‘Need for Speed’ has fast cars, crashes but characterizations fall short

The unfortunate burden “Need for Speed” must endure is the massively successful “Fast and Furious” franchise hovering over it like an overachieving older sibling. While it has some exciting racing scenes, along with chases, heart-stopping near misses and spectacular crashes, it also needs to have some characters, and face it, Aaron Paul’s Tobey Marshall is no Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) or Brian O’Conner (the late Paul Walker).
This is not entirely Paul’s fault. He has proven in “Breaking Bad” to be a captivating actor. The character, as written by George Gatins in his first screenplay, does not give Paul much to work with.
It is interesting that early in “Need for Speed” the groundbreaking car-chase scene from “Bullitt” is being shown on a drive-in theater screen. This appears to be a tie-in to having Marshall be the strong, silent type on which Steve McQueen put his trademark. But instead of being cool and confident, Paul appears uncomfortable. It is only later that Paul can add some substance to Tobey, but by then he is mostly behind the wheel of a high-performance car, building character while avoiding potentially deadly collisions.
Based upon a video game, “Need for Speed” is the basic revenge movie.
Marshall is the owner of an auto shop that is not doing well financially, and if it weren’t for the money he wins in illegal street races, he might be bankrupt.
Then Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), formally one of the locals, returns to town. He now is a professional racer and wealthy and has a proposition for Marshall and his colleagues in the shop — to finish building a special Ford Mustang that legendary designer Carroll Shelby was working on at the time of his death.
Marshall and Brewster have a history that is not too cordial, but there is no back story offered here. It may have to do with Brewster being engaged to Anita (Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who may or may not have been in a relationship with Marshall.
The Marshall team builds the car and when Tobey himself conducts a test drive that is impressive enough to seal a sale, Dino, likely feeling overshadowed, is not exactly pleased.
This is where the plot gets ludicrous. Brewster seems to allow his ego to override any common sense and he challenges Marshall to a street race. In the ensuing race a tragic fatal accident occurs and Dino flees the scene and lets Tobey take the blame, resulting in a two-year prison sentence for Marshall.
Once out of prison, Tobey is spoiling to get even.
He gets his chance for revenge via an event called the DeLeon, an illegal street race organized by Monarch (Michael Keaton, regaining some of his “Beetlejuice” energy), a former racer now streaming online a race-oriented show.
Naturally, Dino is going to be a participant in this winner-take-all (including the other competitors’ race cars) event, disregarding that engaging in an illegal race like this could end his professional career.
Meanwhile, Tobey’s unlikely ally is Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), the lady who brokered the deal for the Shelby Mustang. That she manages to secure the Mustang for the DeLeon from the new owner despite the high chance for serious damage to the vehicle is yet another plot element that holds little sense — one that viewers must let go.
There is the pre-race challenge of traveling cross-country to California, the location of the DeLeon, while Tobey,  his colleagues and Julia face the dangers of mercenaries who hear about the bounty put on Tobey’s head by Dino, hoping to prevent Marshall from challenging him in the DeLeon.
Director Scott Waugh (“Act of Valor”) knows how to weave together high-impact scenes of great auto stuntsmanship but otherwise seems obsessed with facial closeups, especially of Poots.
Predictably, while escaping death, Tobey and Julia start developing a relationship.
Everything else is predictable too, once the DeLeon begins. You know who will be going down to the finish line in the last second dash to win. The plot does take a brief turn for an obligatory act of revenge but that does not alter the conclusion one bit.
Paul manages to flesh out a decent characterization despite the screenplay shortcomings, while everyone else does credible but not memorable work. Of the supporting cast, only Scott Mescudi as Benny, a colleague of Tobey’s who has a knack for securing whatever aircraft is nearby to serve as Marsall’s eye in the sky, has some cool moments.
“Need for Speed” is what one would expect for an adventure movie — superb on the stunts with just an average story and characters.

History — a bit distorted — and family are fun in ‘Mr. Peabody and Sherman’

Given some of the less than spectacular results of earlier computer animation adaptations of cartoons (“Garfield,” “Scooby Doo”), tackling yet another project in this genre certainly was risky. But the team of director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King” and “Stuart Little”) and writer Craig Wright — breaking away from penning such presentations as “The United States of Tara” and “Six Feet Under” — have put together in “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” a lively and loving update of the cartoon series that was part of the “Rocky and His Friends” show that ran from 1959 to 1964.
The brain child of Jay Ward and his production company, the “Rocky” series was very much in vogue in those days as a show that required a certain amount of education and sophistication to fully appreciate the humor while still having enough silliness to draw the younger audience.
Mr. Peabody was yet another talking animal, but this time a genius dog — who also happens to be a savvy businessman, inventor, adviser to world leaders, gourmet cook and Olympic gold medalist.
And he set a legal precedent by being the first dog to adopt a boy, as the judge ruled that if a boy can adopt a dog, then a dog should be able to adopt a boy.
Thus as “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” opens, the bespectacled canine delivers a brief history of his life, including his adoption of Sherman when the boy was a baby. This actually strays from te original series in which Sherman already was a grade-school age kid when Mr. Peabody first encounters him.
The story centers around the main theme of the old cartoon series in which Mr. Peabody uses his invention, the WABAC time machine to travel back to earlier eras, accompanied by Sherman. In between the adventures, Sherman is given history lessons, and sometimes Mr. Peabody has to alter events to make them flow to their historically accurate conclusions.
In the updated version, Sherman starts school but has a run in with Penny Peterson (voice of  Ariel Winter) that leads to interruption in the orderly life of the dog and his boy, including the heavy-handed bureaucrat Ms. Grunnion (Allison Janney), determined to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody.
The unflappable dog, voiced by Ty Burrell from “Modern Family,” invites Penny’s parents Paul (Stephen Colbert) and Patty (Leslie Mann), along with Ms. Grunnion over for dinner and a resolution to the ugly incident.
Despite orders from Mr. Peabody not to tell anybody about the WABAC, Sherman spills the beans about the machine to Penny and the adventuress girl goads the boy into putting the machine into operation.
Now the action picks up and harkens back to the original series premise of Mr. Peabody using his smarts to keep history on track, including undoing a rift the travelers have created in the time continuum.
Along the way we meet Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), Odysseus (Tom McGrath) and his Trojan Horse soldiers, King Tut (Zach Callison) and Mona Lisa (Lake Bell).
Of course, things do not always go smoothly and amid the chaos both Sherman and Penny grow up a little bit and even the steadfast Mr. Peabody learns about expressing affection.
The animation, as expected, is lush and colorful and although a 3D version has been released, regular screenings are just as enchanting. As is the story. Mr. Peabody makes being a know-it-all charming.

Neeson fine, but villain motivation almost derails ‘Non-Stop’

This is a horror element that the movie industry likes to employ. A person authorized to wear a badge and carry a firearm has a seriously messed up or tragically altered personal life, making great potential for dangerous instability.

Such is the case with Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks in the thriller “Non-Stop.” Bill is first seen sitting in his vehicle with the look of a person gloomily dreading another day of work. He needs a bracer of hard liquor to help him cope. The kicker here is that Bill is a U.S. Air Marshal, his workplace being commercial aircraft in which he is tasked with thwarting terrorism or any other unlawful activity.

Neeson has found a niche in recent years of portraying men who have resigned themselves to the fact that the profession in which they are engaged – and superbly so – requires violence and dedication that often kills any semblance of a normal life. And certainly being an air marshal – a job wherein if you have to spring into action it means you are dealing with some very dangerous people – is not the kind of work for someone who prefers a routine if occasionally stressful occupation.

Assigned to a flight to London, Bill is already irked about the prospect of being stuck in England for three days before being able to return to the United States. Yet despite that irritation, once he is in the airport he begins his work, scoping out fellow passengers, looking for any sign of possible trouble.

On board before take-off he goes into the lavatory and puts duct tape over the smoke alarm so he can enjoy a cigarette. Then later, when the passenger sitting next to him, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore), notices his anxiety, he confesses that he gets nervous when the aircraft takes off. Then he settles down.

But settling down is not going to be possible on this flight.

He receives an anonymous text, via what is supposed to be a secure network, stating that if $150 million is not transferred to a certain off-shore account in 20 minutes, someone on board the airliner will be killed, with another person killed every 20 minutes until the funds transfer is confirmed. Additional texts taunt Bill, detailing personal information about Bill’s life, leading him to believe his on-board air marshal partner, Jack Hammond (Anson Mount), is pulling off a sick joke. Hammond convinces him otherwise but insists that Bill keep cool because the threat is likely a hoax.

The script by John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle is at its best at this point as Bill tries to locate the person delivering the threat while also arranging with the pilot to have the ransom transferred to the designated account, only to find himself outflanked by the plotter, making it look like Bill is the actual person attempting to hijack the plane.

Of course there are several potential suspects and none of them can be ruled out for certain, so the suspense builds nicely. Unfortunately, “Non-Stop” falls victim to a problem that deflates a lot of effective thrillers, and that is once the bad guy is revealed there has to be an obligatory pause in the action as that person reveals a motivation for the crime. Rather than having the standard reasons for the threats and murders such as terrorism, extortion or greed, the screenwriting trio tried to get clever with what they thought might be a unique twist. But it is so ludicrous that it prompts eye-rolling and almost derails the movie.

Fortunately, the nail-biting final sequence of whether the imperiled aircraft will survive helps put the movie back on track.

Neeson carries this movie, nailing yet again a portrayal of a man who must set aside his personal demons and tragedies and be strong when so many people are depending on him. Most of the supporting cast, including Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”), does not get much to do. Moore has a few good moments as the enigmatic Jen Summers, as well as Corey Stull as a passenger who looks like he could be capable of committing violent acts against people.

Airline thrillers have the advantage of being heart-pounding action with the confined spaces, the high speed and altitude and potential for nasty conclusions. It’s too bad the writers tried too hard with a key plot element, but “Non-Stop” does mostly succeed as an adrenalin-pulsing movie.