I Watch A Lot Of Documentaries: Dalekmania, American Grindhouse, Trumbo & Mayor Of The Sunset Strip

I Watch A Lot Of Movies will most likely be a recurring feature here on the blog because it’s a plain fact. Because I work from home and I like to have something on to either watch or listen to while I do so, I go through a lot of movies, shows, podcasts and records. Sometimes I give them their own write-ups, but sometimes I don’t have as much to say. So, IWALOM will be a kind of catch-all for the things I want to say a few words on. As it happens, I’ve been on a bit of a documentary going back to when I watched and wrote about Too Tough To Die and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop a few weeks ago.

One of the more curious documentaries I’ve seen on Netflix Instant has to be Dalekmania (1995) which I assumed would be about the history of the Doctor Who baddies. Instead, as the subtitle explains, it’s actually the story of Daleks and the Doctor on the big screen. Back in 1965 Peter Cushing starred as a tweaked version of the character in a big screen flock that remade one of the few serials I’ve actually seen: The Daleks.

Much like the 1996 Fox-produced Doctor Who movie, the movie and it’s sequel, the awesomely named Invasion Earth: 2015, neither film is in cannon, but that doesn’t mean they don’t look interesting. Seeing a documentary based on a pair of films I’ve never seen was cool because it’s not like I had heard any of these stories before. The downside? The movies aren’t on any kind of Netflix so I can’t check them out, which is a little frustrating. It seems like everyone involved (and living) was interviewed and you also get to see a cool collection of Dalek and Who memorabilia from a husband and wife collector team. Worth checking out for Who fans even if they don’t HAVE to know about these flicks.

I was kind of disappointed by American Grindhouse (2010), especially after being so impressed by essentially the Australian version of this doc called Not Quite Hollywood. While Not Quite really seemed to just jump in and celebrate their schlocky movies, Grindhouse seems to take an almost clinical approach which saps some of the fun out of the proceedings.  A big contributor to that feeling is how specifically they define “grindhouse.’ Instead of being about low budget movies sent to drive ins or cheap theaters, we’re told that an actual grindhouse was a theater that would never shut down or stop showing movies. Uh, okay. It’s the equivalent of someone telling you in great detail that what you’re blowing your nose in isn’t actually a Kleenex, but a facial tissues.

The opposite side of the specificity coin is that you actually get treated to lots of different kinds of movies than you might expect, going all the way back to the early days of film. The movie points out that, almost as soon as people figured out how to use movie cameras, they started pointing them at naked ladies. I actually learned this in either high school or college and was blown away at the time because you kind of assume that everything was super prudey back in the day, but in reality people are people and are always curious about things like that.

The film also boasts a quality group of talking heads including John Landis, Joe Dante, William Lustig and plenty of others. Everyone brings something interesting to the table, it’s just a broader table than I was expecting when I turned it on.

I probably wouldn’t have given a movie called Trumbo (2007) if not for the awesome image on this poster. A dude writing in the bathtub? I love it! The story found in the documentary is even more interesting. Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were blacklisted for communist leanings thanks to McCarthy and the ridiculous red scare. He wrote movies like The Devil’s Playground, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun and plenty of others, some of which were credited to other writers who fronted for him and some of the other Hollywood Ten.

The doc has an interesting style that takes many of Trumbo’s writings and has famous actors do dramatic readings. I didn’t realize what was happening at first when people like Michael Douglas, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti and others started doing these monologues in dark rooms, I was confused, but I soon caught on and enjoyed the method. Apparently, this film is based on the stage play of one of Trumbo’s  sons, which makes that all make a lot more sense.

I like that Trumbo never lost faith or face, really, kept writing and later on didn’t seem too bitter about what happened. He definitely answered some questions with a sharp wit, but he didn’t seem bitter, which is inspiring considering the mountains of bullshit heaped upon him.

Like a lot of things on Netflix,  I didn’t really know what Mayor Of The Sunset Strip (2003). For some reason I thought it was about a guy who was influential in the 80s metal scene on the Sunset Strip. It’s actually about Rodney Binginheimer, a dude who started out as a groupie in the 60s, met practically every rock star, got nicknamed in a Beach Boys song, became one of the most influential DJs in music history and is still kicking.

I found this story so fascinating because Bingenheimer is ridiculously damaged. Yes, he’s met every single important rock and roll musician since the medium was practically invented and yes he has (or at least had) a great deal of power in his business, but he is also a sad, lonely man with mom issues. The portrait painted is that of a man who prefers not to be in the spotlight, but absolutely expects to be just on the fringes now. It’s also the story of a man whose time as come and gone, though that’s not the main focus. Towards the end of the movie, the man with ridiculous hair tells the camera that he’s only got one night a week as a DJ on KROQ which clearly bums him out. The only time he expresses any real, obvious emotions happens in a scene where his radio protege finishes a show and Bingenheimer is pissed because he thinks the younger man has basically stolen his entire schtick.

For me, Mayor has two lessons to be learned. First, it shows me that anyone can become important. There was nothing truly special about Rodney Bingenheimer, nothing that would make him an obvious maven of a culture movement. But, he physically got himself where he needed to be and worked his way up to becoming ridiculously influential. That’s the American dream, right? Well, the second lesson shows what can happen if you don’t balance your life out. Even with all his power and influence, something about his personality didn’t allow him to capitalize on it too much and he has essentially faded out of prominence. The lesson is to both keep working even after reaching prominence, but also that all the importance in the world doesn’t fix your problems. You’ve got to work on that stuff on your own and it didn’t seem to me like Bingenheimer has done that.

Christmas Stories: Fred Claus (2007)

Fred Claus wasn’t a great movie. I give Director David Dobkin, who also directed star Vince Vaughn in one of my favorite movies Wedding Crashers, a lot of credit for trying to bring some grown-up elements to your basic Santa Claus story (someone wants to stop Christmas and while it looks like the villain will succeed, in the end good wins over reformable evil). But, in the end, without Vaughn, I don’t think this would have been much of a movie. He basically plays the same character he did in Crashers, which is pretty much the same character he plays in everything. That’s not a complaint mind you. Vince Vaughn is like AC/DC records, I don’t care if they keep doing the same thing over and over again because I generally like the end product. I will say that there were lines seemingly lifted right from Crashers. I didn’t make any notes, but I feel like there are a lot of lines borrowed/re-used from Vaugn and Owen Wilson’s opening with the couple who are getting a divorce. Anyway, the plot revolves around two brothers, Nick (Paul Giamatti) and Fred (Vaughn) Claus. Nick’s generosity makes him a saint somehow (though God is never mentioned oddly enough) and when you become a saint your parents, immediate family and spouse all become immortal (huh?). So, while Nick’s making toys at the North Pole, Fred is a repo man who wants to start his own business, but he needs some start-up money that he asks his brother for. In exchange for the cash, Nick says Fred has to come to the North Pole and work in the naughty/nice department. MEANWHILE, there’s an efficiency expert sent from some kind of holiday executive board (as far as I know this is never actually explained, but this bad guy says his organization is getting rid of the Easter Bunny among other holiday changes). The bad guy is played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey does all kinds of things to sabotage Santa, which means he’ll get shut down and operations will be moved to the South Pole. While he’s there, Vaughn tries to get the elves and other folks to loosen up and have fun.

Everyone does a good job in their roles. John Michael Higgins and Ludacris play elves, while Elizabeth Banks plays a more human-sized character (again, this isn’t really explained as far as I caught). I kept comparing this movie to Elf, which is my favorite Christmas movie to come out in a decade. It’s got similar themes with the real world and Santa’s one interacting, relationships being built, nearly destroyed and then rebuilt and lots of funny moments, but Fred Claus just doesn’t get it’s emotional hooks in me like Elf does. There are really fun moments like when Vaughn gets the elves dancing and an early one in which Vaughn gets chased by a bunch of Salvation Army Santas for panhandling in a Santa hat without authorization. I think what threw me off most was that the tone kept shifting between a family movie and a more adult one. Heck, my two favorite moments speak to that. The dancing is very kid-friendly and fun while the Santa fight is a bit more mean spirited. Elf seemed to balance those varying elements majestically, while Fred keeps shifting quickly and obviously back and forth, pulling you out of the story. There’s also an underlying darkness that Vaughn brings that I’m not sure was intended (when he’s framed for doing bad things and gets tricked by Spacey into disliking his brother even more, he looks like he’s riding the Horse instead of just feeling betrayed).

So, I wouldn’t really recommend Fred Claus to you unless you’re a Vince Vaughn completist (and if you are you’ve probably already seen it) because of the strange tone shifts. Instead, go watch Elf or White Christmas, it’s an oldie but a goody.