Jesse Eisenberg plays James, whose summer plans are dashed and must get a job at the local, pathetic theme park of the title. But at least there’s plenty of pot to smoke, some cool 1980s indie rock (Husker Du and the Replacements) to listen to, and the cute Em (Kristen Stewart) to fawn over.
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009) vividly captures the hazy, drifting feel of a summer job that doesn’t mean much, yet perhaps makes the time pass more slowly, as well as the flirtations and crushes that come and go over the long weeks. It’s hilarious and yet surprisingly poignant, especially in its quiet Fourth of July sequence in which Em and James stop talking, just for a moment, to watch the fireworks. Ryan Reynolds is very good as a rocker who claims to have jammed with Lou Reed. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig run the park and are supremely funny.
American Honey (Amazon Prime)
If you’re going to choose one of the many movies with “American” in the title, you could do a lot worse than American Honey (2016), a finely observant slice of Americana directed by the English filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights). It’s a coming-of-age story set in a harsh, dislocated U.S.A., where Star (remarkable newcomer Sasha Lane) is stuck in Oklahoma with a wretched family, and forced to look after two younger siblings. When the slick, swaggering older Jake (Shia LaBeouf) approaches her and offers to take her away from all this, she breathlessly agrees.
Star winds up selling magazines with a group of other misfits, working for the hard, edgy Krystal (Riley Keough), while the on-again/off-again Jake plays with Star’s affections. Passing from town to town, Star discovers a country both beautiful and devastating. The movie’s lengthy, languid running time (163 minutes) smooths the shock value of the youngsters’ behavior and renders them quite human.
Apollo 13 (Hulu)
Ron Howard had his first truly exceptional artistic and commercial success with this gripping story of the 1970 mission to the moon that underwent a myriad of technical problems. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) are the heroic astronauts who must make emergency repair after emergency repair in order to stay alive, and, hopefully, make it back home. Gary Sinise and Ed Harris play the men on the ground, and Kathleen Quinlan is the waiting, worrying wife.
Apollo 13 (1995) is a fine example of American ingenuity, solving impossible problems under intense strain, and Howard’s film gives the impression of being faithful and detailed—it’s trustworthy—combined with a huge dose of old-fashioned Hollywood suspense. The anti-gravity scenes, achieved by sudden dives inside high-flying aircraft, are amazingly realistic and quite groundbreaking at the time. The movie received nine Oscar nominations and won for Best Editing and Best Sound (both deserved).
If you’re someplace this Fourth of July where there aren’t any fireworks, then the next best thing just might be a Michael Bay movie, with their numerous explosions. Armageddon (1998) is one of his better efforts, cheerfully simple and old-fashioned in its ticking-clock storytelling, and with a flock of terrific actors playing lovable misfits. In it, an asteroid the size of Texas is headed for Earth, and will wipe out every living thing once it hits (no pressure). The NASA chief (Billy Bob Thornton) cooks up a plan so crazy it just might work.
A crack team of drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) are to board a rocket, land on the asteroid, drill an 800-foot hole, and plant a nuclear bomb, splitting the asteroid in two before it can reach the Earth. Of course, many complications arise, and the tension mounts. But nothing perturbs Harry quite as much as his right-hand man A.J. (Ben Affleck) falling in love with his beloved daughter Grace (Liv Tyler). If that’s not enough, then how about Charlton Heston narrating? Or Aerosmith performing that chest-thumper “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”?
The Bay (TubiTV, Shudder)
It’s hard to believe that Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Rain Man) would jump on the found-footage horror-movie bandwagon, but he gives The Bay (2012) his best. And, in a way, it resembles his Wag the Dog (1997) in that it’s a vicious satire of man’s foibles, only this time gruesome rather than funny.
It’s the Fourth of July weekend in 2009 in Chesapeake Bay. Journalism student Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) plans to document the holiday festivities, but instead people begin getting sick, developing blisters and boils, and dropping dead. She later assembles other footage to piece together what happened: a perfect storm of man-made conditions combine to create a mutated super-parasite. Now Donna must find a way to stop them. Unlike many found-footage movies, this one makes sense, and the footage comes together in intriguing ways. At the same time, Levinson manages to ramp up the squirm-inducing tension for a creepy good time.
Captain America: Civil War (Netflix)
How can one not feel patriotic gazing upon Cap’s red-white-and-blue shield? Captain America: Civil War (2016) is more like one of those ultra-entertaining, all-star extravaganzas from the old studio days. Unlike many of other recent blockbusters, brother directors Anthony and Joe Russo let the colors pop and the story (and the political debate therein) is more important than the big fight. The characters have worries and fears, and things are actually at stake.
No less than twelve heroes show up, and each one has at least a moment or two to shine. Among them are Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and of course, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans), whose rivalry grows personal. Even the bad guy (Daniel Bruhl) has more on his mind that taking over the world. This is one superhero movie worth subsequent viewings.
The Florida Project (Amazon Prime)
This acclaimed drama by Sean Baker (Starlet, Tangerine) is hardly a patriotic vision of America, but it is an honest one, and it at least takes place over the summer and concludes with a bittersweet fireworks display. The Florida Project (2017) is set in a seedy, cupcake-pink motel near Disneyworld. Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives there with her tattooed single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee likes to cause trouble, including starting fires in abandoned buildings, with her friends. Meanwhile, Halley tries and fails to sell perfume to tourists, and eventually turns to prostitution.
Willem Dafoe has one of his best roles—and received an Oscar nomination—as the cranky but helpful motel manager; Dafoe is the only pro here, but the amateur cast is likewise extraordinary (they complement one another). Baker’s sense of color and hot sunshine warm the movie’s center while the edges reveal a creeping despair. It’s not exactly uplifting, but it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, with an ending you won’t likely forget soon.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Netflix)
Jason Segel wrote this comedy quadrangle that features an astounding array of talented comedy stars; it’s almost constantly funny, and it includes a scene at a Fourth of July picnic. TV actress Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) dumps her boyfriend Peter Bretter (Segel), and he goes to Hawaii to try and get over her. Unfortunately, Sarah is also there, staying in the same hotel, with her new boyfriend, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Happily, a cute desk clerk, Rachel (Mila Kunis), befriends him and things begin to look up again.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) also features Bill Hader, Jack McBrayer, Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, and Jason Bateman; Kristen Wiig’s hilarious scenes as a yoga instructor were unfortunately deleted from the theatrical cut, but can be seen in the “extended” cut. Yet perhaps the funniest line belongs to Da’Vone McDonald, as he pronounces the name of the state fish of Hawaii. At the climax, Segel gets to perform part of his Dracula puppet musical, a creation that some say led to his next job, co-writing the screenplay for The Muppets (2011).
Gimme the Loot (Netflix)
This terrific indie debut feature by Adam Leon is both street smart and delightfully old-fashioned at the same time. On a hot summer day, Bronx graffiti artists Sofia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are angry to find that one of their works has been defaced. So they set their sights on the holy grail of targets: the Mets’ home run apple at Citi Field, which has never been tagged.
Malcolm may know a guy that can get them inside, but he requires a $500 bribe, so Sofia and Malcolm spend a day racing around New York trying to raise the money. Sofia thinks she can sell some paint cans, while Malcolm—who also deals pot—cooks up a plan to steal some jewelry from one of his white customers. Gimme the Loot (2012) does not apologize for its characters and shows their good sides along with their criminal activities. It’s not an obvious Fourth of July story, but it takes place over a grimy, hot summer day and features a wonderfully refreshing scene in a rooftop water tank.
Glory (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
Director Edward Zwick, who went on to a career full of dull, blue-ribbon, award-ready pictures, did arguably his best work here, even though Glory (1989) suffers from one major drawback: It tells a significant story of African-American history with a white man in the lead role. Studios were afraid that “all-black” films would not appeal to white audiences. But in fleshing out his character, Robert Gould Shaw, who is assigned to lead one of the first all-black regiments in the Union Army during the Civil War, Matthew Broderick uses natural fears and doubts to make it work.
The real performances, however, are by Morgan Freeman as the wise ex-gravedigger Rawlins and Denzel Washington as the hotheaded escaped slave Tripp. (Washington won his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.) Even though they are here in a supporting capacity, they still electrify their scenes, and elevate the overall movie to epic status. It’s a great American story, a baby step, but an important one. The film won additional Oscars for its sweeping cinematography (by Freddie Francis) and sound.