Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Review: Terrific and Amazing "ARMAGEDDON TIME" Doesn't Have Time for Sentimentality

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 15 of 2023 (No. 1904) by Leroy Douresseaux

Armageddon Time (2022)
Running time:  114 minutes (1 hour, 54 minutes)
MPA – R for language and some drug use involving minors
PRODUCERS:  Marc Butan, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, and Rodrigo Teixeira
EDITOR:  Scott Morris
COMPOSER:  Christopher Spelman


Starring:  Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Sell, Andrew Polk, Tovah Feldshuh, Marcia Haufrecht, Teddy Coluca, Richard Bekins, Dane West, Landon James Forlenza, John Diehl, and Jessica Chastain

Armageddon Time is a 2022 coming-of-age drama film from writer-director James Gray.  The film is inspired by Gray's childhood experiences growing up in Queens, New York.  Armageddon Time is a coming-of-age story about family and about the American Dream and who can have it.

Armageddon Time opens in Queens, New York City, 1980.  It introduces Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a Jewish-American boy who is entering sixth grade at Public School (P.S.) 173.  He befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a rebellious African-American classmate.  Johnny was held back a year and gets harsher treatment from their teacher, a white man named Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), when they both joke around in class.  Paul is interested in becoming an artist, and he often disassociates from his schoolwork and draws pictures instead.

Paul lives with his somewhat financially stable family of Jewish heritage.  His parents, mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), and father Irving Graff (Jeremy Strong), are well-meaning, but are strict.  His older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), teases him.  Irving has a temper and is prone to hit his children, especially Paul, who exasperates him.  Esther and Irving discourage Paul's artistic ambitions, but his maternal grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz (Anthony Hopkins), encourages him.

However, Paul begins to discover the harsh reality of life.  Aaron tells Paul of how his own mother escaped antisemitic persecution and pogroms in Ukraine, eventually landing in London before coming to the United States.  Paul gets into trouble with Johnny and ends up at the private school, Forest Manor Prep School, while Johnny quits school and deals with the foster care officials who are looking for him.  Although Paul lives in a world privilege, he is forced to confront family troubles and a world of inequality and privilege.

I am totally in love with Armageddon Time, although I'm not as in love with its title.  This is also the first film directed by James Gray that I have watched.  The film takes its title from a 1979 single by the British band, “The Clash,” entitled “Armagideon Time.”  It is a cover version of the same song by Jamaican reggae musician, William Williams, that was also released in 1979.  Armageddon Time also includes a few scenes featuring a fictional version of Fred J. Trump, Donald Trump's father, and one scene featuring Maryanne Trump, Donald's sister.  Character actor John Diehl plays Fred, who is a famous businessman and financier/patron of Forest Manor in this film, in all his real-life sleazy glory.

Jessica Chastain is superb in her one scene as Maryanne, who is portrayed in Armageddon Time as a United States Attorney and as one of Forest Manor's most famous alumni.  [In reality, Maryanne Trump was an Assistant United States Attorney in 1980 and would go on to be a United States federal judge from 1983 to 2019.]

James Gray's inclusion of the Trumps, who were part of the world in which Gray grew up, his unflinching desire that Armageddon Time not be nostalgic or sentimental.  Gray presents Paul Graff as a kid who lives inside a bubble – an idealized version of the world.  Paul's estimation of his family's worth and social position are larger and more grand than they really are.  The film's narrative acts not only to wise-up the naive Paul, but to also fill in the gaps of his knowledge of how the world operates – its unfair racial inequality and its propensity to hand out “raw deals.”

If Armageddon Time has a dominant theme, it is that one must survive to have a good life.  If this film has one big fault, it is that Paul's black friend, Johnny, flits through the story as if he were a ghost or a wraith, when it seems obvious that he is very important to the narrative, the plot, and the resolution.

Gray's cast is a big part of why this film really works.  First, Anne Hathaway is so beautiful that even as a harried mother and housewife and worried daughter, she is radiant.  Jeremy Strong is Oscar-worthy as a hard-working, beat-his-kids-asses, Jewish dad.  Ryan Sell strikes the right notes in a small role as Paul's brother, Ted.  Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as Johnny really sell a friendship that, on the surface, seems like it could not, would not, and should not work.  [I think this entire cast would soar even higher if this story were told as television series.]

I would be remiss if I did not mention Anthony Hopkins as Paul's grandfather, Aaron.  This film would not work without him.  Armageddon Time is one of the few coming-of-age films that I have seen that absolutely refuses to be sentimental and is zealously free of nostalgia.  In Aaron, Gray embodies the film's desire to eschew good and evil in favor of depicting survival versus unfairness, inequality, and callousness.  Hopkins conveys in Aaron the good sense that Paul lacks and must learn, which is to figure out when to fit in and when to fight.

I had not heard of Armageddon Time until I was perusing the “Charter on Demand” channel of my Spectrum cable account.  The trailer for this film that Charter was showing was quite convincing, and I felt as if I had to see Armageddon Time because it was made for me.  I hope that James Gray is able to go ahead with plans to direct a semi-sequel to this film, using much of the same cast.  Even if that does not happen, Armageddon Time is a gem, a blunt and genuine coming-of-age story that willingly embraces the truth that growing pains are indeed painful.

9 of 10
★★★★+ out of 4 stars

Monday, March 27, 2023

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