NEED FOR SPEED: 3 STARS

Remember the Mazda commercials that were on a few years ago? I felt like the kid from those ads was sitting on my shoulder whispering “zoom, zoom” into my ear for the entire running time of “The Hot Wheels Movie,” er…. “Need for Speed.”

Based on the most successful racing video game franchise ever, the movie is Aaron “Breaking Bad” Paul’s first lead in a feature. He plays Tobey Marshall, a speed-demon mechanic, jailed for a crime he did not commit. Out of the hoosegow with revenge against adversary Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) on his mind, he finagles a spot at the De Leon, a high-octane underground race that makes the Cannonball Run look like a kid’s Go-Kart sprint. You just know it’s only a matter of time until someone says, “We’ll settle this behind the wheel.”

Between him and the race, however, are miles of hard road, bounty hunters and police. Will his dreams of racing and revenge come true? Or will his need for speed go unfulfilled?

This is a fast paced car race movie that zips along as quickly as you’d hope a movie with the word speed in the title would, but character wise, it’s not quite as fast or furious as you might like. The cars are the stars, while the characters are largely left in the dust. The story and the characters feel like McGuffins to support the screeching tires and revving engines.

Paul, who brings a gruff Batman voice to the role, and his navigator / flirty love interest Julia (Imogen Poots) are charming and charismatic, but aren’t given much to do other than shift gears. That’s OK, this is a car movie after all, but when the story grinds its gears when it shifts from the action sequences to the human story.

Poots starts off strong, but is soon reduced to the hysterical girl role while Paul could have used a lesson or two from Jesse Pinkman in the passion department. It says something when the movie’s most interesting character -- the eccentric millionaire The Monarch, played by Michael Keaton -- never gets behind the wheel of a car.

I liked the race scenes. They feel authentic and by and large done by brave speed demon stunt drivers without the use of CGI. They’re exciting, pedal-to-the-metal sequences that put the audience in the driver’s seat. You may wonder about glorifying the romance of reckless street racing, but the movie isn’t a commercial for vehicular mayhem. There are some wild rides, but there are also consequences for many of the drivers and their need for speed.

“Need for Speed” isn’t “Downton Abbey.” It’s a car crazy story where characters take a backseat to the action, but if you know what a Two Lane Grasshopper is, then you’ll probably get a kick out of the driving scenes.

GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: 4 ½ STARS

Over the course of eight films Wes Anderson has developed a style that is absolutely singular. He spins worlds out of the smallest details with an idiosyncratic style that some call twee and overly theatrical, but whatever you call it, one thing is clear: No one makes movies like Wes Anderson.

In his latest project, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” he has once again created a movie that future film scholars will coin terms like Wesesque or Andersonian to describe.

Told in flashback, the movie is like a nesting doll, a story within a story, with in a story. Beginning in present day Tom Wilkinson plays The Author, an older man reflecting on one of his greatest books, the story of M. Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge at the Grand Budapest

Cut to the late 1960s. The Grand Budapest is no longer so grand, the home to a handful of tenants left over from the place’s glory days. One visitor is the Author, now a young writer played by Jude Law. One day in the steam bath he meets the hotel’s enigmatic owner Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa agrees to tell the writer the story of the hotel and the legendary Gustave H over dinner.

Flashback to 1932, the heyday of the glamorous hotel. Gustave H rules the place with an iron hand when he isn’t sleeping with the older female guests. A flamboyant gigolo he has a special connection with Madame D (Tilda Swinton), an insecure but impossibly wealthy woman who has fallen for his unctuous charms.

When she is found dead at her home, Gustave H and his most trusted employee, Lobby Boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), visit to pay respects. At the reading of the will Gustave H is endowed with a priceless painting much to the displeasure of the deceased woman’s family. Angered, her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) frames Gustave H for murder.

Amid a whirlwind of hired henchmen (Willem Dafoe), helpful concierges (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban), talented chocolatier (Saoirse Ronan), tattooed criminals (Harvey Keitel) and mounting war on the continent, Gustave H is captured and jailed. With the help of his trusted Lobby Boy, must escape and clear his name.

In keeping with Anderson’s style, the story of Gustave H and the hotel is rich with nuance and detail but never feels overwhelming or tiresome. It’s a wittily whimsical story that feels transported in from a bygone era. It’s funny and elegant, feeling like a throwback to the Ealing Comedies complete with social commentary, farce and laugh-out-loud situational comedy.

At its twee little heart is Ralph Fiennes in a strangely mannered performance that not only provides many of the film’s best moments—his Benny Hill style escape from the police is hysterical—but also it’s heart.

Like the movie itself, the performance is original, unexpected and oddly affecting.

With “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Wes Anderson has found a balance between his highly stylized artistic vision, story and heart.

VERONICA MARS: 3 STARS

Too old for Nancy Drew? Too young for Jessica Flectcher? How about Veronica Mars?

For three seasons Kristen Bell played the title character on television’s “Veronica Mars,” a teen detective show about a young woman who solved crimes in the upscale town of Neptune, California.

She’s back on the big screen in the inventively titled “Veronica Mars,” co-starring with some familiar faces from the original show, in a reunion movie that sees the former teenaged private eye turned psychologist and Ivy League lawyer pulled back into the PI game when her high school boyfriend (Jason Dohring) is charged with killing his pop star girlfriend.

The movie, which was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, is as cinematic as you might imagine a movie based on a TV show to be. It plays like a longer, blown up version of the show, which will play well to the fans who are hungry for more of their favorite characters, but may leave the uninitiated wondering what the fuss is all about.

Veronica Mars is an engaging character and Bell wears her like a glove, tossing off some zingy one-liners -- “You won’t shoot me,” says a bad guy. “Why does everyone say that?” Mars replies, pulling the trigger -- and bringing an easy charm to the role.

It’s too bad the story plays like an old episode of “Murder She Wrote,” with none of the sophistication we would expect from a big screen outing. “Veronica Mars” is a character based piece, with the murder tagged on to give us a reason for watching, but it would have been more interesting if the death was more than just a McGuffin.

On the plus side there is a nod to Canada -- in the form of a sloppy karaoke version of our national anthem -- and there’s even a Barenaked Ladies gag.

ENEMY: 4 STARS

 

“Enemy,” an art house thriller from director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, is an intriguing head scratcher that plays more like an existential puzzle than a traditional narrative.

When we first meet him the “Brokeback Mountain” star plays a history professor named Adam Bell. When not lecturing in class, he leads a normal, if somewhat repetitive life with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). One night while watching a rented movie he is astonished to see someone who looks exactly like him on screen.

After some research he discovers the actor’s name is Anthony St. Claire (Gyllenhaal) and that he lives in Toronto’s west end. Spooky similarities arise. Both have beautiful blonde significant others—Sarah Gadon plays Helen, Anthony’s six-months pregnant wife—but there’s more. Both even have a scar on their chests.

Adam and his doppelganger have completely opposite personalities, but their lives become intertwined when Anthony becomes interested in Mary and duo struggles to discover what connection they have.

“Enemy” is the kind of movie that, if it grabs you, you’ll want to see it twice to try and make sense of some of the more narratively opaque sections. If the slow build of existential dread doesn’t grab you, however, one viewing will be more than enough.

But, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” In other words “Enemy” is a challenge, a film that revels in its confounding story. Like Polanski on downers, it’s willfully difficult, taking the audience down a rabbit hole deep into the psyche of these unrelated twins. It’s a long strange journey with many rewards for the attentive viewer.

One of those rewards is Gyllenhaal’s interesting and varied work. He plays two parts of one person’s personality, but creates fully formed individual characters that, even though they are identical looking, are much different in the way they tick.

“Enemy” is stylish and sinister (with a big tasty dollop of mystery on the side) that will keep audiences guessing long after they’ve left the theatre.