Review: ‘Armageddon Time,’ starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Jaylin Webb and Anthony Hopkins

October 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in “Armageddon Time” (Photo courtesy of Anne Joyce/Focus Features)

“Armageddon Time”

Directed by James Gray

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1980 in New York City, the dramatic film “Armageddon Time” (inspired by director James Gray’s own childhood) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An 11-year-old, middle-class Jewish boy, who befriends a working-class African American boy from school, learns some of life’s harsh lessons about bigotry and privilege. 

Culture Audience: “Armageddon Time” will appeal primarily to people interested in retro movies that explore the loss of innocence in childhood.

Jaylin Webb and Banks Repeta in “Armageddon Time” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The talented cast’s performances elevate “Armageddon Time,” a drama that apparently wants to condemn racism, antisemitism and social class snobbery. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t have anything new to say about people who enable these types of bigotry. The cast members’ acting should maintain most viewers’ interest, but parts of “Armageddon Time” (written and directed by James Gray) might annoy or bore viewers who feel like they’ve seen this type of “loss of childhood innocence experienced by a future movie director” many times already.

That’s because there have been several movie directors who’ve done movies based on their real childhoods, with the childhood versions of themselves as the protagonists of the movies. In these semi-autobiographical or autobiographical films, these directors depict their childhood selves as inquisitive, imaginative and often misunderstood by many people around them. The child has at least one parent who usually doesn’t encourage the child’s artistic inclinations, because the parent thinks it’s not a good career choice to be any type of artist.

All of these clichés are in “Armageddon Time,” Gray’s dramatic retelling of what his life was like for a pivotal two-month period when he was 11 years old. “Armageddon Time”—which takes place from September to November 1980, mostly in New York City’s Queens borough—can be considered semi-autobiographical, because the characters in the movie are based on real people without using the real people’s names, except for members of Donald Trump’s family. At a certain point in the movie, viewers can easily predict where this movie is going and what it’s attempting to say.

However, because the cast members deliver good performances and have believable chemistry with each other, “Armageddon Time” has moments that can be entertaining and compelling. “Armageddon Time” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in France. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2022, including the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland, and the New York Film Festival in New York City.

The story is told from the perspective of 11-year-old Paul Graff (played by Banks Repeta, also known as Michael Banks Repeta), who has talent for drawing illustrations of people. Paul has a mischievous side where he makes caricatures or illustration parodies of people he knows. He’s also a science-fiction enthusiast who has created an original superhero character named Captain United.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s September 8, 1980—Paul’s first day of school as a sixth grader at P.S. 173, a public school in Queens. One of the first things that happens in a classroom led by a cranky teacher named Mr. Turkeltaub (played by Andrew Polk) is that Mr. Turkeltaub has found a drawing that depicts him as a turkey. An infuriated Mr. Turkeltaub demands to know who made the drawing, and Paul eventually confesses that he did it.

Just a few minutes later, a classmate named Johnny Davis (played by Jaylin Webb) tells a harmless joke as a reply to the teacher’s question. Johnny’s flippant response gets Mr. Turkeltaub even angrier. He hisses at Johnny as he points to Johnny’s head, “You’ve got nothing up here.” Johnny snaps back, “Look who taught me.”

Paul and Johnny both get mild punishments for their disobedience, as Mr. Turkeltaub orders them to clean the chalkboard in the classroom. Johnny and Paul become very fast friends from this shared bonding experience. Their friendship is defined by a lot of the rebellious things that they do together.

Johnny and Paul also share a passion for outer space. Johnny dreams of becoming an astronaut for NASA, while Paul wants to illustrate comic books about space travel. Although both boys talk about a lot of things with each other immediately, they’re not as up front about each other’s home lives when they first meet.

Paul’s family is middle-class, but he lies to Johnny by saying that his family is rich. Johnny, who doesn’t like to talk about his parents, comes from a low-income household and lives with his grandmother (played by Marjorie Johnson, in a quick cameo), whom Johnny describes as “forgetful.” (It’s implied that she has dementia.) Eventually, Johnny opens up to Paul about what’s really going on with him at home, but Paul keeps up the lie about his parents being rich for as long as Paul can keep telling this lie.

Paul’s tight-knit family at home consists of his energetic mother Esther Graff (played by Anne Hathaway), who is the president of P.S. 173’s Parent Teacher Association; his stern father Irving Graff (played by Jeremy Strong), who is an engineer; and Paul’s smug older brother Ted Graff (played by Ryan Sell), who is about 15 years old and almost the opposite of Paul. Ted is a popular, outgoing student at his private school, and he gets good grades. Paul is introverted, somewhat of a loner, and an average student, even though he has the intelligence to get better grades in school. Paul is much closer to his mother than he is to his father, who has a bad temper and tells Paul that being an artist is not a wise occupation.

Frequent visitors to the Graff home for family dinners are Paul’s grandparents, aunts and uncles. Esther’s father Aaron Rabinowitz (played by Anthony Hopkins), who is from the United Kingdom, is Paul’s favorite of these relatives. Grandfather Aaron is kind and patient with Paul, who feels like Aaron is the only family member who truly accepts Paul for who Paul is. Aaron is also the only one in this family who teaches Paul the realities of antisemitism and racism and how not to be a bigot.

Many of the Graff/Rabinowitz family members, including Aaron, are originally from Europe and survivors of the Holocaust. Aaron’s mother was a Ukrainian refugee who eventually settled in England. Aaron and his wife Mickey Rabinowitz (played by Tovah Feldshuh) are both retired schoolteachers. Other relatives who are in the story are Paul’s aunt Ruth (played by Marcia Haufrecht) and uncle Louis (played by Teddy Coluca), who are both very opinionated.

Family conversations around the dining room table reveal that although members of this family have experienced prejudice for being Jewish, many of the adult family members are racists who don’t like black people. Some of the family members are more blatant about this racism than others. Aaron is the only adult in the family who doesn’t come across as some kind of bigot or difficult person. He’s not saintly, but the movie depicts Aaron as the only adult who comes closest to having a lot of wisdom and a strong moral character.

Meanwhile, at school, Johnny and Paul get into some more mischief. In Mr. Turkeltaub’s class, Johnny tends to get punishment that’s worse than what Paul gets. Johnny is a year older than his classmates because he’s had to repeat sixth grade. Johnny usually get blamed first by Mr. Turkeltaub if there’s any student trouble in the classroom.

It doesn’t help that Johnny sometimes curses at the teacher in response to being singled out as a troublemaker, whereas Paul tends not to go that far with his disrespect for authority. However, Mr. Turkeltaub seems to deliberately pick on Johnny to get him angry. There are racial undertones to the way that Mr. Turkeltaub treats Johnny, who is one of the few African American students in the class.

Through a series of events and circumstances that won’t be revealed in this review, Paul transfers to the same private school where Ted is a student: Kew-Forest School, located in the affluent neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. Paul is very unhappy about this transfer because he will no longer get to see Johnny at school. Paul also experiences culture shock, because most of the students come from upper-middle-class and wealthy families.

Members of the real-life Trump family are major financial donors to Kew-Forest School and sometimes stop by the school to make speaking appearances to the assembled students. “Armageddon Time” shows Fred Trump (Donald Trump’s father, played by John Diehl) and Maryanne Trump (Donald Trump’s older sister, played by Jessica Chastain) in cameos, as they give condescending lectures disguised as pep talks at Kew-Forest School. Maryanne Trump, who inherited her fortune from her father, even has the gall to say in her lecture that she worked hard for the wealth that she has.

Because “Armageddon Time” writer/director Gray didn’t change the names of Fred Trump and Maryanne Trump in the movie, the only conclusion that viewers can come to is that Gray wanted to show some kind of disdain for the Trumps in the movie, by depicting them as out-of-touch rich people whom he did not like or trust, even as a child. The only other semi-political statements made in “Armageddon Time” are scenes where the 1980 U.S. presidential election is in the news and discussed in the Graff family home. Irving and Ethel Graff are Democrats who want incumbent Democrat president Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan (a Republican), to win the election.

Because “Armageddon Time” takes place during the height of the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia (then known as the Soviet Union), the movie makes some references to the fear that many people had that a nuclear war could be imminent and would cause an apocalypse. In the production notes for “Armageddon Time,” Gray says that the movie’s title was named after the reggae song “Armagidion Time,” which had a cover version released by The Clash in 1979. (The Clash’s remake of this song is in the “Armageddon Time” movie.) Gray further explains in the production notes that the movie is about Paul’s personal Armageddon.

It’s during Paul’s experiences as a new student at Kew-Forest School that he begins to understand how race, religion and social class are used as reasons for bigots to inflict damaging prejudice on others. When Johnny shows up near the Kew-Forest School playground to talk to Paul, it’s the first time that Paul is fully aware that many of his peers at Kew-Forest school look down on someone like Johnny, just because Johnny is a working-class African American. One of the Kew-Forest students uses the “n” word to describe Johnny, and Paul is shocked.

Paul’s mother Esther also disapproves of Johnny, mainly because she blames Johnny for being a “bad influence” on Paul. There are some racial undertones to Esther’s dislike of Johnny, mainly because Esther wants to deny that Paul is a willing and active participant in whatever rebellious and rude antics that he and Johnny decide to do. Paul, who has an angelic face, is not as “innocent” as Esther thinks he is.

Repeta skillfully plays the role of Paul, a boy who starts to see life in ways that Paul did not expect. His performance is an admirable anchor for the movie, which at times is hindered by writer/director Gray’s self-indulgent nostalgia. And although Hathaway and Strong give solid performances as Esther and Irving, Paul’s emotional connections to his parents at this particular time in Paul’s life are secondary to the emotional connections that Paul has with his grandfather Aaron and with his new friend Johnny. Hopkins and Webb deliver fine performances as Aaron and Johnny, but much about how these two characters are written (the wise grandfather and the rebellious kid) are reminiscent of characters seen in many other movies.

One of the problematic elements of “Armageddon Time” is that Johnny is often treated as a “black token” in the movie. He has all the negative stereotypes of what many racists think black boys are: troublemakers who can’t be as accomplished or as intelligent as their white peers. It would have been better if the movie had at least a few other African American people in prominent speaking roles for some variety (after all, this movie takes place in racially diverse New York City), instead of putting almost all of the African American representation in the movie on a troubled adolescent boy.

There’s a point in the movie where Johnny runs away from home, because he suspects that child protective services will put him in foster care, and he asks Paul for help in having a place to stay. Paul’s reaction is realistic, but it seems like Gray wants to gloss over how Paul contributes to a lot of Johnny’s pain. “Armageddon Time” is less concerned about the root causes of Johnny’s problems and more concerned about making Aaron the noble sage who preaches to Paul about the evils of racism. However, the movie doesn’t actually show Aaron helping anyone from an oppressed racial group, or even caring about having anyone in his social circle who isn’t white.

“Armageddon Time” is a lot like watching people say repeatedly, “Isn’t bigotry terrible?” But then, those same people don’t really do anything to actively stop the bigotry that they complain about. The Graff household also has some domestic abuse that seems to be put in the movie for some shock value, and then the matter is dropped completely. The ending of “Armageddon Time” could have been a lot better, but the movie has enough good acting and memorable characters to make up for some scenes that wander and don’t serve a very meaningful purpose in the movie.

Focus Features released “Armageddon Time” in select U.S. cinemas on October 28, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ starring Ice-T, Dan Baum, Ethan Nadlemann, Keith Stroup, Jack Cole and Marsha ‘Keith’ Schuchard

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ice-T in “Public Enemy Number One” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Public Enemy Number One” 

Directed by Robert Rippberger

Culture Representation: The documentary “Public Enemy Number One” takes a historical look at the “war on drugs” the United States, by interviewing several experts and commentators (who are mostly white male Americans), such activists, authors and past and present law enforcement.

Culture Clash: The documentary takes the position that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure and that U.S. drug laws need major reforms.

Culture Audience: “Public Enemy Number One” will appeal primarily to people who believe that certain drugs (such as marijuana) should be decriminalized, but the movie also should be informative to people who aren’t aware of the long-term social impact of the war on drugs.

Keith Stroup in “Public Enemy Number One” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Several documentaries have been made in the 21st century about the U.S. government’s “war on drugs” and almost all of these documentaries come to the same conclusion: The war has failed and is a reflection of the racial inequality in the criminal justice system. Most people who buy and sell drugs in the United States are white, but most people who are in U.S. prisons (whose numbers are growing) on drug charges are black and Latino. “Public Enemy Number One” (directed by Robert Rippberger) takes a chronological look at how various U.S. presidential administrations handled the war on drugs, beginning with the administration of Richard Nixon to the administration of Barack Obama. There really isn’t anything new uncovered in “Public Enemy Number One,” but the documentary might be informative to a lot of people who are unaware of these issues.

“Public Enemy Number One” follows the traditional documentary format of mixing archival footage with new interviews. The movie has a clear agenda to advocate for decriminalization of certain drugs (particularly marijuana) and aims to shine a light on how the prison system has become a big business that relies on racism to thrive. (Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning 2016 Netflix documentary “13th” extensively covers this topic of racial inequality in the American criminal justice system.)

The Nixon administration was the first to formally declare a “war on drugs,” with Nixon’s notorious 1971 speech that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” for America. It was a way for the federal government to create a new law enforcement agency—the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which on the surface was supposed to enforce the illegal drug trade.

Drug Police Alliance founder Ethan Nadlemann says that the DEA was really just the Nixon administration’s way of trying to control civil unrest over the Vietnam War and race inequality, because the DEA disproportionately targeted black people and radical protesters of the war for arrests. Dan Baum, author of “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure,” says in the documentary that the late John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s counsel and Assistant to the President for domestic Affairs, admitted this government targeting in a 1993 interview that Baum did with Ehrlichman.

Baum comments that the DEA is “half-law enforcement, half-Hollywood. They go out Elliott Ness-ing around the country and making sure that the cameras are there.” The arrests of black people and left-wing radicals during the Nixon administration were done for a show for the media. Those media images and reports then created negative stereotypes that radical left-wingers and black people were mainly responsible for the drug problem in the United States.

Dr. Robert Dupont, who was the U.S. Drug Czar from 1973 to 1977, says in the documentary that he was told he would be fired if he ever went against Nixon’s anti-marijuana agenda. Jack Cole, co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, remembers his days as an undercover agent in New Jersey, where he would bust small-time drug users who used drugs in small friend groups. Cole says that the biggest mistake that the government made back then was to classify all illegal drugs as the same.

It was during the Nixon administration that National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) was formed in 1970. Most of the members were white people with professional jobs (such as lawyers), thereby contradicting the media’s untrue stereotype at the time that most marijuana advocates were radical hippie types. The main goals of NORML were to decriminalize or legalize marijuana in all 50 states, and not put marijuana in the same category as drugs such as heroin or cocaine. NORML founder Keith Stroup says in the documentary: “We thought we would be finished [with our goals] within five years of 1978.”

After Nixon was impeached and resigned in disgrace in 1974, U.S. culture during the rest of the 1970s (under the administrations of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) had a more relaxed and accepting attitude toward illegal drug use, particularly marijuana. The 1978 Cheech and Chong marijuana stoner movie “Up in Smoke” is named as an example of a mainstream movie that couldn’t have been made before the 1970s.

NORML founder Stroup admits that during the late 1970s, NORML took a hit in its credibility when Stroup began feuding with Dr. Peter Bourne (who was U.S. Drug Czar from 1977 to 1978) over paraquat, a toxic chemical that is mostly used as an herbicide. NORML accused the U.S. government and the Florida state government of deliberately spraying paraquat over marijuana plants, in order to poison marijuana users. The conspiracy theory was later debunked, and Stroup admits in the documentary that he was wrong. Bourne comments on the paraquat controversy: “I believe it was blatant nonsense.”

The U.S. administration eras of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush marked a return to stricter drug laws and less tolerant views on drugs in society. Nancy Reagan made the “Just Say No” campaign famous. More parents groups were formed as lobbyists to government to make stricter drug laws. The shocking cocaine-related death of rising basketball star Len Bias in 1986 is also mentioned in the documentary as an important milestone in American society’s backlash against illegal drugs during the 1980s. And, of course, the epidemic of crack cocaine began in the ’80s, destroying many families and communities.

Rapper/actor Ice-T (who is an executive producer of “Public Enemy Number One”) explains why drugs and poverty are intertwined in so many African American communities: “It all starts off with no hope, lack of education, not being able to actually enter the system.” He adds that many people in these communities think, “‘I can’t make a living wage, but over here is a way.’ And you try to do that, and you end up in prison or with your life devastated.”

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, also attributes the increase in drug-related arrests in the 1980s to another factor: more money for law enforcement. Franklin says, “That’s why so many cops liked Ronald Reagan—because we got raises.” Franklin and others in the documentary point out that illegal drugs are the only type of crime in the U.S. were police officers get paid extra for arrests.

The Bill Clinton administration of the 1990s gets heavy criticism for implementing mandatory minimum sentences (also known as the “three strikes” law), where the punishments often don’t fit the crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences are usually cited as one of the biggest examples of why the war on drugs has failed. Nadlemann calls mandatory minimum sentences “McCarthyism on steroids.” In recent years, Clinton has admitted that the mandatory minimum sentencing law was a mistake.

People interviewed on the judicial side say the war on drugs has failed because of agendas and ambitions of government politicians. James Gray, a former California Supreme Court judge, calls the war on drugs: “Great politics, lousy government.” Gerry Goldstein, a U.S. Supreme Court trial attorney, says there’s little incentive to change most drug laws if the general public thinks these laws are working. “Politicians want to get re-elected, plain and simple.”

The 2000s (when the George W. Bush administration was in power for most of the decade) saw the continued rise of the U.S. prison population, due in large part to mandatory minimum sentences. Prisoners are essentially used as little more than slave labor. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition founder Cole doesn’t mince words: “The war on drugs is the new Jim Crow. It’s aimed at controlling black folks … and making money off of it.”

That doesn’t mean that all people in prison are innocent and don’t deserve to be there, say the experts in the documentary. It means that black people, more than any other racial group in America, tend to get arrested and punished more harshly for the same crimes that other racial groups also commit, according to Perry Tarrant of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement. Ice -T comments, “There’s a lot of money being spent to not solve the problem.”

“The easiest way for people to understand the absurdity of the war on drugs is to focus on marijuana,” says Nadlemann. Under the Obama administration, more states began to legalize marijuana. The Obama administration also made attempts to lower federal sentences for crimes involving marijuana. Because “Public Enemy Number One” only covers the war on drugs up until the Obama administration, the documentary unfortunately looks very dated.

However, the documentary does a good job of presenting both sides of the issue, by including viewpoints of anti-drug activists Those who are interviewed are “Parents, Peers and Pot” author Marsha “Keith” Schuchard; Parents/Pride Movement founder Thomas Gleaton; Dr. Howard Samuels of The Hills Treatment Center; Smart Approaches to Marijuana founder Kevin Sabet; and Ian McDonald, U.S. Drug Czar from 1987 to 1988, who says, “Marijuana’s risks and dangers were being ignored.”

“Public Enemy Number One” packs in a lot of information in its total running time of 70 minutes. People who’ve seen similar documentaries or news reports about the war on drugs probably won’t learn anything new. But for people who don’t know anything about this aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system, this documentary is a good place to start without having to make a big time commitment.

Gravitas Ventures released “Public Enemy Number One” on digital and VOD on June 12, 2020.

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