Back to the Beach

October 1, 2019

backtobeachWe are riding the crest of another wave of retro-fashion/music/style—or is it just another ripple in the never-ending tide of nostalgia? “La Bamba” is back on the charts, Newsweek puts Elvis Presley on its cover and declares surfing clothes the hip new look, and Stanley Kubrick makes the sublimely ridiculous “Surfin’ Bird” a showstopper in his new movie.

All right, so it’s silly. But it beats facing reality.

With that in mind, consider Back to the Beach, a perfectly timed ode to the stupefying Beach Party movies of the early 1960s. If drinks in coconut shells with little umbrellas are your thing, and the sound of the words “Surf’s Up!” sends a thrill down your spine, we’ve got a movie for you.

Back to the Beach finds the now-married Big Kahuna (Frankie Avalon) and Annette (Annette Funicello) in something of a mid-life crisis. They’ve lived in Ohio since the ’60s, when Frankie swore off surfing after a disastrous encounter with a legendary wave called the Humuonga Cowabunga from Down Undah. Frankie sells cars, while Annette fixes her two kids endless sandwiches with Skippy peanut butter (there are mucho Pirandellian in-jokes in this film).

So they take a vacation with their punked-out son (Demian Slade) and land in Los Angeles. Their college-age daughter (Lori Laughlin) is living with a surfer (Tommy Hinkley), which sets Kahuna’s helmet-shaped hair on end. Romantic misunderstandings occur all ’round. The solution, as it always was in the original films, is for the guys to make the gals jealous, and the gals to make the guys jealous.

This is how it always worked.

So Frankie spends time down at Daddy-O’s with Connie Stevens. Annette flirts with a hunk named Troy (John Calvin) who states his romantic philosophy thusly: “I dig chicks. Chicks dig me digging them. Dig?”

And there’s a happy ending. The fun of all this comes from the loopy affection this film has for those old movies. All the old conventions are kidded, including the corny back-projection shots of Frankie perched in front of a huge wave, and the crazy beachwide dance numbers (here Annette teaches a thousand people to do “The Jamaican Ska”).

Plus, characters say things to Frankie and Annette that you’ve always wanted to say. When Annette hits the sand after hanging ten, Troy marvels, “After all that surfing, her hair’s perfectly dry!” And it is arguably one of the great moments in cinema history when an awed surfer observes that Frankie was once the king of the beach: “Which is extra cool, ‘cuz you look like an Italian loan shark.”

Lyndall Hobbs, an Australian-born filmmaker who has made some music videos, directed this movie, and she’s found just the right slaphappy tone. The whole thing’s keyed in day-glo colors and tiki architecture, and the action never flags.

Also, there are a bunch of goofy cameos: Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr., from Gilligan’s Island, much of the cast of Leave It to Beaver, Don Adams, Edd “Kooky” Byrnes, and Pee-wee Herman, who performs “Surfin’ Bird” (don’t tell Stanley Kubrick).

Back to the Beach also contains: a pajama party, Frankie swearing, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale doing “Pipeline,” and Annette in a pink polka-dot one-piece, which testifies to the fact that she still has—let’s be the teeniest bit blunt about it—a really amazing body. All that’s missing is Erich von Zipper. For aficionados, this film is a must-see.

First published in the Herald, August 8, 1987.

A fond memory, this one. And so much has changed in the world! Annette is gone, Stevie Ray is gone, Pee-wee’s career veered off course, and Lori Laughlin faces jail time. Hobbs did a few TV episodes and according to Wikipedia is now a designer; she was Al Pacino’s life partner for a while. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense. And oh hey, this site is also back, after a brief six-year break. As Ethan Hawke once said, time is a lie. So we’ll just resume as though nothing else happened, shall we?

The Night Before

December 11, 2012

nightbefore2_5“I was supposed to have her home by midnight. Instead, I sold her to a pimp.” Such is the existential lament of the high-school hero of The Night Before, a nerd who’s lost his date on prom night.

The only reason the popular cheerleader (Lori Laughlin) is going out with the school pencil-neck (Keanu Reeves) is that she lost a bet, and is stuck with his company. But the nightmare doesn’t really begin until they’re deep into the inner city, having taken a few wrong turns along the way. There, with unerring dimwittedness, Reeves manages to misplace his car, his wallet, and his date.

At a club called the Rat’s Nest, Reeves has been served a Mickey, in the form of a tequila and ginger ale. In this state, he unknowingly sells the cheerleader for $1,500 to a pimp (Trinidad Silva). A bystander notes that Reeves should’ve held out for at least $3,000. The rest of the movie has Reeves trying to recover the girl before she is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Morocco.

This movie shoots itself in the foot right away, since it begins with the night already half over and Reeves piecing together the preceding events in flashback. This device effectively halts any healthy narrative development, not that there is much to begin with.

Director and co-writer Thom Eberhardt piles on the bad news for our hero, but the inner-city disasters pale next to the recent model for such nightmare comedies, After Hours.

Reeves, who was the kid with a conscience in River’s Edge, gives an utterly graceless performance here, although that appears to be what the director wanted. Laughlin spends the entire movie in an attitude of perpetual (and occasionally amusing) disdain. The only performer to strike an interesting note is Theresa Saldana, who plays a good-natured lady of the evening. Other than that, this film is best consigned to that burgeoning population of films that are soon to be seen at a video store near you.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1988

Eberhardt had directed Night of the Comet in ’84. Trinidad Silva should be fondly remembered for his ongoing role as the gang leader in “Hill Street Blues”; he died in a car accident a few months after The Night Before came out. Saldana had, earlier in the decade, been attacked and seriously wounded by a deranged man. Nobody remembers this movie.

Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?