By Lynn Venhaus

A stylish nostalgic romantic comedy-drama that vividly recalls the high-stakes of America’s Space Race with the Russians, “Fly Me to the Moon” is a rare summer movie that is as charming as it is smart.

Specifically set during NASA’s bold Apollo 11 drive, director Greg Berlanti meticulously recreates the historic mission, while focusing on two very different points of view in a light-hearted way.

It’s a pivotal time in 1969. Marketing maven Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson), who was brought in to fix NASA’s public image, wreaks havoc on launch director Cole Davis’s (Channing Tatum) singular, serious focus – the already difficult task of putting a man on the moon. When the White House deems the mission too important to fail, Jones is directed to stage a fake moon landing as backup.

Those of us alive then know what really happened on July 20, 1969, when an estimated 650 million people tuned in to the three broadcast networks to watch Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon (94% of all Americans watching television!).

It’s presented in thrilling footage here, and to watch CBS’s most-watched Walter Cronkite react again brought a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat. I hope the movie has broader appeal than just us NASA nerds and Baby Boomers who paid attention to every exciting detail when the astronauts were like rock stars, but it really hits our sweet spot.

(My second-grade teacher hauled in a TV so we could watch John Glenn’s Friendship 7 launch into orbit on Feb. 20, 1962). The constants in the 1960s news cycle were the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, and the space race, which inspired people to dream the impossible at a time of great turbulence.

Rose Gilroy’s clever script, with story by Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein, smartly builds tension. A subplot that shifts the stakes pokes fun at the fake staging rumor that caught fire like so many conspiracy theories of the 1970s — and there’s even a couple Stanley Kubrick jokes, as he was linked to have filmed the hoax.

Only the twist here is that then-President Nixon is so worried about America’s image in the world if the mission fails that he directs a super-secret Project Artemis as a back-up plan. His shady government operative, Moe Berkus, is played by Woody Harrelson as an unflappable enforcer. Given Tricky Dick’s reputation, this fraud scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Adding plenty of heat are Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson in an opposites-attract romance that feels like an homage to the 1960s flirty wholesome fun comedies that often starred Doris Day, Natalie Wood, James Garner and Rock Hudson.

Tatum is well-suited to play Cole Davis, a decorated pilot turned dedicated NASA launch director, with a heart-tugging backstory, and Johansson blithely embodies a slick marketing specialist tasked with getting America moonstruck. She’s a throwback to the “Mad Men” advertising heyday depiction, with some baggage of her own as well.

You can either be cynical about the retro cliches or embrace its old-fashioned breeziness. The performers are engaging, and their glibness produces sparks.

The captivating vintage vibe, down to the Tang promotions, sunshiny Florida setting, and pocket-protector engineer outfits, is presented with flair by production designer Shane Valentino, art director Lauren Rosenbloom, and costume designer Mary Zophres. Her kicky selections for Johansson are particularly fetching, and some of her choices for Tatum make him look like Captain Kirk.

They immerse you into a bygone time and place in much the same way as Tom Hanks’ feel-good ‘60s rock band comedy “That Thing You Do!” did in 1996. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s score elevates the atmosphere, and his needle drops of ‘60s hits and moon-themed songs enhance this experience.

The chipper supporting cast includes Ray Romano as Henry Smalls, a NASA stalwart who is closest to Cole, Lisa Garcia as Kelly’s assistant, and Noah Robbins and Donald Elise Watkins as dorky but enterprising engineers.

Jim Rash steals his scenes as a very flamboyant and temperamental director brought in for the deception footage. And Johansson’s real-life husband Colin Jost makes an appearance as one of the senators who needs convincing for funding.

The movie honors the 400,000 NASA workers who helped make going to the moon a reality. Sure, the movie could have been a tad shorter, but it touched upon everything it needed to combine the true story with the comedic fictional account.

This crowd-pleaser takes flight evoking an era where, despite a divided union, we could come together as Americans and celebrate our best and brightest, the dreams we could achieve. I don’t recall a more patriotic moment in my life in the late 20th century, with the 1980 USA hockey team “Miracle on Ice” a close second.

Fueled by magnetic star power, “Fly Me to the Moon” is a delightful summer trifle with a surprising emotional center.

“Fly Me to the Moon” is a 2024 comedy-drama directed by Greg Berlanti and starring Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ray Romano, Jim Rash, Lisa Garcia, and Woody Harrelson. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language, and smoking, and the run time is 2 hours, 12 minutes. It opened in theatres July 12. Lynn’s Grade: A

By Alex McPherson

An eye-popping feast for the senses whose visual inventiveness can’t compensate for a restrictive middle-chapter narrative, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is consistently engaging but will play best for those already well-versed in Spider-Man lore.

Taking place 16 months after the events of “Into the Spider-Verse,” the film follows the exploits of 15-year-old Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who struggles to balance his superhero role as Spider-Man with the more traditional responsibilities (i.e., attending classes) expected by his strict yet loving parents, Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and the soon-to-be-police-chief Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry), who are unaware of his alter ego.

Miles, a rebellious teenager experiencing loneliness and heartbreak from his (literally) “out of this world” spider-people companions, including badass crush Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), feels adrift and unable to fully express himself — yearning for freedom and belonging.

Gwen, in her own dimension, is similarly struggling to find acceptance and meaning; her father, George (Shea Whigham), a police chief, discovers her identity as Spider-Woman and blames her for the death of her timeline’s Peter Parker. After battling a monochromatic variation of The Vulture, Gwen is recruited by a team of Multiverse protectors — including the motorcycle-riding Jessica Drew (Issa Rae) and the brooding Spider-Man 2099, a.k.a. Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) — running from her now-perilous bond with her father. Soon enough, however, she’s called back into Miles’ orbit to tackle a new threat.

A bespeckled, self-deprecating foe named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) shows up in Miles’ reality — brimming with hatred for Miles due to a past wrong that left him covered with holes through which he can teleport across great distances. He’s champing at the bit to become Miles’ “nemesis,” getting stronger by the moment in his fierce desire for revenge. 

Things get even more complicated when Gwen shows up, reigniting her situationship with Miles, and prepares to leave once The Spot teleports elsewhere. Miles ends up following her into an interdimensional portal revealing a whole society of Spider-Beings, including the jovial Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), the unruly, punk rock Hobie Brown (Daniel Kaluuya), seemingly assembled from scraps of paper, and a hulking Spider-Tyrannosaurus, each manifested through different animation styles.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, as not only has The Spot gained enough power to pose a tangible threat to the Multiverse as they know it, but Miles must continue to fight against fatalistic, predetermined beliefs that restrict his free will on a universe-altering level.

Indeed, “Across the Spider-Verse” certainly has a boatload of information to convey to viewers, and to be honest, some of it soared over my head. This remains the sequel’s greatest flaw: no matter how excellent it looks and how well the talented ensemble brings these characters to life, the film remains ham-strung by a desire to be bigger in the classic sense, leaving its most compelling thread dangling by the end as we wait for the next installment in 2024. 

Directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers certainly have a keen sense of spectacle, seamlessly blending art styles together that reflect characters’ specific views of the world and their distinct, variably layered personalities. From a watercolor backdrop melting from mournful blue to hopeful pink with the thawing of emotions, to a brief detour into stop-motion animation straight out of “The Lego Movie,” and frantic action sequences throwing characters of all styles at the screen at once, packing in multitudes of nerd-culture references along the way, “Across the Spider-Verse” is equal parts mesmerizing and fatiguing by the end of its 136-minute runtime, boosted by a thumping, energetic score by Daniel Pemberton and a catchy soundtrack. The passion poured into this project by everyone involved is apparent from start to finish, at least from a presentation standpoint.

“Across the Spider-Verse” still falls prey to sensory overload in its second half, just like its predecessor, but is refreshingly focused on human relationships in its beginning stretch, particularly regarding Miles’ bond with his parents. Moore, Lauren, and Tyree Henry lend real pathos to their roles in these slower sequences, tenderly and believably navigating difficult choices along Miles’ transition into adulthood. Steinfeld is also excellent, particularly in early scenes with her alienated father: vulnerable and courageous, bitter and earnest. Gwen’s not defined by her will-they-won’t-they romance with Miles, but rather by her personal strength to confront her demons and fight for what she believes in.

It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that as Miles and company journey through the Multiverse, encountering bazillions of Spider-Beings, that “Across the Spider-Verse” reverts so frequently to exposition dumps and rushed characterizations that allow little time to be fleshed-out beyond the surface level.

Talk of so-called “canon events” (the expected happenings of each Spider-Man story) are interesting in a meta-textual sense, but the film leaves the concept’s thornier elements dangling, hopefully to be explored down the road, in favor of simplistic messaging. The Spot, too, idiosyncratically brought to life by Schwartzman, is sidelined for most of the second half, a Big Bad seemingly too big for the already overstuffed film to address.

No matter how likable the characters, or thrilling the animation, “Across the Spider-Verse” is unable to break free from the expectations of tradition: a story whose ideas of empowerment and individuality are only broached but not fully delved into, set-up for greater things in the future. Perhaps “Beyond the Spider-Verse” will rectify these qualms, but as it stands, “Across the Spider-Verse” can’t match its breathtaking presentation with equally strong storytelling.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is a 2023 animation-fantasy film directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson and starring (voices): Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Luna Loren Valez, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Dratch, Brian Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, J.K. Simmons, and Mahershala Ali.
It is rated PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements and the runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes. It opens in theaters on June 2. Alex’s Grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus
Pop art, quantum physics and pathos collide in a grand superhero spectacle, resulting in this “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” sequel being a mind-blowing amalgamation of next-level animation like but surpassing the 2018 original.

In this second installment of an animated film trilogy, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) catapults across the multiverse, where he encounters a team of Spider-People charged with protecting its very existence. When the heroes clash on how to handle a new threat, Miles must redefine what it means to be a hero.

However inventive and clever it is, though, about half of the storyline is incoherent and panders to fan service — and the sensory-overload-on-steroids style is overwhelming and exhausting. Yet, we’re all locked in.

This 2 hour and 20- minute eye-popping extravaganza takes place across six dimensions, has 240 characters in it and had over 1,000 animators working on it – the most ever.

The Spider-Man mythology, easily relatable for teens who understood creator Stan Lee’s metaphors for figuring out their place in the world, began as a socially inept high school student who was bitten by a radioactive spider, and thus developed superpowers. That was in 1962, and in fighting crime in his subsequent Marvel Comics issues, Peter Parker would eventually learn “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Since 2002, there have been eight live-action Spider-Man movies, plus his role in “The Avengers” franchise, not to mention a past TV series, Broadway musical, video games and books.

The three co-directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson mash parts of the old films with elements of the comic books. That comic imagery, added in with drawing and painting styles of the 20th and 21st centuries, results in a visually stunning work. Art historians will be in for a treat.

And comic book fans will be delirious about the Easter eggs – no doubt courtesy of cheeky producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller who finally won an Oscar for directing the first movie (previously robbed for “The Lego Movie”) but only co-wrote this script with David Callaham, a veteran of the first and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

I understand their desire to throw in as many gags for the super-fans, but that darn muddled narrative lets the rest of us down. And their need to fiddle with the Spider-Man canon to keep it fresh and interesting. Sure, there are compelling human emotional touches (dead relatives, loved ones in peril), but the hyper-kinetic storytelling weakens the overall effect for those ‘not in the zone.’

Another sticking point is that the middle entry in this animated world ends with a cliffhanger, then states Miles will return in “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.” It is set for a March 29, 2024, release — frustrating to viewers who like things resolved before waiting for another one, because this one just ends without a resolution.

And if you did not see “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” released four and a half years ago, you will be lost here. As a quick recap, Miles Morales, a black Hispanic Brooklynite, was juggling his life between being in high school and a Spider-Man, but when Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk uses a super collider, he finds out that others from across the Spider-Verse have been transported to his dimension.

This time, 15-year-old Miles remains on Earth – 42, but as he discovers more multi-verses, he meets dozens of other Spider-People. In this global take, we meet a Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), a cockney street punk Spidey named Hobie (Daniel Kaluuya), a snarling, hulking vampire Spidey Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), and a pregnant Spider-Woman, motorcycle mama Jessica Drew (Issa Rae). Saving the world is tough business, and there are existential crises happening.

Miles’ mentor, Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), is shown as a young father, married to MJ (Zoe Kravitz), who brings his baby along for the adventures. Sad girl Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) is a combo grrrl rocker and a Spider-Girl whose anguished storyline is equal to Miles’.

Spidey and The Spot

While one can applaud the energy and the dazzling visuals of non-stop action, characters are often frazzled, and the pace is so frenetic that you feel like you are trapped in this parallel universe too. Who’s good, who’s evil, and who may be both?

Shameik Moore has returned to voice Miles, and he’s dandy as the angsty teen who is exasperating to his parents because of his time-management skills (they don’t know he’s keeping the bad guys in check, at least in his neighborhood).

His parents are voiced by Brian Tyree Henry and Luna Loren Valdez, joining a slate of major talent whose vocal work is solid but does not immediately identify them. Yet, it’s easy to place J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, SNL’s Rachel Dratch as the principal, and Jason Schwartman as the revenge-seeking villain “The Spot” (a standout).

Hyper and hypnotic, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse ” has pushed forward the genre and is a fun fan experience. The propulsive score by composer Daniel Pemberton is also a plus. I give the animation an A+ but the story a B-.

It’s a lot to juggle sci-fi, action, adventure, family, comedy, drama, and fantasy in one animated feature, and this film does display heart, even if the movie can’t stand on its own.

After two decades of superhero comics ruling the bombastic blockbuster box office, what’s next? Has art opened another dimension? One of the Spider-Verse’s greatest strengths is that it still surprises, and these multiverses show no signs of maxing out.

One thing is for certain, the enthusiasm for this head-spinning series is not waning anytime soon (even with the grumbling about waiting for the next sequel). It’s as if we’ve hopped on one of the wildest amusement parks rides ever, and we need to see where it leads.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” is a 2023 animation-fantasy film directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson and starring (voices): Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Luna Loren Valez, Oscar Isaac, Issa Rae, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Dratch, Brian Tyree Henry, Shea Whigham, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, J.K. Simmons, and Mahershala Ali.
It is rated PG for sequences of animated action violence, some language and thematic elements and the runtime is 2 hours and 20 minutes. It opens in theaters on June 2. Lynn’s Grade: B

This review also appeared in the Webster-Kirkwood Times’ Reel World with Kent Tentschert.

By Lynn Venhaus

A civics lesson for the ages, writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s riveting account of “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a potent examination of injustice during a politically charged time of civil disobedience. Through the lens of a riveting courtroom drama, the film is an acting showcase and one of the best films of the year.

And because the maestro is Sorkin, the film is also a discourse on cultural revolution and political theater, all while working in the confines of a true story. Because it is not a documentary, some of the timeline jumps around and incidents are embellished, but trial transcripts are used, along with archival footage, to create an authentic portrait.

In August 1968, several activist groups opposed to the Vietnam War converged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago – the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), the Youth International Party (Yippies) led by radical revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (MOBE), led by older conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch).  Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), leader of the Black Panthers, is also present but not connected with the others. They, along with eventually acquitted Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty), are the Chicago 8. Seal’s case would later be declared a mistrial, thus leaving seven.

Demonstrators violently clashed with police in and around Grant Park, which was captured on live television and the reason for a courtroom circus the next year after Nixon was elected President. Using a new law, the eight are charged with conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. 

The infamous 1969 trial, orchestrated by Nixon’s Department of Justice, is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella). The legal eagles are civil rights attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) and Ben Weinglass (Leonard Shenkman) for the defense and Justice Department prosecutors Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie).

The Trial of the Chicago 7. Mark Rylance as William Kunstler, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Cr. Niko Tavernise/NETFLIX © 2020

The casting is impeccable. Sorkin’s breakthrough was the play “A Few Good Men” in 1989, later a movie. Known for “The West Wing,” he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “The Social Network.” With his fast-paced dialogue and customary insightful monologues, Sorkin’s original screenplay now vaults to leading awards contender. It is a marvel of nuance and first amendment passion, focusing on change – how people make it happen.

Sorkin immerses us in the atmosphere of the ’60s volatile times, as dissent grew throughout the country. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April, followed by the killing of presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bobby Kennedy two months later. More anti-war activists took to the streets when the conflict in Southeast Asia escalated. But “the Establishment” attacked free speech and peaceful protests, fearing anarchy and widespread unrest.

His dialogue, nimbly spoken by this extraordinary ensemble, astutely advances character development and shows the duality of law – when it works in a courtroom, and when it doesn’t. With such a large cast, Sorkin has managed to bring out the distinct personalities of the iconoclast rebels.

Sorkin has shrewdly opted to concentrate only on the present with the major defendants, providing little backstory to their rise as movement leaders. While everyone snugly fits their roles, stand-outs are Eddie Redmayne as fervent Tom Hayden, convinced working inside the system is the right conduit for progress, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the mouthy disrupter Abbie Hoffman, who mastered media for his own purposes. Their different approaches lead to confrontations but ultimately, they are on the same page.

As the clearly biased tyrannical judge, Frank Langella is chilling as a man who thinks he does not discriminate but his cruelty to Seale suggests otherwise. Mark Rylance, Oscar winner for the 2015 “The Bridge of Spies” and three-time Tony Award winner, will likely score nominations for his remarkable portrayal of impassioned lawyer William Kunstler.

Abdul-Mateen II, who won an Emmy for HBO’s “Watchman,” is powerful in his silence as Seale and bears the brunt of the injustice during the trial. Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers in 1966, was just in Chicago to give a speech and did not know the other guys.

Alex Sharp excels as the dedicated Rennie Davis, who is less flashy than the other counterculture activists but whose involvement is significant nonetheless. Sharp won a Tony Award for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in 2105.

Sorkin had only directed once before, 2017’s “Molly’s Game,” an uneven but interesting account of a true story. For this legal drama, he keeps the courtroom scenes taut and the street scenes intense and chaotic.

Sorkin gets terrific assistance from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who shot last year’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” and editor Alan Baumgarten, known for other Sorkin films and “American Hustle.” Composer Daniel Pemberton scores the action with the right tempo without using popular protest music from the times.

As an important acknowledgement of this case in America’s evolution, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” conveys precious civil liberties. And demonstrates what makes compelling stories – Americans speaking out, what inspires revolution and why civil discourse matters.

Sasha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a courtroom drama based on real events, directed and written by Aaron Sorkin. It starts Eddie Redmayne, Frank Langella, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, Alex Sharp, Michael Keaton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, J.C. MacKenzie and Ben Schenkman. Rated: R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug us, The runtime is 2 hr. 10 min. Lynn’s Grade: A
Available in select theatres Oct. 9 and on Netflix Oct. 16.