By Elias Savada.
Takes a lot of effort to make a memorable, brooding statement; the solutions offered aren’t as satisfying as you might hope. The taste may be somewhat off-putting.”
Memories comes in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, although director-writer James Gray cooks them up in with intimate, nostalgic, and bittersweet bitesize morsels in his cautionary childhood tale Armageddon Time. Blending a nostalgic glimpse at his working-class Jewish family upbringing in 1980s Queens, New York, with some spooky modern-day guilt wrapped in a Trump-tinged package, Gray plucks episodes from his past and parades them by, warts and all.
He’s often painted sentimental portraits that embellish New York City and family life. His first feature, Little Odessa (1994), set in the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, neighborhood that reflects that film’s title, examined the Russian-Jewish mob within such a unit, and offered a connection to the director’s new film with a strict father figure. He moved the setting for his crime drama The Yards (2000) to The Bronx, then down to Ellis Island for the 1920s-set drama The Immigrant (2014). New York, New York.
History and myth swirl around many of Gray’s films (although he’s only directed 8), and he loves to dive deep into the trappings of whatever era he is tackling. In this case, it’s his own upbringing that comes into focus. His semi-autobiographical sixth-grade avatar is Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a bright, fun-loving redheaded schoolboy, unsure of his footing in the world, who finds his artistic talent at odds with most of the adults in his life – a resolute, un-nurturing teacher (Andrew Polk), his strict parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) – chief among them. Themes of anti-Semitism and race relations are seared into the narrative, revealing the Reagan-era American land of dreams as a place tinged with darkness.
The story follows the precocious Paul as he befriends Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a Black student in a sea in the public school’s sea of Whiteness. They share a love of music and NASA’s space program. Two troublesome peas in a pod, they are. When Paul’s parents express well-we’re-not-that-liberal attitudes about “those people,” he is shuffled off to the uniformed private school attended by his older brother, Ted (Ryan Sell), and boys’ inter-racial relationship becomes much more difficult to maintain. It’s especially difficult for Johnny, who lives with an aging grandmother unable to provide his any love, attention, or much of any of life’s necessities.
Despite the cast playing the Graff family not being Jewish (except for Tovah Felshuh, as its matriarch), they turn in strong performances that reflect the working-class, first- and second-generation offspring of Jewish immigrant, beliefs that were part of Gray’s life. I grew up Jewish in the New York City suburbs two decades before Gray, but many of the same issues were part of my life, so I might connect better with the film than any non-Jews reading this review.
The final piece in this character-driven piece is brilliantly portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, playing Aaron, the Holocaust-surviving grandfather, a quiet, wise and observant man. A unique bond that showcases unqualified admiration between the old and the young. It’s a part he has played before, in Hearts of Atlantis, a poignant adaptation of two of Stephen King’s short stories that arrived in theatres in the days after 9-11. As Ted Brautigan, Hopkins offers up the same moral compass and soft-spoken voice toward Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin, in one of his first major roles), an 11-year-old boy – the same age as Paul – in his care. Sure, it’s a cookie-cutter role, but Hopkins nails it.
The film captures well the time and place. Heck, some of the footage was shot 90 feet away from Gray’s real childhood rowhouse in Flushing. Technically it hits all the right notes. Structurally, it’s fine. Absorbing, heartfelt, etc. And future hints of a now former president’s blind ambitions with quick appearances by Jessica Chastain and John Diehl, as Maryanne and Fred Trump.
Armageddon Time takes a lot of effort to make a memorable, brooding statement; the solutions offered aren’t as satisfying as you might hope. The taste may be somewhat off-putting.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).