Monday, 22 June 2009

John Hughes: The Brat Pack films that defined an era Part Three: The Breakfast Club

Once in a generation, there is a film so definitive, that perfectly captures the concerns and motivations of a certain chunk of the populace that it becomes a perfect snapshot of a time and place, an animated history book if you will. The Breakfast Club is just such a film, and is far and away the John Hughes movie that is dearest to my heart, and the hearts of many film lovers the world over (Kevin Smith, for example, is a huge fan of The Breakfast Club). While yes, very little actually happens in the film action-wise, there is a staggering amount of stuff going on with those five characters.

The premise is simple. Five mis-matched teenagers are trapped in school on a Saturday for a special detention period. All of them have their different reasons for getting stuck there, and all of them are wary of the others. Over the course of ninety minutes they discover more about themselves and each other than they ever expected to. They form friendships, vent about life and bare their souls to a much greater extent than you generally see in teen films. There is tension and conflict aplenty as the five main characters struggle to understand each others' backgrounds and personalities, and the limited setting gives the distinct impression that this would work brilliantly as a stage play.

Humour is there in spades. But it is the interaction between the characters, and their gradual move towards friendship, that is truly great here. The chemistry between the five leads (Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall) is breathtaking, and as these five archetypes of teenage school life, they capture the insecurities of that time of life impeccably. Aside from one teacher, the janitor, and some brief glimpses of the kids' parents, the whole film is played out by the five leads, and largely in one room. It is a fascinating look at what happens when you stick a bunch of people together who think they have nothing in common- a common ground will be found eventually.

The Breakfast Club is a cathartic masterpiece of 80s cinema that has lost little of its power even now, almost 25 years after its release. Its trademark theme tune, 'Don't you forget about me' (By Simple Minds) fits perfectly, the cast are uniformly good (with the five main players finding their feet as actors just as much as the characters are finding their feet as people), and the script is an immaculate looks at the perceptions we have of others as youngsters.

Glimpses at the home lives of the characters (through their conversations) fill out their personalities beautifully. The iconic heated exchange between Andrew (Estevez) and John (Nelson), in which their home lives are explored (giving rise to the famous 'Do I stutter?' line) is very tense- these are teenagers and they are unpredictable once their tempers rise- and the payoff is very satisfying. The climax to the film is beautifully handled, and (aside from Ally Sheedy's makeover) remains true to the characters instead of giving us a neat, Hollywood style ending.

The characters evolve and move on, everyone learns there's more to life than their own path, and the audience is left feeling they have changed a little too. The Breakfast Club may be about five very clear stereotypes, but as its fans will agree, there is a little of each of them in all of us.

This is about as perfect as a commercial film can be. Both written and directed by John Hughes, it is an early gem in the decade that defined his career as an active filmmaker.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

John Hughes: The Brat Pack films that defined an era Part Two: Sixteen Candles

Sixteen Candles ushered in the age of the 80s Brat pack film for real. There has been other films that had almost managed to do the same, such as Fast Times as Ridgemont High, but it was this decidedly disjointed film that caught the imagination of a certain generation and heralded a glut of similar films, none of which matched the Hughes pack.

This is the film that made Molly Ringwald the 80s starlet that she was, as well as serving up some very politically incorrect lines (mainly aimed at exchange student Long Duk Dong) and a veritable Time Capsule of 80s-a-rama. All of the staples of 80s teen films are present and correct, nerds, jocks, the ubiquitous prom queen, they're all there, but Sixteen Candles isn't ripping anything off- it is pretty much the starting point for what came after.

It's funny and warm, but not as great as what would come straight after it (The Breakfast Club). The film feels a little too chaotic for its own good, which is why I hold it slightly lower esteem than the others. You can certainly see what the intention was, but ultimately the film is too busy and cluttered.

The plot follows Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) on her sixteenth birthday, an event which her whole family appear to have completely forgotten about. Mix in a lovestruck nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) and a chisel-jawed hunk (Michael Schoeffling), various misfit teens and a syrupy ending, and you have the ingredients of an 80s superhit. It'd good in episodic chunks, but as a whole it leaves you a little cold, and while the in-jokes and Hughes humour are there, they haven't quite matured enough to offer something truly special.

I think it's the ending that I never really got on with. I do love the film but the happy ending feels either tacked-on as an afterthought or something of a damp squib. The John Hughes Brat Pack movies all contain elements that were evident in Sixteen Candles, but used in a more refined manner. Fun, but ultimately unsatisfying.

That said, it is a great snapshot of 80s teen life and culture. The fashions, the music, the hobbies, the preoccupations are all true to the era, which is a big draw of these films now. Sixteen Candles is an interesting look at a bygone era, but little more than a curiosity now, and doesn't really give any clue as to the genre-defining film that would follow it a year later.