Review: New sci-fi flick ‘I.S.S.’ is fun but ‘Poor Things’ or ‘American Fiction’ are better choices

Ariana DeBose in I.S.S. (Courtesy/LD Entertainment)

In many ways, the month of January is seen as a wasteland by Hollywood.

Coming on the heels of the Christmas season, which traditionally is one of the most profitable times of the year for movie theaters and distributors, the movies released early in the year are ones that are deemed lacking in one way or the other.

Many times the movies tested poorly or feature stars, who for whatever reason have lost some of their sheen.

It’s a time for films that for whatever reason were produced but somehow lost the studio’s faith. It’s a burning of the chaff to clear the field for better movies when the weather isn’t so frigid, and moviegoers are more inclined to visit theaters rather than stay home.

January, however, is a great time for movie buffs to see “prestige” films that they might have missed during the holiday season, or like in smaller markets like ours, films that are just now making their way to our neck of the woods.

Two movies in local theaters that fit that category are “Poor Things,” which opens today and “American Fiction,” which opened last week. Both are strong films, and are probably the cream of the movies that have recently opened in local theaters.

“Poor Things” is a zany yet poignant reimagining of the Frankenstein story with outstanding performances by Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, and Willem Dafoe. Stone and Ruffalo are expected to garner Oscar nods when the Academy Award nominations are announced on Tuesday. It made my Top 10 List for 2023, coming in at No. 4.

“American Fiction” is an acerbic comedy about an author (Jeffrey Wright) who pens a novel as a vicious joke, but it somehow catches fire and becomes a best-seller. Had I seen this movie before picking my Top 10 of 2023, it certainly would have gotten consideration. Wright could be in line for an Oscar nomination himself on Tuesday.

However, if your tastes run a bit tacky, and you’re looking for a film that you can laugh at rather than with, the sci-fi, politically-tinged adventure “I.S.S.” might be more your flavor.

The movie directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Nick Shafir is a modern version of the “doomsday” pictures of the 1950s in which filmmakers dressed up current political issues in sci-fi garb to make the message go down a bit easier.

As a film fan and a TV junkie, I cut my teeth on those types of movies as a kid, and I still have a fondness for schlock that’s dressed up to seem a bit more important than it actually is.

That’s “I.S.S.” in a nutshell.

The premise is that a group of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are working and living somewhat peacefully aboard a space station when war between their two nations breaks out on Earth.

The two groups of space people are commanded by their governments to take control of the space station any way they can.

A simple yet intriguing plot that’s executed well enough by the movie with a few surprises to keep our attention for the duration.

I did enjoy Ariana DeBose’s performance as Kira Foster, our point-of-view character. Her eyes tell a lot of the story, which is a tribute to her performance as well as the direction of Cowperthwaite.

Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews is to be complimented as well for keeping the film watchable with his stark images of space as well as adding to the mounting tension on the space station by what his lens does and does not show.

Don’t get me wrong, “I.S.S.” isn’t a sleeper classic. It’s a silly space movie for genre fans with nothing better to do.

I had fun with it. Maybe you will too?

However, if you haven’t seen “American Fiction” or “Poor Things,” either would be a better choice.

New in Local Theaters – Jan. 19, 2024

  • Poor Things (R) 2 hr. 2 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square
  • I.S.S. (R) 1 hr. 35 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne
  • Freud’s Last Session (PG-13) 1 hr. 49 min. (trailer)
    AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback
  • American Fiction (R) 1 hr. 57 min. (trailer)
    Malco Razorback, Malco Towne
  • Cult Killer (R) 1 hr. 45 min. (trailer)
    Malco Pinnacle
  • Founders Day (R) 1 hr. 46 min. (trailer)
    Malco Pinnacle

Classic Corner – The Night of the Hunter

Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter (Courtesy/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

Each Tuesday evening this month, Turner Classic Movies has been celebrating the films of Robert Mitchum. This Tuesday at 7 p.m., TCM is showing probably the creepiest movie in Mitchum’s catalogue, and one of his best when it airs “The Night of the Hunter.”

The movie plays like a Grimm’s fairy tale of sorts, told to frighten kiddies to stay on the straight and narrow.

While director Charles Laughton staged and shot the film dreamily and told his story simply, the film’s subject matter is decidedly adult, dealing with theft, implied sexual misconduct, and murder.

Laughton studied great silent films in preparation for filming the movie that drips with atmosphere and dread. While Laughton was a silver-screen star and director of many Broadway plays, “The Night of the Hunter” is the only film he helmed.

That’s too bad, too. It is weirdly great. I appreciate it more, the more I watch it.

The film is a lyrical, creepy delight that no doubt influenced directors as varied as Robert Altman and Tim Burton.

The plot focuses on a wicked minister, the Rev. Harry Powell, played ominously by Robert Mitchum. Powell is a preacher up to no good, who moonlights in murdering unsuspecting young women after seducing them with his laconic charm.

Mitchum is frightening yet magnetic as the corrupt preacher that in some ways is a precursor to the evil charm Anthony Hopkins injected in his role of Hannibal Lector in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Both characters reek of danger, but hold a tantalizing allure that charms the naive prey into their web.

Mitchum’s vile portrayal of the preacher Powell, who has “love” tattooed letter by letter on the fingers of his right fist and “hate “in the same manner on his left, may seem a bit over-the-top through a modern lens, but he’s far creepier and more realistic than the modern slashers who haunt more recent horror films.

Powell doesn’t mind murder, but he’s in it for the money — $10,000 to be exact. It’s the money his cell-mate hid on his farm before being sentenced to death. Powell plays the long game in going after the money, seducing and marrying his cell-mate’s old wife, Willa, played by Shelly Winters.

While Powell dupes Willa, her children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Harper) can’t be fooled. I guess they’re too innocent to be sucked in by someone so evil. They know where their dad hid the money prior to his execution, but aren’t about to give it up.

Not to give too much away, but things turn for the worse for Willa, and John and Pearl take refuge with an elderly woman named Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who looks after children.

That sets up a Christmas-time showdown between Powell, the kids, old lady Cooper and her shotgun that has to be seen to be believed.

The movie itself is excellent, but for film fans, it’s a must-watch because of its influence since, including classics like “Psycho,” both the 1962 and 1991 versions of “Cape Fear,” “Halloween,” “What Lies Beneath,” and most other slasher films.

While not as graphic as any of those films, one could very successfully make an argument that “The Night of the Hunter” is the grandfather of modern horror movies.