James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is technically impressive yet emotional cold. [Film Fest 919]

In 2019, James Gray, a filmmaker I always had generally liked, unleashed Ad Astra into my orbit, and that film hit me like a ton of bricks. Taking home the gold as my #1 film of 2019, it’s perhaps my favorite space opera ever made, and it’s a beautifully crafted look at the strained relationships between fathers and sons, commitments and responsibilities, and looking towards the beyond as opposed to focusing our gaze unto what’s right in front of us. It’s a poetic, intimate, but indescribably grand collection of contradictions that shouldn’t have worked, but did in spades. After such a grand display, particularly given production difficulties, it doesn’t surprise me Gray’s follow-up would be a much smaller affair, as I simply can’t blame him for wanting to take a proverbial breather. Armageddon Time, while still unlike anything Gray has done before, does take more style cues from previous films of his like We Own the Night and The Immigrant with people-focused dramas, painting vivid pictures of specific ages and cities with an intense alacrity. So, it is a shame that despite also having that astute world-building, Armageddon Time left me cold to the core.

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L-R: Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff and Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Photo by Anne Joyce, courtesy of Focus Features.

It’s the turn of the new decade,1980, in Queens, New York. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is starting his first day of the sixth grade at his public high school where he soon begins to struggle with staying alert as he finds himself lost in his drawings and dreaming of growing up to be a famous artist. While his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), and father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), want Paul to be practical, go to college for a solid trade, and use art as a hobby, Paul’s grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), encourages Paul to follow his dreams. Paul’s life begins to change as he is sent away to his brother’s private school after an incident with his friend, Johnny (Jaylin Webb), and Paul must learn to balance his art, relationships, and family in a world hostile to his Jewish, middle-class kind.

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L-R: Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff and Jeremy Strong stars as Irving Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Photo by Anne Joyce, courtesy of Focus Features.

Listen, I get it, every filmmaker wants to make a film about their childhood and how it shaped them as an adult artist, but we’re honestly getting to the point where these films are starting to slowly blend together in homogeny once we realize that many of these filmmakers have relatively conventional upbringings with relatively universal adolescent experiences. Of course, this leads to general audiences identifying with much of the story as they can see themselves within it, but as these films become more and more frequent, the more I long for unique stories beyond just those about middle-class white kids whose parents loved him and had a penchant for the arts.

Performances in Armageddon Time are perfectly good, though it’s definitely Hopkins who makes the largest impression in the film as Grandpa Aaron. This was the universal element of the film where I did emotionally connect as Hopkins has always reminded me of a Welsh version of my own grandfather, and Aaron’s sensibilities as more of a paternal figure than Paul’s own present father resonated with me in the scenes Hopkins was given. It’s a small role compared to that of Repeta, or even that of Hathaway and Strong (who are quite good here), but as always, Hopkins reminds us that he simply remains one of the best to ever do the job.

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L-R: Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff and Anthony Hopkins stars as Aaron Rabinowitz in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Photo by Anne Joyce, courtesy of Focus Features.

Shot by Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji (The City of Lost Children, Uncut Gems), this is not a traditionally good-looking film on paper, but one that does really capture the gritty, griminess of 1980s New York well. It’s unglamorous, ugly, and quite bland, but it’s New York, and it still has that magic at its heart you can’t ignore. It reminds me much of his work on Uncut Gems in that sense, and that is a genuine compliment, despite all the disparaging descriptors to go along with it. If Armageddon Time is anything, it’s expertly period-accurate.

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L-R: Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff and Jaylin Webb stars as Johnny Crocker in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Photo by Anne Joyce, courtesy of Focus Features.

So much so that Gray, of course, had to include a little storyline about the Trumps, because the 1980s in New York would be nothing without them, apparently. Though, I can at least appreciate that this is kept to a relative minimum, and that it doesn’t really result in Gray trying to do a grand Trump analogy, it still comes across relatively heavy-handed and rather random in the more intimate scheme of Armageddon Time. It’s broad strokes…not the broadest strokes imaginable, but ones that I wish, had it truly needed to be included…it could’ve been done as more than an afterthought utilizing an Academy Award-winning actress.

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L-R: Anne Hathaway stars as Esther Graff and Michael Banks Repeta stars as Paul Graff in director James Gray’s ARMAGEDDON TIME, a Focus Features release. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

I can’t say that there’s necessarily a missed opportunity in Armageddon Time, but more so just poor timing in the grand scheme of filmmakers insisting on doing autobiographical coming-of-age stories that I’m quickly tiring of. Is that my own damage? Sure, but it’s also my own review, and Armageddon Time left me completely cold in its final product. There’s simply not enough to be said here that hasn’t been said before in more interesting stories, or more daring swings taken at mixing narrative fiction with history, or perhaps just doing something new. It’s a shame because Armageddon Time is expectedly well-made, shot, edited, acted, etc., all things I came to expect from Gray’s work after being so bowled over by Ad Astra. But what’s missing is that extra bit of uniqueness that justifies its existence outside of just being an obligatory autobiographical piece everyone insists on making these days. I know we can tell similar stories in new and exciting ways, so let’s do that instead.

Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Screened during Film Fest 919 2022.
In select theaters October 28th, 2022.
In theaters nationwide November 11th, 2022.

For more information, head to Focus Features’s Armageddon Time webpage.



Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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