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Arts Community Voice Film Review

(Bad) new films: Gimme Shelter and I, Frankenstein

Gimme Shelter
Directed by Ron Krause

Of two classically bad January openings this week, this is the less enjoyable of the two because it’s simply bad. Whereas the other (“I Frankenstein”) is so bad it’s enjoyable. “Gimme Shelter” feels like a cheesy TV movie of the week or an afterschool special about the dangers of unwanted teen pregnancies.

Vanesa Hudgens plays Apple, a teenager who desperately needs to escape the clutches of her abusive mother (Rosario Dawson) if she has any chance of not spiraling into a life of drug use and, most likely, prostitution. It’s a tough and realistic scenario for many young people and the movie is at its least bad when it’s tackling the confrontations between mother and daughter, head on. The first five minutes, as Apple has to physically and emotionally wrench herself away from her living situation are probably the strongest of the entire film, and they’re a good representation of why so many kids never get away. But most of the rest of the film is bland and/or lacking in … well, pretty much everything.

For a period, early in the film, it seems as though it’s going to become extremely religious, but Apple is simply encountering people who are motivated by their own religious beliefs – a priest in a hospital and a woman who runs a shelter for unwed teen mothers and mothers to be. And so we’re faced with the story of a teenager who wants to fend for herself but has no resources, and so finds herself choosing between various options involving somebody else’s space and somebody else’s rules. This includes the home of Apple’s father (Brendan Fraser) who hasn’t had any knowledge of or part in her upbringing.

But this is one of the aspects where the film seems a little odd – as though it was edited for length and ended up with fewer details than it might once have had. The classic scene in which a new kid gets lectured about rules and responsibility is largely lacking – and the girls in the group home, for the most part (there’s a token exception), never seem to complain, nor do they seem to undergo any studies. Also, for a shelter that has operated for 20 years, as we’re told, all of the residents are of approximately the same age and are either about to give birth or have recently given birth – there’s no indication or presence of women beyond that stage of motherhood. And it’s a somewhat key element of the story as girls decide what they want to do – we’re never told how long they could or should stay, what happens next, or what resources might then be given to them at the point of leaving.

During the closing credits, we’re shown home videos of the real girls that this story is based on – and the group home and a group outing that had been discussed in the film. It’s one of those moments when you’re likely to feel cheated because we could have watched those films instead and actually heard from women of all ages who went through similar experiences and who stayed with the same shelter organization. Instead the film gives us a retelling of the story that feels like it ought to have “dramatic re-enactment” flashing on the screen.

Something else which becomes apparent during the credits (unless I was mistaken) is that the original priest, played in the film by James Earl Jones, was Caucasian. Which could make it the first time Jones has played an old white member of a strict religious order since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”

Hudgens turns in a reasonable performance as Apple – although she seems more focused on being grungy and edgy than anything else. It seems like she could be a good actress if given a project that simply calls for range rather than what seems like an ongoing attempt to just break away from the good girl image of her Disney days. Dawson is powerful as her appalling mother but most of the rest of the cast and the acting is unremarkable.

Unwanted teen pregnancy and the abuse of young women is a worthy subject for any number of films, whether narrative or documentary based, and a timely topic for Sacramento audiences in a week in which it was reported that Sacramento is second in the nation for human trafficking. But this film doesn’t aid in the understanding of the subject as it’s unlikely to draw audiences willing to pay attention to it. Narrative films tend to draw larger audiences than documentaries, but not when they’re this bland. “Gimme Shelter” might actually have reached more people who could have benefitted from the message if it had been a TV release, or even marketed by an organization like the Disney Channel to kids who  are growing out of their regular programming – but that would be too great a dose of reality for that kind of venue. Instead it will go largely unnoticed and the subject matter will remain relatively undiscussed.

 

I, Frankenstein
Directed by Stuart Beattie

“I, Frankenstein” is one of those wonderful movies that crosses over the line from “bad” to “so bad it’s good.” There is nothing good about almost any component of this film, and virtually every scene is either cringe-worthy to watch or elicits laughter based on some ridiculous plot element, and yet I enjoyed watching it. It’s a movie that is amusing at a macro level despite being appallingly bad at a micro level.

Frankenstein’s monster (Aaron Eckhart) has been brooding in the wilderness for 200 years, probably updating his facebook page with a series of “I still hate Victor!” statuses, and generally keeping to himself as much as he could. However, while dutifully burying Victor Frankenstein’s body, all those bitter years ago, he encountered a couple of species of beings that have too much of an interest in his quasi-life and existence to let him remain in the shadows.

“I, Frankenstein” is one of these very common stories (think “Twilight,” “Underworld,” “The Immortal Instruments,” “Legion,” etc.) in which a character finds themselves in the middle of a war between two opposing forces of supernatural beings that has somehow gone on for millennia without humans noticing. And presumably these humans who lack sufficient discernment to notice beings exploding in balls of light and either plummeting to hell or rapturously floating to heaven are exactly the target demographic for the films.

In this case, demons (who are all demonic and stuff) are fighting against gargoyles, who are essentially one step down from angels and on earth to protect humans from demons. But this is one of those movies in which the gargoyles, whose only purpose in their potentially immortal lives is to keep an eye on demons, don’t seem to realize that the demon stronghold is just down the street from their own clubhouse. Which is convenient for us, of course, or else half the film would be spent commuting and sitting in airline departure lounges.

Much of the plot revolves around the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s handwritten notes and drawings that explain how to re-animate dead people – a book which characters either don’t understand or understand fully and seem to be able to quote from, depending on which scene they happen to be in at the time. The demon prince (Bill Nighy) is holed up in a giant compound with a couple of modern day scientists whom he has tasked with re-animating a large dead rat, presumably somewhat outside of the mainstream scientific community, who still seem surprised to find that he’s not entirely on the up and up.

It’s hard to know where to start on the details in the story that just leave you laughing out loud or waving your fist at the screen, as though the screenwriter is watching back, but here are a few:

  • The gargoyle lieutenant has a weapon that consists of three parts, which look lovely when assembled but which require assembly to look lovely (and to be at their most useful), two of which also happen to serve as the key for the gargoyle vault locking mechanism – a double duty that doesn’t seem especially practical in case he fails to make it home one day.
  • Frankenstein’s monster (by now being called Adam) chooses weapons which the super strong gargoyle attendant refers to as being too heavy to wield, and yet he can toss both in one side coat pocket and the coat doesn’t even hang a little off center.
  • At some point, while on the run, Adam and his companion are in a building that couldn’t possibly look more run down and abandoned. It has an old warehouse or factory air to it, and yet he finds a room with a bed and a sink that works, with clean water and not even a slight sputtering from rust or air in the pipes. Furthermore, the rusty medicine cabinet on the wall, despite decades of presumed ransacking and squatters, contains a surgical suturing kit. Even if the building had once been a hospital, nothing about the circumstances make sense.

But I’m not complaining – these are the best parts of the film – the parts that keep it interesting, like a future contender for inclusion in Sacramento’s own Trash Film Orgy film festival or the basis for a lack of logic drinking game. I came away from “I, Frankenstein” smiling, despite everything, and while I’m not about to recommend it (to anybody other than lovers of cinematic awfulness), I expect that a couple of years from now I’ll come across it on a late night cable station and find myself giggling, complaining, and fist waving all over again. And hopefully drinking.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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