Live Free or Die Hard (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
Improbably, the fourth movie in the Die Hard series, which came a full 12 years after its predecessor, turned out to be one of the better entries in the series and was a big success. Based on a 1997 Wired article by John Carlin, Live Free or Die Hard (2007) is updated for the computer age. Programming nerd Matt Farrell (Justin Long) reluctantly accompanies the tenacious, scrappy hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he uses his old-school, analog methods to stop a cyber-terrorist attack over the Fourth of July weekend.
The plot is ludicrous, but director Len Wiseman somehow keeps it all moving at a swift, exciting pace. Timothy Olyphant and Maggie Q are the bad guys, young Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the hero’s daughter, and Kevin Smith provides some humor as “Warlock,” a hacker with his own man-cave. It was the first post-9/11 Die Hard film, and as a result, the former “R”-rated violence was responsibly toned down, for better and for worse, to a PG-13.
Magic Mike (Netflix)
Watching Matthew McConaughey lead a military-themed male stripping routine while wearing an Uncle Sam hat might not be the exact kind of Fourth of July imagery that many people have in mind. But for a handful of others, it will be just right. Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012) is an unexpectedly entertaining package, not shy of human sexuality, but also devoted to strong characters. The story consists of a few stale old chestnuts, but Soderbergh finds the beats between them, rather than straining to hit them.
Channing Tatum is terrific, warm and funny, as Mike, the star of a Tampa, Florida strip club, who wishes to make furniture and to be taken seriously. He meets the young amateur Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who quickly becomes a star at the club and lets fame go to his head. Worse, Mike falls for Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). McConaughey actually steals the show here as the perpetually shirtless Dallas, the swaggering stripper veteran who teaches the youngsters how to move.
Moonrise Kingdom (Netflix)
Another great summer vacation movie, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) focuses on two mature, together twelve-year-olds and a host of sad adults who seem to have lost their childhood magic. The bespectacled Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) spots Suzy (Kara Hayward) dressed as a raven for a church play and they become fast friends. They decide to run away together and live, using Sam’s survival skills, on a remote corner of their island home.
Anderson frequently narrows in on their eyes, Sam’s rimmed by glasses or binoculars, and Suzy’s with dark eyeliner. They see everything, and enjoy their time, either dancing on the beach or reading stolen library books. Meanwhile the adults (Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban) many of whom wear funny pants, search for the children and deal with their own shortcomings, It’s a lovely, bittersweet movie that somehow finds the beauty and humor in sadness.
The Music Man (FilmStruck)
A gargantuan, bulldozer musical from the days when these massive productions were almost guaranteed box office gold and Oscar glory, The Music Man (1962) features a Fourth of July parade to remember. (Hint: it has 76 trombones.) Robert Preston plays the snappy-pattering Harold Hill, who arrives in River City and convinces the townspeople that they need to hire him to create a boys’ marching band.
His plan is to collect the money and skip town, leaving River City without music. To succeed, he must also seduce the town’s librarian/piano teacher (Shirley Jones), which, of course, throws a kink in his plans. The energetic musical numbers that threaten to storm right off the screen include “76 Trombones,” “Ya Got Trouble,” and “Till There Was You.” The great comic Buddy Hackett plays Hill’s sidekick, and little Ronny Howard (who grew up to become film director Ron Howard) plays one of the marching-band boys. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and won for its music score.
The Pride of the Yankees (FilmStruck)
Many consider The Pride of the Yankees (1942) the greatest baseball movie ever made, and that means its final Fourth of July speech (“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…”) may be the greatest scene in any baseball movie. Gary Cooper stars as Lou Gehrig, who set the record for most consecutive games played (eventually beaten by Cal Ripken Jr.), and prided himself on his stamina, but came down with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Cooper is perfect as the aw-shucks athlete, who goes out as simply and as proudly as he came in. Cooper had one flaw: he was unable to perfect Gehrig’s left-handed batting stance. So editor Daniel Mandell (who won an Oscar) had Cooper bat right-handed and run to third, and then simply reversed the shots. Blessed with perfect timing and perfect talent, the movie also has real-life Babe Ruth as himself, as well as an Oscar-nominated Teresa Wright as Lou’s wife and Walter Brennan as sportswriter Sam Blake. Damon Runyon wrote a prologue, Sam Wood directed, and William Cameron Menzies did the production design.
Southland Tales (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
Richard Kelly, the director of the cult classic Donnie Darko followed it up with this bizarre, but intriguing brainstorm of crazy ideas, all roiling around and looking for purchase. Southland Tales (2006) begins on July 4, in the future, when terrorists drop nuclear bombs on Texas. Later, conservatives are in power and keep everyone and everything under surveillance. A movie star with amnesia, Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), writes a screenplay with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), that foretells the coming apocalypse.
There’s also a wormhole in the time/space continuum, doppelgangers, a musical number, lots of computer graphics, and a giant toilet. Several stars from Saturday Night Live show up, as do Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Justin Timberlake, Miranda Richardson, Wallace Shawn, and Bai Ling. It had a disastrous screening at the Cannes Film Festival and was shelved for a year before creeping out into theaters and quickly fizzling out. It deserves a chance; it tries hard and often manages to be funny and interesting.
The Spirit of ‘76 (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
Francis Ford Coppola’s son Roman Coppola produced and co-wrote the story for this fun, low-budget time-travel comedy, shot in the Bay Area. Directed and co-written by Lucas Reiner (Rob Reiner’s son), The Spirit of ‘76 (1990) starts with a great idea. In the future, the year 2176, Americans decide that they need to time-travel back to 1776 to gather long-missing copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, so they can be put to use once again. But a mistake is made and they wind up in 1976, on the Fourth of July, instead. It’s mostly ridiculous, but it’s also lightweight and quite likable.
Several stars of the era were cast, including David Cassidy, Leif Garrett, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale of the band Devo. The adorable Olivia d’Abo (not from the 1970s) was the female lead. Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Jeff and Steve McDonald (of the band Redd Kross), Moon Unit Zappa, Tommy Chong, Julie Brown, Don Novello, and others also appear. The soundtrack features an appropriate collection of 1970s tunes, some classic, many cheesy.
Stand by Me (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
This summer vacation movie may be the greatest one ever made; it never strikes a wrong note, although some viewers can’t stand the barfing scene. Based on a great Stephen King short story, Stand by Me (1986) involves four friends who go hiking/camping in the woods to find a dead body rumored to be on the railroad tracks. In the meantime, they talk about things like Pez and wrestle with some inner demons. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) is the storyteller who grows up to be a writer and writes about his friends; it’s an old cliché in coming-of-age stories, but this one handles it well.
River Phoenix is extraordinary as Chris, who understands how his crummy upbringing leaves him at a disadvantage. Corey Feldman is Teddy, chatty, and with thick glasses, and Jerry O’Connell is the tubby Vern. Directed by Rob Reiner, it’s a graceful combination of lightweight humor and unexpectedly poignant beauty. Richard Dreyfuss plays the adult Gordie and narrates, Kiefer Sutherland plays the bully (taking out mailboxes with a baseball bat), and John Cusack plays Gordie’s departed older brother. Ben E. King’s soulful 1960s song becomes the title track.
Superman II (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
This is a Fourth of July movie for one simple reason: it doesn’t get much cooler than Superman flying around, carrying the American flag. Superman II (1981) began shooting at the same time as Superman (1978) with director Richard Donner, but later, another director, Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) was hired to re-shoot and finish the film. Despite the inconsistencies between the two directors, and despite a silly plot wherein Superman gives up his powers to become human, this is an exhilarating, heartfelt entertainment.
In addition to Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the bad guys are three Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran), escaped from the Phantom Zone, all with the same powers as Superman. Christopher Reeve is still the best of all live-action Supermen, and the late, great Margot Kidder is the sexy, scrappy Lois Lane. This sequel picks up and gets moving faster than the first film, and is livelier overall. In 2006, Donner was allowed to complete his director’s cut, which is equally good in many ways, but is sadly not available streaming or for rental.
Winchester ‘73 (Rental: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc., from $2.99)
Jimmy Stewart was not always a big star. After he disappeared from the movie scene to fight in WWII, he had a difficult time coming back to it. He made several flops in a row, and it wasn’t until 1950, with three back-to-back hits, that he started to shine again. They were: the comedy Harvey, the Western Broken Arrow, and this masterpiece. Directed by hardscrabble action expert Anthony Mann, Winchester ‘73 (1950) showcases a harder, more desperate, more violent side of Stewart, as he plays Lin McAdam, a haggard-looking cowboy with a grimy, sweat-stained hat.
Lin is looking for a murderer, and on the Fourth of July, he enters a rifle-shooting contest. He wins the title rifle, a perfect specimen that is the envy of all cowboys, but he immediately loses it to a bandit. The gun changes hands several times and Lin is a jump behind it all the way. Shot in tough, brutal black-and-white, the movie is lean and tense, proving that Westerns were no longer just for kids. Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea co-star. Look for Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis in early roles.