letting Cortés concentrate on its direction.

Cortés is a highly talented and exciting filmmaker, using all the tricks of his trade to conjure up tension, mystery and intrigue. However, the doubt is in his writing skills in pulling off compounded plotlines, and if it wasn’t for the acting talent that his latest film has attracted, Red Lights would have fallen at the first hurdle – however curious we may be at its subject matter.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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New Year’s Eve *

You have to worry when a film’s musical medley finale is far more entertaining than what you’ve just sat through. Another snag for the filmmakers of the equally disappointing Valentine’s Day last year is their biggest star, Robert De Niro, is woefully miscast in the sombre role, when his true comedic talent is apparent in the end sing-song.
You’ve guessed it: it’s nearly ball-dropping time in Times Square, New York City, and a bunch of characters have all sorts of New Year’s resolutions to make and keep, all to do with some form of love: forgiveness, compassion, opening their hearts to a different point of view etc. We follow the 24 hours before the ‘greatest reset button in life’, New Year’s Eve and the big countdown.
Director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate haven’t learnt their lesson from last time, it seems – or they’re under contract to see this limp franchise through to the bitter end. The problem isn’t attracting an impressive cast – as that’s what the film’s main draw is, what with De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Zac Efron, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Katherine Heigl and even Jon Bon Jovi on board: One could cynically argue that it’s the easiest money they’ve earned all year, so of course, they’ve signed up. Perhaps it’s their collective love for the Big Apple at this time of year, too?
What is highlighted is too much of a good cast, without proper mini plot development in each scenario just produces a damp squib, with characters we don’t much care for, even if we enjoy seeing the famous faces together in one film. Their characters’ trials and tribulations amount to padding until the countdown, with some great musical numbers from Bon Jovi intermixed for fans. Hence, when the big moment finally comes we should be right there with them all, feeling that renewed hope of a great new year ahead, rather than wishing to reset our own time button to two hours earlier.
We see De Niro wasting away – both in body and mind with such a character; Heigl as the usual ‘bridesmaid and never the bride’ – again; Berry like a worn out extra off ER; Swank running around and mounting her own personal crusade – complete with the ever perfect curl in her hair; and Pfeiffer trying to convince us she’s really plain Jane and uninteresting – well, the latter part is true in this film, even with Efron and his cheeky charms trying to inject some life into her and their scenario of completing her wish list, as though she’s going to snuff it at midnight.
And no film set in New York would be complete without Jessica Parker running around in killer heels, like she’s doing a small SATC Carrie cameo, and forgotten she’s actually playing a concerned mum to teen Hailey (Abigail Breslin) who just wants to be kissed. Valentine’s Day star Ashton Kutcher plays disinterested New Year’s loather Randy in this, rather than over-enthusiastic flower man Reed in the 2010 film. He’s really only there to set up a singing scene for Glee’s Lea Michele in a knockout red number, and gets to slob it out in PJs, like he’s just got out of bed to make a lacklustre appearance in this.
As a result of too many characters and not enough investment in each, New Year’s Eve also suffers from a frustrating lack of explanation, such as what’s Claire Morgan’s (Swank) deep bond with cop friend Brendan (Chris ‘Ludacris‘ Bridges), and why is she estranged from her father, Stan (De Niro) – among others. To be honest, should we really care?
Apart from Bon Jovi rocking the house and a great vocal performance from Michele, Sofía Vergara – who’s like an annoying Cheeky Girl at the start – makes things hot and steamy in chef Laura’s (Heigl) kitchen, as well as steals the only comedic moments as man-crazy sous chef Ava from Heigl, rendering the latter’s usual comedy presence void.
There are a number of other actors and situations going on, one or more of which ought to strike a chord with whoever is watching. Although the filmmakers’ intentions are all good, the execution results in contrived, groan-inducing morality and over simplicity in parts that just undermines the candour of the lessons learnt. Let’s hope there’s not another date in the Western calendar that Marshall and Fugate can get/have got their hands on – even if it means they keep a few big names in easy work.
1/5 stars
By @FilmGazer

Killer Elite **

The promise of a thriller with a sexy, all-star cast of Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro is enough to whet the appetite for a trip to the cinema. Debut writer-director Gary McKendry’s adaptation of Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men, should be the action man’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this week. The big names are all present in Killer Elite, as are the dramatic stunts and action sequences, but all within an overly complex, erratic thriller framework that has moments of viable tension, but others of dramatic silliness.

When Danny’s (Statham) mentor Hunter (De Niro) is taken captive by a Sheik in Oman, the retired member of Britain’s Elite SAS is forced into action to free him by taking the lives of three assassins. But Danny’s mission is not to run smoothly, especially with an equally skilled killer, Spike (Owen), on his tail.

There’s no doubt that Statham, Owen and De Niro perform as expected in roles we have seen them in before, and you can happily get your fill watching them do what they do best in a testosterone-fuelled explosion of bullet-riddled mayhem that is pure old-school. Witnessing Statham meeting Owen head to head – once while tied to a chair – is what action sequences are made for, and there is a nice Paris Metro chase scene involving De Niro, too. Indeed, to add to the thrills and claret spills, Dominic Purcell as ‘gun for hire’ playboy Davies also raunchily captures the chauvinistic and on-the-edge nature of a trained killer for hire in the decadent 80s. The film’s mix is a gritty one of extreme violence with smatterings of ironic humour.

However, even with the reassuring ‘based on a true story’ line at the start and the rather topical element of a corrupt Arab leader settling personal grudges, McKendry’s stab at the genre is left more than unintentionally comical at times, mainly due to some poor script writing – one example being Spike’s meetings with a bunch of old secret service men that roll out every clichéd line in the thriller handbook. Another is the Indiana Jones-styled desert chase scenes and others involving the Sheik in his lair.

McKendry’s plot is riddled with holes and often lacks explanation while it jumps around so much that the only thing you can engage with are the set-pieces of daring action. Even some of these are borderline gratuitous, rather than adding to the tension created when killers come after killers. The whole affair smacks of film-making inexperience, which is a shame considering the wealth of the source material and talent.

At the very least, McKendry allows us to revel in and be entertained by his star cast – the only advantage of this woefully under-developed exploitation action-thriller. The tragic thing is thinking just how much better it could have been in more experienced hands.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Tree of Life ***

Film-maker Terrence Malick is an enigma, much like his films. With secrecy and speculation surrounding his latest ‘creation’ at Cannes this year, the industry prepared itself to be in awe of another Malick abstraction. And it didn’t disappoint Robert De Niro and jury, as The Tree of Lifewon the coveted Palme d’Or.

Opening with a quotation from the Book of Job, when God asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … “, the story is an impressionistic one that refers to the concept of a multi-branched tree, where the idea that all areas of life (theology, philosophy, mythology etc) are interconnected. The tree also acts as a metaphor for the human spirit. The story then follows the origins of life and its creation and meaning through the experiences of one 1950s Texan family – headed by strict patriarch Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) – that suffers a tragic personal loss in the process. In the present day, one of the three sons, Jack (Sean Penn), still struggles to come to terms with his loss and his father’s influence on his character.

The Tree of Life is yet another meticulously crafted and richly depicted Malick signature piece, full of the wonders of nature, the power of lone narration and emotive music, and fond memories of yesteryear. However, this time, it feels like the elusive film-maker has become more indulgent than before, using less subtle musical emphasis and being almost subversively disparaging to those who embrace and take comfort in nostalgia, as he allows his fragile screen family life to unravel and never reach a comforting conclusion.

There is a lot of extravagant visual padding, which Malick fans will embrace, such as the celestial lights hinting at a greater being and our maker (look closely at the very last illuminated image, in particular), and footage of the earth ‘being born’ and evolving. There are even spurious dinosaur scenes, like something from BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs that just need an Attenborough narration over them to make them complete. However, non-Malick aficionados may take umbrage at all this lavishness, seemingly superfluous nature-cosmos trail, expecting more screen time for their buck with the film’s top-billed names, Pitt and Penn.

It is the family dynamics that are the main crux and interest of the whole evolutionary story of how children copy habits from their elders and form personalities through a range of influences, almost pre-conditioned by the time they’ve even had a stab at independence in the adult world. It’s this head-spin – triggered by bad news – that sends Penn’s character Jack into near meltdown, allowing Malick to visualize this with some stunningly constructed and contorted shots, before Jack is ‘comforted’ by a higher presence. However, moving backwards and forwards in time gets very confusing, and merely emphasizes how overly long the film is – even allowing for pause for thought and time occurrences.

In terms of the acting, Pitt, Penn and the rest of the cast, including highly impressive newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young Jack are top of their class, as though Malick has painstakingly given them as much guidance and encouragement to draw the best out of them. McCracken is reminiscent of a young River Phoenix as his performance echoes scenes like those in the iconic, 1986 coming-of-age drama, Stand By Me. As in that film, there is a timeless, dreamy quality at moments, when we try to pointlessly slow down the rapid loss of youth, innocence and adventure.

Very much ‘poetic art-house meets mainstream’, The Tree of Life moves in and out of time and space to prove how small we are in the greater universe, how our predisposition is either governed by ‘nature’ (hardwired, like Jack and his father) or by ‘grace’ (carefree and creative, like Jack’s brother). It’s the connections between our vulnerable mindset and the universe’s many elements that make for compelling post-debate, but are portrayed by an almost perfectionist cinematic artist, whose vision is certainly an acquired taste.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Limitless ****

Imagine popping a pill that triggers total memory recall and information intake to allow you to achieve whatever you want in life. Sounds like superhuman power, the ultimate aphrodisiac, perhaps? But with such power come responsibility and an ugly side. This is the idea behind The Illusionist’s Neil Burger’s new psychological thriller, Limitless, starring The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper as failing writer Eddie and cinema stalwart Robert De Niro as a financial guru who wants to tap into Eddie’s new monetary potential.

The concept is cinematic gold that could go either way. Burger takes us on Eddie’s whirlwind journey, leading us through what’s going on in his mind when he’s intoxicated, as well as following his increasingly erratic actions. There are some compelling and beautifully seamless vortex shots as we ‘tunnel’ at speed though cars and buildings in a continuous travelling shot through the sights of New York. Burger also attempts to distinguish between ‘reality’ and Eddie’s NZT-drug-induced state by blurring the edges of the frame in a fish-eye lens effect that is often rendered unnoticeable to help confused matters and obscure the difference between ‘real’ and ‘high’ Eddie. Visually, the film is stunning, with grittier cinematography in the lows and glossier in the highs.

Such a film still needs a strong main character, and Cooper gets his opportunity in his first leading man role, virtually carrying every scene in a more serious affair than his usual supporting ‘buddy’ roles. Cooper excels in this, possibly because he is such a likeable personality who is believable as a success or a failure. Indeed, as we easily warm to him, we instantly root for Eddie throughout the story, even though the character is not always a likeable one and does some questionable acts. As Eddie’s primary goal is to make a comfortable future for him and his girlfriend, Lindy, commendably played by Abbie Cornish, we somehow excuse some of his more dubious decisions, and empathise with his weaker moments. Cooper also keeps Eddie as grounded as possible – ironic in a film about drugs, making sure Eddie never ventures into total arrogance and decadence that we lose our faith in him. It’s a demanding role that Cooper admirably makes his own.

This film is by no means condoning drug use, although suggesting all material problems can be solved by a super pill is borderline controversial. What the story sinisterly proposes, though, is Eddie remains physically and mentally vulnerable after encountering the drug. Hence the message, ‘say no to drugs’ stills triumphs. Furthermore, the compelling final standoff between Eddie and De Niro’s character, Van Loon, certainly implies drugs are not the answer, but there is ample scope for debate in this parting meeting that is bursting with inferences. Cooper as Eddie again demonstrates his rise in the acting ranks with some memorable boardroom confrontations opposite De Niro, who gives his usual impeccable performance in this.

Mirroring the good and bad points of drug taking – the pharmaceutical face and origin behind NZT is intriguingly absent in this film, all the main characters are shown in a good and bad light. Lindy appears to be an innocent victim, but could equally be criticised for only taking Eddie back when the affluent effects of the drug become apparent. Even the stereotypical baddie, Russian gangster Gennady, brilliantly played by the terrifying Andrew Howard of recent I Spit on Your Grave fame, may well be a brutal thug, but his goals are much the same as Eddie’s. Therefore, in the long run, is he any worse a character than the writer?

The escalation of greed is a major factor in the film, and the unsettling aspiration of always wanting more – the ugly side of the American Dream – is rife. Another fascinating implication is how many other people in power are on the wonder drug, which gradually comes to light as the plot thickens. This stays as the film’s enthralling revelation for the viewer that combined with the frantic pace, triggers the old grey matter in an analytical approach.

Stylish, cerebral, dynamic and packed with star talent, Burger competently further stamps his presence in the psychological film realm with Limitless, whilst showing a healthy new talent and detailed respect for action-based film-making.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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