Monday, May 17, 2010

Hobgoblins (1988)

One of my favorite movies during my youth was Gremlins. I didn't get to see it until the first part of the '90s, which means I was lucky to have missed the period when filmmakers were cranking out Gremlins knockoffs. I can forgive Critters and Ghoulies, because they supposedly started development before Gremlins went into production. But then there are still other, lesser-known knockoffs. They're all rather obscure and will more than likely stay that way. I mean, have you ever heard of the movie Munchies? No, you probably haven't.

I'll confess that I haven't seen most of the movies that have been accused of trying to cash in on the success of Gremlins. I've actually seen only one, and it was more than enough. I envy those of you who have not seen the movie to which I am referring, because you have yet to experience the pure horror that each frame contains. It is a movie so utterly dreadful, so abysmally bad that its mere existence seems almost as if it were the result of a cruel joke played by the gods of cinema. There are bad movies, there are terrible movies... and then there's Hobgoblins.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to a wimpy young man named Kevin (Tom Bartlett), who has just started a new job as a night watchman at an old movie studio. The only thing really asked of him by his boss, the elderly Mr. McCreedy (Jeffrey Culver), is that he absolutely avoid one particular vault at all costs.

But the thing about Hobgoblins is that the characters are all complete morons. While chasing a burglar through the studio, Kevin opens the vault to search for him. This was probably the worst decision he could have made, as opening the vault releases a group of malicious creatures.

Called "hobgoblins" by Mr. McCreedy, the creatures are aliens that he'd kept trapped inside the vault for the past thirty years. I have no idea how he managed to succeed in doing so, considering that every time we see the vault door, it's unlocked and free for anyone to open. But anyway, letting them out is a pretty big deal, as they have the ability to make a person experience their greatest fantasy before ultimately killing them.

Kevin starts hunting for the hobgoblins, and finds that they've gone after his friends: Amy (Paige Sullivan), his uptight, prudish girlfriend; phone sex addict Kyle (Steven Boggs); the ultra-slutty Daphne (Kelley Palmer); and Daphne's soldier boyfriend, Nick (Billy Frank). With the hobgoblins on the loose, it is up to this quintet of losers to save the day.

Hobgoblins is one of those movies that nobody would have known existed if it hadn't been for Mystery Science Theater 3000. But when the MST3K crew mocked it on their show in 1998, the movie was exposed to an audience who could see it for what it is: one of the most terrible movies ever made. It is a complete and utter failure on every level. Everything about it is pathetic.

This sad pile of crap was written, produced, and directed by Rick Sloane, so if seeing Hobgoblins has caused you any deep psychological trauma, he's the guy to blame. In watching Hobgoblins, it was readily apparent to me that Sloane had no idea to make a movie that didn't suck. His direction is lackluster to the point of feeling amateurish, with nothing that would build tension or be visually appealing. The whole thing is just one big chore to watch.

His writing is even worse than his direction. The dialogue is awful, the plot is full of holes (among the other goofs and bloopers within the movie), and the characters are the most unlikable group of nitwits I've ever seen. It's like Sloane decided to make a movie where every character was Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. You just want to jump into the movie and strangle them all. It's so tiresome, so tedious watching them that I'm afraid that it might have broken something in my brain.

But there are two things that make Hobgoblins truly wretched. One is the hobgoblins themselves. Designed by Kenneth J. Hall, the hobgoblins are cheap hand puppets. Very ugly cheap hand puppets, at that. They don't even try to hide it, either, with the lower half of their bodies usually obscured in some way. If you ever watch Hobgoblins, you will laugh at how lame and unconvincing they are.

The other big thing I have against the movie is its unbelievably atrocious cast. I don't believe there is even a mediocre performance among anyone in front of the camera. (I hesitate to call them "actors.") And I don't even think there's any reason to break them down individually like I normally do, because they're all equally terrible. If their characters are annoying and unlikable, their performances are even worse. Watching these people do what they're doing is infuriating because of how unapologetically bad they are.

I will admit that this hasn't been one of my better reviews. If you're reading this and think it feels kinda rushed, it's probably because I want to hurry up and be done with the relentless torture that is Hobgoblins. It is a movie that I must warn you to avoid at all costs. Do not watch it under any circumstances, unless you're lucky enough to have acquired a copy of its MST3K episode. Otherwise, I implore you to never watch this movie. Hobgoblins just may be the destroyer of worlds.

Final Rating: *

Monday, May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

When Paramount Pictures and Marvel Comics teamed up to make a cinematic adaptation of Marvel's Iron Man character in 2008, they pretty much struck gold. It was a huge hit with both readers and non-readers of comic books, and helped establish Robert Downey Jr. as a bankable star after his battles with substance abuse.

And as Iron Man began Marvel's build to a movie based on the Avengers, it was also successful enough to warrant a sequel of its own. With a ton of promotion and marketing behind it, that sequel has now arrived in theaters, and it's my opinion that Iron Man 2 is a worthy follow-up to its predecessor.

Six months have passed billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealed to the world that he is the armored superhero known as "Iron Man." He has put his armor to good use in that time, having negotiated peace among the world's political superpowers. And thanks to both his activities as Iron Man and the success of his "Stark Expo" technology show, Tony's popularity with the general public is at an all-time high.

But all is not well in the world of Tony Stark. The United States Senate is breathing down his neck, demanding he turn over the Iron Man armor for military application. Though Tony casually shrugs them off, things get far worse from there. The palladium used in the "arc reactor" that keeps Tony's heart beating has begun poisoning his body. Unless he can discover a replacement element, it will slowly kill him.

And because bad news always seems to come in threes, a new threat looms on the horizon. While racing in the Monaco Grand Prix, Tony's car is cut in half by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian inventor with ties to the Stark family who has constructed his own arc reactor and channeled its energy through two whip-like attachments. Tony is able to win the ensuing fight, but Vanko is soon sprung from prison by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Tony's unscrupulous business rival. Hammer and Vanko are quick to put their heads together and organize a way to eliminate their common enemy.

When a sequel to a movie as fun as Iron Man is released, you go into it with certain expectations. And while your opinion of it may differ from mine, I got everything I wanted out of Iron Man 2. The action was exciting, the jokes were funny, the effects were top-notch, the soundtrack was pretty darn rockin', and the acting was great. It may not hit the exact same mark the first movie did, but I have no problem calling Iron Man 2 a creative success.

Returning to the helm is Jon Favreau, whose direction is once again excellent. He knows exactly what kind of movie he wants to make, and he does a great job at it. (He also isn't bad in his beefed up role as Tony Stark's bodyguard/chauffeur, Happy Hogan.) Favreau's direction gives the movie so much energy, keeping the excitement and the entertaining as high as he can for as long as he can.

But it is in Favreau's favor that he has a number of elements that he can assemble to make the movie what it is. There's the stellar cinematography by Matthew Libatique, an awesome rock-styled score from composer John Debney (with help from Tom Morello), and the amazing visual effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic. All of it gels together to help make Favreau's direction that much better.

Another of the elements Favreau has at his disposal is the screenplay. It's credited to Tropic Thunder writer Justin Theroux, but I wouldn't be surprised if, like in the first movie, Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. did a little script doctoring. (So I don't know that for sure. Let's just take the credits at face value and assume Theroux did all the writing himself, okay?)

I can't say that I have a problem with Theroux's script... except for this one little thing. What I didn't like about it — and the big reason why I felt Iron Man 2 didn't surpass the first movie in terms of quality — is that I got the feeling that there's too much going on. There's the whole thing with Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer, the subplot with the Senate trying to get the Iron Man armor, the parts with Nick Fury and SHIELD, and Tony's palladium poisoning. Couldn't Theroux have gone with one, maybe two stories and streamlined things?

The first movie was a lot more focused in that regard, and while Iron Man 2 isn't the complete opposite of that, I do think it tries juggling too much at once. There's so much going on that outside of a handful of moments, the action never really hits any sort of stride until the last half hour. The first ninety minutes are far from boring, I'll give it that, but I wanted a little more Iron Man mixed in with all that Tony Stark. Know what I mean?

The absolute best part of Iron Man 2, however, is the same as its predecessor: the cast. The actors and actresses gathered for this movie are all excellent at what's asked of them, even if some are better than others.

Reprising his role as the title character is Robert Downey Jr., who once again completely steals the movie. Some superheroes may mope and be sullen about a perceived negative impact that heroism has on their lives, but Downey's Stark gives them the finger and proudly announces to the world that being a superhero kicks ass.

He's absolutely tremendous in the part, playing Tony as a cocky prick who is still a pretty endearing guy even when you want to strangle him. Downey is so charming and so much fun to watch that I honestly cannot picture the Iron Man movie franchise without him. The combination of arrogance and charisma makes Downey a real blast to watch, and I hope they make a dozen more Iron Man movies so he can keep playing the character.

But while Downey steals the movie, that doesn't mean the supporting cast isn't good as well. They're actually pretty darn great. While the chemistry between she and Downey may not be quite what it was two years ago, Gwyneth Paltrow is still very good. The character of Pepper Potts has a little more meat this time around, giving Paltrow more to work with. She aces it, playing Pepper with the same warmth and charm as before, but with a certain sence of frustration with her boss's recklessness. It's believable and it works.

I must also admit that I enjoyed Don Cheadle in the role of Tony's best friend, Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes. There was a bit of a stink raised over the announcement that Cheadle would be replacing Terrence Howard, but I thought Cheadle did an admirable job. The only flaw I could find with his performance is that he didn't have the same strong, confident presence as Howard did, but that's minor at worst. Cheadle is still worth seeing here, if you ask me.

Among the other newcomers to the franchise is Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, who comic fans will recognize as the secret agent otherwise known as "Black Widow." Her role seems relatively minor in the grand scheme of the movie, and it feels like she was only here to add sex appeal and introduce Black Widow to the movie continuity (and thus give SHIELD more of a presence in Iron Man 2).

Outside of her fight scenes during the climax, there isn't really a lot for Johansson to do. If all that was expected of her during filming was to stand around and look pretty before kicking the crap out of people, then she knocks that out of the park. As far as the actual acting goes, Johansson isn't too bad at that either.

But what would a superhero movie be without the supervillains? One of the common complaints about the first movie is that there wasn't a very strong villainous presence until the third act. Iron Man 2 remedies that, giving us two villains right from the start.

The first villain is Mickey Rourke, whose performance is exactly what it needs to be. Rourke plays the character as cold, calculating, and unwaveringly determined to bring down Tony Stark's empire. And it may sound hyperbolic, but he's perfect here. You can tell just by looking at him that he means business and will go to any lengths to accomplish his goals.

Rourke's counterbalanced by the movie's other villain, Sam Rockwell. His character is everything Rourke's isn't: cocky, brash, and somewhat ineffectual. If you created an Iron Man 2 drinking game, you could probably make a case for taking a shot every time Justin Hammer is made to look like a fool. Rockwell is fantastic in the role, giving him an arrogance that says he'd be as big as Tony if only Stark Industries were out of the picture.

While I don't think it's as good as its predecessor, Iron Man 2 is two hours of pure entertainment. I won't try to dispute any allegations that it's not much more than a glorified stepping stone towards the Avengers movie in 2012, but whether it is or isn't, it's still one heck of a sequel and one heck of a fun flick. So on my usual scale, I'm going to give Iron Man 2 three and a half stars (leaning towards four) and a recommendation to go check it out if you haven't seen it yet. Now if only they could get someone to invent the Iron Man armor for real so I could take it for a test drive...

Final Rating: ***½