Armchair Cinephile 

BACK TO SCHOOL

Animal House (Universal)
The Sure Thing (MGM)
Valley Girl (MGM)
Weird Science (Universal)
The Breakfast Club (Universal)
Sixteen Candles (Universal)
Three O'Clock High (Universal)
Raising Victor Vargas (Columbia/Tri-Star)

The yellow buses are rolling, Eckerd's is selling spiral notebooks, and somewhere out there, a kid is getting his first wedgie - it's back-to-school time. And those of us lucky enough not to be there can indulge in a little nostalgia, thanks to a slew of new releases that defined an era and kickstarted dozens of acting careers, some of which didn't survive the weight of instant stardom.

The earliest of the bunch is Animal House (Universal), the 1978 party-hearty romp called "classic" by everyone who saw it during its first run and "overrated" by the rest of us. There is certainly a lot to like in the film, but most of those elements - John Belushi's Bluto, for instance - have grown so large in legend that the memory of them is funnier than they actually are in the film. The Otis Day and the Knights roadhouse rendition of "Shout" is one boisterous exception.

Where Belushi had already established himself on Saturday Night Live before his second-most famous film role, John Cusack was just getting started in The Sure Thing (MGM). Rob Reiner's 1985 showdown between horniness and true love - which would like to be a collegiate It Happened One Night, but fails - is underwhelming, especially compared to his other '80s output, but Cusack's performance displays the first hints of the sometimes manic, sometimes downtrodden, always charming everyguy he would perfect in his next few roles.

Valley Girl (MGM) catches Nicolas Cage at the same point in his career, but holds up far better as a film, despite being mired in a mallful of ancient Val-ogisms and wardrobe atrocities. The film is, like, totally not deep, but its New Wave Romeo-and-Juliet plot is heartfelt, and it never condescends to its characters - which is quite an achievement, considering that half of them speak like Moon Unit Zappa.

You can't spell "'80s Teen Comedy" without the letters J-O-H-N-H-U-G-H-E-S, and Universal has packaged the director's first three hits (with no bonus features whatsoever) into a set called the "High School Reunion Collection." Let's take them in reverse order, shall we?

Weird Science is disposable, dopey, and not much fun. I hear it is worshipped by members of a certain very narrow age group, but so was Home Alone. Even a pre-Aliens Bill Paxton can't bring this Frankenstein-monster-with-boobs fable to life, so unless you need to see Robert Downey Jr. wearing a bra on his head, or hear Anthony Michael Hall pretend to be an old black man, this one is safe to pass over.

The Breakfast Club has - I can now say, after rewatching it for the first time in probably a dozen years - more carved-in-stone one-liners per square inch than any '80s film not made by the Coen Brothers. Every few minutes, I was startled to hear the beginning of a line and know the rest of it verbatim. I'm not saying it's a great piece of cinema. (Hell, with its static locations and stagey monologues, calling it "cinema" at all is a stretch.) But it is iconic.

 
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Sixteen Candles. Ahhh. Hughes' first is his best by a long way, and maybe the only thing that can make up for the crap he has been churning out over the last decade or so. Certainly his most funny film, it had the benefit of catching Brat Packers before they became obnoxious; it was also believably tender when its comic guard came down, before such moments became a completely cynical plot device.

Flying below the radar of the John Hughes blockbusters, Three O'Clock High (Universal) is a real find. Its cast didn't go on to big things; its director's biggest hit was a U2 concert film; its writers came from television and went straight back. But this clever, unassuming comedy - in which a model student finds himself challenged by the new bully on campus, and does everything wrong trying to avoid the fight - is better than most of its better-known competition. In the vein of Better Off Dead but less outrageous, it probably identified with its square protagonist just a little too much to succeed in a marketplace that was all about flash.

Sixteen years later, Raising Victor Vargas (Columbia/TriStar) was a very different kind of teenage film, but also suffered from gloss-deficiency syndrome. Don't be ashamed to say you didn't make it out to catch this in the theater a couple of months ago - but if reading a few hundred words about teen romantic comedies makes you think "Why don't they make more serious movies about kids?," do yourself a favor and give this Lower East Side indie a chance. It's not a typical romance by any stretch, but it's a slice of believable wonder in a bland movie world. •


More by John DeFore

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