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Thursday, May 26, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Women and power, from Tina Turner to...

Screen Grabs: Women and power, from Tina Turner to Carole Lombard

Triumph, abuse, sex, horror, music, religion, comedy, and more in the latest round of new movies.

Women in charge, in peril, and in the mid-1930s provide the focus in a clutch of new home-viewing movie releases.  


Though she’s officially retired now, Tina Turner remains one of the most empowering figures among women in rock, particularly since she overcame so many obstacles—not just race and gender bias, but leaving an artistic-marital relationship she’d previously been identified with—to achieve that status. This documentary by Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (UndefeatedLA 92) charts that fifty-year career in aptly celebratory terms. But at the same time, it’s also a somewhat problematic illustration of our cultural moment’s tendency to define someone by their victimization rather than their achievements.

Teenaged Anna Mae Bullock, after problematic early years in Tennessee, joined the mother who’d once abandoned her in 1955 St. Louis. Two years later at age 17 she boldly introduced herself to that city’s hottest bandleader, Ike Turner, and was soon his act’s lead singer. A sort of little sister/big brother dynamic turned to love and marriage, though having felt that some of his earlier successes were “stolen” from him by collaborators who claimed credit and then moved on, Ike exhibited controlling tendencies towards this “goldmine” of a star attraction early on. This soon turned to physical abuse, even as their fame expanded beyond the R&B world. 

Ike’s abusive ambition and perfectionism meant an almost incessant work schedule, though Tina would have preferred to stay at home raising their four sons (three from relationships they’d each had with others). When the latter were grown, she finally fled in 1976, retaining almost nothing in the divorce but her famous married name (and their shared debts).

After a few years slogging as a Vegas and nostalgia-circuit act, new manager Roger Davies asked her what what she wanted. She said she wanted to be a stadium-scale rock (not R&B) star—like the Rolling Stones, with whom Ike & Tina had toured. The ginormous 1984 Private Dancer album managed that and then some, despite her initial dislike of its flagship single “What’s Love Got To Do With It” as being “too pop.” Rebounding from has-been status, she became one of the ’80s’ biggest stars in multiple media, including bestselling autobiography I, Tina, which detailed her many abuses at Ike Turner’s hands.

She’d hoped that reluctant tell-all, urged by her handlers for further career-revival publicity, would finally put the past behind her. Instead, it had the effect of making her a trailblazing poster child for women in (and leaving) abusive relationships—something only reinforced when the film version What’s Love Got To Do With It was released in 1993, winning Oscar nominations for both Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne as Tina and Ike. 

Tina fast-forwards through its subject’s later years, noting that she did finally find real, unconditional love in a domestic partnership with German music executive Edwin Bach. But even as it gives the now 81-year-old star a platform to air continuing frustration at being forever associated with her former abuser, the documentary reinforces that principal identity as ex-victim. Of course her story can’t be told without that chapter. But does it really need to so completely dominate the narrative? Like the Rita Moreno and Poly Styrene docs that play in SFFILM later this week, Tina enshrines its subject as a survivor somewhat at the expense of her resume as an artist. 

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Sure, there are myriad performance clips here, and fellow luminaries testifying to Turner’s influence. But the film sees her almost exclusively as a two-sided coin, shiny iconic star on one hand and triumph-over-abuse case on the other. Both are true, but what about the professional musician? Why does no one here ask for insight about her singing style, her preferences in song material, favorite past collaborators, et al.? These matters are so neglected, the documentary inadvertently gives the impression that the person most responsible for her reinvented ’80s sound was manager Davies. Surely her own personal taste and hard-won professional experience were also major factors, even the primary ones. 

Entertaining and inspiring as it is, Tina doesn’t imagine we might be interested in her decision-making processes on the job, or anything else about her craft. So, strangely, a film supposedly dedicated to celebrating a major artist’s transcendence of great hardship ends up reinforcing those hardships as her legacy, rather than the art she made. Tina is currently available on HBO and HBO Max.

The Power

Abuse is also at the narrative core of this new British horror film from writer-director Corinna Faith. In early 1974, economic woes and trade-union negotiations have created a crisis that force nightly London blackouts. Trainee nurse Val (Rose Williams) is having a stressful first day at a cold, unpleasant hospital where her merely speaking to a doctor is viewed as insubordination by the humorless matron (Diveen Henry). As punishment, Rose is given a double-shift—meaning she’ll pull night duty with only a hand-held gas lamp for illumination in the large, creepy facility. And orphanage-raised Rose has traumatic past cause for being very afraid of the dark.

Once the lights go out, unpleasant things start happening, stoking her panic—unhelped by the discovery that one established nurse  (Emma Rigby) here used to bully her at school. We learn that a girl who was a patient here disappeared mysteriously, and perhaps now haunts its halls. That certainly appears to be the case when Rose perceives herself chased (or even touched) by an invisible force. Then that invisible force seems to take control of her, for vengeful purposes.

The Power, shot in the Edwardian-era Blythe House (a former bank headquarters now used as museum storage and frequent film location), has a nice simplicity of premise and an aptly spooky atmosphere. It manages to avoid an excess of horror cliches by soft-pedaling them, keeping most violence offscreen. But the script could be stronger, and one can’t quite escape a feeling that child abuse is being used as a trendy plot device in a none-too-deep genre piece. When Rose arbitrarily bounces in and out of “possession,” too, things risk getting a bit silly. In the end, The Power (which is now on streaming platform Shudder) is above average for its type…but not by much. 

Shiva Baby

Very different are the travails of the heroine in Emma Seligman’s comedy, a hit on last year’s festival circuit that is now on Apple, Amazon, Vudu, and other TVOD platforms. Danielle (Rachel Sennott)  is a rudderless college student dragged to a stranger’s funeral reception by her well-meaning if invasive parents (Polly Draper, Fred Melamed). There, she is mortified to run into not only her secret ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon), but the man (Danny Deferrari) she’s sleeping with in a sugar-daddy-relationship—with his wife (Dianna Agron) and baby, neither of whom she knew existed. 

Taking place almost in “real time,” with vertiginous hand-held photography and a soundtrack of astringent strings amplifying our heroine’s social panic, this comedy of neurotic dysfunction is sometimes almost too nerve-wracking to be funny. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive exercise in sustained tension, clever situations and amusingly outlandish personalities. 

Carole Lombard Collection II

This second set of Blu-Ray reissues from Kino Lorber follows on a first trilogy (reviewed here) that charted the star’s early career as a capable but unremarkable ingenue—before 1934’s Twentieth Century revealed an unanticipated, career-transforming flair for screwball comedy. Though it contains none of her classics in that mode (like My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred), the mid-’30s selections here do demonstrate the confident appeal and seriocomic facility she regularly demonstrated after graduating from arm-candy roles.

Probably the best of them, Hands Across the Table (1935) has her as a manicurist determined not to repeat her late mother’s lifetime of impoverished drudgery. So she’s determined to snag a rich man, a plan that seems to actually work when she’s asked out by one Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray)—little realizing that privileged party boy’s family fortune crashed with the stock market. Ergo, he too is angling to “marry rich.” Needless to say, love eventually conquers all, including greed. 

It’s fun to see MacMurray in one of his first screen leads, a rather sexy ne’er-do-well far flung from the “America’s Dad” image he’d embrace much later in Disney movies and on long-running sitcom My Three Sons. But this smart-mouthed romance, nimbly directed by the expert Mitchell Leisen, is sadder than it means to be: Because Lombard’s upwardly mobile working girl has a wealthy, dreamboat Mr. Right (Ralph Bellamy) pining for her all along. Only she never notices, because the movie takes it for granted that of course she wouldn’t. After all, he may be a rich, adoring ex-aviator, but he’s in a wheelchair…which means he must be a “good sport” who passively surrenders her to the hopefully-reformed cad in the end.

Even more problematic is the next year’s Love Before Breakfast, whose original poster “humorously” portrayed the glamorous star with a black eye. It’s played for laughs when she gets it, too, at the hands of the tycoon suitor (Preston Foster) who’s already sent her fiancee (Cesar Romero) out of the country on false pretenses just to “clear the field.” He’s got lots of other dirty tricks up his sleeve, even if that face punch is an accident. 

All this is meant to be daffy and charming, rich people misbehaving in deluxe settings as in most screwball comedies. But frankly it’s kinda gross: Foster’s stalking and harassing constantly overrides the heroine’s “no’s,” meaning to “wear her down.” We’re supposed to find it funny when they’re still squabbling at the altar he’s forced her to for the fadeout. Sure, this is another era’s escapist fantasy. But it’s hard not to think that Love (and a happy ending) would have been better served if she killed the pushy jerk.

More appealing is The Princess Comes Across, another 1936 release, and with MacMurray again. Here Lombard is a broke actress who comes up with the scheme of posing as European royalty to attract Hollywood’s attention. Unfortunately, in crossing the Atlantic on a luxury liner for her big break, Princess Olga of Sweden nee Wanda Nash of Brooklyn attracts a blackmailer’s attention. Then his corpse is found in her state room, and other bodies pile up in what rapidly becomes more murder mystery than romantic comedy. 

The star gets to parody Garbo in her guise as the lofty blueblood, with Alison Skipworth as her sidekick. Bellow passenger MacMurray’s assigned pal is no less than William Frawley, the future Fred Mertz of I Love Lucy. As ever, Lombard elevates the proceedings by being simultaneously beautiful and down-to-earth, balancing comic chops with able handling of the tearful scenes these movies always seemed to hand her. More surprising is seeing her leading man get to sing and play the concertina here—things you might suspect were dubbed by “real” musicians. But in fact MacMurray was a professional musician before acting took over, featured as a saxophonist and vocalist in several big bands. He and Lombard made four films together before her tragic plane-crash death in 1942, at age 33.

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