Gimme Shelter [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (10th May 2014).
The Film

“I need a place to stay for a little bit.”

A teenage girl stands in front of a disgustingly dirty mirror, the black pools of her soulless eyes revealing the tortured emptiness inside. “I can do this,” she says with shaky conviction. Are these the final moments before this girl completes suicide? No, Agnes (Vanessa Hudgens) is merely giving herself a haircut, trimming her natty, nasty, probably-haven’t-been-washed-in-weeks locks into a new style. The face peering back now resembles how I assume the currently strung-out druggie version of Justin Bieber would look if he still had the bowl cut. Agnes’ new hair is a metaphor for the new life and the journey on which she’s about to embark, leaving her abusive, alcoholic, drug addict mother (Rosario Dawson) for good, convinced that she’ll find somewhere else to stay. But will she?

Indeed Agnes does find shelter, at least for a while. She heads to the socialite suburbs of New England in an attempt to reconnect with her well-off absentee father, Tom (Brendan Fraser), and stepmother, Joanna (Stephanie Szostak), a successful upper-middle class couple with two children of their own. Agnes informs her father she wants to be called Apple, not Agnes, from now on. The reason why isn’t explained until far too late in the film to have much meaning. And no the eventual nugget doesn’t reveal even a tangential connection to the similarly-named offspring of the worst couple in the universe, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris “Coldplay” Martin. Apple quickly learns that, in Tom’s house, with shelter comes rules—including some vagueness about duty and respect for elders—which the troubled teen doesn’t quite take to, especially when respect isn’t given back.

You see, Joanna has barely veiled contempt for Apple, and even abandons her during a day on the town, leaving her to find another way “home”. Or better yet, another home, period. Eventually, Apple runs away again, starts living on the streets, steals a car, gets in an accident, and wakes up, handcuffed, to a hospital bed, under the watchful eye of a friendly chaplain, Father Frank McCarthy (James Earl Jones). McCarthy takes the girl under his wing, turning her toward a shelter for troubled teens run by a pious but reasonably pleasant woman named Kathy (Ann Dowd). It’s at the shelter that Apple meets a group of other misfits, with whom she forms a bond and starts a sort of family, finding kinship in the other pregnant girls around her. What’s that? Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, Apple’s pregnant. I forgot because the film did too—until the little plot complication plops right into the middle of the picture rather unexpectedly during a dinner conversation, like the appetite-killing sight of afterbirth (only before birth). And that’s the real reason Apple ran away the second time. We never see Apple with the father, because I suppose he’s unimportant, and the who and the how are irrelevant beyond the few minor details thrown out to set up the fact that this girl is “with child.”

Why Apple runs away is simple. Tom and Joanna want the teenager to get an abortion, while Apple thinks life, all life, is sacred. Even, or especially, the lives of the unborn, because, you know, life totally begins at the moment conception, before an embryo is little more than an a**hole (literally; humans are deuterostomes, which means the anus is the first thing to form in utero). And boom, like a lightning bolt hurled by Zeus himself, flung at the film’s faintly defined characters, “Gimme Shelter’s” premise is shocked into its real, purposeful existence, as a heavy-handed parable with a pro-life message…. at least some of the time. In an off-handed comment in the supplements on “Gimme Shelter’s” Blu-ray release, writer/director Ron Krauss describes his film as an exploration of what family means today. Indeed, that’s a noble—albeit not untapped—vein worth mining for a movie. I wish it actually had been in this one, more than the handful of trite trifles the film offers, because it's a discussion worth having, in a time when values, cultural mores, and the very concept of what defines families move in a naturally less rigid direction, with looser ideas liberated by new found social (and legal) freedoms.

Krauss’ film is anchored by a surprisingly solid (if imperfect) performance from Hudgens, a former Disney star recently turned bikini clad bad girl Candy in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2012). Her nuanced tics, wild rages, and generally disheveled demeanor prove she’s not a terrible dramatic actress, if never especially extraordinary either, and her only real fault is in an at times unconvincing accent, often played too broad. The broadness is actually par for the course, as the film itself is often flawed for its overarching over-reaching when it touches upon difficult topics with little grace (issues of class and systemic injustice are also broached; not to mention the bible-y stuff). The amusing (and somewhat ironic) thing about Hudgens’ appearance in “Gimme Shelter” is that she probably took on the role of Agnes/Apple to further distance herself from the Disney image, by playing a dark and serious character that has a slightly androgynous and angry edge, and yet the dramatic depth of the screenplay she’s reading from is barely above over simplified Disney-levels. In playing it safe, presumably as to not offend the large in-born conservative Christian base the film is most likely to appeal to, “Gimme” takes little chance and comes off as “Precious” (2009) lite. It’s a borderline "PG-13" effort that barely earns its rating, and has basic cable quality production values. For all the attempts at gritty, depressing realism, Krauss' skimpy script frequently resolves plot lines with unrepentant, uplifting happiness that is usually undeserved and rarely explained.

Krauss’ direction is often dire, at the very least bland, and his characters are constructed in cliche, the plot they interact in painted with the broad strokes of melodrama. Although we’re supposed to root for her, Apple is often unreasonable and unlikable, immature and proves herself as unfit as Dawson’s sweaty, yellow-toothed, crack-whore mother character. To no ones surprise (certainly not the emotionless, botoxed visage of the actor) Fraser is dull, cashing a paycheck. He shows a little life in his final scenes, although I’m not sure the payoff is actually earned at all. Ditto Szostak's Joanna, who is strangely, cartoonishly, evil for most of her limited screen time, not unlike a certain stepmother in a classic Disney film, until precisely the moment she comes around in a trite third act development. It's sort of surreal to see a humanizing scene in the supplements that was deleted from the final cut, which explains Joanna’s backstory in a few lines, and makes it perfectly clear why she’s less-than-enthused about a Apple’s impending bushel—er, baby. (Note: it’s a lot less “I’m a horrifyingly vile bitch who’s unwilling to help you” and more “I kind of had a similar experience and maybe would should talk about it, but I have my own issues with the choice I made” and Apple childishly tells her off, so yeah… they’re not exactly Cinderella and her stepmother).

But I suppose it’s easier to deal in absolutes; black and white morality is less messy than a world cast with interleaving shades of gray. Likewise, easier to direct as through the camera is a blunt instrument. “Shelter” is rife with manipulating montages set to a weepy score (and a Lana Del Rey song). It’s a work of over the top drama, and has a distressingly narrow view. There’s little room for subtlety in Krauss’ filmmaking toolbox; he’s got one tool, a sledgehammer, and he uses it to pound scripture and tepid moral touches into the edge of every frame. At times the film is merely frustrating in how illogical it is. Why oh why would the shelter allow Apple to stay there even after she’s mended fences with her more than capable, and no longer combative, parents, knowing full well there are many, many other girls in more need that could take her place? And is it really wise to let a teen, with a questionable history and genetic predisposition to addiction, keep a baby when adoption is a more viable option when abortion decidedly isn’t? (The film attempts to explain this last point by forging a convoluted backstory for Apple, in which she was herself passed around, and raped, within “the system”; no doubt that happens, but it shouldn’t be enough to essentially condemn a young mother and her child to a miserable life of problems and presumed poverty. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding somewhere along the line that not everyone who wants to adopt is an abusive pedo).

At it’s worst, the film is insincere and only semi-opaque with its intentions. “Gimme Shelter” opens with that always questionable statement: "based on a true story." Apple is fictional; an amalgam of several girls that truly were helped by the real life woman this film's Kathy is based on. Krauss may have extensively researched teen homelessness. He claims to have stayed at the real shelter depicted in his film, and to have studied the lives of several occupants, some of whom appear as fictionalized versions of themselves in the film, playing Apple’s new friends and family. And he may have even shot the film in a pseudo-documentary style, with lots of handheld camerawork, and gritty 16mm cinematography. But whether knowingly or not, all his attempts at realism swing too far to fantasy, and he relies on too much manufactured manipulation to really give his claims credence. The story might have some basis in truth, but in striving to suggest that ever-tricky dogmatist “Truth”, backed by biblical literalism, his film falls apart, and deserves to wander through the deadly desert of home video forever. You want gritty reality? Actual truth? Turn to the Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's gritty Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” (1970). What happened at Altamont is far more devastating, and deserving of attention than almost anything in Krauss’ creation.

Video

In an era where everyone—especially indie filmmakers—is moving to digital devices like the Arri Alexa or a fleet of RED alternatives, it comes as somewhat of a surprise, although a welcome one for sure, to see that “Gimme Shelter” was shot on actual film. 16mm film, to be more precise, and in fact Super16 to be exact. What does that mean? Not much, other than “Shelter” has achieved authentically what most other digital-indies attempt to mimic: a lovely, velvety layer of grain. What is even more striking is how sharp the 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps high definition AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer is. Even the grainy filmic texture is rendered finely, never turning to noise, and the battered and bruised faces of Apple and others are equally clear. The film’s color palate is rater dour, cold, and dominated by grays and whites. There’s also a couple of odd anomalies, relating to print damage, which I most certainly did't expect to see in a film of recent vintage. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but a sequence of Apple on the street around the 30 minute mark has a long vertical scratch near the edge of the frame; little white speckles pop up from time to time, too, and clearly weren’t ironed out of the film’s DI. Stylistic intentions and faint damage aside, the disc looks very good, and is much sharper than I thought it would be.

Audio

Considering the film it supports is likely to cause blunt-force trauma, the subtlety to the Blu-ray release’s English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (48kHz/24-bit) comes as a bit of a shock. The mix features more than a few nice little nuances, especially in the atmospheric effects populating surrounds in the halfway house, and the almost overwhelming aural intricacy of the street scenes bursting with the sounds of the city and highway. Music cues—including Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die”—offer further immersion. Although the film ultimately settles down into a rather talky affair, in the latter half of the picture, the track is fitfully impressive, and dialogue maintains clarity throughout. English and Spanish subtitles have also been included.

Extras

A short making of featurette, some skippable deleted scenes, a few bonus trailers, and an UltraViolet digital copy comprise the supplements of “Gimme Shelter’s” Blu-ray release. The disc is authored with optional bookmarks and the resume playback function.

“The Making of ‘Gimme Shelter’” (2.40:1/1.78:1 widescreen, 1080p; 12 minutes 43 seconds) is a little more polished than the usual EPK featurette, but ultimately offers the same generic plot summary and comments of overpraise from cast and crew.

Six inconsequential deleted scenes (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p; 5 minutes 56 seconds, play all) have optional audio commentary with writer/director Ron Krauss. Most of the scenes and comments are not missed from the final film, save for one. Audio quality of the commentary is awful—it sounds like it was recorded by Krauss talking into a coffee can. The scenes are slightly window-boxed, but encoded in high definition. Individual scene titles:

- “Tom shows Apple her room”
- “Apple discovers Tom’s office”
- “Joanna checks Apple in for Sonogram”
- “Apple asks for God’s help”
- “Joanna struggles with Apple at clinic”
- “Father Frank McCarthy talks about suffering with Apple”

Pre-menu bonus trailers are for:

- “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete” (2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p; 1 minute 42 seconds).
- “Grace Unplugged” (1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p; 2 minutes 31 seconds).
- “Winter’s Bone” (1.78:1 widescreen; 1080p; 2 minutes 26 seconds).
- "Epix HD" promo (2.40:1 widescreen; 1 minute 34 seconds).

An UltraViolet HD digital copy has also been included in the package.

Packaging

Lionsgate Home Entertainment houses “Gimme Shelter” in an eco-Elite keep case with a cardboard slip-case in first pressings. The dual layered BD-50 disc is locked to Region A.

Overall

Can I consciously uncouple from this movie? Hudgens gives a surprisingly solid performance, and the picture’s heart is in the right place—albeit a little too close to God to be palatable on a secular level—but “Gimme Shelter” has all the subtlety of a fat-fingered friar nailing his treatise to a door with a sledgehammer. Ron Krauss’ direction is heavy handed, and his script is steeped in manipulative melodrama that’s dark and depressing and just slightly duplicitous with its delivery of a muddled, vaguely politicized pro-life message. There’s some amusing irony in that Hudgens probably took her part to further distance herself from the Disney image, and yet the dramatic depth of the script is barely above Disney-levels, presumably as to not offend the large in-born conservative Christian base the film is most likely to appeal to. The Blu-ray release features a unexpectedly sharp video transfer considering the production’s 16mm origins and a surprisingly nuanced and supportive soundtrack, which, like the film itself, should certainly please the flock if few others.

The Film: D Video: A- Audio: B Extras: D+ Overall: C

 


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