Have you already been to see “Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” Have you seen it twice? Don’t snigger, apparently our midnight showings now start at 8 pm, so that’s actually a thing that could happen. But for those who like their patriotism with a little less bombast, it’s possible that the latest Marvel super-buster (I feel like we need a new word for these mega-franchises that automatically generate $300 million or more – submissions welcome!) isn’t high on the priority viewing list. So this week we’re offering a smorgasbord of alternative jingoism: films that put America right up front in the title, but but maybe don’t immediately follow it with a string of explosions.
American Graffiti (1973)
Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant or on disc from Netflix
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, a very young Harrison Ford
There’s some sick cosmic joke in the fact that the man who invented not one but two major strains of American cinema – the sci-fi/franchise blockbuster and the American indie film about teenagers wandering around on a single day or night, not doing anything in particular and talking about sex and stuff – also came up with Jar Jar Binks. But long before he succumbed to the Dark Side of VFX, George Lucas made “American Graffiti,” a charming one-last-night take on adolescence that became the model for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and all the rest. So thoroughly retro as to basically be a historical artifact, Lucas recreated the early 60’s with the precision of intense nostalgia. He’s assisted mightily by the underrated performances of Dreyfuss and Howard, who subvert the gee-willikers innocence of that era’s image with just the right touch of liberated 70’s anarchy.
American Dream (1990)
Streaming on Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant, available on disc from Netflix
Barbara Kopple won an Oscar in 1976 for her searing documentary of a rural mining town racked by company-on-union violence, “Harlan County USA.” She collected a second, appropriately, for “American Dream,” which plays like something of a companion piece to the earlier film. Intrigued by the plight of a union threatening to go on strike at a meatpacking plant in Minnesota, Kopple filmed in the town for almost two years, watching as the workers’ dreams of improved wages turned into a lockout nightmare during the nation’s most hostile era toward labor unions since the 1930’s. Focused on the tensions and emotions between the individuals behind the strike, Kopple remains sympathetic while never losing sight of the flaws and ambiguities in the workers’ aspirations.
In America (2002)
Available to rent/buy streaming from Amazon Instant or on disc from Netflix
Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou
Irish director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical story of immigrant life in New York City is shamefully sentimental, but so touchingly and gracefully sincere it’s hard to be annoyed. A lot of that has to do with the superb cast, the adult trio of Morton, Considine and Hounsou in particular, reaching out beyond easy stereotypes to create strikingly rounded characters, flawed and utterly individual. There’s much emotional trauma to sort through (perhaps an overload), but it’s handled so unassumingly by Sheridan’s gentle direction that you’ll still walk away charmed and hopeful.