REVIEW: Gimme Shelter

26 01 2014

Gimme ShelterFor a brief interlude in “Gimme Shelter,” James Earl Jones appears as a hospital chaplain.  You read that right: the James Earl Jones, no confusion such as there might be with the directors named Paul Anderson (Paul Thomas made “The Master” while Paul W.S. made the “Resident Evil” franchise).  We’re talking the James Earl Jones with the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award.

Jones’ inclusion in the film’s cast is one of many touches director Ronald Krauss adds to “Gimme Shelter” to increase its credibility and reach.  A name like Jones lends prestige to a project, and a star like Vanessa Hudgens has the potential to open up an audience of younger viewers that a film about teenage homelessness and pregnancy might not have otherwise.

But all these flourishes meant to endow legitimacy to “Gimme Shelter” only serve to emphasize the disparity between its ambitions and what it is actually capable of achieving.  Though it aims for the nitty-gritty reality of contemporary homelessness, Krauss is really only working with a Lifetime movie-quality script.

Moreover, the drama falls consistently flat.  It’s really a shame as I don’t think Krauss and his cast were truly attempting to turn real-life struggle into pure kitsch.  Hudgens certainly cares for her character Apple, transforming herself physically and accessing some very dark emotional places to convey some searing pain.  But neither she or Ann Dowd (on a career upswing after her fantastic turn in “Compliance“), who plays the saintly Kathy DiFiore with grace, can escape the mire of the cliché-riddled script.

The campy drama detracts from the real problems that “Gimme Shelter” raises.  But issues dramas should do more than just portray a tough subject; they ought to call us to action.  And rather than compel me to immediately help the homeless, the film just drove me to laugh at Vanessa Hudgens trying to outact James Earl Jones from her hospital bed.  She’s the best thing about the movie, to be sure, but that does not mean she can take down Darth Vader and Mufasa.  C2stars

INTERVIEW: Actress Vanessa Hudgens, director Ronald Krauss, and the real Kathy DiFiore of “Gimme Shelter”

23 01 2014

20140122-085721.jpgI came into my roundtable interview armed with questions for Vanessa Hudgens about the evolution of her career, specifically the potentially unconscious links I noticed between her upcoming “Gimme Shelter” and “Spring Breakers.”

It’s potentially a bit of stretch, but “Gimme Shelter” offers a very different angle on pregnancy than you would get from watching MTV’s “16 & Pregnant.”  And “Spring Breakers,” though it has been widely misinterpreted as condoning the behavior it shows, exposes a darker underbelly to the “Girls Gone Wild” culture of hedonism.

Choosing both these roles would be bold for any actress.  It’s a particularly surprising turn, though, for Hudgens.  She gained notoriety through the same sort of mass cultural industry mechanics that these films react against, although at least her Disney products didn’t label themselves as “non-fiction.”

It’s the truth – not this fabricated reality – that she aims for in “Gimme Shelter,” and she’s aided in this quest by the help of director Ronald Krauss and the film’s inspiration, Kathy DiFiore.  The movie tells the story of a pregnant teenage girl (an amalgamation of real women) who enters a shelter after being largely spurned by her absent father, now a rich Wall Street trader.  My opinions on the film notwithstanding, it was undeniably sobering and powerful to hear Hudgens, Krauss, and DiFiore talk about how these women on the fringes of their society have changed their lives.

Vanessa Hudgens in Gimme ShelterSo powerful, in fact, that I (and I suspect the other journalists in the room as well) felt that it would simply be inappropriate to ask questions of Vanessa Hudgens that didn’t relate to the women of DiFiore’s Several Sources Shelters.  There was a sense of weightiness and importance that came with DiFiore being in the room that put to rest any chance that I was going to dare bring up “Spring Breakers.”  (DiFiore admitted she didn’t know who Hudgens was prior to filming.)

Heck, Hudgens herself seemed to realize that she should not be the big story of “Gimme Shelter.”  She is an important vessel to bring their stories to audiences who might not otherwise hear them; Krauss called the film “hands to uplift people.”  And indeed, she hardly made a peep during our session, mostly doodling a notepad in front of her.

She did divulge that in order to secure the character of Apple, she sent Krauss an email stating “I’d love to be the Apple of your eye.”  Hudgens was the only professional actress that Krauss considered for the film, and she managed to win the part in spite of her stardom, not because of it.  DiFiore and the girls of the shelter unanimously decided that Hudgens was the best, capturing the reality of their lives as opposed to typical Hollywood “transparent” actors, as Krauss deemed them.

Hudgens in Gimme ShelterWhat’s even more impressive is that when casting was underway on “Gimme Shelter,” DiFiore was recovering from brain surgery.  She has been fighting brain cancer for over two decades and goes in for chemotherapy every three weeks.  I was struck by her unshakable faith and complete lack of fear in the face of death.  “I live with death every day, so being a good person comes easy,” said DiFiore.

After Hudgens left to go to another interview, DiFiore stayed behind in the room to further elaborate on her mission through Several Sources Shelters.  When she opened up to talk about herself and not the movie, DiFiore’s incredible compassion becomes readily apparent.  She radiates an unflappable confidence that just makes you want to be a better person.  “I’ll find out when I go to heaven,” she stated without an iota of doubt, “but I think [Mother Teresa] is the patron saint of this movie.”

The shelter was only able to operate legally in New Jersey thanks to Mother Teresa’s help.  Quite literally an answered prayer, the Catholic icon threw her support behind the state’s DiFiore bill that would allow charities to run a boarding house.  The whole saga as narrated by DiFiore sounds like another compelling movie in and of itself, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see the story coming to a theater near you.  She’s far too humble to take center stage.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first bit of publicity that Several Sources Shelters has received in over 30 years, and DiFiore was very reluctant to let Krauss make it.  She only agreed so long as the focus would be on her work and not on her personally.  DiFiore has earned a fan and admirer in me, that much is certain.

To learn more about the real Kathy DiFiore and her Several Sources Shelters, please click the image below to be taken to the official website.