The Movie Waffler New to VOD - ARMAGEDDON TIME | The Movie Waffler


In 1980 New York, a young Jewish boy befriends a troubled black classmate.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: James Gray

Starring: Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb, Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Strong, Jessica Chastain

Armageddon Time poster

For months before actually seeing the film, every time I read the title of James Gray's latest, The Clash's cover of Willi Williams' 'Armagideon Time' would get stuck in my head. Lo and behold, as Armageddon Time unspooled, that distinctive bassline underscored the title credit. Scoring a movie named Armageddon Time with a song titled 'Armagideon Time' is an early indication of what a thuddingly obvious film Gray is presenting us. As a coming-of-age drama it may be more cynical than most, but it hits every exact plot beat you expect it to. There isn't a single surprise here, and very few moments that feel genuine.

Gray has claimed his film is semi-autobiographical, but the bulk feels inspired more by other works of fiction than by any real life childhood experiences. Much of the film is a retread of Jonathan Lethem's novel 'The Fortress of Solitude', in which a young white aspiring artist befriends a troubled black boy and learns about the injustice of America along the way. Gray's tale shares the same setting as that book, bankruptcy era New York, 1980 to be exact. This means we get several scenes that feature the Reagan campaign in the background. Setting your movie against the backdrop of a political campaign has become one of the more annoying tropes of the past decade or so, but at least it's not as on-the-nose here as the Obama campaign of Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.

Armageddon Time review

The talented young white boy here is 12-year-old Paul (Banks Repeta), who comes from a middle class Jewish family that has benefitted greatly from the ambiguous wealth of his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). The troubled black boy is his classmate Johnny (a character I can't help was named in reference to Patti Smith's 'Horses', played by Jaylin Webb), who is a year older, having been held back due to his poor discipline. The opening scene introduces Paul as a talented joker, getting in trouble for drawing the head of his teacher on the body of a turkey. Johnny is a joker too, but possesses none of Paul's talent and has to ultimately resort to making foul-mouthed threats to his teacher.

For a movie that wants to pat itself on the back for interrogating racism, it's odd how it fits its two young leads into the stereotypes of the artistic Jew and the angry black male. Gray repeatedly uses his film to examine his white privilege, of which he clearly feels guilty, but Johnny is simply yet another one-note victim, the sort of character African-American audiences must surely be sick of seeing at this point. Maybe a better way of exorcising Gray's guilt would have been to use his position in Hollywood to give a leg-up to a black filmmaker rather than fashioning yet another story of a white person learning a lesson through a black person's misfortune.

Armageddon Time review

Very little about Armageddon Time feels authentic. Too many moments feel shoehorned into the narrative to make a crude point. When Paul is sent to a posh school after getting into trouble with Johnny, the first adult he encounters is the school's benefactor, none other than Fred Trump (John Diehl), father of Donald, who makes a dismissively anti-semitic remark. Later he watches as Donald's sister Maryanne (Jessica Chastain) gives an address to the pupils about how they can't rely on handouts in life, even though every single one of them has been given a handout to be there. The scene is cringey enough as is, but having the character played by an actress whose name is synonymous with embarrassing liberals makes it even worse.

As Paul and Johnny's relationship develops into a junior version of Midnight Cowboy, complete with a half-baked dream of leaving New York for sunny Florida, the narrative developments become all the more difficult to swallow, culminating in an act of martyrdom that would have seemed overly dramatic if it came in the climax of a 1930s Jimmy Cagney gangster picture, let alone a supposedly grounded drama like this.

Armageddon Time review

There's something off about Paul's inconsistent family dynamic too. His father (Jeremy Strong) is portrayed as a violent disciplinarian, but at one point Paul leaves the family dinner table to ring in an order from the local Chinese takeaway without facing any real objection from his parents. My parents were far from violent but if I ever pulled a stunt like that I probably wouldn't have been able to sit down for a week. Grandpa Aaron is one of those classic American movie and TV patriarchs who always has the right piece of wisdom to dispense, a Yiddish Jock Ewing, but it's just plain weird how he observes Paul consistently behaving like an entitled little shit without having a word with the kid. Perhaps the most inauthentic detail of all is the boys' love of The Sugarhill Gang but disdain for disco, which would be like being a fan of Public Enemy but hating James Brown.

While you may not believe much of what you see in Armageddon Time, it may leave you impressed in parts. For one thing it gives us Hopkins' best performance since his remarkable turn in the otherwise forgettable 2011 ensemble drama 360. Hopkins oozes charm here, and it's easy to see why his daughter (Anne Hathaway) and grandson dote on him so much. Even when he's recounting monologues that feel like they're being spoken at the wrong time, he brings a gravitas to the simplistic words of a script that's desperate to make sure nobody leaves the cinema without getting the point. As Paul's adoring mother, Hathaway similarly does some fine work with a clichéd character. When the camera lingers on her face as she listens to her husband dole out physical punishment to Paul, it's a rare cinematic moment in a film that's far too reliant on speechifying.

Armageddon Time
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.