Two masters of cinema died this week. I’ve selected some of their best work, plus something for the anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. But first, O.J.
O.J.: Made in America (2015)
O.J. Simpson was paroled this week. The coverage was surprisingly reserved in the light of past coverage of Simpson, but this latest sad chapter in his life is as good a reason as any to return to Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary, O.J.: Made in America. Over nearly eight hours, Edelman delves into every aspect of Simpson’s morbid fame, from his early career as a football star at USC to the final conviction that seemed more like an attempt to write a past wrong than an appropriate punishment. But as much as the documentary functions as a biography and a murder mystery, it also puts Simpson’s story into the context of race relations in Los Angeles, and America in general. Note: watch this when you have a fair amount of free time—you’ll have trouble stopping once you start. Stream on Hulu, rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
George A. Romero
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Few horror films (and films in general) are as influential as the first entry in Romero’s zombie series. Romero, who died this week at 77, made many excellent films outside of the zombie subgenre, but this is where his reputation rests. Although the gore that would define later entries isn’t present in the original, he makes up for it with chillingly stark black and white photography. Almost all Romero films double as political statements, and this one is no exception. He cast Duane Jones, an African American, in the lead role, but the performance is free of the nobility that might handicap someone like Sidney Poitier, and the film is brutally aware of the racist structures that still underlie what’s left of society. The film’s ending is still shocking today, and it doesn’t have anything to do with zombies. Stream on Amazon, rent on iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
The second film in Romero’s zombie series, Dawn of the Dead, is his masterpiece, but it’s not currently streaming anywhere due to the vagaries of streaming. It’s well worth searching for a DVD or Blu-ray on Amazon.
North by Northwest (1959)
Martin Landau was best known as a TV actor for most of his career, but he first came to prominence in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, and the apotheosis of his wrong man films. Cary Grant was at the top of his game as a man mistaken for a spy, with deadly consequences. Landau plays the black-eyed henchman, a chilling foil to the wittier leads, Grant and his nemesis, played by James Mason. Few films are as purely enjoyable. Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
Ed Wood (1994)
Landau had a career resurgence in the late ’80s, with a number of meaty, complex roles (which garnered multiple Oscar nominations). His best performance was in Woody Allen Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), where he played a morally compromised ophthalmologist. It’s a haunting role that Landau completely disappears into. But streaming isn’t always fair to the great films, and Crimes and Misdemeanors isn’t currently available online. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood makes a pretty good alternative, though.
Johnny Depp stars at schlockmeister/director Ed Wood, best remembered for making Plan 9 from Outer Space, one of the worst films ever made. (Remember when Johnny Depp wasn’t a total creep?) Martin Landau plays a wonderfully unhinged version of Bela Lugosi; his Dracula fame has long ago dried up, but the iconic role nonetheless strangles his ambitions. It’s a wonderfully sad role, and Landau handles it with aplomb. Rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
For All Mankind (1989)
Forty-eight years ago to the day, Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the Moon. In 1989, Al Reinert made his seminal documentary about the Apollo missions, but he took a radical approach: there would be no talking heads, just narration over images taken by the astronauts during the six successful moon landings, and none of the speakers would even be identified. Reinert edits the film into the form of a single moon mission, though he intermingles footage from different missions. It’s a stunning, and sometimes frightening, look into Apollo missions.
Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon have both portrayed the moon missions, but there’s something fake about their visual effects-derived outer space. No matter how good it looks, we can always tell that it’s fake. That’s not the case with Reinert’s documentary. The astronauts shot everything themselves, and when you see the earth fading away behind the ship, there’s a startling reality to it that mesmerizes. Experimental musician and producer Brian Eno created the score (most of it makes up his excellent Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album). No music has conveyed the loneliness of space as effectively. Stream on FilmStruck, rent on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu. Criterion also has a great Blu-ray which I highly recommend: it’s worth seeing these celestial landscapes in the best possible quality.