By Matt Neufeld

The last full weekend of October, 2022, sadly and strangely doesn’t offer any good, recommended new horror movies in the theaters, which is ridiculous and a major failure from the Hollywood studios and production companies, so folks will have to rely on trying to catch a decent horror movie on television and cable this weekend. And good luck with that, too, as most of the horror offerings this month, October, 2022, on the major television and cable channels so far have generally been disappointing and awful.

However, if people do have time to squeeze in a new movie during this busy Halloween party, celebration, event and festival weekend and equally-busy Halloween day of October 28-31, 2022, there is a new, above-average, charming, message-filled, intelligently-crafted coming-of-age drama, “Armageddon Time,” that is indeed recommended. Concurrently, please ignore and forget the misquided, wayward and questionable hype surrounding the wholly dour, dark, bleak, morose and all-around depressing downer slog “Tar,” which is yet another big-name, big-budget disappointment.

Starring Banks Repeta, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Jaylin Webb, Tovah Feldshuh
Written by James Gray
Directed by James Gray
Produced by Anthony Katagas, Marc Butan, Rodrigo Teixeira Gustavo Debs, Marco Tulio Kehdi and James Gray

Despite it’s initially misleading title, which obviously suggests some type of dystopian, futuristic, apocalyptic sci-fi or horror film, the smart, insightful and entertaining film “Armageddon Time” is actually a well-crafted, charming and perceptive coming-of-age drama that is highly-recommended. The title is actually a sarcastic take on how a young boy sees the world crashing down around him as he grows up in a troubled, anxiety-engulfed Queens neighborhood in troubled, anxiety-engulfed 1980.

To young Paul Graff, who is about ten years old, the circumstances of navigating a troubled family and home life, a troubled neighborhood, troubled teachers and school administrators and even a troubled city and country, while also just trying to enjoy the simple joys of being a kid, it truly is armageddon time in his life. Paul is a good kid surrounded by bad people. He’s a writer, an artist and a dreamer–all good things, of course–but the nimrods around him are just clueless, heartless and, often, even a bit bat-quano crazy.

Except for Paul’s absolutely wonderful, wise, warm, friendly, good-hearted and rock-steady grandfather, Aaron Rabinowitz. Aaron is everything that young Paul–and anyone else–would ever want around you and with you in life–loving, caring, understanding, reliable, successful, intelligent, and the stalwart leader of what is basically a screwed-up family at most other levels.

And thus, you have the heart, essence, center and soul of this movie–the completely moving, touching and emotional friendship that develops and endures between a young boy and his devoted, doting and inspiring grandfather. Watching the chemistry and love that is expressed and enjoyed by Paul and Aaron produces some of the most moving moments at the movies this year. There’s always something very special in the relationships between grandparents and grandkids–and this has been explored to great success in many movies–but “Armageddon’s” writer and director James Gray manages to present a smart coming-of-age story with a touching relationship that is not cliched, not overly-familiar, fresh, inventive –and always watchable. And the characters of Paul and Aaron are written–and subsequently acted–in such a touching manner that audiences will actually like them, or love them, relate to them, and actually care about them.

That’s saying something these days, since so many modern-day bad movies ask audiences to sit through tortured, sluggish, negative films with little-to-none likeable characters. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.

So much credit has to be given to “Armageddon’s” lead actors who play Paul and Aaron. Young Banks Repeta delivers a career-setting, nicely understated, but always captivating and lively, performance as Paul. Without cloying, cutesy or corny overacting or sentimentalizing, Banks, with his natural good looks, mop of long hair, warm smile and generally easygoing, nice manner, steals this movie right out from under a bevy of veteran actors. Banks has a natural and charming manner that just lets the real kid inside of him present itself, instead of appearing to be a kid acting in a role trying to appear real as a kid.

And what an enjoyable time it truly is to see Banks charming the heck out of, and relating closely to, and acting superbly alongside of, none other than the always-great Anthony Hopkins, who plays his wonderful granddad Aaron. Hopkins, too, steals this movie–right alongside young Banks. Hopkins is 84 now–he turns 85 on Dec. 31, 2022–and he still shines as brightly, strongly and creatively on screen as literally anyone else. He is just an amazingly brilliant actor to watch, and his Aaron is a joy to spend time with.

That bond of love, friendship, mentoring, caring and guidance that Banks and Aaron cultivate and provide for each other forms the core foundation of the movie. It would have been even better if the exploration of this positive, uplifting and inspiring multi-generational bond had been written as even more of the focus of the movie’s story, but Gray instead presents the friendship of Paul and Aaron alongside some messy, ugly and not-so-fun aspects of growing up in a challenging Queens of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

There’s also Paul’s strained friendship with Johnny, a neighborhood black boy from a poor, struggling family. Johnny is a good kid surrounded by bad intentions. He has a tendency to get in trouble, fight authority and influence Paul to come along with him in some not-so-smart, rebellious hijinks. This relationship, too, is generally well-handled by Gray, but it’s not as strong as the concurrent story of the friendship of Paul and his grandfather. Nevertheless, the friendship of Paul and Johnny is also interesting, moving and entertaining. An equally-watchable young actor, Jaylin Webb, ably plays Johnny. Webb also acts as a regular, real kid–not an actor’s version of a young kid.

The less said about Paul’s horrid parents, especially dad Irving, the better. Irving, scarily effectively played by a gutsy Jeremy Strong, and his wallflower, subservient wife Esther, played well by Anne Hathaway, are, basically, idiots. They can’t talk to or with Paul; they can’t properly encourage Paul in his natural abilities; they don’t understand, or make intelligent efforts to understand, Paul; they bicker and fight constantly; they appear to have barely progressed out of the 1950s, or, perhaps, the 1250s, despite the time period being 1980; and they simply don’t know how to talk to, relate to or understand their smart, insightful, independent young son. They’re idiots.

Oh, and dumb dad Irving illegally physically abuses Paul–Irving beats Paul with a belt and tightly grabs Paul’s ears while screaming at him. Irving also barks orders at his wife: “Where are those bagels?” he rudely yells at her in front of family members st an uncomfortable, awkward dinner table. And he also talks to Paul with those strange, bizarro dadism comments that clueless fathers use when they can’t communicate on a real-life level: “I call the shots around here!” and “this is the first day of the rest of your life” and other such drivel.

Irving’s a bit of a monster–a horrible person, a horrible parent and a horrible father–and credit Strong for delivering a believable performance playing such a complete moron of a human being. Strong does deserve accolades for playing such an unlikeable, horrid character so well–it’s a strong performance full of chutzpah.

Oh, and when Irving and Esther truly can’t sit down and talk with Paul like normal people–they throw Paul to the wolves at one of those horrid, nightmarish, backwards, anti-Semitic, snotty private schools, complete with racist, anti-Semitic students, teachers and administrators and Draconian dress codes.

Armageddon time, indeed.

Gray somehow weaves together all of these coming-of-age plot lines and stories, and ultimately he delivers a strongly-acted, well-written and well-directed dramatic film.

And Gray’s script offers plenty of clear messages. Most prominent among those messages is a strong, powerful warning about the very real dangers, ignorance and stupidity of racial, economic and religious bigotry. In this movie, just about every adult–and just about every youth, too–is prejudiced against someone else. The whites are prejudiced against blacks. The blacks are prejudiced against whites. The rich and middle-class are prejudiced against the poor. The Christians are prejudiced against the Jews. The Jews are prejudiced against the blacks. It doesn’t look good for most adults–but, let’s face it, that’s reality. Look at the world of 2022–not much has changed. Everyone is still plenty prejudiced against everyone else. It’s sad, but it’s true.

However, despite these bleak, depressing realities, Gray, as noted, keeps his movie moving forward swiftly and confidently; he keeps things moving in terms of being emotionally moving; and he wisely balances the drama with bits of warm, human comedic touches. The movie is not a downer, and it’s not depressing, despite it’s serious content, story, plot, messages and themes. Gray has crafted a movie that touches on dark realities without letting his story, characters, plot, dialogue or characterizations ever get too dark.

“Armageddon Time” will resonate with everyone–no matter when or where or how each of us grew up, we have all dealt with various dark realities, even if it was just dealing with current events occurring statewide, nationwide or internationally. Gray realizes this, and along with everything else that Paul and his family deal with–they also have to deal with the Armageddon Time election of Reagan as president in 1980.

“Morons,” barks Irving as the 1980 presidential election results come in on the family living room television. It’s a rare moment of clarity and intelligence from Irving.

Growing up is never easy, but Gray, Banks, Hopkins, Strong, Hathaway and the rest of the cast and crew of “Armageddon Time” make it just a little bit more enjoyable, entertaining and thought-provoking in this little gem of a movie.

Starring Cate Blanchett, Noemie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Written by Todd Field
Directed by Todd Field
Produced by Todd Field, Alexandra Milchan and Scott Lambert

Forget the hype, forget the wayward and shallow accolades, and forget all of the movie “Tar’s” inherent pretentious, snotty, snobby, blue-blood, silver-spoon pandering, pontificating and posturing cluttering up, weighing down and ultimately destroying this thoroughly unlikeable, drab and dreary drama. It’s just not a good movie–on any level.

You know a movie is in trouble when in the first few moments, some snotty moron narrating a question-and-answer session in the movie mentions that Mel Brooks has won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony–and the audience at the Q-and-A laughs derisively, snottily. I’ve got news for these types of snobs, whether they’re characters in a movie or people in real life: Every one of Mel Brooks’ movies is a thousand times more enjoyable and entertaining than the downer, dreary “Tar,” and Mel Brooks deserves every major award that he has received. And Mel Brooks deserves respect–especially from movies like “Tar.”

You also know that a movie is in trouble when, in that same first scene, the lead character, the thoroughly unlikeable classical music conductor and composer Lydia Tar, immediately talks down to an interviewer and to an audience and, subsequently, to people enduring this movie, like some horrendous snot and snob–which she is, to the character’s detriment and to the movie’s detriment–and, in just moments, you hate this vile person from the start.

So where does “Tar” go from its first, initial, uncomfortable, unsettling and unpleasant opening scene? Straight downhill. With no satisfying reason, exposition, explanation or conclusion. This movie, like it’s snotty lead character, is terrible to be around, difficult to listen to, difficult to like, and, yes, difficult to watch.

It’s a mystery why on earth director and writer Todd Field wrote this story and character. Lydia Tar is so condescending, pretentious, manipulative, conniving, Draconian, contemptible, deceiving, lying, self-obsessed, self-centered, arrogant, rude, frosty, cold-blooded, clueless and literally psychotic, there’s just zero reason to care about her on any sane level. Thus, when you don’t give a dern about the lead character, and when you hate the lead character in such a way that it’s just uncomfortable and not enjoyable or entertaining–well, again, what’s the point?

There really is no point to “Tar,” in the end. The movie is a study in madness and insanity, yes, but, once again, when the script, dialogue, plot, story and characterizations are all slow-moving, slowly-paced, slowly-edited, filmed in constant grays, shadows and darkness, and directed in maddening stilted and action-less movements, the messages about psychotic behavior get buried beneath the greater writing, acting, directing, cinematography and editing bombast and sluggishness.

It’s not just Tar that’s unlikeable–every other lead and supporting character is similarly unlikeable. Everyone talks like they’re reading either their master’s thesis, an article from “Psychology Today,” or passages from an encyclopedia. Every character seems so intent on trying to sound intelligent or deep, or something, they all just end up sounding stupid. That’s right, stupid. Their heads are so far up in the clouds, or sheltered behind cloistered blue-blood bubble-worlds, or stuck somewhere else, these poor, terrible snobby, snotty souls just end up acting and speaking completely out of touch with most of the real world. And just about no one laughs or seems to actually express any real, true emotion. They’re all just horrible people.

Lydia Tar is the conductor and a composer for the Berlin Philharmonic. She is rich, successful and lives a golden life, with a big, fancy apartment, press and audience attention, a fancy, cushy job and life, and she even teaches a prestigious classical music class. That should be enough for any sane person to just enjoy and savor for the rest of your life. But Tar is not sane–and she’s power-mad and quickly losing her mind. In a series of unraveling decisions and scenes, bit by bit, Tar completely loses literally everything around her. And it’s no fun, and it’s not interesting or entertaining, to watch.

Tar comes on to a young female musician and when Tar’s sexual advances are turned down, she humiliates and blacklists the girl–who then commits suicide. Tar humiliates and berates a student in her class–and her moronic actions are released online, drawing appropriate ridicule. Tar lives with a beautiful female musician, but Tar repeatedly flirts with and comes on to other female musicians. Tar’s young daughter is bullied at an elementary school–and Tar actually goes to the school and physically threatens the bully, who’s probably about eight years old. Tar, without a clear reason, suddenly decides to fire the Philharmonic’s longtime, established, respected assistant administrator–who promptly, correctly, calls out Tar for her hypocrisy, strange actions and cold-hearted manner and attitude. Tar treats her personal assistant line trash. That assistant ends up resigning.

Then, Tar actually tries to cover up all of her actions with layers of lies, deception and deceit.

It’s all just too much, it’s unbelievable most of the time, and as the insanity and psychosis of Tar increases, the movie just gets more and more difficult to watch and endure.

Even the snippets of classic classical music that’s played cannot be fully enjoyed because the music, too, is buried beneath the growing, enveloping darkness and despair that swallows up the movie.

Of course, the world of classical music is, generally, nothing like the nightmare that’s displayed in “Tar,” which, of course, is only a movie. Around the world, of course, there are thousands of amazingly talented, creative, inventive, hard-working musicians, composers, conductors, administrators and other workers at orchestras, philharmonics, symphonies, venues, concert halls, management agencies, public relations agencies, theaters, concert halls and other entities, working and practicing for long hours every day simply to bring beautiful music to people for their enjoyment.

A positive, uplifting and optimistic film that accurately shows these people doing their musical jobs is the real movie about the classical music community that needs to be made. With a likeable–make that loveable–lead character, surrounded by equally-lovable characters, all working to simply present that classic music to
people. The classical music world deserves this, after “Tar.”

This Halloween weekend of October 28-31, 2022, don’t get swallowed up in the sticky, gooey, smothering, dark pits of “Tar.” Instead, light a fire in the fireplace, draw the windows and shades shut, cuddle up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, get some nice, hot drinks–hot spiced and spiked cider will do the trick–put on a nice classic piece of classical music, sit back, close your eyes, and lose yourself in the music. This is how classical music, or any music, should truly be appreciated and enjoyed.

Happy Halloween!