I.S.S. a suspenseful look at international politics, Mean Girls remake fall flat

I.S.S. a taut examination of international politics

A callback to the Cold War thrillers of the 1950s and '60s, Gabriela Cowperthwaite's I.S.S. taps into the contemporary tension between the United States and Russia. It's Dr. Kira Foster's (Ariana DeBose) first trip to the International Space Station and she must take a crash course regarding the interpersonal dynamics at play among the space travelers she's joining. Her fellow American scientists, Gordon and Christian (Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr.), are experts in their specialized fields, the former calm and assured, the latter a bit high-strung and nervous. The Russian members of their cohort are equally dedicated to their work and personable. Nicholai (Costa Ronin) is a bit more serious than the others, while a friendly demeanor lurks beneath Alexey's (Pilou Asbaek) stern exterior. Weronika (Masha Mashkova) is the smartest in the bunch, her romantic relationship with Gordon the worst-kept secret on the ship.

A night of drinking helps Kira feel at home and she realizes a genuine sense of camaraderie and respect exists between her new zero gravity roommates. However, this is quickly dissolved when hostilities break out on Earth between their respective nations. Gordon receives a message from NASA, stating that he, Kira and Christian are to take control of the ship by any means necessary. It's assumed their Russian counterparts have received similar orders.

What ensues is a smart, suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse that, at times, effectively defies expectations. Initial alliances fracture and unexpected unions emerge that cast the situation in a surprisingly different light. Sharif's script is emotionally complicated and politically complex, effectively underscoring the fact that physical borders and rigid ideologies can have little impact where interpersonal relationships are concerned.

The character dynamics are the key to the movie's success. DeBose is very good as the viewer's surrogate, the newbie trying to navigate the fraught situation she finds herself in. Knowing none of her crewmates and unaware of their histories, Kira is forced to make vital decisions on the fly, relying on her gut as far as who she can trust, decisions that sometimes pay off, while others put her in dire straits. That we are in her shoes naturally adds to the tension, while the brisk pace stokes the suspense.

The most gripping image in the film involves Gordon and Nicholai in a scene that brilliantly underscores the folly of the policies that will lead the two nations towards mutually assured destruction. That this message is once again vital and timely is regrettable but inevitable. I.S.S. provides a sliver of hope, pointing out once more that only in seeing others as we see ourselves can we hope to find peace. In theaters.

Musical Girls far from fetch

Sometimes, it's better to leave well enough alone. Of course, when there's money to be made, the entertainment industry turns a blind eye to such practical notions, and as a result, we get something like the musical remake of Mean Girls. First-time feature directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. are adrift with this adaptation of the Broadway version of the 2003 movie, unable to coax convincing performances from many of their actors and incapable of staging a show-stopping musical number. Granted, they are fighting an uphill battle trying to escape the long shadow cast by the 2003 cult classic, a task they fall short of achieving at every turn.

For those of you living under a rock, here's the skinny where the plot's concerned – Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) has been homeschooled most of her life and has now been dropped into the confusing, social maelstrom that is a public high school. Unsure how to interact with her peers, she's befriended by Janis and Damian (Auli'I Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey), two outsiders who recognize one of their own. However, once queen bee Regina George (Renee Rapp) takes Cady under her wing, Janis and Damian convince her to take down her unwanted mentor from the pedestal she's put herself on. Cady is initially reluctant to do so but soon comes to see Regina for the bully she is. What she fails to see is that she is becoming just like her target.

Tina Fey's original script, based on the book by Rosalind Wiseman, is adjusted to reflect the more PC times we live in, none of which detracts from the original story. However, what does are the songs, needless tunes that interrupt the flow and rhythm of the story we've become so accustomed to. I wouldn't mind this if any of these numbers were in anyway memorable. While some in the cast have strong voices, Cravalho and Rapp being standouts, the simplistic songs they're required to sing are showstoppers for all the wrong reasons. For example, one of the lyrics from Revenge Party goes, "A revenge party, with your two best friends, it's like a party and revenge is what it's like." Look, I don't expect everyone to be Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, but if this is the level to which professional songwriting has sunk, heaven help us.

In the end, the thing that grates most is the fact that every one of the younger cast members is trying too hard. Their approach of speaking louder and with more enthusiasm or really hitting a particular word in an oft-quoted line of dialogue to make it all seem fresh falls flat. In fact, it all smacks of desperation, and the fault lies with Jayne and Perez for not finding a way to guide these earnest performers in a new direction. As a result, this take on Mean Girls is an over-done, somewhat meandering exercise that's far from fetch. In theaters.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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