90 Movies in 90 Days: For All Mankind (1989)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, most of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: For All Mankind
Release Date: November 1, 1989
Director: Al Reinert
Production Company: Apollo Associates

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about the Apollo missions to the moon, including Earthrise, Apollo 11, and Apollo: Missions to the Moon, and always learn something new. This documentary was made in 1989 for the anniversary of the first moon landing included a lot of footage never before released to the public (and footage I haven’t seen reused in other documentaries). It also features a sharp soundtrack from Brian Eno.

There are some artistic decisions made that make it a fascinating film but less likely to be informative to people who don’t know a lot about the Apollo program.The film is edited to follow the timeline of a mission to the moon but uses footage from all of the missions.  Similarly, the movie is narrated by the voices of astronauts and mission control but with no indication of who is speaking (unless you’re like me and watch with closed captions on).  The feeling it gives is that it’s one big mission to the moon and we’re all on it.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Martha Mitchell Effect
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Director: Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy
Production Company: Foothill Productions

This short and straightforward documentary that’s made exclusively of archival film and sound recordings, focuses on an element of the Watergate scandal that is overlooked by history. Martha Mitchell was the wife of John Mitchell, attorney general during Richard Nixon’s first term until 1972 when he took on leading the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP).  Martha defied the expectations of the demur Washington wife and was often outspoken about issues political and personal which made her a minor celebrity on talk shows.

When the Watergate scandal breaks, John has Martha brutally imprisoned in a California hotel.  The Nixon administration then starts a gaslighting campaign that Martha is mentally ill in order to silence her.  But she continues speaking out on the scandal, at first to protect her husband who she thinks is innocent (he wasn’t) and then to try to expose and end corruption in government.  If you have 40 minutes to sit and watch this film it will be well-spent learning about this overlooked historical figure.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer
Release Date: September 29, 1975
Director: Thom Andersen
Production Company: New Yorker Films

Created as a student film by Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), this documentary covers the contributions of Eadweard Muybridge as a pioneer in motion pictures.  Muybridge created a means of capturing motion through an array of cameras and trip wires to take multiple photos in sequence.  Over the years 1882 to 1893, he photographed 100s of subjects including various animals, men, women, and children performing various actions for scientific study.  These were collected in a massive portfolio called Animal Locomotion: an Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements.

The movie is narrated in a clinical tone by Dean Stockwell and offers a short biography of Muybridge (he killed a man!), a catalog of his works, some tantalizingly few details about the identity of the people in his photos, and some reflection on how they were often nude despite the strict mores of the era.  The film also notes that despite pioneering motion pictures, he had little effect on cinema.  By the 1890s, new cameras using reels of film swiftly made Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope obsolete.  I suppose it could be argued that Muybridge provided the antecedent for the animated GIF!

An animated GIF created from Muybridge’s photographs of an American bison galloping.

This is fascinating and well-made documentary that provides a look into some odd but groundbreaking research of the late 19th century.

Rating: ****


90 Movies in 90 Days: This Magnificent Cake! (2018

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: This Magnificent Cake!
Release Date: 14 May 2018
Director: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels
Production Company: Beast Animation | Vivement Lundi | Pedri Animation

In the 19th-century, the European powers sliced up the African continent as if it were a cake. King Leopold II of Belgium decided that he needed a piece as well.  This film depicts the effects of colonization through fabric-based stop-motion animation and is told in five interconnected vignettes.  The movie is darkly satirical and has a dreamlike quality.  The dehumanizing effect of colonization on the colonizers is told in the stories of some Belgians who tried their luck in the Congo and are all grotesques in one way or another.

Surprisingly there are very few African characters in this movie, with just one part focusing on a Pygmy man who is made to work as a human ashtray holder at a hotel.  All of the African characters in this movie die in horrible ways. On the one hand that their deaths are the unintended consequences of the carelessness of white people who are indifferent to the suffering they cause is telling.  But it also comes across as really grim slapstick comedy.

Regardless of intent, this is an unsettling movie about the crimes of the not so distant past.  I’m also going to see that snail in a toupee in my nightmares.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Number Ones by Tom Breihan

Author: Tom Breihan
Title: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music
Publication Info: Hachette Books, November 2002

The Billboard Hot 100 is a strange beast and the history of the Number One songs is a weird and fascinating story.  Artists like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bruce Springsteen never had a Number One song and some of the most beloved songs of all time have been held out of the top spot by songs that have aged poorly.  Also, some very strange songs by the likes of The Chipmunks, The Singing Nun, Rick Dees, and Los Del Rio hit Number One.  You could say that these are bad songs, but at one point in history the music buying public of the United States found these songs to be their favorite in a particular moment of time.

Two of my favorite podcasts focus on pop music history – Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade which focuses on the charts and Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs which goes deeper into the weeds of rock music history. In the past few years I’ve also become a fan of Tom Breihan’s The Number Ones column on Stereogum.  Breihan is reviewing every single Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100 starting from 1958 and as of this writing has made it as far as 2005.  Breihan does an excellent job of researching the histories of the artists, songwriters, producers, et al behind a song and the circumstances that lead it be the most popular song in the USA in a particular moment of time.  Some of my least favorite songs have the most interesting stories.  Be warned though, Breihan can be pretty abrasive about trashing the songs that he doesn’t like (the column on Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was particularly cruel).

This book is a spinoff of the Stereogum column focusing on “twenty chart-topping hits that reveal the history of pop music.”  The book is more professional than the column (no f-bombs castigating songs that Breihan hates).  The songs chosen are ones that changed the face of pop music in the U.S.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Dynamite” introduced the pop music of another country into the American mainstream.  New  musical technologies powered “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” to the top.  While “Rock Your Baby,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Black Beatles” introduced new genres to chart success.

The Number Ones probably doesn’t offer anything new to anyone knowledgeable of pop music history.  But it does frame it in interesting ways and shows how many different ways there are to make a number one hit.  I also like Breihans historical approach to the background of a song.  This is a good book that fans of music will love.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Descendant (2022)

Title: Descendant
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Director:Margaret Brown
Production Company: Higher Ground Productions | Participant |  Take One Five Entertainment

Descendant is a historical documentary that resulted from spending several years with the people of Africatown, a Black American community in Mobile, Alabama. The residents of Africatown are descendants of the enslaved Africans transported on the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the United States.  Congress had made the importation of enslaved people illegal in 1808, but the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay with 110 persons in 1860 after local enslaver Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could smuggle slaves into the country from the Kingdom of Dahomey.  After offloading the cargo, the ship’s captain had the Clotilda burned and scuttled to cover the evidence.

After the Civil War, 32 of the West Africans came together to form the Africatown, including Cudjo Kazoola Lewis.  Cudjo lived until the 1930s and his story was documented by Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s which was finally published as Barracoon in 2018.  Descendant includes people of Africatown reading passages of Hurston’s book aloud as well as some archival footage that Hurston made of Cudjo.

The main focus of the documentary is locating the wreck of the Clotilda, which was identified in 2019.  The residents of Africatown deal with the tension that comes from the joy of finding a connection with the past  the pain of their ancestors, and the fear that they will not be able claim their own history.  Additionally, the current standard of living for Africatown’s residents is affected by it being surrounded by industrial development which has contributed to higher rates of cancer.  If that’s not outrageous enough, the land that is leased to the industries is owned by the Meaher family, the descendants of the same man who enslaved the people of the Clotilda!

This is a powerful movie and I think Brown does a great job of capturing various point of view and allowing the viewer to sit with the discomfort of unsettled issues.  The movie doesn’t have a lot of voiceovers or talking heads to explain what’s going on but spends a lot of time with the camera following in-depth conversations among community members and with outsiders.  I was also excited that one of the community members and activists is Cleon Jones, famous for playing with the New York Mets in the 60s and 70s.

If you have Netflix, I highly recommend watching this film.

Rating:  ****

Book Review: Books about the 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair

Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young 
Title: The 1964-1964 New York World’s Fair
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing (2004)
Rating: ***

Author: Bill Cotter and Bill Young
Title1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Creation and Legacy
Publication Info: Arcadia Publishing Library Editions (2008)
Rating: ***


I’ve long had a fascination with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair because it intersects with several of my interests: New York City history, space age modernism, Disney theme parks, the New York Mets, and one of my most-loathed historical figures, Robert Moses.* I also know the stories from my parents and grandparents attending the fair.  These Images of America volumes contain photographs and historical tidbits from two authors who visited the fair when they were young and kept its memory alive every since.

The first volume details the fair itself.  Did you know that it was a renegade world’s fair, failing to get authorization from the International Bureau of Expositions?As a result there were only a limited number of foreign countries participating, and many of their pavilions were operated by big corporations rather than national governments.  Most of the pavilions were showcases for states, big corporations, and nonprofit organizations. Taking place in the midst of the race to the moon, many exhibits were themed to the futuristic wonders of the space age as well as the hope for peace in a smaller world. The centerpiece of the fair was the Unisphere, a surviving landmark, erected by United States Steel Corporation complete with light and water displays.

The fair also became a showcase for Walt Disney and company who brought Disneyland-style attractions to the East Coast at four pavilions.  These include the Magic Skyway at the Ford Pavilion, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois pavilion, General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, and It’s a Small World, sponsored by Pepsi-Cola for UNICEF.  Disney, however, did not provide all the fair’s thrill.  Visitor’s to the Kodak pavilion could walk along the Moon Deck, the Electric Companies Tower of Light contained dazzling display of lights, and visitors could ride through a history of communication at the Bell Pavilion.  While only a portion of foreign nations were represented, guests could tour a recreated Belgian village (and enjoy Belgian waffles) and several newly independent African nations made their global debut.

While fair attendees generally had a good time and it lives on fondly in their memories, the fair was not a success.  The fair went bankrupt, few of the predictions for the future came true, and buildings left behind to be adapted for the new park fell into disrepair (most notably the New York State Pavilion, famed for its appearance in Men in Black, which still stands in a derelict state).  Despite only operating for two seasons, the fair required a monumental effort.  The second volume details a lot of the planning and preparation that went into designing and planning the fair.  This includes plans for pavilions that were never completed as well as fair attractions that closed before the fair was over.  Some were replaced and some stood empty behind fences for the remainder of the fair!  There’s also a lot of detail of the demolition of the fair (a process not completed until 1967) and the fair’s legacy.

Together these two books are richly illustrated and give a glimpse of an ephemeral world of fun, science, and “Peace Through Understanding” that stood for a short time in Queens, New York.


*I’d like to give Moses credit for the noble vision of a great fair leading into the creation of a “Central Park for the 20th Century” at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  However, his main legacy is crisscrossing New York with highways, including the ones that surround Flushing Meadows-Corona Park which I believe have prevented the park from achieving its full potential.

Recommended Books:

Book Review: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1 by Andrew Hickey

Author: Andrew Hickey
Title: A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs: Volume 1: From Savoy Stompers to Clock Rockers
Publication Info: Lulu.com, 2019 

Last fall I discovered the podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and it has become a must listen for me.  Presented by English author Andrew Hickey, it is a meticulously researched and well-produced in-depth study of popular music.  Each episode focuses not on one song but on the musicians, songwriters, and producers behind that song including samples of their work (not just the title song) and songs that influenced this work. Hickey is very good at debunking the myths of rock music and revealing the much more interesting history of the genre and the people behind it.  This includes acknowledging the innovations of Black musicians whose contributions were often appropriated by the white music industry and later historical revisionism.

Right now the podcast is at episode 153, but this book covers the first 50 podcasts.  This very early history begins in 1938 with the jazz, jump blues, rhythm and blues, Western swing, vocal groups,  and other artists who created the many elements that would become rock & roll.  This volume ends in the mid-50 just after the first generation of rock & roll stars such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and of course, Elvis Presley.  The book, and the podcast, is easy to follow in the chapters/episodes on each song, but it is also an ongoing story that winds through the whole project.  The individuals who manage to pop up again and again and different times and places, and the way they influence and collaborate with one another is one of the fascinating elements of this history.

I can’t recommend the podcast and the book more highly!

Favorite Passages:

One of the great things about popular music before about 1970 is it had a lot of space for people who could do one thing really really well, and who just did their one thing. Artists like Duane Eddy and John Lee Hooker just kept making basically the same record over and over, and it was a great record, so why not?

But people will always want to push against those constraints. And in the 1950s, just like today, there were black people who wanted to make country music. But in the 1950s, unlike today, there was a term for the music those people were making. It was called rock and roll. For about a decade, from roughly 1955 through 1965, “rock and roll” became a term for the music which disregarded those racial boundaries. And since then there has been a slow but sure historical revisionism. The lines of rock and roll expand to let in any white man, but they constrict to push out the women and black men who were already there. But there’s one they haven’t yet been able to push out, because this particular black man playing country music was more or less the embodiment of rock and roll.

This series is about the history of rock music, but one of the things we’re going to learn as the story goes on is that the history of any genre in popular music eventually encompasses them all. And at the end of 1955, in particular, there was no hard and fast distinction between the genres of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Gandhi (1982)

Title: Gandhi
Release Date: 30 November 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | International Film Investors | National Film Development Corporation of India | Indo-British Films

I saw Gandhi in its first run in the  movie theaters which means I must’ve been 9-years-old at the time.  That seems young to watch an epic historical drama, and it may be the only movie I ever went to with an intermission.  But Gandhi resonated with me perhaps due to some combination of being a history geek inclined towards social justice and a budding cinephile.  I saw the movie a few more times on tv but it has been more than 35 years since my last viewing.

I wondered if the movie would hold up since a lot of movies that received lots of awards in the 1980s are less well-regarded.  There’s also the fact that the movie about a seminal figure in Indian history is directed and produced by British and American filmmakers.  I did get the sense that throughout the movie the perspective is coming through white characters – a priest, journalists, politicians, and a pilgrim – which tends to keep Gandhi at a remove. Also the biggest criticism I’ve seen about this movie, with which I agree, is that it makes Gandhi too perfect.  This has the unfortunate effect of making the characters around him look bad, even villainous, especially Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee).

Despite these failures in cultural competence, I feel that Attenborough and co. were really trying their best to make a film that does justice to the life and movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley).  Kingsley performance is excellent and the cast features many top-notch Indian, British, and American actors, even in small roles. Compressing six decades of Gandhi’s life and the larger Indian independence movement into 3 hours is hard but the film has several  memorable set pieces that I’ve remembered over the years, from the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) sweetly recreating their wedding ceremony for a couple of reporters.  The movie is also impressively filmed with beautiful cinematography framing intimate moments between a couple of characters ranging to massive crowd scenes.

So I’d say that Gandhi has held up and is a worthwhile introduction to his life and the history of India and Pakistan with issues that still reverberate to this day.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History by Michael R. Virgintino

Author: Michael R. Virgintino
Title: Freedomland U.S.A.: The Definitive History
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2019)

It sounds make believe, but for five seasons from 1960 to 1964, a theme park that legitimately claimed to be bigger and better than Disneyland operated in the northeast corner of the Bronx.  In fact, the park was designed by the firm of C.V. Wood, who had worked on Disneyland before having a falling out with Walt.  Many Disneyland veterans worked for Wood’s company as well. The park was shaped like a map of the lower 48 states and was divided into seven themed lands:

  • LIttle Old New York – an entry land in a late 19th-century style
  • Old Chicago – which included regular reenactments of the Great Fire of 1871
  • The Great Plains – which featured a replica army stockade and a stagecoach ride
  • San Francisco – home to an earthquake dark ride and the Northwest Fur Trapper boat ride (Freedomland’s answer to the Jungle Cruise)
  • The Old Southwest – where the park’s train ride was often boarded by masked robbers
  • New Orleans/Mardi Gras – opened before Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and had a pirate-themed ride called Buccaneer.  Also home to a Civil War reenactment.
  • Satellite City – The Future – where visitors could visit a recreation of a Cape Canaveral control room and watch a simulated space mission

This book includes detailed description of the lands, attractions, restaurants, and memories of park-goers and employees.  A lot of the book is written in list format rather in narrative that makes it less fun to read, but the material is fascinating nonetheless.

A lot of reasons are given why Freedomland failed.  The biggest is that unlike Southern California, the climate of New York meant the park could only operate seasonally.  Although Virginitino notes that proposals to open Freedomland for special holiday events for Halloween and Christmas were never followed-up on (the same types of things that regional parks in the northern climes do today for added revenue).  Another reason for the failure, one that the park’s owners harped on, is that Freedomland could not compete  with the New York World’s Fair (and its Disney-built attractions) which opened in 1964.  Virginitino notes that in reality, Freedomland was planned with the knowledge of the World’s Fair coming and the hope to piggyback on the fair’s success.  By 1964, Freedomland had already downsized considerably and sold off some of its most ambitious attractions, so that probably affected attendance more than the fair.

Virgintino also puts forward the idea that the property owners (real estate developers separate from the management of the park) had always intended for Freedomland to be temporary.  Plans for Co-Op City, which was eventually built on the site, were put forward in the 1950s.  The author’s evidence suggests that the the Freedomland structures built on the marshy landfill served the purpose of convincing the government to allow the variances to build the more profitable

Regardless, it’s hard to imagine Freedomland being able to persevere through the Bronx’s really bad times of the 1970s and 1980s. Also the the superpatriotic theming of the park would’ve been a hard sell as early as the counterculture era of the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, I wish Freedomland had survived. My mother, who grew up in the Bronx, has fond memories of visiting Freedomland in her teen years, and I wish I could’ve gone there with her when I was young.

Oddly, little bits of Freedomland have showed up in my life without me even knowing it. A sternwheeler that sailed at Freedomland was renamed the Mark Twain and was docked for many years by the Steamboat Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Two of the Freedomland trains were loaned by Edaville Railroad in South Carver, Massachusetts.  And a 20 foot cutout figure of Paul Bunyan later stood outside of United House Wrecking in Stamford, Connecticut during my childhood.

This video from Defunctland will give you a glimpse into Freedomland’s all-too-short history:

Favorite Passages:

Freedomland’s employees were slotted within 54 categories, some of which were not listed by big city employment agencies at the time. Many employees were required to possess unique skills, including buffalo wrangler, carrousel horse jeweler, totem pole carver, and stage coach harness-maker.

Other odd occupations at the park included pretzel bending, seal keeping, doughnut rolling, can-can dancing, glassblowing, and space tracking. The park also employed a skin diver who regularly inspected the Great Lakes for purity and maintenance

A new attraction was five new-born burros appropriately named Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***