The TSL’s Grindhouse: A Boy And His Dog (dir by L.Q. Jones)


(Nearly every Saturday night, the Late Night Movie Gang and I watch a movie.  On January 20th, we watched the 1975 science fiction satire, A Boy and His Dog.)

A Boy and His Dog begins, quite literally, with a bang.  A bang followed by a mushroom cloud.  And then a second mushroom cloud.  And then another.  And another.  When the explosions finally stop, we are informed that World War IV only lasted five days.  Of course, it destroyed most of society.  The year is now 2024 and … well, things aren’t great.

(For those of you keeping track, that means we’ve got another six years left.  Enjoy them!)

The world is now a barren wasteland, an endless stretch of desert.  There are a handful of survivors but they’re not exactly the types who you would want to survive an apocalypse.  Take Vic, for instance.  Vic (played by Don Johnson) is an absolute moron.  He can’t read.  He’s not very good at thinking.  He has no conscience.  He’s someone who kills and rapes without giving it a second thought.  When Vic isn’t scavenging for food and supplies, he’s obsessing on sex.  When we first meet him, the only thing redeeming about Vic is that almost everyone else in the world is even worse than he is.

That Vic has managed to survive for as long as he has is something of a minor miracle.  Vic has been lucky enough to team up with a dog named Blood.  Blood is not only surprisingly intelligent but he’s also telepathic.  Unfortunately, the same experiment that granted him telepathy also caused him to lose his instinct as a hunter.  So, Blood and Vic have an arrangement.  Vic keeps Blood supplied with food and Blood helps Vic track down women.

Blood’s voice is provided by actor Tim McIntire and, from the minute we first hear him, it becomes obvious that Blood may be cute on the outside but, on the inside, it’s a totally different story.  Blood rarely has a good word for anyone or anything.  He delights in annoying Vic, calling him “Albert” while still demanding that Vic get him food.  He’s a surprisingly well-read dog but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get stuck in a kennel with him.  Much as with Vic, Blood’s only redeeming trait is that everyone else is marginally worse than he is.

(Sadly, if there was an apocalypse like the one that starts this movie, most of the survivors probably would be like Vic.  The only people who would survive something like that would be the people who were solely looking out for themselves.)

A Boy and His Dog is a highly episodic film, following Vic and Blood as they wander across the wasteland and bicker.  They fight other scavengers.  They spend a rather depressing night at a makeshift movie theater.  Eventually, they come across a young woman named Quilla June (Suanne Benton).  Blood dislikes her but Vic says he’s in love.  (Mostly, he’s just excited that he’s now having sex regularly.)  Eventually, through a whole series of events, Vic discovers an underground city named Topeka, where everyone wears clown makeup.  The head of the town (Jason Robards) informs Vic that his sperm will be used to impregnate 35 women.  Vic is excited until he finds out that reproduction in Topeka is a matter of artificial insemination.

(Both the wasteland and Topeka are nightmarish in their own different ways.  The wasteland is world without morality or compassion.  Topeka is a world where everyone looks like a mime, there’s always a marching band, and order is maintained by a robot wearing overalls.)

Of course, while Vic is dealing with life underground, Blood waits above ground.  By the end of the film, Vic is forced to make a choice between settling down or remaining loyal to his dog.  It all leads to a final comment from Blood that will either make you laugh or throw a shoe at your TV.  I did both.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange movie.  It definitely isn’t for everyone.  It’s a comedy but the humor is pitch black.  Still, that strangeness — along with the talent of the dog playing Blood and Tim McIntire’s savagely sarcastic voice work — is what makes the film watchable.  There’s literally no other film like A Boy and His Dog.  By the time Vic ends up in Topeka, the film has become almost a fever dream of apocalyptic paranoia and satire.  The ultimate message of the film appears to be that the apocalypse would really suck so let’s try to not blow each other up.

Who can’t get behind that?

 

A Movie A Day #296: Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, directed by Jack Clayton)


Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my favorite films.

The place is Green Town, Illinois.  The time is the 1920s.  The carnival has come to town but this is no normal carnival.  Led by the sinister, Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce), this carnival promises to fulfill everyone’s dreams but at what cost?  Double amputee Ed (James Stacy) gets his arm and his leg back.  The lonely teacher, Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), is young and beautiful once again.  Mr. Dark may bring people what they want but he gives nothing away for free.  Only two young boys, Will (Vidal Peterson) and Jim (Shawn Carson), realize the truth about the carnival but no one in town will listen to them.  Mr. Dark wants Jim to be his successor and Will’s only ally is his elderly father, the town librarian (Jason Robards).

As much a coming of age story as a horror film, Something Wicked This Way Comes takes the time to establish Green Town and to make it feel like a real place and its inhabitants seem like real people.  When Mr. Dark shows up, he is not just a supernatural trickster.  He is not just stealing the souls of Green Town.  He is also destroying the innocence of childhood.  Jonathan Pryce is both charismatic and menacing as Mr. Dark while Jason Robards matches him as the infirm librarian who must find the strength to save his son.  The confrontation between Pryce and Robards, where Pryce tears flaming pages out of a book, is the best part of the movie.  Along with Robards and Pryce, the entire cast is excellent.  Be sure to keep an eye out for familiar faces like Royal Dano, Jack Dodson, Angelo Rossitto, and especially Pam Grier, playing the “Dust Witch,” the most beautiful woman in the world.

Based on a classic novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of the only Bradbury adaptations to do justice to its source material.

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)


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(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a…

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Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)


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Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes…

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A Movie A Day #112: The Trial (1993, directed by David Jones)


One morning, in turn of the century Prague, Josef K. (Kyle MacLachlan) wakes up to discover that two detectives are in his room.  They tell him that he is under arrest but they do not tell him the charges.  Josef remains free to go about his everyday life but he must report to the court whenever the court deems to see him.  No matter where Josef turns or who he talks to, he cannot get any answers concerning what he has been charged with.  Even his disinterested attorney (Jason Robards) can not give him a straight answer on why he is being prosecuted.  No matter how much Josef protests that he is innocent of whatever has been accused of, his fate has already been decided.

On paper, this film version of Franz Kafka’s classic novel sound like it should be a masterpiece.  The film was shot on location in Prague, the script was written by Harold Pinter, and Kyle MacLachlan seems like the perfect choice for Josef K.  Unfortunately, director David Jones takes a very straightforward approach to the material and does not exploit the story’s nightmarish qualities.  This is a version of Kafka that could easily play on Masterpiece Theater.  (The perfect choice to direct The Trial would have been MacLachlan’s frequent director, David Lynch.)  MacLachlan does well as Josef K. but he is overshadowed by a steady and distracting stream of cameos from actors like Anthony Hopkins, Alfred Molina, and David Thewlis.

Despite not being totally faithful to its source material, Orson Welles’s 1962 adaptation, which stars Anthony Perkins as Josef K., remains the version to see.

A Movie A Day #107: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981, directed by William A. Fraker)


Long before he found fame playing Deputy Hawk on Twin Peaks, Michael Horse made his film debut in one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  

Michael Horse played Tonto, the young Comanche who rescues his childhood friend, John Reid (Klinton Spilsbury), and nurses him back to health after Reid has been attacked and left for dead by the notorious outlaw, Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd).  Reid was a civilian, accompanying a group of Texas Rangers led by his older brother, Dan (John Bennett Perry).  When Cavendish attacked, John was the only survivor.  John wants to avenge his brother’s death but first, Tonto is going to have to teach him how to shoot a six-shooter and how to ride his new horse, Silver.  Finally, John is ready to don the mask and becomes the Lone Ranger.  It’s just in time, because Cavendish has kidnapped President Grant (Jason Robards).

An even bigger flop than the more recent Lone Ranger film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, The Legend of the Lone Ranger failed for several reasons.  For one thing, the film has a major identity crisis.  The violence is not for kids but most of the dialogue and the performances are.  For another thing, it takes forever for John Reid to actually put on the mask and become the Lone Ranger.  By the time the William Tell Overture is heard, the movie is nearly over.

It was made to capitalize on the same type of nostalgia that previously made Superman a hit and, just as Superman introduced the world to Christopher Reeve, The Legend of the Lone Ranger introduced the world to a football player turned actor, named Klinton Spilsbury.  Unfortunately, the world did not want to meet Klinton Spilsbury, whose blank-faced performance was so bad that James Keach was brought in to dub over all of his dialogue.   Spilsbury did not help himself by reportedly acting like a diva during the shooting, demanding constant rewrites, and getting into bar brawls offset.  Of the two actors who made their screen debuts in The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Michael Horse has worked again.  Klinton Spilsbury has not.

When The Legend of the Lone Ranger went into production, the film’s producers made the incredibly boneheaded move of getting a court injunction barring Clayton Moore (who had played the role on TV) from wearing his Lone Ranger uniform is public.  Since the semi-retired Moore was living off of the money that he made appearing as the Lone Ranger at country fairs and children’s hospitals, this move was a public relations disaster.  (For his part, Moore filed a counter suit and continued to make appearances, now wearing wrap-around sunglasses instead of his mask.)  Moore refused to appear in a cameo and spent much of 1981 speaking out against the film.

Finally, the main reason that Legend of The Lone Ranger flopped was because it opened on the same Friday as a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The rest is history.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: A Thousand Clowns (dir by Fred Coe)


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The 1965 film A Thousand Clowns is one of the most annoying films to ever be nominated for best picture.

I know what you’re thinking.

Really, Lisa — even more annoying than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?

Well, no.  No movie is as annoying as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  In fact, even if it didn’t particularly work for me, I can kind of understand why A Thousand Clowns was apparently a box office success in 1965.  To be honest, part of my annoyance with the film comes from the fact that not only can I understand why other people would love it but I probably would have loved it if I had been alive to see it when it was first released.  A Thousand Clowns isn’t an awful film but to say that it has not aged well is a bit of an understatement.

It tells the story of Murray Burns (Jason Robards).  Murray lives in a cluttered New York apartment with his 12 year-old nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon).  Seven years ago, Nick’s mother abandoned him with Murray.  Murray views Nick as being his own son.  Nick worships his Uncle Murray.  Murray randomly sings Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.  Nick picks up on the habit and is soon wandering around and humming Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.  By the end of A Thousand Clowns you will be so freaking sick of hearing that song.  (Fortunately, Murray never sings Send In The Clowns.  The film dodged a bullet on that one.)

Murray’s a nonconformist, the type who starts his day by standing outside and mocking everyone who is getting ready to go to work.  Murray used to have a job.  He was a TV writer.  He wrote jokes for a detestable entertainer known as Chuckles The Chipmunk (played by noted Broadway director Gene Saks).  Five months ago, Murray quit his job.  He’s now unemployed and proud of it.  He swears that he will never again sacrifice his freedom for a paycheck.  He raises Nick to take the same attitude towards life.

Two social workers, Albert (Williams Daniels) and Sandra (Barbara Harris), show up at Murray’s apartment.  They say that unless Murray gets a job and proves that he’s a good guardian, Nick will be taken away from him.  Murray explains that he’s a nonconformist and that he’s raising Nick to reject anything conventional.  Albert is offended.  Sandra is charmed.  Soon, Sandra and Murray are going for bike rides through New York City.  Murray sings Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby some more…

And it all sounds good but the film just didn’t work for me.  First off, I’ve actually experienced what it’s like to grow up with a frequently unemployed father and, sorry, it’s not all studio apartments and cheerful trips to Central Park.  Secondly, A Thousand Clown‘s message of carpe diem might have seemed groundbreaking in 1965 but today, it just seems like a cliché.  I mean, everyone claims to be a nonconformist today.

Watching the film, it’s hard not to feel that it doesn’t really play fair.  It’s easy for the film to always portray Murray as being enlightened when the only people who ever disagree with him are humorless strawmen.  Albert is a self-righteous prig while Chuckles The Chipmunk is a heavy-handed caricature, the type of TV star who could only be created by a writer who is resentful that more people are watching TV than reading his latest masterpiece.  Martin Balsam appears as Murray’s brother, Arnold, and gets a chance to defend his decision to lead a normal, conventional life.  When it comes to the brothers, the film obviously want us to side with Murray but instead, you feel more sympathy for Arnold, largely because Martin Balsam was such an authoritative actor that your natural tendency is to assume that he must know what he’s talking about.  It’s interesting to note that it was Balsam, as the voice of mainstream conformity, that won the film’s only Oscar.

Jason Robards was not even nominated, though his performance is often better than the material.  He and Barbara Harris have a sweet chemistry, even though Harris is stuck playing a rather demeaning role.  (When we first meet Sandra, she is dating Albert and assuming that he’s correct about anything.  Then she falls for Murray and assumes that he is the one who is correct about everything.  What the film never bothers to really explore is what Sandra herself thinks about anything.)  But then you’ve got Barry Gordon, who, in the role of Nick, comes across as being a bratty know-it-all weirdo.  Nick is so obnoxious that it undercuts the movie’s claim that Murray deserves to be his guardian.

Also not nominated, despite the film winning a best picture nomination, was the director, Fred Coe.  (Nominated in his place were William Wyler for The Collector and Hiroshi Teshigahara for The Woman In The Dunes.)   His omission is less surprising than that of Jason Robards.  If you didn’t know that A Thousand Clowns was based on a stage play, you’d guess it after watching the first ten minutes of the film.  Despite a few shots of Murray and Sandra in New York City, A Thousand Clowns never breaks free of its stage origins.  Taking place on largely one set, it feels rather confining for a film meant to celebrate nonconformity.

As I said, I didn’t care much for A Thousand Clowns but I can understand why it was probably a hit with 1965 audiences.  Murray’s a transitional figure, standing between the Beats and the Hippies.  With America’s confidence shaken by the Kennedy assassination and growing social unrest, I’m sure a lot of people wanted to drop out of society just like Murray.  To be honest, a lot of people feel like that right now.  I just hope that, if you do decide to follow Murray’s example, you’ll sing something less annoying than Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.

A Thousand Clowns was nominated for best picture but it lost to a film that Murray probably would have hated, The Sound of Music.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #80: Bright Lights, Big City (dir by James Bridges)


Bright_Lights_Big_CityThe 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character.  In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash.  Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!

Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker.  Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.

And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care.  Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke.  Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him.  Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line.  Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash.  He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad.  As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.

Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash.  You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film.  No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through.  Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film.  From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up.  When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”

Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable.  There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz).  And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic.  Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe.  Megan has the patience of a saint.

There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine.  (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.)  But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.

Two Post Presidents Day Reviews: Frost/Nixon (dir. by Ron Howard) and All The President’s Men (dir. by Alan J. Pakula)


“Now Watergate doesn’t bother me/does your conscience bother you?” — Lynard Skynard, Sweet Home Alabama

As part of my continuing quest to see and review every film ever nominated for best picture, I want to devote my first post Presidents Day post to two films: 2008’s Frost/Nixon and 1976’s All The President’s Men.

During my sophomore year of college, I had a political science professor who, every day of class, would sit on his desk and ramble on and on and on about his past as a political activist.  He protested Viet Nam, he hung out with revolutionaries, he loved Hugo Chavez, and I assume he probably had a Che Guevara poster hanging in his office.  Whenever he wanted to criticize George W. Bush, he would compare him to Richard Nixon and then pause as if he was waiting for the class to all start hissing in unison.  He always seemed to be so bitterly disappointed that we didn’t.  What he, and a whole lot of other people his age, didn’t seem to understand was that Richard Nixon was his boogeyman.  The rest of us could hardly care less.

That was the same problem that faced the 2008 best picture nominee Frost/Nixon

Directed rather flatly by Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon tells the true story about how a light-weight English journalist named David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) managed to score the first televised interview with former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella).  Both Frost and Nixon see the interviews as a chance to score their own individual redemptions while Frost’s assistants (played by Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell) see the interview as a chance to put Richard Nixon on trial for Watergate, the Viet Nam War, and every thing else under the sun.  That may not sound like a very exciting movie but it does sound like a sure Oscar contender, doesn’t it?

I’ve always secretly been a big history nerd so I was really looking forward to seeing Frost/Nixon when it was first released in 2008.  When I first saw it, I was vaguely disappointed but I told myself that maybe I just didn’t know enough about Richard Nixon or Watergate to really “get” the film.  So, when the film later showed up on cable, I gave it another chance.  And then I gave it a chance after that because I really wanted to like this film.  Afterall, it was a best picture nominee.  It was critically acclaimed.  The word appeared to be insisting that this was a great film.  And the more I watched it, the more I realized that the world was wrong.  (If nothing else, my reaction to Frost/Nixon made it easier for me to reject the similarly acclaimed Avatar a year later.)  Frost/Nixon is well-acted and slickly produced but it’s not a great film.  In fact, Frost/Nixon is epitome of the type of best picture nominee that inspires people to be cynical about the Academy Awards.

Before I get into why Frost/Nixon didn’t work for me, I want to acknowledge that this was a very well-acted film.  By that, I mean that the cast (Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, and Oliver Platt) all gave very watchable and entertaining performances.  At the same time, none of them brought much depth to their characters.  Much like the film itself, nobody seems to have much going on underneath the surface.  Frank Langella may be playing a historic figure but, ultimately, his Oscar-nominated performance feels like just a typically grouchy Frank Langella performance.  Michael Sheen actually gives a far more interesting performance as David Frost but, at the same time, the character might as well have just been identified as “the English guy.”  In fact, a better title for this film would have been The Grouchy, the English, and the Superfluous.

For all the time that the film devotes to Rockwell and Platt blathering on about how they’re going to be giving Richard Nixon “the trial he never had,” this film is ultimately less about politics and more about show business.  Ron Howard devotes almost as much time to the rather boring details of how the interviews were set up and sold into syndication as he does to the issues that the interview brings up.  Unfortunately, for a movie about show business to succeed, the audience has to believe that the show is one that they would actually enjoy watching,  This, ultimately, is why Frost/Nixon fails.  While the filmmakers continually tell us that the Frost/Nixon interviews were an important moment in American history, they never show us.  Yes, everyone has hideous hair and wide lapels but, otherwise, the film never recreates the period or the atmosphere of the film’s setting and, as a result, its hard not to feel detached from the action happening on-screen.  For all the self-congratulatory claims made at the end of the film, it never convinces us that the Frost/Nixon interviews were really worth all the trouble.  Much like my old poli sci professor, Frost/Nixon never gives us a reason to care. 

For a far more interesting and entertaining look at the Watergate scandal, I would recommend the 1976 best picture nominee All The President’s Men.  Recreating the story of how two Washington Post reporters (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) exposed the Watergate scandal that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, All The President’s Men is the movie that Frost/Nixon wishes it could be.  Despite being made only two years after Watergate, All The President’s Men doesn’t take the audience’s interest for granted.  Instead, director Pakula earns our interest by crafting his story as an exciting thriller.  Pakula directs the film like an old school film noir, filling the screen with menacing shadows and always keeping the camera slightly off-center.   Like Frost/Nixon, All The President’s Men is a well-acted film with a bunch of wonderful 70s character actors — performers like Ned Beatty, Jason Robards, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, and Robert Walden, and Jane Alexander — all giving effectively low-key and realistic performances.   The end result is a film that manages to be exciting and fascinating to those of us who really don’t have any reason to care about Richard Nixon or Watergate.

Both of these two films were nominated for best picture.  Frost/Nixon quite rightly lost to Slumdog MillionaireAll The President’s Men, on the other hand, lost to Rocky.