The director James Gray has quietly carved a niche for himself as one of the few filmmakers able to get mid-level budgets with recognizable stars for serious, straight-up dramas.
Beginning with 1994’s Little Odessa, made when he was 25, Gray’s filmography has centered on New York-set stories, often incorporating the experiences of European immigrants or their descendants. After a pair of forays into adventure (The Lost City of Z) and science fiction (Ad Astra), he has returned to the subject matter he knows best to tell the most autobiographical story of his career.
Armageddon Time is set in the fall of 1980, when the election of Ronald Reagan loomed and a Beatles reunion was still possible. Sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) lives with his doting mother (Anne Hathaway), his tightly coiled father (Jeremy Strong), and his annoying older brother (Ryan Sell). A bit of a wiseass, and an inveterate classroom doodler, he makes quick friends with Jonathan (Jaylin Webb), a Black classmate who bears the brunt of their teacher’s scorn.
Paul’s strongest relationship is with his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), whose mother fled the Ukrainian pogroms. Aaron imbues in Paul a sense of the historical weight of his Jewishness and of the moral necessity of standing up to racists and bullies.
A class trip to a Kandinsky exhibition at the Guggenheim spurs Paul’s desire to be a famous artist when he grows up, but his misadventures at his public school get him transferred to the private academy his brother attends. (This leads to an amusing cameo by Jessica Chastain as Maryann Trump, who delivers an inspirational speech to an assembly there.)
If all of this sounds like fairly standard bildungsroman material, it is. For all its period detail and precise performances, Armageddon Time comes up well short in the dramatic tension department. Maybe Gray’s too close to the material, but there’s nothing to surprise or engage a viewer until the last half-hour or so. That’s when Paul and Jonathan’s mutual desire to escape their troubled households leads to an intimate confrontation with America’s inherent inequities.
1980, of course, is the year when the country’s halting progress toward reducing those racial and class-based imbalances seemed to stop in its tracks. And Armaggedon Time expertly evokes the era, from the Steve Martin poster on Paul’s bedroom wall to the references to the Sugar Hill Gang to the Apple II computers in the private school’s science lab.
But there’s a lack of emotional intensity, even in scenes that should feel dangerous and unleashed. For a film with such an apocalyptic title, very little ultimately seems at stake. (Opens Friday, Nov. 4, at multiple theaters.)
Good Night Oppy: When NASA launched the rovers Spirit and Opportunity toward Mars in July 2003, their expected life expectancy after landing on the Red Planet was ninety days. Spirit, remarkably, continued exploring the Martian landscape for over seven (Earth) years. Opportunity, famously, didn’t go dark until June 2018, lasting 57 times longer than it was expected to.
Good Night Oppy takes an appropriately anthropomorphic look at the little robot who could, blending interviews with its designers and operators with a user-friendly explanation of the technical aspects of its adventures. One great touch from director Ryan White (not that Ryan White) is the use of the “wake-up” songs that would be played at the beginning of each day in mission control. These ranged from “Walkin’ on Sunshine” to “Life on Mars” to “Dust in the Wind.”
Eventually, even Oppy succumbed to the elements, its final message encapsulating its human appeal: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” As a reminder that humans, equipped with science, can still pull off the seemingly impossible, Good Night Oppy might be the documentary we need now. (Opens on Friday, Nov. 4 at the Living Room Theaters; streaming on Prime Video starting Nov. 23.)
Art & Krimes by Krimes: Jesse Krimes was an aspiring artist who was sentenced to federal prison for selling cocaine. Instead of demolishing his dreams, however, confinement only served to focus them. Over the years of his incarceration, Krimes created panels of an imagined triptych out of accessible materials: soap, bedsheets, and the like. These works were then smuggled out by confederates and like-minded imprisoned artists.
Eventually, as director Alysa Nahmias captures, Krimes gets released and is able to view the complete piece, “Apokaluptein: 16389067,” a 40-foot by 15-foot Boschian epic that incorporates Krimes’ prisoner number into its name. The film follows Krimes as he attempts to make his way in the art world following his release, and makes some pertinent if obvious points about the downsides of America’s mass incarceration system. (Screens on Sunday, Nov. 6, at PAM CUT; streaming on Paramount+ as of Nov. 22.)
Causeway: Two-time Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence returns to her indie-film roots to play an Afghanistan vet who’s back home in New Orleans while recovering from a traumatic brain injury suffered in an IED attack. Staying with her emotionally unavailable mother, she gets a job cleaning swimming pools and befriends a local mechanic played by the great Brian Tyree Henry.
The appeal of director Lila Neugebauer’s debut feature comes from the interplay between Lawrence and Henry. Lawrence is clearly harking back to the performance that made her a star at the age of 19 in Winter’s Bone, and she’s definitely more relaxed than she’s been in about anything since. (For more in this vein, check out this New York Times profile.) But for all its street-level realism, Causeway might be too low-key for its own good. Here’s hoping J-Law has turned her back on studio franchises for good, but also that she finds something a bit meatier to chew on down the road. (Streaming on Apple TV+ starting Friday, Nov. 4)
God Forbid: One of the more bizarre scandals to emerge from the peripheries of Trumpworld (which is saying something!) was the tabloid-ready tale of Jerry Fallwell, Jr., his wife, Becki, and “the pool boy.” Turns out that the president of Liberty University and the heir to a leading role in the American evangelical movement liked to watch his wife have sex with the handsome, affable Giancarlo Granda, whom the couple met when he was a 20-year-old working at a posh Miami hotel.
Muckraking documentarian Billy Corben got Granda (and his sister) to sit for extensive interviews, which form the backbone of this slight but titillating expose. The relationship between the Fallwells and Granda continued for years, and Corben uses salacious reenactments of their trysts and conversations to ramp up the tawdriness of the whole affair. He also includes a canned history of Fallwell père and the evangelical movement’s embrace of politics over the last few decades, culminating in its hypocritical embrace of Trump.
It’s that jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy that God Forbid relies on to justify the flat-out kink-shaming of Jerry fils’ cuck fetish and Becki’s transparent cougar desperation. Not that these folks don’t deserve to be publicly shamed, but do we have to know so much about them? (Currently streaming on Hulu.)