RADIUM GIRLS – movie review

Cine Mosaic
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Ginny Mohler, Lydia Dean Pilcher
Writer: Ginny Mohler, Brittany Shaw
Cast: Joey King, Abby Quinn, Cara Seymour, Scott Shepherd, Susan Heyward, Neal Huff, Collin Kelly-Sordelet
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/28/20
Opens: October 23, 2020


Pity executive in our poor corporations. You guys make nice products for us Americans, and for that we are grateful. You’ve learned how to put tobacco plants into cigarettes. You can’t go to the tobacco fields and smoke, can you? And the gasoline for our cars. You guys found a way to get the oil from the ground, get it to the local gas station, and off we go. So what happens? You guys get sued. They say you pollute the water, you destroy the air, you cause cancer, you gouge the customers, you destroy the Amazon rain forests. Maybe you corporate guys, especially the founders should have stayed in bed.

Look at radium. We honor Marie Curie for isolating it on April 20, 1902. Radium is used for calibrators and other medical equipment, lighting rods, luminous paints. But pessimists were right. When radium was used for painting the hands of watches to allow you to read time in the dark, big problems arose that continued until radium ceased being used for watches in 1970. “Radium Girls” is a disease-of-the-week-type movie to show the heroism of one teen-aged girl who in 1925 was busy with a group of others, all women, in painting the hands of watches with radium. They were told to lick the radium-soaked brushes to give them a fine tip, and then some used it to paint their fingernails, faces, teeth. The bosses at the American Radium Company told the women that there was nothing wrong with doing this, and that it was even healthy. People drank radioactive water for health and generally, Americans believed that radium had no bad side effects.

But here is the key point. The owners of American Radium knew that dipping brushes on tongues could cause serious, even fatal illnesses, but they hid that information; just as the American tobacco lobby knew well in advance that cigarettes cause cancer but did not inform the rest of the country about this.

This brings us to “Radium Girls,” based on the true story involving the women working in the factories painting watch hands eight hours a day, piecemeal work that awarded them twelve cents for each watch. In today’s money that would be about $1.78. The film does not go into how much time one watch would take so we cannot calculate what a woman’s wage would be today, but it’s not enough to live on then or now.

Bessie Cavallo (Joey King) and her sister Jo (Abby Quinn) live with their grandfather in a New Jersey dump. Bessie somehow avoids licking the camel’s hair brush, but Jo does, and as a result succeeds in being employee of the month. The seventeen-year-old Bessie becomes worried when Jo falls ill, particularly since she is the better breadwinner, is somewhat less anxious when she is diagnosed by the company doctor with flu. A short time later, the doctor reports that she has syphilis, not an easy thing to get if you’re a virgin like Jo. Other girls show symptoms—dizziness and the like. Jo goes to a labor organization under Wiley Stephen (Cara Seymour) to find help in getting a lawyer, but in her spare time she begins a relationship with Walt (Collin Kelly-Sordeldet), who introduces her to an integrated group of progressives that includes Etta (Susan Heyward), who would feel at ease protesting today in Portland or Minneapolis.

The company tries to buy off the two girls but instead the case goes to trial and gets worldwide attention. Once again: it’s not that radium is dangerous, but that the company knew it was toxic and did nothing. The rest of the film goes by predictably albeit with one major twist involving the testimony of a one Mr. Leech (Scott Shepherd), an exec with American Radiuim.

In the co-director’s seat, Lydia Dean Pilcher has shown her interest in women’s issues, as her “A Call to Spy” finds Churchill looking to dig up a women’s spy group. This is Ginny Mohler’s first film as co-director. They include archival films, each on screen for seconds, including women with signs urging everyone to join the Communist party, a fashionable choice during the Depression.

Needless to say the war against well-heeled corporations who know things but don’t tell (nicotine is addicting, guns kill, alcohol causes auto accidents, fracking ruins property, animal diets cause obesity and cancer and destroy the rain forests). Not mentioned in this film, which is acted with passion especially by Joey King in the star role as Bessie and edited chronologically, is that the real radium girls died miserably thanks to Big Corporate’s treatment of their employees as wage slaves depending on their jobs and willing to continue licking the brushes even after hearing of the dangers.

103 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+


SONG WITHOUT A NAME – movie review

Film Movement
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Melina León
Screenwriter: Melina León, Michael J. White
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 7/29/20
Opens: August 7, 2020

Theatrical: Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre) :: Film Movement

From the looks of the Peruvian scenes in “Song without a Name,” you can bet that if President Trump saw this movie (if indeed he saw anything more recent than “Gone with the Wind”), he would compare the place with an adjective that he would never give to Norway. Melina León, who directs and co-wrote the tale in her freshman entry into full arthouse fare, focuses most of her attention on three people. One is the desperately poor Georgina (Pamela Mendosa), her partner Leo (Lucio Rojas), and an enterprising journalist from Lima, Pedro Campos (Tommy Párraga). They are living in a time that Peru is under constant terrorist attacks during the 1980s from Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso.

The plot kicks in when Georgina, who lives in a remote wooden shack a long bus ride and walk outside of the capital, is shown in her ninth month of pregnancy, perhaps wondering how she will ever raise enough money to find an obstetrician let alone to support her first baby. She is vulnerable enough to be taken in by a radio ad announcing that a clinic is Lima would give her free medical assistance if she chose to give birth there, and without the wherewithal to check out the place—which doesn’t resemble anything I’ve seen in Planned Parenthood clinics—she reports to the place thinking that she lucked out. Women speak gently to her, they help her up from the patient table, and tell her that her child is a girl. The mood changes ominously when she asks to see her daughter but is told to come back tomorrow, which sends Georgina into a screaming fit. She pounds on the doors of the “clinic” the next day only to find out that the place is closed, the staff having moved out swiftly.

The plot is adapted from actual happenings when Peru was scandalized by the thefts of babies to be sold abroad. It’s not clear whether the Shining Path guerrillas were involved in the theft or whether high officials in the government were part of the scheme. With inflation hitting 400%, Peru in 1988 when the film takes place was not unlike Venezuela and not the kind of country that care much about indigenous women like Georgina who follow a bureaucratic maze trying to get government officials even to listen to her.

If this were a Hollywood movie, the differences would be monumental. Assault rifles would make entrances every ten minutes, the photography would be in brilliant color particularly when covering village festivals (remember the opening scene in “Spectre” exhibiting the colorful “Día de los muertos” parade?), and the editing would be racing. Crime would not pay. Instead director León pays great respect to the freshman script co-written by Michael J. White, prioritizing atmosphere over action and dialogue. With a boxy aspect ratio of 4:3 and black-and-white photography, “Song” is replete with long takes with a variety of close-ups, especially during the meetings of the brave reporter with a gay, Havana-born boyfriend, though there is little psychological depth given to any of the characters.

The movie might be compared to “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s awards-winning look at the life of a maid in a rich Mexican household, but aside from the black-and-white photography and the theme of social inequities, “Song without a Name” has no great use for that picture’s flash and images of the upper-middle-class family.

Press notes mention that this film is based partly on the exposé in 1981 of a trafficking ring that smuggled babies for sale to Europeans and Americans, and in fact one senator consulted by the journalist hints that the government was involved. “What can that woman offer to her baby?” yields the politician, the obvious intent being that the newborns will be far better-off in the developed world. The title song is recited by a newly relaxed Georgina when she ultimately realizes that she will never again see her baby. And it’s not only right-wingers in America who would agree with the senator, wondering what in heaven’s name a twenty-year-old woman living in a wooden shack out in nowhere trying to eke out a living selling potatoes and onions in Lima is doing giving birth.

The bold white subtitles translate the story’s Spanish and Quechua into English. Hardly a brash, political doc on the level of “The American President” and “All the President’s Men,” this film is more a poetic tone poem, a Liszt “Les Préludes” compared to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” and should be enjoyed by an intelligent, patient audience.

97 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

ARABY – movie review

ARABY (Arábia)

Grasshopper Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Screenwriter:  João Dumans, Affonso Uchôa
Cast:  Aristedes de Sousa, Murilo Caliari, Renata Cabral, Glaucia Vandeveld
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 5/25/18
Opens: June 22, 2018
Arábia (2017)
João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, who wrote and direct “Araby,” focus on the type of person who is ignored by politicians whether in Brazil or here in the U.S.  While candidates for office regularly talk about how they are for the middle class (never mind how they are really for the upper 10% or 0.1% with Bernie Sanders as an exception), none are for the poor.  The poor don’t vote.  The homeless certainly do not vote.  So why bother?  With “Araby,” though, we are launched into an episodic struggle of those in Brazil who are uneducated, only partially literate, and having little or no knowledge of how politics makes the world go ‘round—except for them.

But if the world cannot go round for Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the principal character can himself go round albeit not worldwide or even Brazil-wide but throughout that wonderful country’s southern state of Minas Gerais.  The province is treated unsympathetically, with Cristiano an allegorical figure representing the difficulty of making even a basic living for someone who is brought up in a small town and probably thinks that Rio is on the other side of the world. In a twenty-minute introduction, one which could be cut without losing the epic quality of the movie, Andre (Murilo Caliari) is a teen lad taking care of his kid brother—who believes in the Devil but not in God because look at all the “shootings and killings.” His life is full of dull routines, but when he finds a memoir written in a notebook and perhaps imagines some of what he reads, he unfolds the tale of the wandering Cristiano.

Cristiano has a sense of adventure.  After all, life looks dreary and mean for a man who stays in a small town and who thinks he can achieve a better living on the road and doubtless could meet people from various backgrounds, each stranger-becoming-friend adding to his memories.  As he says, what do we have except what we remember?  He takes on factory jobs and farm labor, in one case picking tangerines but finding after his hard work that the boss has no money to pay him.  But the foreman allows Cristiano to fill up a bag with tangerines and sell them on the road, which he does, and being without money spends a day or so eating nothing but the fruit.  When he runs into a person who had once become a “troublemaker,” organizing a union of 200 farm laborers, he managed to pull off a strike which left the tangerines about to rot until the owner gives in and pays a living wage.  Cristiano becomes political.

Even this trip, rich in human contacts but pathetic income, beats the year that he had spent in jail after a car theft gone wrong.  The one person who gives him hope is Ana (Renata Cabral), a 35-year-old bookkeeper.  They develop a relationship, she has a miscarriage, he thinks that the woman is not for him–until he reads a love letter from her.  Ultimately, though, he notes that “we sow so much, but reap so little.”

The film is filled with songs particularly absorbing because they are in the lyrical Portuguese language, albeit Brazilian style. The most involving one is Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” (available free on youtube, go check it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjGOxo0KDMs.

While some of us will leave the theater wondering whether Cristiano would have been better off staying put, given the crashing of his view that anything can happen, others will conclude that poverty aside, at least he has gained more insight into life than he could not have had without his travels, the trips having the auto-didactic quality of making him realize more about himself and about his world.  This film is for those who do not need flash or pomp but for theatergoers who are patient, appreciative an in-depth view of a single person who is impacted by what he sees and hears.

The title comes from a joke about an Arab–by a worker to his lunch pals. In Portuguese, English subtitles.

Unrated. 96  minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B