Radium Girls


Where does their skin get that healthy glow? Radium!

(2018) True Life Drama (CineMosaic) Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Colin Kelly-Sordelet, John Bedford Lloyd, Joe Grifasi, Brandon Gill, Olivia Macklin, Colby Minifie, Greg Hildreth, Veanne Cox, Tom Galantich, Steven Hauck, Carol Cadby, Gina Piersanti, Julianna Sass, Neil Akins, Gemma Schreier. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler

Most of my readers will be too young to remember but there was a time when watches were painted with radium paint in order to make the dials luminescent. In the 1920s and 1930s, outfits like United States Radium and the Radium Dial Company employed women as young as 11 years old to paint the watch faces using camel hair brushes that the girls would dip into the paint and then paint the face of the watch. The brush would quickly lose its shape and the girls were instructed to use their lips to bring the brush to a point and then resume dipping and painting.

In 1928 the United States Radium Company employed 75 women in their New Jersey plant, including sisters Bessie (King) and Jo (Quinn). A third sister had also worked there but she’d passed away some months earlier. The girls are high-spirited, Bessie more so than Jo – especially after Jo falls ill. Bessie is really worried, particularly since Jo was by far the superior earner of the two (the girls are paid for each watch face they complete and Jo not only paints more of them but is far more meticulous). She asks the boss (Lloyd) if Jo can get seen by the company doctor, which he reluctantly agrees to.

The girls have been told that radium is perfectly safe; the company doctor tells Jo initially it’s just the flu and to drink lots of fluids and rest but Bessie insists on a thorough examination. The diagnosis comes back a syphilis, which is a bit amazing considering that Jo is a virgin. Bessie, never a radical, begins to discern a pattern developing among the girls at the factory who are all beginning to show symptoms of the same illness. Suspecting a rat, she sees a labor organization who helps her get a lawyer – she intends to hit United States Radium in the only place they understand; their wallets.

This is an important story and it deserves to be told. It has appeared on a number of different television shows, including 1,000 Ways to Die and other fact-based television shows. Books have been written around the girls as well as at least one stage play that I’m aware of. Oddly, it hasn’t been the subject of a theatrical feature until now and considering how important the case would become to labor laws in this country it’s almost inconceivable (and yes, I do know what it means). Perhaps because the victims were all women has it not gotten the coverage that’s warranted.

The movie is reasonably well-acted; the cast other than King is pretty much unknown but Pilcher and Mohler manage to get some pretty decent work tells me a lot about them as directors. They also are to be commended for their creative use of archival footage (and black and white recreations that look archival) that is inserted at various points during the film. That’s really imaginatively done and as a history buff I really appreciated it.

The main problem I had with the movie is that it feels too much like a movie of the week. That comes a great deal from the writing which has a kind of melodramatic feel to it. I’m not sure if the writers were trying to go for a period feel here or not but it doesn’t work. The movie is at its best not when it is showing us how horrible the rest of the world was to these women, but when it allows us to get to know who they were as people. Another thing I’m not sure of; I don’t know if the characters here were the actual Radium Girls from the U.S.R. plant in New Jersey or merely based on them. The names I’ve found for the actual litigants in the case were different than the ones given to the characters in the movie.

Also, the filmmakers failed to mention that there were two other groups of Radium Girls, one in Ottawa, Illinois who went through the same ordeal ten years after their New Jersey sisters did. That company, Radium Dial Company, had to have been fully aware of the dangers of radium and yet urged their employees to use the “lip, dip, paint” method anyway. It took eight trials (all of which were won by the litigants) for the Illinois Radium Girls to get the money they needed for medical expenses; it was a case of the company stalling so that the victims would die before they had to pay out anything. That gives you an idea of what monsters were running that company.

The real Radium Girls died real deaths that were terrible, gruesome and absolutely unconscionable. That they were abandoned to their fates by callous employers who saw them as expendable commodities that could easily be replaced only adds to the horror. It would be nice to say that things have changed a great deal since these events happened but sadly, they have not. The fact that the current administration is actively trying to strike down existing worker safety laws is proof enough of that.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes a wonderful use of archival footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels too much like a Movie of the Week (in a bad way).
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you take a Geiger counter to the graves of the Radium Girls, it still registers as radioactive.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Triangle Factory Fire Scandal
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Girls of the Sun

The Babushkas of Chernobyl


Girls just wanna have fun.

Girls just wanna have fun.

(2015) Documentary (Chicken and Egg) Valentyna Ivanivna, Vita Polyakova, Maria Shovkota, Hanna Zavoratya, Mary Mycio, Olga Mikolaivna. Directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris

Florida Film Festival 2016

There are desirable places to live in the world – California, the Rhone Valley, Hawaii and so on – but there are some places in the world where I think people would choose not to live; the middle of the Gobi Desert, for example. Death Valley would be another. However, I think at the top of that dubious list would be the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

When Reactor #4 exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine on April 26, 1986 it created an area contaminated by radiation containing roughly 1,000 square miles. Those that lived in the rural villages in the surrounding area along with the plant workers whose homes were in the nearby town of Pripyat were forcibly evacuated, often just with the clothes on their backs.

For some, living away from where they’d lived all their lives was as awful a fate as dying of radiation poisoning. Some of the villagers therefore snuck back into the exclusion zone and resumed their lives. Most of them women and nearly all of them elderly, they continue to live in the zone which although not officially supported by the Ukraine is unofficially tolerated; as one aid worker says, they are far more likely to die of old age before the radiation kills them.

Now at this point I should mention that I’m half-Ukrainian on my mother’s side; one of the most important people in my life as a young boy was my maternal grandmother, whom I called Baba. She is someone I continue to regard fondly even now. These ladies – Hanna, Maria and Valentyna are the three focused on here – remind me very much of her, so do take this review with that in mind.

Bogart and Morris follow these ladies through their daily lives, through visits by government scientists researching the radiation in the soil, the water and in the ladies themselves through visits with one another, to receiving their government pensions – which in typical government fashion are late. I am startled to see how verdant the exclusion zone is; while the forests closest to the plant are barren, life seems to be thriving in the outlying area. The babushkas live on the food they grow and the livestock they raise, supplemented by what they can find in the forest which can include things like nuts, berries and mushrooms. They also occasionally go fishing in the local rivers.

They also get visits from other government officials, including one young woman who reluctantly accepts the offer of food and tries to eat as little as possible; she knows turning the ladies down outright would be insulting to them. They treat her with affection, like a granddaughter.

There are other survivors as well, some who continue to live outside of the exclusion zone, all of whom ruefully miss their old lives in their old village. It is pointed out that statistically, the babushkas living in the exclusion zone are outliving those of a similar age who are living outside of it, which only speaks to the powerful influence of living in comforting surroundings.

The stories that these ladies and the other interviewees are riveting; they have lived hard lives even before the accident. The privations of the Second World War and the German invasion, and even worse under Stalin’s policy of forced starvation are recalled with vivid detail. Many of them had husbands who weren’t exactly prizes; they talk ruefully of alcoholism and even beatings. This was part of life for a young Ukrainian wife back in the day.

We also get to meet a group of videogamers from Kiev who, inspired by the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which is set at Chernobyl, illegally trespass into the exclusion zone and try to penetrate as far as possible into the zone, making it all the way to Pripyat. They joke around, but what they are doing is unbelievably dangerous. Kids, don’t try that at home – or anywhere else.

It is the story of the explosion itself and the ensuing aftermath that really makes one pause; it is heartbreaking to hear about the chaos and the tears that occurred as their lives were irrevocably changed. The explosion was loud enough to wake most of them, and while they were far enough away from the plant that they didn’t see the actual disaster itself nor suffer the fatal effects of exposure, their tales are chilling enough.

The movie was filmed around Easter, a very big holiday in the Russian Orthodox Church, and we are allowed to tag along as the ladies are taken by bus to worship at midnight mass. This was one of the most moving moments in the film as you can plainly see that the women are affected by the ceremony which is in itself beautiful in the candlelight.

Clearly, the filmmakers have much affection for the babushkas and there is a wistful air to the whole film. These are old women used to hard work and self-sufficiency. Watching them go about their daily routines makes one realize that we have it easy here. While it is delightful to watch them on their cell phones – reception is as you might imagine rather dicey in the exclusion zone – they represent a way of life that is fast disappearing. That these are amazing ladies goes without question, but they are also in a sense very ordinary. I doubt they see themselves as particularly special; they are just doing what they’ve always done, despite the risks. It’s their very ordinariness that makes them special in my eyes; they are just like my Baba and of course, who doesn’t love their grandmother?

REASONS TO GO: Powerful images and scenes. Compelling subjects. Amazing stories about the explosion and aftermath.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to all filmgoers.
FAMILY VALUES: Some thematic material may be a little intense.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers were required to rotate in and out of the hot zone in order to minimize their exposure to the radiation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russian Woodpecker
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Norman Lear: Another Version of You

Mad Max: Fury Road


You don't want to make Max mad.

You don’t want to make Max mad.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Iota, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Merita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellermann, Christina Koch. Directed by George Miller

The future famously isn’t what it used to be. However, in the minds of some visionaries, it’s exactly what it used to be – only more of it.

Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is a loner living in a post-Apocalyptic world where petroleum has become scarce, clean water even more scarce and chaos reigns. Governments have fallen in the nuclear fallout of the last desperate grasp of nations trying to assert control where none was possible. Max is haunted by visions of a daughter and wife he couldn’t save.

Captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), his fate is to be used as a human blood bag for War Boy Nux (Hoult), who like most of the inhabitants of Joe’s Citadel, is poisoned by radioactivity. Joe asserts control in two ways; by controlling the only clean water in the area, and by asserting an almost messianic mythology over the War Boys, who believe fervently that if they die in battle for their Immortan that they will enter Valhalla and live once again in paradise. Sounds a little bit like a jihadist, no?

Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a one-armed exceptional warrior who has earned Joe’s trust, is sent on a supply run to get gas and armaments in a world of dwindling resources. She is driving an 18-wheel war wagon, a tricked out tractor trailer that is bristling with armaments and carries water for the masters of the Bullet Farm and Gastown.

However, Furiosa has plans of her own and it means deviating off course into a dangerous world beyond the Citadel and their allies. When Joe discovers that she is carrying stolen goods – his wives, women who haven’t fallen prey to radiation poisoning – he gathers the troops to get his precious cargo back. Through a violent set of circumstances, a suspicious Max ends up throwing in his lot with the women and the chase is truly underway.

Some critics have sniffed that the movie is essentially one two hour chase sequence and they aren’t wrong. However, there isn’t a moment in the movie where you’ll be bored unless of course you don’t like action movies to begin with (and some people don’t). This is innovative, tense stuff here and the testosterone will flow.

Hardy took his cues from original Mad Max Mel Gibson and broods pretty much non-stop, clearly ill-at-ease with people in general and suspicious of them in particular. He’s taciturn and doesn’t speak much unless necessary. However, deep down he has a good heart and can’t turn away from good people in trouble. He is well aware that there are precious few good people left since the crazies have already slaughtered most of them.

Theron, an Oscar-winning actress, does a bang-up job here. Although reportedly she had difficulties getting along with both Hardy and Miller, she delivers a performance as good as any she’s ever given. You can see the pain of her hard and brutal life in her eyes but she hasn’t quite lost hope yet. She’s fighting to make a future that isn’t as ugly as her past, and she’s inspired the various brides, who are clad in diaphanous white garments that leave little to the imagination.

The post-Armageddon landscape that George Miller has imagined is not over-exposed and oversaturated but vivid and colorful. Thank cinematographer John Seale for making a dusty, lifeless desert still appear to be anything but beautiful. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it has to look ugly.

The vehicles and characters here are all wonderful and innovative. The vehicles all bristle with spikes or men on long poles dropping bombs, or gigantic drums or a dude with an electric guitar that spits flames. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be fun. As for the characters, they are powder-white, or covered with pustules, or chrome lips or bullets instead of teeth. This isn’t the Mad Max milieu of Beyond Thunderdome or The Road Warrior; it clearly is evolved from them however.

The non-stop violence may turn some off but for my tastes, this is purely unadulterated summer entertainment. The stunt work here is amazing and that Miller has chosen to use practical effects as much as possible (save for an impressive CGI sandstorm) is admirable.

There has been a lot of discussion whether this movie is pro-feminist or anti-feminist. I will say this; if civilization ends, feminism will be trumped by Darwinism. I don’t think Miller is making a comment on feminism here at all; sometimes we need to turn off our sensitivities and just enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts. Imaginative vehicles and characters. Absolutely made for summer viewing.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentless violence..
FAMILY VALUES: Intense violence throughout, some disturbing images and a scene of mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hardy had lunch with Mel Gibson to discuss taking over what many consider his signature role; Gibson was not only fine with it, he apparently was enthusiastic that the role was being taken over by an actor of Hardy’s stature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Furious 7
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Body

The Divide


A post-apocalyptic pacifier.

A post-apocalyptic pacifier.

(2011) Sci-Fi (Anchor Bay) Lauren German, Milo Ventimiglia, Michael Biehn, Courtney B. Vance, Rosanna Arquette, Ashton Holmes, Ivan Gonzalez, Michael Eklund, Abbey Thickson, Jennifer Blanc. Directed by Xavier Jens

The real test of humanity comes in situations of great stress. We see the best of the human spirit – firefighters running into burning hills to protect homes and property, ordinary people pulling people out of the rubble of disaster sites and keeping them alive until help arrives.

We also see the worst and that’s pretty much what you’re going to see here although to be fair, that is pretty much true of most movies of this genre. New York is leveled by nuclear detonations; eight residents of a Manhattan apartment tower make their way into the basement to ride out the fallout storm.

Mickey (Biehn), the janitor, lives in the basement and he’s none too happy about having his space invaded by residents Eva(German), her boyfriend Sam (Gonzalez), brothers Josh (Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Holmes) and Josh’s friend Bobby (Eklund), Marilyn (Arquette) and her daughter Wendi (Thickson) and the bookish Devlin (Vance). While he asserts his dominance, it is not without some uneasiness on the part of the other survivors.

Not long afterward the make-shift shelter is broken into by armed men in biohazard suits; they abduct Wendi and attempt to leave but a firefight breaks out and Adrien is wounded while several of the invaders are killed. Josh takes one of the soldiers suits in an effort to rescue Wendi and finds the basement connected to a lab connected by tunnels of plastic sheeting. He finds Wendi among a group of children unconscious, head shaved and eyes bandaged. Unfortunately, Josh’s ruse is discovered and a soldier yanks off his breathing apparatus, exposing him to the irradiated air.

Josh makes it back to the basement and the soldiers weld the remaining survivors into the room, trapping them there. This is called making things worse; the fractured group grows even more fractured. Sexual politics begin to play a role as Marilyn starts sleeping with Bobby while Eva moves away from the indecisive and borderline cowardly Sam and more towards Adrien. When it becomes clear that Mickey has a hidden stash room, a fight breaks out and the balance of power shifts. Josh and Bobby take control and start using Marilyn as a sex slave. Can Eva and the rest survive?

Gens has a history of films portraying a group of people in a hellish situation and showing them to revert to their most primal and ignoble forms. There are those who believe and hope that faced with a desperate survival situation that people will show that they are basically good and act accordingly. Gens is clearly not one of them; in his point of view (and he may well be right) people are inherently self-serving and will throw morality and compassion out the window in a justification to survive at any cost, no matter what it takes.

The tension here is as good as you’ll see in any movie of this type. I like that this isn’t a paint-by-numbers apocalypse with conspiracies and mutants. Instead, we see people gradually grow more suspicious and violent and when power shifts, we see how that power corrupts them, making them monsters. Of course, the radiation poisoning doesn’t help either.

While I like Arquette’s performance as the distraught mom who reverts to using her sexuality to bind her to the alpha males. It is sobering and discouraging to watch but I think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal. As much as I respect women, we come from roles in which women who had stronger protectors were more likely to survive. It’s why even now, women are expected to be more attractive in order to find a mate.

Unfortunately, most of the others in the cast are surprisingly flat and uninspiring. Considering the situation, you’d expect that there’d be more emotion in the cast but you never get a sense of anything other than anger, self-importance and lust. They go right to the base emotions and while indeed that might be what would really happen in such a situation, when we look at situations where civilization breaks down we do see less of that baseness than you see here.

This is a very bleak movie although it is well-made. However you will feel a need for showering after wading through this celluloid cesspool of human ugliness. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth wading through however – the well-made can sometimes outweigh the ugly.

WHY RENT THIS: Gens ratchets up the tension nicely. Avoids post-apocalyptic cinematic clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Misses opportunities. May lay on the ugliness a bit thick.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s not just the violence and sexuality but more the disturbing nature of it. There are also some rough images as well as plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in New York City, the majority of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $130,839 on a $3M production budget; the production costs were not recouped during the theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: On the Beach

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Goon

Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins