What to watch: ‘Masters of the Air’ is a white-knuckle gem of a war show

What to watch: ‘Masters of the Air’ is a white-knuckle gem of a war show

Three major series hit your screens this week — Apple TV+’s wartime drama “Masters of the Air,” Netflix’s grisly drug thriller “Griselda” and Paramount+’s prequel to the crime classic “Sexy Beast.”

Which ones should you spend time on? Read on.

“Masters of the Air”: Everything about Apple TV+’s big-budget World War II epic (the Hollywood Reporter estimates its budget at $250 million, but who’s counting?) shouts from the heavens it’s a prestige title, from the glossy, overly produced opening credits that ramble on way too long to the handsomely mounted period details and on to its A-list cast (Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan) and galvanizing soundtrack.

For the most part, however, the nine-part series executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman stays airborne and air tight. Creators John Orloff and John Shiban adapt author Donald L. Miller’s 2006 gripping account of the 100th Bomb Group, cataloging their antics, bonds, travails, aerial battles, heroics and even their love lives.

The airmen were integral in critical attacks on Germany, but as Orloff’s well-crafted screenplay relates, the derring-do came at a terribly high cost — as round after round of fresh-faced men came in to replace those killed or missing. The endless cycle of sending airmen out on often impossible missions is where “Masters of the Air” — helmed with vigor by directors such as Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, the scandal-plagued Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees and Tim Van Patten — soars, honoring both the memories of men who paid the ultimate sacrifice as well as the airmen who endured as POWs (depicted well in later episodes, even though though hair styles remain a little too gelled and perfect).

The first episode sets you up for a nostalgic dive, but that romanticized sentimentality dies quickly thereafter, once the air attacks begins. Where “Masters of the Air” assumes full command – and also uses up much of that massive budget – is during the intense dogfight scenes, bloody, harrowing visual spectacles that are breathtaking marvels of taut editing and seamless special effects. They rival much of what you will see in a movie theater.

The cast is notable, too, including some of today’s best, most recognizable actors. Butler and Turner (“The Boys in the Boat”) are ostensibly the central characters, two buddies — of vastly different temperaments — who have similar names and a real appreciation for each other. Both actors emanate the old-school charisma that such iconic actors as Clark Gable and Kirk Douglas had during the golden age of war pictures, with each actor taking ownership of the screen whenever they appear on it. Other actors deserve commendation, including Sawyer Spielberg (Steven’s son) and Raff Law (Jude Law’s son) — both doing their relatives proud, in particular Spielberg who, as Lt. Roy Frank Claytor, handles one of the most difficult scenes in the final episode with the ideal touch. But the clear standout is Anthony Boyle as Major Crosby, the 100th group navigator who gets involved with an intriguing love interest (we’ll say no more on that). Another bonus is how the series shows the crucial role that the Tuskegee Airmen played, a subject that could have been even further fleshed out.

While “Masters of the Air” will get compared to HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” it stands on its own, even if it doesn’t as often reach the same dramatic heights. Regardless, it’s a polished and well-crafted epic that earns its wings as well as your respect, and undoubtedly will leave you with a big lump in your throat. Details: 3½ stars out of 4; first two episodes out Jan. 26 with one additional episode dropping every Friday through March 15.

“Griselda”: Make room, Sonny Corleone, Tony Montana and Tony Soprano. There’s a new lethal kingpin staking a claim on your entertainment turf. And this mama bear is as calculating and venomous — maybe even more so — than any of you guys. This limited series details, in six gory, fast-and-furious episodes, the ascendancy of real-life drug-runner Griselda Blanco (“Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara). And you won’t be able to stop watching. The often brutal period-perfect series hails from the showrunners of “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico” and they know what they’re doing. But the screen belongs to Vergara — also an executive producer here — who owns this role of a cold-blooded and shrewd ‘70s-’80s upstart businesswoman. After a bloody incident in Colombia, Griselda jets off with the kids to Miami where she strategically builds a drug empire, launched with one kilo of coke. Dubbed The Godmother, Griselda starts leaving a trail of bodies, often without heads, wherever she treads. She catches the dogged scent of another strong woman who’s pushing the boundaries in a guy-dominant world, Miami PD’s June Hawkins (Juliana Aiden Martinez). Before too long, Griselda makes almost everyone’s life a nightmare, including her bodyguard/lover Dario Sepulveda (Alberto Guerra, in a breakout performance). “Griselda” is at its best when it makes us feel like we’re back in the coke-snorting high-low times of Miami. Directed by Andrés Baiz, the series nails the tunes, the clothing, and the nightlife of its time. In the end, “Griselda” doesn’t necessarily elevate the bar for drug-running dramas — except for Vergara’s performance, Knut Loewe’s exceptional production design and the dead-on costume designs and hairstyles. But its mission is accomplished with such ferocity and clarity of purpose. Dig out that old pair of angels flight pants and just enjoy. Details: 3 stars; now available on Netflix.

“Sexy Beast”: Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s near-perfect 2000 character-driven crime story — the English filmmaker’s first film — can breathe a sigh of relief. Paramount+’s prequel does a bang-up job (or would that be a kiss-kiss-bang-bang job?) in creating younger versions of those memorable English criminals — Gal Dove, Don Logan and Teddy Bass. Showrunner Michael Caleo re-creates a place and time — ‘90s East London — with confidence and style. But there’s a lot of substance in this glimpse at the early years of small-time thieves and lifelong pals and drinking buddies Gal (James McArdle, ideally cast and sexy, too) and and the volatile Don (Emun Elliott). Whereas Glazer’s film focused on Gal coming out of retirement, the series puts him and Don on a crash course with a vicious sexual predator and gangster, Teddy Bass (Stephen Moyer in a freaky, depraved performance). Gal and Don want in on the big time and that door opens via Teddy.  But they have to contend with prickly family matters. For Gal that means getting hitched just when porn star Deedee Harrison (a searing Sarah Greene) enters his life. Meanwhile, traumatized Don deals with his conniving, manipulative sister (Tamsin Greig, playing a viper in every way) at the arcade she runs. Unlike other series, “Sexy Beast” never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome, even at eight episodes, as it feeds in backstory and psychological details that we all but gulp down in voyeuristic fascination. It’s one of the biggest surprises of this new year. Details: 3½ stars; three episodes drop Jan. 25 on Paramount+.

Find of the Week

“Fireworks”: While it’s too long, director and co-screenwriter Giuseppe Fiorello’s drama based on a violent act that fueled Italy’s gay rights movement in 1981 is a heartbreaker that becomes more devastating as it leads to its fateful conclusion. A small town in Sicily becomes a hostile environment for Gianni (Samuele Segreto), a gay 17-year-old who is relentlessly bullied. He develops a friendship that later blossoms into something more with Nino (Gabriele Pizzurro) after a minor bike-car encounter. Fiorello shows the contrast between the two youths’ families and then the crushing similarities once their relationship is revealed. “Fireworks” has the look and feel of inevitable sadness and a collective call for an end to LGBTQ hatred. Details: 3 stars; available to rent now.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].