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

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Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Out of Africa


Out of Africa

Actors will do just about anything to be in a movie with Meryl Streep.

(1985) Drama (Universal) Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Malick Bowens, Joseph Thiaka, Stephen Kinyanjul, Michael Gough, Suzanna Hamilton, Rachel Kempson, Graham Crowden, Leslie Phillips, Shane Rimmer. Directed by Sydney Pollack

 

Africa is a place that stimulates the imagination. It is a continent largely untamed in our imagination, full of wild animals and exotic tribes. Those who travel there find sometimes that it exceeds the imagination; to others it is a savage, uncivilized place. There are those who hate the heat and the culture of Africa; others fall in love with it and retain a kind of obsession.

Karen Blixen (Streep) was a young Danish woman who found her life in Denmark lacking in adventure. One of her friends, Baron Bror von Blixen (Brandauer) was single and similarly bored. They decided to marry, even though Bror had misgivings about his ability to remain faithful.

They decided to buy a dairy farm in what is now Kenya in the Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi. Bror was sent on ahead to set things up with Karen following thereafter. When she arrived in Nairobi, she was met by Farah (Bowens), an even-tempered member of the Kikuyu tribe who would become her personal servant. Farah escorted Karen to her new home. She is surprised to discover that Bror had purchased a coffee plantation rather than the dairy farm they’d agreed upon. This irks Karen mainly because it was her money he had used to do it.

Neither Bror nor Karen knew much about the coffee farming business and quite frankly the land they had chosen wasn’t really conducive to growing the plant but with the help of their plant overseer Belknap (Rimmer) they manage to at least make a go of it. However, Bror isn’t really interested in being a plantation owner; he is more interested in big game hunting and womanizing, which leads to Karen contracting syphilis which at the time was incredibly dangerous. She is forced to return to Denmark and undergo a painful and debilitating treatment which ends up with her being unable to have children.

She returns to Africa where she meets Denys Finch Hatton (Redford) and his friend Berkeley (Kitchen). She regales them with stories and they provide her with some company during Bror’s absences which aren’t all due strictly to big game hunting. At last she asks him to move out when it becomes clear that his philandering isn’t going to stop. In the meantime she has developed feelings for Hatton which lead them to move in together and become lovers.

However, Denys proves to be as untamable and elusive as Africa herself and the coffee plantation, never a money-making proposition, is on the verge of bankruptcy. A good harvest could save it, but in order to make a relationship with Denys work Karen will have to give up much of what is important to her. Can she make both the plantation and her relationship work?

I have always considered this the last great Hollywood epic. Sure, there have been other movies with the same sheer scope and grandeur as this one, but these days it’s achieved with CGI and other digital trickery. Out of Africa is a bit of a throwback to movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind in that the size is achieved by set design and a lush backdrop.

The cinematography here is nothing less than spectacular. Vistas of veldt and plain, meadow and mountain show the beauty that is the Dark Continent. Lions and other wild animals inhabit this world much more comfortably than man. Set designer Stephen Grimes took a year to build a replica of early 20th century Nairobi and of Blixen’s home (not far from where it actually stood) and the look and feel is authentic.

Streep’s performance was virtually flawless. She captures the essence of Blixen – who would become better known as author Isak Dinieson – as a strong woman used to bending to the men in her life, which was not unusual for women of the time. She is determined and at times stubborn but at the same time she is lonely and wistful. She is not above dropping to her knees and begging when the occasion calls for it. She was by all accounts an amazing woman and Streep brings those qualities to life. There is a scene late in the movie where Bror informs Karen of the death of someone she loved very much. She says nothing for a moment but brings a cigarette in shaking hand to her lips to smoke. Everything is in her eyes and in the movement of a single hand but the gesture alone tells you everything you need to know. It’s as amazing a piece of acting as I have ever witnessed.

Redford once again proves himself a charismatic movie star. Although Finch Hatton was in fact British, Redford plays him as an American and almost as a cowboy in a lot of ways. Self-reliant to a fault, Denys values his freedom above all else and that makes a relationship with someone who values commitment very difficult. The two don’t seem to be a good pairing but the chemistry is undeniable and when you have two great actors in roles like this, magic is bound to happen – and it did.

Brandauer, better known in Europe, plays Bror with a playful twinkle. Even though he is a bastard at times, Brandauer is so likable we can’t help but see why Karen was so affectionate towards him even after everything he did. It’s a terrific performance and it is a shame that Brandauer hasn’t done a lot of American movies since. There are many that would have benefited from his participation.

This is a classic movie that stands the test of time. While Streep’s curls are more reminiscent of the 80s than the early 20th century, still this looks like a Hollywood film that could have come from the 50s and 60s just as easily. It is a great romance and a great adventure rolled up into one and represents the best of what Hollywood was and still can be. This is the type of film that you can get nostalgic for – and should.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the last great epic films. Outstanding performances by Streep, Redford and Brandauer. Gorgeous cinematography and score.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too feminine-oriented for those who like a little more testosterone in their films.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality as well as some light violence and mature themes. There are also a few choice words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep was originally not considered for the role because she wasn’t “sexy” enough. She showed up at the audition wearing a low-cut blouse and a push-up bra and won the part. Streep would study recordings of the actual Karen Blixen reading her own works in order to get the accent and rhythms of Karen’s speaking voice down.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a documentary about Karen Blixen and her time in Africa. There is a collector’s series Blu-Ray with a “digibook” that contains behind-the-scenes photos, script excerpts and personal letters which is fairly expensive.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $128.54M on an unreported production budget; given the adjustment for inflation, I’d bet this was a blockbuster in its time.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dr. Zhivago

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Matchstick Men