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 Lynn Venhaus
For those craving the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen, “Black Widow” boldly arrives as a much-anticipated summer blockbuster event, checking off the usual boxes.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), aka Natasha Romanoff, is a former Russian spy, now Avenger. In this stand-alone feature from the Marvel Universe, her complicated past and an unusual family dynamic collide in a globe-trotting mission pursuing a powerful KGB mind-controlling villain.

It’s the latest movie since the “Avengers: Endgame” finale in April 2019, although MCU has been busy delivering content on streaming services for the home screen that is far more original.

On the surface, this prequel-origin story has the appeal of women getting the job done instead of the plethora of standard-issue alpha males– they hold their own as intense fighting machines, using their brains along with their brawn.  

Frequently outfitted in a snazzy black leather cat suit, the lithe Scarlett Johansson carries the day as lethal weapon Natasha, trying to vanquish all connections to the nefarious Red Room program. She trusts no one and can’t shake off nightmarish memories that she can only recall in fragments.

The MCU movies have always alluded to Natasha’s tormented years as an assassin who broke free. She thought she exacted revenge, but not so fast. There is an armor-clad “Terminator” figure hot in pursuit.

These overlong conflicts in what seems to be one endless chase scene after another are forgettable. How many cars can crash on narrow city streets? With such a flimsy outline, the story by Jack Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and screenplay by Eric Pearson, evaporates like the cool air when you exit into the summer heat. Pearson gave us “Godzilla vs. Kong” earlier this year.

Coloring within a red-and-black palette, Australian indie director Cate Shortland spotlights females triumphing but is hampered by a convoluted conspiracy plot that forces the women to take on their tormenter.

Using a Big Bad Wolf persona, Winstone, last seen in “Cats,” shows just how evil he can be exerting mind-control over countless young women, training them to be operatives/slaves for Mother Russia. But ta-da, Yelena (Florence Pugh), no slouch in the fierce department, gets her hands on a serum that will stop this madness.

Now it’s time for musical vials! (It really doesn’t get much better, or easier to understand).

Nevertheless, the high-octane opening is fun. The film flashes back to Ohio in 1995, where Natasha and her sister are getting ready for dinner when their father comes home from work and tells his family they must leave.

Turns out the parents, Aleksei (David Harbour) and scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies posing as an American family, and federal agents are after them. As they race to an air strip, their lives are increasingly in danger. Once in Cuba, the girls are separated and drugged, and thus begins Natasha’s transformation into a brainwashed super-spy.

This lively exchange is a well-choreographed thrill ride that won’t be matched again for the remainder of the film’s 2-hour, 13-minute runtime.

 “Black Widow” concentrates on her family, as tangled as it is, which gives big-energy Pugh another interesting turn as her kid ‘sister’ Yelena and versatile Harbour as the comical oaf ‘father,’ who once upon a time was a superhero named Red Guardian. Here, the girls reunite with dear old dad by breaking him out of a Siberian prison.

Pugh and Johansson project a sibling-like relationship, exchange snappy repartee and bicker like sisters who have long-standing grudges.

Apparently, the family pops up again because of unfinished business. The inspired casting propels this film to be better – although Weisz’s character is undeveloped.

This is Johansson’s eighth time portraying the strong-willed and smart character, who now crusades for justice along with her save-the-world Avenger buddies. Only it’s a bit thorny in that boy’s club during this time frame because the ‘enhanced human’ Avengers are regulated by a government oversight panel (the Sokovia Accords).

This time-out period takes place somewhere between “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), which is why Natasha was attempting to hide away from Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), secretary of state.

Johansson, in between Oscar-nominated roles and prestige films, first showed up as Natalie Rushman in “Iron Man 2” in 2010 and gained favor in storylines until – spoiler alert — her sacrificial demise in “Avengers: Endgame.”

In the comic books, Stan Lee introduced the character in 1964, during the Cold War. While conceived as a femme fatale at first, her look and mission have evolved over the years.

While Natasha continues to be guarded, Johansson helps fill in the blanks because of her talents. Yet, it is such a thin story – she is put through the paces of green-screen acting within a constant stream of explosions that sub for exposition.

She remains a mystery, which is inevitable.

“Black Widow” is a 2020 action-sci-fi film directed by Cate Shortland and starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone and William Hurt. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material and runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. Available in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premier Access fee on July 9. Lynn’s grade: C+.