Friday, November 25, 2022

Steven Spielberg compellingly delves into the past with The Fabelmans


They say "you can't go home again," but leave it to Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kuschner to prove that axiom wrong, at least in the very specific circumstances of The Fabelmans. With this film, Spielberg has torn the veil of allegory and just made an autobiographical drama reflecting his upbringing. Broken families have always been a part of this man's work, but now we get to see the genesis of where that fascination came from. There's a version of The Fabelmans that becomes too insular, the cinematic equivalent to a therapy session we feel uncomfortable watching. Thankfully, much like in their prior collaborations such as West Side Story, Munich, and Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner have knocked it out of the park with The Fabelmans. Whether you know a little or a lot about this man, The Fabelmans will surely work its magic on you.

The Fabelmans makes its potency and thoughtfulness clear from the very get-go in a scene depicting an adolescent Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) nervously waiting in line to see The Greatest Show on Earth at the movie theater. The camera is initially positioned in a way so that we don't see his parents from the waist up, a perfect way to suggest that we'll be seeing this movie primarily through the eyes of Sammy. As he expresses constant nervousness about seeing a feature on the big screen, his parents, Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), try to console him in ways that reflect their individual personalities. Burt gets wrapped up in explaining how the film projector works while Mitzi just tells her son that movies are like dreams. It isn't long before Sammy is sitting in that theater and discovering how right his mom was. Movies are dreams...and he doesn't want this dream to end.

From here, The Fabelmans chronicles Sammy (who eventually grows up into a 16-year-old played by Gabriel LaBelle) as his passion for making home movies grows increasingly elaborate. This stand-in for the adolescent Spielberg is apparent in this youngster's love for shooting all kinds of films, but it's also clear in the increasingly tumultuous home life Sammy must navigate. As the scope of Sammy's homemade motion pictures expands, so too does the tension between his parents. Burt becomes so wrapped up in his work that he's constantly moving himself and the whole family (Sammy also has three younger sisters) while Mitzi is prone to depressive episodes. It isn't just the images on the silver screen that will mold Sammy's life. Familiar turmoil will also shape his worldview.

A few days before I saw The Fabelmans, me and a buddy were joking about corny ways this movie could show a young Spielberg stumbling onto the ideas for his future movies ("Wow, that shark sure has big jaws!") in the same vein that many actual music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody deliver moments where musicians stumble onto the ideas for their most popular tunes. These dumb references were good for a laugh between pals, but they were also helpful in illustrating everything The Fabelmans does right. This isn't a film infatuated with making endless references that only Spielberg devotees will get or that attempts to provide a tidy narrative about how this filmmaker transformed into his recognizable self in the span of a weekend. In other words, there are no scenes like the one in Darkest Hour where Gary Oldman's Winston Churchill gets the name for Operation Dynamo by gazing at a nearby fan.

Instead, Spielberg and Kushner's script delivers a story that functions as a standalone work, with the events onscreen gaining extra (but not essential) resonance for those familiar with the former artist's background. The Fabelmans is much more interested in contemplating matters that are accessible to all audience members, such as contemplating how to juggle your passions and your loved ones as well as that never-ending process of realizing your parents are complicated human beings. The latter element is especially potent in how it's realized within The Fabelmans, with much of Mitzi's storyline focusing on how she's messy and imperfect rather than the postcard-ready image of a dutiful 1950s housewife. She's a human being. The idea that the people who raised you are in fact just ordinary people unsure of where to go or what to do is an overwhelming fact to consider when you first contemplate it. 

The Fabelmans deftly explores that complicated idea with an equally nuanced portrait of a mother/son dynamic that can have you clenching your teeth in anxiety one second and softly weeping over their quiet interactions in the very next scene. These kinds of complicated character dynamics are made all the more compelling by Spielberg's enduringly impressive visual sensibilities. This guy's sense of framing never ceases to amaze me, even in a scene as simple as Burt trying to start a fire and his kids getting distracted by Mitzi's antics in a tree. This filmmaker and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski turn this moment into an extended single-take that, just by the blocking and use of depth in the shot, is incredibly detailed and informative about who these people are and their relationships with one another. The most seemingly basic scenes deliver a fountain of memorable imagery and vivid character details in the hands of this director.

It isn't just Spielberg and Kushner that excel in The Fabelmans. Everyone's in rare form here, particularly Michelle Williams, whose tasked with portraying a pastiche of Spielberg's mom. The bones of this performance sound like a recipe for a distracting caricature, including Mitzi's very distinctive voice (which often sounds like she's on the verge of tears) and the character's tendency for splashy displays of emotions. Williams tackles it all with such finesse, lending Mitzi the same level of believability as her performances in works like Wendy and Lucy or Certain Women. Traits that could've been distracting flourishes in another actor become organic parts of a compelling portrait of tormented motherhood in the hands of Williams.

Paul Dano is playing a much more soft-spoken, less outsized character than Williams, but he still leaves an enormous impression as the father of the Fabelman family while Seth Rogen wisely plays on his genial public persona while adding extra depths to that demeanor in his work as a dear friend of Burt's. Top to bottom, the whole cast is just marvelous, even when they only have one scene to shine, like Judd Hirsch in an unforgettable performance that reminds you why this Ordinary People star is such a treasure. 

It's a very exciting indicator that you're watching a special movie when you realize you can consider its greatness from so many different angles. Visually, narratively, as an acting exercise, as something to make you cry multiple times, as the newest collection of John Williams compositions, or even in its forays into comedy (a scene with Sammy and a High School flame in the latter character's bedroom is so hysterical largely because of the very precise visual details in Spielberg's filmmaking), The Fabelmans works like gangbusters. It's a movie that's simultaneously far more than just a biography of Steven Spielberg's childhood yet it also offers so much insight into how his complicated persona as an artist was molded. I guess when you're Steven Spielberg, you actually can go home again.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

She Said is a standard, but frequently impactful journalism drama

CW: Discussions of sexual assault, rape ahead

2022 has already seen the old-school 2000s romantic-comedy come back to the big screen with films like Ticket to Paradise, while Top Gun: Maverick made movie theaters around the globe seem like they'd been teleported back to 1986. Why not also bring back the journalism drama to the big screen while we're at it? The comeback for the genre that birthed everything from All the President's Men to Spotlight manifests with She Said, which chronicles the true story of how The New York Times cracked the story of Harvey Weinstein's extensive history of being accused of sexual assault, verbal abuse, and rape by countless women.

Our leads for this feature are Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), a pair of reporters who have the kind of conviction you need to chase down difficult stories like the Weinstein saga. The whole affair begins through just Kantor poking around in Weinstein's past, an exercise Twohey is initially dubious over doing given how little impact the allegations against Donald Trump impacted his rise to power. However, they both become enamored with this story as they dig deeper and deeper into Weinstein's past. He's impacted so many lives in such unspeakable ways, to the point that many of the people they contact with either can't or won't speak about it on the record. 

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's screenplay for She Said, adapted both from the New York Times investigation and a book entitled She Said penned by the real Kantor and Twohey, is tackling incredibly heavy material and weaves an appropriately morose tone for such a story. The sheer weight of everything these women have had to live with, not to mention the web of power that has kept Weinstein free from consequences, is certainly felt within the story. The most impactful parts of She Said are cognizant of how overwhelming those forces are, the way they creep into everyday life whether we like it or not.

The instance of this that really stuck in my mind is scene where Kantor's Skype call with her adolescent daughter takes a dark turn when her child asks if a story her mom is investigating involves "rape." It's a word her friends use all the time, to which Kantor tries to delicately explain to the youngster that she shouldn't use it casually. With minimal dialogue and Nicholas Britell's score dropping out, Kazan's performance and the script gracefully depict a mother realizing that her daughter is growing increasingly cognizant of all the horrors in society. She's tried to provide a barrier between her home life and all the unspeakably atrocities beyond her front door. Now, she's received a sudden reminder of how omnipresent the normalization of rape culture is. The term "rape" has even become a go-to term in the world of playground chatter. The intrusion of pushy phone calls or sudden reminders of the past in the everyday lives of people who have accused Weinstein of despicable acts convey a similar power. They too are aware of how the darkest parts of reality can creep up anywhere in your life. 

She Said's script is less effective, unfortunately, in terms of its story structure. There's little uniqueness in how Lenkiewicz executes this story to separate it from other similar journalism and the more perfunctory investigative scenes drag in pacing. Director Maria Schrader and cinematographer Natasha Braier don't help things by realizing the look of She Said in a similarly straightforward fashion. Opportunities to get further into the minds of sexual assault survivors through distinctive pieces of camerawork are eschewed in favor of very basic instances of framing and lighting that rarely fluctuates even when Kantor shifts her investigation over to the United Kingdom. The intimate and dark nature of She Said isn't an excuse for these visual shortcomings given that other movies tackling similarly chilling material, such as The Assistant, managed to excel in their camerawork. You don't need to be an expansive epic to have vibrant or thoughtful visuals.

She Said, ultimately, isn't as challenging or defiant of the status quo as either the journalism or the testimonies that inspired it. Even composer Nicholas Britell is in more reserved mode here. But there's enough emotionally raw material and commendable performances to make it a reasonably engaging watch, particularly whenever the script focuses on harrowing recountings of the experiences of sexual assault survivors. It's in their words that She Said finds its most solid footing and the moments that will last with viewers longest. Beyond that, the feature can be a bit boilerplate, but at least She Said has got actors like Zoe Kazan and Patricia Clarkson around to give it a boost of life. Plus, there's no denying how good it is to see a journalism drama back on the big screen again.

Pinocchio is an incredibly charming lark from Guillermo del Toro


What can you do to make Pinocchio seem new again?

It's a question director Robert Zemeckis couldn't figure out a good answer for in Disney's live-action Pinocchio remake from a few months back. Roberto Benigni's attempt to inhabit the role of Pinocchio in the early 2000s was a misguided folly. Aside from launching an amusing internet meme, modern takes on this wooden boy don't offer much. One might understandably wonder if there's no fuel left in the Pinocchio movie tank, but any old story can feel fresh and new if given the right execution. Just look at how Greta Gerwig injected so much life and vibrancy into Little Women just three years ago. Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to prove that not all 21st-century Pinocchio films are doomed with his stop-motion animated take on this material. Simply titled Pinocchio, this feature is an absolute delight that truly makes one feel like they're discovering the story of this puppet come to life for the very first time.

Many positive reviews of animated features aimed at youngsters emphasize how good it is that these films can also resonate so deeply with adults. With Pinocchio, I was struck by a sense of joy for the kids who end up watching it. How wonderful that they'll get to grow up with a movie that doesn't talk down to them and confronts elements that do play into the lives of adolescents, such as religion, war, or death. Here we have a feature that doesn't just tell kids to be themselves but to always challenge authority. Best of all, it's a telling of Pinocchio that doesn't feel beholden to the past. Pinocchio isn't obsessed with referencing pop culture entities from my childhood, it's here to tell a standalone yarn that can belong to a new generation. What a gift to the youngsters of 2022 and beyond.

Of course, Pinocchio isn't made just for kids in mind. Directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson (not to mention co-screenwriter Patrick McHale) seem to have made this movie primarily for themselves above all else. This is especially reflected in how del Toro has maintained all his primary thematic motifs even when making something that's rated PG, namely a distrustful attitude toward religion, a despisement of social conformity, children navigating an overwhelming world of devious adults, and, of course, an adoration for weird fantasy creatures. Even the use of celebrity voice-overs, a common staple of American animated family movies, reflects more of del Toro's interests than what a focus group might want. 

Many of the folks assembled here are either actors from prior del Toro works or people (like Tilda Swinton) that you can't believe haven't worked with the filmmaker before. It's a superbly-arranged voice cast, with Ewan McGregor being an especially fun choice for Sebastian J. Cricket. His pipes are perfect for providing both some fatherly advice and extremely soothing bursts of narration. It's also quite fun how some of the casting choices seem to have a subversive edge. The casting of Cate Blanchett (who previously appeared in del Toro's Nightmare Alley) as a monkey who almost exclusively communicates in basic primate noises almost feels like a joke making fun of rampant celebrity voice-casting in movies like Sing or the Ice Age sequels. Whether or not that underlying commentary is intentional, putting Blanchett in this kind of role reflects the unique creative impulses at play in this version of Pinocchio.

Of course, what really makes this animated musical sing (no pun intended) is the visuals. Stop-motion animation is always such an impressive medium, all the effort and time that goes into every frame is palpable. The warped and freaky visual sensibilities of del Toro are a great fit for this style of animation, with the instantly tactile nature of stop-motion lending incredibly believable textures and weight to every one of the freaky creatures that populate this story. It's also a nice touch that the animation isn't striving for realism, as seen by how bursts of fire are rendered on-screen, for instance. Pinocchio leans into the innate unreality of stop-motion animation and is all the stronger for it. Simply put, it all looks fantastic and wonderful. If you wanted to just mute the dialogue, you could still have an incredible experience watching Pinocchio just absorbing all the richly-detailed backgrounds and amusing character designs. 

Pinocchio is a tremendous treat and, even better, it doesn't just represent the creative sensibilities of del Toro. Patrick McHale, who co-wrote the film's songs, channels amusing ditties like "Potatoes and Molasses" from his unforgettable miniseries Under the Garden Wall in penning the intentionally simplistic but endlessly charming tunes that populate this story.  Merging that kind of wit with del Toro's empathy for outsiders and an avalanche of glorious stop-motion you need a roadmap to figure out Pinocchio is something special? A shame Netflix won't be putting this out on the big screen in a more prominent capacity (though at least they ensured this long-in-development feature existed) considering just how stunning this movie looks in a theater. Experiencing Pinocchio in such an environment really makes you appreciate its countless charms.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a moving, if crowded, return to Wakanda


The very first line of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, spoken by Shuri (Letitia Wright) off-screen against a black screen, makes it clear that the real-life demise of Chadwick Boseman will not be dismissed with an offhand line of dialogue or a quick easter egg in the background. It's going to be the crux of Ryan Coogler's fourth directorial effort. Not only that, but that initial line establishes the emotional urgency of what's to come. This isn't necessarily a bleak venture into Wakanda, but it isn't afraid to confront the complexities of loss and the different ways people respond to the process of grief. In other words, bring some tissues if you're like me and have any sort of emotional vulnerability.

Shuri is our primary focus of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and her story picks up a year after the loss of her brother T'Challa. She's still walking around in a fog from losing someone so close and personal to her, preferring to toil away in her lab rather than lingering on the memories of T'Challa. Her mom, Ramonda (Angela Bassett), is now in charge of Wakanda and protecting it from all kinds of threats interested in taking on this country now that it's devoid of the Black Panther. One of those challengers is Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), the king of the underwater civilization Talokan. Shuri and Okoye (Danai Gurira) are tasked with a mission that could provide some peace between Wakanda and Talokan while everyone tries to figure out what the future of Wakanda even looks like.

Screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole have wisely opted to devote long stretches of Wakanda Forever to just intimate conversations, the kind that makes us understand the nuances of these superpowered people and what they want. Wakanda Forever adheres to my favorite kind of superhero storytelling, the kind where the unabashedly silly elements like Namor's winged feet or the sight of people riding orcas like horses into battle are maintained, but there's also an embrace of tangible pathos. A harrowing scene depicting a fraught exchange between Ramonda and Okoye, for instance, is incredibly powerful, particularly due to Bassett's emotionally raw performance. If she was executing this same dialogue in a grounded Broadway play, there'd be no differences from her line deliveries in this movie designed to move Disney Store merchandise. 

Those kinds of performances, and Coogler's willingness to let the low-key scenes just breathe, do wonders for Wakanda Forever's sense of poignancy. It's also a wise idea to give so many of the players in this expansive narrative the thematic connective tissue of coping with grief, particularly Namor and his fascinating backstory or the eventual reveal of where Nakia has been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the events of the first Black Panther. There isn't a single size for coping with loss and the various players of Wakanda Forever nicely reflect that while also ensuring there's thematic consistency in the various narrative detours. In other words, it feels like these characters all belong to the same movie...mostly.

The greatest shortcoming in Wakanda Forever is, unfortunately, in that same screenplay, which is ultimately too overstuffed for its own good. Certain supporting players can get lost in the shuffle, but more egregiously is an extraneous subplot involving Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and a character someone at Marvel is more in love with than general moviegoers. Their whole storyline is tedious from top-to-bottom, especially in terms of visuals (why do I care about Ross's conversations in bland government buildings when I could be in an underwater kingdom or the vibrant land of Wakanda?), and since it's entirely detached from the main action, just comes off like a distraction. Given how well the original Black Panther fared at functioning as largely a standalone story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's a shame that Wakanda Forever's pacing gets undercut by a storyline designed to remind audiences of future Marvel adventures. 

While Wakanda Forever isn't as divorced from other Marvel adventures as its predecessor, other superb elements of the original film are as sharp as ever. Ruth E. Carter's costumes still dazzle while Ludwig Göransson's once again knocks his score out of the park. Certain sections of Wakanda Forever opt to eschew dialogue entirely in favor of letting Göransson's compositions carry the day and his music is more than up to the task. Meanwhile, fan-favorite characters from the original Black Panther, especially M'Baku (Winston Duke), are just as entertaining as ever while new player Namor is bound to be an audience favorite. Tenoch Huerta Mejía's performance here has doubtlessly solidified him as a standout heartthrob in 2022 cinema, his screen presence and commanding aura are just spectacular.

But what works best in Wakanda Forever are the elements working within the shadow of the tragic loss of Chadwick Boseman. His presence looms large over Wakanda Forever, particularly in an opening funeral scene that kickstarts the feature on an appropriately melancholy note. Coogler and the cast manage to nail the ensuing emotional beats without coming off as either manipulative or exploitative of a tragedy. It's especially nice that their approach evokes a line spoken by T'Challa in his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, regarding how "death is not the end, it's more of a stepping off point." Chadwick Boseman is absent from Wakanda Forever, but it's fascinating and touching to see the small ways his character's legacy reverberates throughout this motion picture.

I wish the entire film was less crowded (read: less Martin Freeman) to allow that kind of emotional exploration more room to breathe or at least make Wakanda Forever's runtime more manageable. But enough works here to make Wakanda Forever follow in the footsteps of Creed and Black Panther (albeit without matching the overall quality of either film) as a mainstream Ryan Coogler film that tackles pathos as effectively as it approaches thrills.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

The emotionally rich Aftersun is one of 2022's greatest movies (SPOILERS)



Aftersun begins with a seemingly normal status quo. A dad, Calum (Paul Mescal) is taking his daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), to a hotel resort in Turkey for a little summertime vacation before school starts up again. Only a little into the movie do you start to notice a few things askew. Namely, our adult protagonist has a cast…where did he get that injury? The hotel is also quietly shoddy, with lots of intrusive construction and the only activities for kids being some racing arcade game. The script never pokes you in the ribs that something is awry here, but it beckons you to gaze deeper into the frame. From there, you also begin to notice the little details about the humans on-screen.

Like a camcorder adjusting its image after someone presses the zoom-in button, key aspects of Aftersun come into focus with a little bit of time. There's an underlying sadness to seemingly throwaway lines like Calum mentioning "I can't imagine myself at 40" during a scuba trip with Sophie. Meanwhile, initially fun moments like Calum and Sophie throwing bread at a dinnertime entertainer before bolting without paying for their meal initially come off as just frivolous father/daughter bonding...but what does this moment really suggest about Calum? All of these details mean that Aftersun begins with a sense of extensive history between the characters. They’re all deeply entrenched into their behavior patterns, such as Calum still saying “love you” to his ex-wife or Sophie's inclination to read a magazine about women rather than the weighty book her father insists she reads. There’s an enormously lived-in quality to these characters conveyed in such realistically understated means. 

The exploits of these characters become more and more strained as the runtime wears on, with initially joyful if slightly contained interactions giving way to much more troubling evenings. The peak of these problems comes one night when Calum gets intoxicated and opts to go to bed early, leaving Sophie to fend for herself below. Sophie finds tender warmth with other people that night, including a girl who gives her an all-access wristband and a boy she kisses. But not with her father, whom she desperately tries to connect to.

Writer/director Charlotte Wells, in what's shockingly her feature-length directorial debut, often captures these kinds of internal emotions in Aftersun with a dreamlike quality that proves as emotionally insightful as it does visually imaginative. A scene of Calum drunkenly walking around at night at one point depicts this figure against a vast sea of blackness, like he’s stumbled into the void from Under the Skin.  It’s such a striking image, seeing this solitary man alone against an endless and ominous landscape devoid of specific details. Other times, the camera opts for closer, intimate shots, many of which are used to illustrate the point-of-view of our adolescent protagonist. Now 11 years old and eager to look back on her 7-year-old self as “way younger,” she’s often hanging out with teenagers at this resort. These more cramped shots see her lingering on the finer details of these older figures she wants to hang around and reinforce her desire to get closer to this particular social group.

Nowhere does Wells shine more as a visualist than in recurring glimpses of a dance floor that's set against a darkened backdrop and illuminated in brief bursts of light. Initially just a striking visual motif throughout Aftersun, it culminates in a final sequence revealing this to be a place where an adult Sophie is coping with the complicated image she has of her father. This stretch of Aftersun is like the love child of Beau Travail and Mulholland Drive, a nightmarish display of dancing told through quick cuts that reflected the fragmented feelings Sophie has for Calum. It's a mesmerizing feat of filmmaking perfectly accompanied by a hauntingly sparse version of the Queen/David Bowie ditty "Under Pressure." Never before have lyrics like "Why can't we give love one more chance?" taken on such weight.

I was utterly mesmerized by this sequence in Aftersun, but it's not the only part of the movie that impressed me. Far from it. That first reveal of this movie stretching across time in a non-linear fashion, when we cut to an adult Sophie in bed with her wife, that made me gasp out loud. It was just such a bold direction to take this story, it perfectly accentuates the emphasis of memory in the story, and the organically subdued way we're told this is adult Sophie is incredibly impressive. The writing of adolescent Sophie, too, is incredible. Much like with the works from Studio Ghibli, Wells knows how to write kids who sound and act like kids, their imperfections all apparent.

The beautiful suggestion of a larger emotional world between each word work wonders at touching the heart while Wells demonstrates quietly profound tendencies in every aspect of her screenplay. Her level of insight and thought is apparent in even the tiniest details, like the tunes that are always blaring at tourist-friendly events in the Turkey hotel Sophie and Calum are staring at ("Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba is especially perfect, of course, that's what they'd be playing). Her controlled filmmaking is also captured in the performances, which include an outstanding turn from Paul Mescal. Having not seen his show Normal People, I had no real notions of his qualities as an actor beyond the fact that somebody at A24 digs him (Aftersun is one of two Mescal titles the studio is releasing this Fall). 

But good God, he's fantastic here, deftly playing a goofy dad but also realistically hinting at darker, more vulnerable qualities within Calum. It's such a rich performance that I couldn't get out of my brain while Frankie Coiro delivers similarly superb work playing Sophie. She and Pascal are playing such wildly different characters in Aftersun, but they share the quality of handling complexity like a champ.  Watching performances and a movie this good is a gift and I urge you to do yourself a favor and experience it for yourself, especially on a big screen where your full attention can be absorbed by every emotionally captivating detail Charlotte Wells has laced throughout Aftersun.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Armageddon Time is a weaker, but often interesting, directorial effort from James Gray


Growing up isn't easy. It's always an awkward experience full of stumbles, misunderstandings, and anxiety. It's an especially bad process when you realize at some point in your life that it doesn't end when you turn 18. Just because you're old enough to enlist in the U.S. military or about to start college doesn't mean you've finished evolving as a human being. We're all always growing and being exposed to further complexities of reality, which is simultaneously a comforting and terrifying thought. Armageddon Time, a quasi-autobiographical period piece from writer/director James Gray, captures a small portion of growing up in the life of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth-grader growing up in Queens, New York in 1980.

Graff has a cushy life in some respects, living with PTA mom Esther (Anne Hathaway) and reliable mechanic Irving (Jeremy Strong) in a nice home. He's also got a close bond with his kindly grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). But even if he doesn't have to worry about going to bed hungry, Graff's life still has its share of challenges. For one thing, his friendship with Jonny (Jaylin Webb), a young Black kid with a fixation on NASA whose living with his mentally-deteriorating grandmother, has brought Graff a lot of joy. However, their shared rebellious nature means that trouble is never far behind the duo. Eventually, they get into enough trouble to inspire Esther and Irving to send Graff to a fancy prep school. Here, Armageddon Time's lead character becomes even more conscious of all the systemic intolerance around him while constant problems plague Jonny.

Though Gray is gazing back into his past with Armageddon Time, don't expect an easy dive into warm nostalgia from the director of The Immigrant. If nothing else, Armageddon Time is the needle that pokes the balloon that is rampant joyful 1980s nostalgia in American pop culture. 1980 is often depicted as a place where joy is an anomaly, not the norm. Meanwhile, the recurring mentions of Ronald Reagan's impending Presidential election and the presence of two notable famous faces at Paul's prep school hauntingly convey that the problems of this era will only be exacerbated in the future. Just as none of us are ever done growing up, so too does Armageddon Time suggests that America was far from finished with systemic intolerance after 1980.

Gray's morose tone makes this a slightly abnormal autobiographical coming-of-age yarn, with this screenwriter/director accentuating the grimness through depictions of hypocritical behavior in its characters. Paul's grandmother, for instance, will talk at the family dinner table about her experiences with anti-Semitism while also prattling on about how desegregating schools has opened the door to nothing but trouble. Similarly, Irving notes at one point that nobody in Esther's family except for Aaron ever supported him being a mechanic, everybody else among her relatives just wrote Irving off. Simultaneously, Irving also brutally insists that his son give up on his ambitions of being an artist and pursue "a real job." The characters of Armageddon Time can be simultaneously oppressed by societal norms while engaging in dehumanizing acts against other people themselves. This doesn't erase the horrors of antisemitism or the rudeness of dismissing people based on labor-based jobs, it just shows that people can be complicated. Committing to this quality makes the gloomy atmosphere of Armageddon Time feel earned rather than forced.

Other aspects of Armageddon Time's screenplay, though, left me yearning for that kind of depth. Esther, for one, fades into the foreground in the second half of the story after being such a prominent character up to that point. There's an in-universe reason for her being so distant, but putting the pedal to the metal by just sidelining her makes her presence in the entire film feel underdeveloped. Similarly, Jonny's presence in Armageddon Time is erratic. Too often it feels like his role in the story is solely being determined by what Paul needs, rather than making him feel like a kid with his own separate life. A brief glimpse of Paul talking to his grandmother had me wishing we could get more scenes of this character alone, and see what his day-to-day life feels like. The characters in Armageddon Time that feel alive are rich with layers, but unfortunately, it also leaves some players in its story out in the cold.

This is a byproduct of the movie eventually attempting to do just too much, a strange shortcoming since Gray was able to make all the various challenges of Ewa (Marion Cotillard) in his 2014 film The Immigrant feel cohesive and like they belonged to the same movie. It's not a problem to have a protagonist go through multiple types of struggles, it's just that Gray doesn't pull it off quite as well here. Part of the problem is Paul Graff himself, a kid whose often overshadowed by other characters in Armageddon Time like Aaron or Jonny. Whereas Ewa was always the most compelling character on-screen in The Immigrant and could carry your attention through all that movie's twists and turns, Paul is a bit more generically rendered as a character and, as a result, can get lost in the various subplots of Armageddon Time. It's not a good sign about the status of your protagonist when our one in-depth view into Paul's mind, taking place during a museum field trip, results in a segment that feels lifted from a live-action Disney movie from the 1990s more than anything else.

Key pieces of Armageddon Time, namely big swings at pathos in the third act or the score by Christopher Spelman, often feel like the writing of Paul Graff; not bad, just not very distinctive or memorable. Still, though it can't measure up to earlier works by James Gray, Armageddon Time is far from a waste of time. It's still got interesting pieces of insight to offer on American society circa. 1980 while Darius Khondji's cinematography is rife with striking images. There are also plenty of good performances to go around, with Anthony Hopkins standing out most of all as a cuddly and wide grandpa. Leave it to Hopkins to lend the same level of conviction and believability to a guy who buys toy rocketships for his grandson as he did to a cannibal. What range he has!

Growing up isn't easy to do, no matter how old or young you are. There are tons of movies throughout history that have grappled with the difficulties of this process, with several of them turning out to be masterpieces. Armageddon Time falls well short of that distinction, but there are some flashes of brilliance and standout elements here amidst a busy plot and a thinly-defined protagonist. Certainly, you could do worse than watch a movie where Hopkins monologues about the importance of always standing up to racist bullies.