Monday, March 20, 2023

Armageddon Time


Director James Gray

Gray with cinematographer Darius Khondji

ARMAGEDDON TIME        B                                                                                                     USA  Brazil  (114 mi)  2022  ‘Scope  d: James Gray

The thing that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence.  It was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death.  I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order.      —James Baldwin, The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, from Esquire magazine, May 1, 1961, The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy - ALLISON BOLAH

James Gray is one of those filmmakers who is better received in Europe than he is in America, as his early films like LITTLE ODESSA (1994), The Yards (1999), and WE OWN THE NIGHT (2007) express a shocking violence where death is a prominent theme, known for also creating memorable nightclub sequences, yet despite rave reviews at Cannes, these deeply personal films were often overlooked and received sharply divided reviews.  But for all their dramatic expansiveness, these early crime pictures were of a kind not seen since the New Hollywood classics of the 1970’s, where Gray is a cinephile clearly impacted by the films of that era, citing Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970), William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972), and THE GODFATHER Part II (1974), and the films of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick, yet claims the film that has had the most enduring influence on him was Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), noting that the “swell of the architecture of a movie is part of what makes it the most beautiful visual art form.”  While he has passionate supporters, he has just as many detractors, where he’s never been able to find a mass audience, yet French critics love him, which is why he’s become a Cannes regular for over twenty years, with this film receiving a 7-minute standing ovation.  A native of Flushing, Queens, Gray’s first films tell personal, if loosely autobiographical, stories set in Brooklyn, venturing to Ellis Island for his historical drama The Immigrant (2013), making his way to the Amazon jungle and even outer space for his next projects, before finding his way back home to Queens, making his most autobiographical film, a portrait of his upbringing in the 1980’s, with the Gray family name shortened from Greyzerstein at Ellis Island, a time when a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America returned to conservatism, placing a halt on any socially progressive agenda.  The youngest son in an upwardly mobile Jewish-American family, 11-year old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is an alter-ego of the director, with an antagonizing older brother Ted (Ryan Sell), and second-generation parents Esther (Anne Hathaway) and Irving (Jeremy Strong), while Anthony Hopkins plays the kindly grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz, whose family fled first from the murderous acts of the Cossacks, and then the Nazi’s.  While Jewish history is a predominate theme, this film slyly overlays a similar theme taking place in America with the routine persecution of blacks, who are subject to a heavy-handed authoritative approach from government, schools, and police, quickly labeled troublemakers or criminals, never receiving the breaks or second chances that whites often receive.  A family drama that reflects on a small scale where the whole country is headed, the film is a sober reflection, a coming to terms with one’s own past, which clearly haunts the filmmaker to this day, exploring a generational failure, characterized by the 1980 Presidential election of Ronald Reagan, who was swept into office on a tide of racism and a legacy of dog-whistle bigotry, featuring his slogan, “Let’s make America great again (sound familiar?),”  Pandering to racists through Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which continues to harm communities even today, Reagan released southern states from school desegregation and voting rights mandates while demonizing black women as welfare queens who want free hand-outs and are unwilling to work for a living, making the rest of the country despise who they are and everything they stand for, planting the seeds for the white supremacy of Trump, whose family makes its eerie presence, almost like a horror film.  By the time Donald Trump becomes President in 2016, Republicans hold almost every governor’s office and control most legislatures across the South.

The film’s title comes from a 1979 reggae song by The Clash, The Clash - Armagideon Time [Single] - YouTube (3:51), the B-side of London Calling, while also referencing Ronald Reagan’s 1979 quote on Jim Bakker’s evangelical PTL television network, openly campaigning as an evangelical Christian, expressing his growing interest in the anti-gay theology of Armageddon, “Do you ever get the feeling sometimes that if we don’t do it now, if we let this be another Sodom and Gomorrah, that maybe we might be the generation that sees Armageddon?”  This coming-of-age story reveals the different trajectory of the lives of two young boys, one white and one black, Paul and Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), quickly becoming best friends in a 6th grade class at P.S. 173, as both are singled out for being disruptive in class by the overzealous teacher Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), who bears a resemblance to Ben Stein, the cartoonish teacher in FERRIS BUEHLER’S DAY OFF (1986).  While the point of view follows Paul and his family, we learn that Johnny has none, living with a grandmother suffering from dementia, basically leaving him homeless where he’s fending for himself, held back the previous year, the only black kid in class, with the teacher reminding him of his failures at every turn.  There are subtle differences in the punishment of each student, as Johnny is the one automatically blamed, even when Paul is the instigator, where he’s able to hide behind his race, learning very early about how racial dynamics play out in the real world, which only grew more exacerbated with the election of Reagan.  Despite such different backgrounds, they take solace in being outsiders, with Paul having little interest in school, spending his time drawing instead, with a talent for illustrations, creating a science-fiction superhero character named Captain United, dreaming of one day becoming an important artist.  Both share a passion for outer space, with Johnny dreaming of being an astronaut with NASA, while Paul wants to illustrate comic books about space travel, but their friendship is defined by the rebellious things they do together, like skip out on school, smoke weed in the bathroom, and hang out in the clubhouse built in Paul’s backyard, which Johnny secretly uses as his makeshift home.  While his mother Esther is the head of the PTA, Paul thinks she runs the school, protecting him from any adverse punitive acts, viewing himself as near invincible.  Overall, however, despite telling a personal story, the film feels distantly impersonal and heavy-handed, never becoming dramatically engaging, as outside of Johnny, there are really no likable characters in the film, with Paul in nearly every frame, and he’s kind of a bratty kid, misbehaving at home and at school, where he gives his parents plenty of grief, acting up in inappropriate situations.  When they try to express the gravity of their family history, Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who escaped anti-Semitism in Europe, it’s beyond his comprehension, showing little interest as he routinely backtalks while tuning them out.  It’s rare to see a coming-of-age film with such a snotnose kid as the lead protagonist, yet he has a special relationship with his grandfather, who looks after him like a guardian angel, buying him gifts, showering him with affection, never letting him forget his past, as they may otherwise end up haunting you, which is exactly what happened in America, where embracing the sins of Ronald Reagan was a breeding ground leading us into the disaster of the Trump era.  Following in the footsteps of demagogue radio priest Father Coughlin, who commanded a massive audience in the 1930’s, viewed as the father of hate speech, spouting anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi tirades on the airwaves during the lead-up to World War II, (The Deplatforming of Father Coughlin - Slate Magazine), these are quasi-celebrities who blend populist appeal and right-wing politics, where today a narcissistic self-interest is the new moral dilemma plaguing the nation, as politicians openly seek face time on the networks, hoping to bathe in the social media spotlight of “Me-ism,” while everything else is purely secondary, like running the government or serving the interests of the nation.   

While America is supposedly a land of equal opportunities, one thing this film makes perfectly clear is how opportunities don’t happen equally, as the privileged take advantage by overlooking the many doors that were opened for them, typically at the cost of excluding the more disadvantaged.  Jews escaped persecution in Europe, as Aaron’s family discovered freedom in the welcoming doors of America, yet blacks have never experienced that same welcoming experience, as the doors have continually been closed for them throughout hundreds of years of history, which is astonishing when you think about it, as it goes back to the era of Columbus.  Even though this autobiographical film is not openly political, the experience of “white privilege” resonates strongly, as the education system fails students from marginalized groups in a disproportional way, while the paths of justice operate only for one of these kids, while the other feels the wrath of racial hatred.  Paul’s parents react with horror when they discover his partner in crime is a black kid, transferring all the blame to that kid, suggesting he’s a “bad influence,” overlooking their own child’s explicit responsibilities, while pulling him from the school and transferring him to Forest Manor, in real-life The Kew-Forest School, an all-white private school located in the affluent neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, the same school attended by his brother, along with Donald Trump and his family, where Donald’s father Fred is on the board of trustees.  Paul is extremely unhappy, as this means he will no longer see Johnny, but he quickly experiences a culture shock at the new school, where he’s required to wear a uniform, catering to upper middle class and wealthy families, with readily available computers in the classrooms.  When Johnny visits on the school playground, Paul pretends to barely know him, painfully aware of how his presence is perceived by the other students, who use the n-word to describe him, mocking his lowly status, while making him the butt of racial jokes.  When Paul attempts to talk about this with his grandfather, a bit ashamed that he didn’t stand up for his friend, his grandfather reveals how “the game is rigged” against marginalized groups in America, who experience a collapse of faith when the nation’s promise of freedom and equality doesn’t apply to them, which may explain his own family’s eager assimilation in pursuit of the American Dream.  While Paul and his family also face discrimination, he has the ability to escape much of it, as they have the resources to help him be successful.  Johnny is not so fortunate, with no support whatsoever in helping him achieve his dreams.  A powerful exposé of privilege and inequality, and how it is systematically perpetuated over time, the film is conscientious but difficult, as it’s a rather blunt depiction, providing little insight or background into Johnny’s character, who comes across as a token black figure, and doesn’t compare well to Barry Levinson’s Proustian sagas of Jewish life in post-war Baltimore in films like AVALON (1990) or LIBERTY HEIGHTS (1999).  In addition, the film has a very muted color palette, making it feel colder as it articulates heavier themes, with Gray using digital for the first time, shot by Darius Khondji, where the camerawork is dark and oppressive.  The Trump family are major donors to this new school, with Paul encountering Fred Trump (John Diehl), a powerful real estate magnate in Queens, in the hallway on his first day.  This period in his life is when Paul begins to understand how race, religion, and social class are used as reasons for bigots to inflict their damaging prejudice on others, often veiled and disguised in patriotic and life-affirming rhetoric which is meant only for a privileged few, perfectly encapsulated in a cameo appearance by Jessica Chastain as Maryanne Trump (Donald’s older sister, a federal appellate judge appointed by Ronald Reagan), who gives a rousing speech to the students about the importance of hard work to achieve success, declaring “you are the elite,” conveniently leaving out the part about inheriting a fortune from her father.  While many may not want to hear this message, just as they tuned out on Jimmy Carter’s prescient “crisis of confidence” message in favor of Reagan’s sunny optimism, but it is crucial nonetheless.  

Thursday, March 16, 2023



Director Romain Gavras

Ouassini Embarek on the set

cinematographer Matias Boucard

ATHENA       B                                                                                                                            France  (99 mi)  2022  ‘Scope  d: Romain Gavras

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.  Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.  In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.  For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.                                                                  —Simone Weil opening paragraph from her essay The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, 1945, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force | The Anarchist Library

Gavras is the youngest son of renowned Greek-French film director Konstantin Costa-Gavras, whose political thriller Z (1969) was ripped from the headlines, shot like a documentary, and listed by Time magazine as one of "The 15 Best Political Films of All Time: The Votes Are In".  Like father like son, this is another blisteringly intense experience recalling the French suburban riots of October 2005 that originated in the mostly North African immigrant banlieue region of Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern suburb of Paris, after the death of two young boys who had been escaping the police, eventually spreading to 274 cities and towns nationwide, triggering the worst rioting in France for 40 years, lasting over three entire weeks, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency, resulting in the burning of nearly 9,000 vehicles and the arrests of 2888 individuals, as dozens of public buildings and businesses were set on fire.  The French courts eventually cleared the police (French court clears police over Paris deaths that triggered ...), while the conditions that fueled the uprisings in the banlieues remain largely unchanged, ('Nothing's changed': 10 years after French riots, banlieues ...), as the same bleak hopelessness prevails, and the promise to provide racial and economic equity has abysmally failed, with poor education, rampant youth unemployment, and violent confrontations continuing from a heavy-handed police presence, often involving tear gas brigades, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying in Le Monde that there was a “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid” in France.  Unlike the widely heralded Kerner Commission following urban riots in the United States during the 60’s that revealed “Two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” (The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened), or the Scarman Report in Great Britain following the Brixton Riots of 1981, which identified “complex political, social, and economic factors” that created a “disposition towards violent protest,” but did not explicitly condemn police racism and denied that “institutional racism” even existed, with the recommendations ignored by the Thatcher government, there has been no official national debate on the crisis in France, as no commission of experts and legislators was convened to analyze the riots, resulting in a massive failure to address ongoing racial and religious discrimination.  Making matters worse, newspaper and television reports often depict these rioters as “violent” or “thugs,” though artists are often at the forefront of the protests, yet somehow they fail to address the circumstances that ignited these outbreaks.  What we’re left with, then, to fill the political void, is the arts community providing their own challenging vision, with Gavras using cinema as a theater of provocation, hoping to advance public arguments and discussions on the separate and unequal disparities in the the banlieues, where hopelessness and civil unrest continue to plague the nation.  Shot south of Paris in Évry-Courcouronnes, in the Parc aux Lièvres housing project (aka “the Rabbit Park”), where around 80% was shot with an IMAX camera, the last one available when shooting started (there are only around 50 in the world), this follows in the footsteps of the Mathieu Kassovitz film LA HAINE (1995), Jean-François Richet’s MA 6-T VA CRACK-ER (1997), Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015), and more recently Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables (2019), all films shot in the suburban banlieue projects, where trust with authorities has never been lower, as residents are routinely stigmatized as criminals, where racial tensions with police are continually on high alert, using raw language and an ultra-realistic cinéma vérité shooting style to convey the immediacy of each moment, as these are tinderboxes continually on the verge of erupting into a firestorm of violence.

Gavras got his start making advertisements and directing music videos, and this is largely a choreographed movie, much like storyboards in movies of old, where sequences were carefully constructed ahead of time and rehearsed for months before shooting began.  Matias Boucard’s cinematography is the star of the show, easily the biggest single takeaway from the film, and not just the harmonious synchronicity of the tracking shots, which are utterly spectacular, but the sheer realism in capturing the impassioned outrage from the collective anger in the projects.  Reminiscent of Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera kinetics and complicated long takes in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), the opening shot is a doozy, an electrifying 11-minute tracking shot that swivels on a dime from following a solemn police press conference, quickly turning into John Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), as all hell breaks loose with a sudden mob insurgency when they ransack the police station stealing weapons, gear, and a police van before making an electrifying escape back into the protected walls of the Athena projects (named, appropriately enough, after the goddess of war), with armed residents standing guard atop the towering fortress awaiting the inevitable police response.  Written by Gavras, Ladj Ly, and Elias Belkeddar, it’s a Greek tragedy along the lines of The Iliad, an alliance of Greek cities that eventually prevail in sacking Troy, with a SWAT team of police in riot gear representing the massive force of the Greeks against the besieged banlieue fortress of the protected city of Troy, viewed as a nightmarish Armageddon vision of intensely staged combat where in the end all humanity feels lost, as there is no reconciliation, only blind hatred. This gritty thriller follows three brothers of French-Algerian descent whose lives are thrown into chaos following the brutal beating of their youngest 13-year old brother who was left for dead, with video footage pointing to the police, where the outraged community is a powder keg of unleashed fury ready to explode.  Abdel (Dali Benssalah) is a decorated French soldier who fought in Iraq and in the former African colony of Mali, now collaborating with the police, whose calm demeanor is in stark contrast to the incendiary emotions of Karim (Sami Slimane), the charismatic youth leader who aggressively starts a campaign of guerilla warfare against the police, while the oldest is Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), a drug dealer more concerned with hiding his stash of drugs and weapons from the impending police raids than assisting either of his brothers.  Karim despises the fact that Abdel refuses to take up arms and fight the police, angrily raging “You’re a military whore for France,” while Moktar constantly urges Abdel to protect his own skin above anything else.  These existential, post-imperialist choices reflect the dilemma of Arab and African French immigrants who are urged to assimilate, yet find opportunities glaringly limited by poverty, powerlessness, and racial divisions, where justice is something they never see, with absolutely no trust in the police or governmental authorities, where a lingering sentiment refuses to accept them as being French, instead associating them with criminal or terrorist behavior, where they are literally viewed as the scourge of the earth. 

The knock on this film is that it accentuates the stereotypes, with zero female presence, making little effort to establish any interior character development while also failing to provide social context, though much like the United States, police killings of civilians have dominated headlines in France for years, with the film addressing a prevalent lack of hope in the post-modern world, motivating Gavras to present a collapsing world that seems to revel in an unfolding civil war which sends shock waves across the nation, with television reports of mosques burning and right-wing attacks across the country.  Driven by the visceral allure of Pontecorvo’s revolutionary The Battle of Algiers (1965) and George Miller’s sensationalized Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the aesthetic is an adrenaline rush on overdrive, using drones and swooping crane shots with no pauses or moments to breathe, as it’s simply a non-stop assault to the senses, an all-consuming experience in real time that continually immerses viewers into the center of the action, accentuated by the reverberating music of Benoit Heitz, aka GENER8ION, ATHENA - Netflix Soundtrack - GENER8ION YouTube (35:46), like a Greek chorus commenting on the action, with the camera jumping back and forth in expressing points of view, where the bloodthirsty allure of revolution becomes an apocalyptic day of reckoning of Biblical proportions.  As the various attacks unfold, it also includes a tormented family melodrama, with brother turning against brother, elevated to a mythical scale as they barricade themselves into the bowels of this concrete monstrosity, where much of it is shot in darkened corridors where it was hard to tell what was happening, resembling the chaos of a war zone, entangled in a perplexing labyrinth where there are no good options, each seemingly a dead end, while also mysteriously sheltered inside is a wanted sociopathic terrorist, Sébastien (Alexis Manenti), who has gone into hiding.  At some point in the ensuing chaos a young police officer named Jérôme (Anthony Bajon) is separated from his unit and captured, immediately turned into a hostage used for negotiations, demanding the names of the three policemen involved, with Karim refusing to believe the police report that the killers may not have been police officers, but far-right extremists posing as the police in a deliberate attempt to incite a race riot.  The same nation that gave us liberté, égalité, and fraternité is also the nation of Le Pen, the hijab ban, and horrific atrocities in Algeria, where the colonial fallout is still being felt.  While Gavras explores themes of racism, violence, and social injustice on a grand scale, he combines all facets of photography, editing, and the musical score with a potency that is perfectly synchronized, culminating in an adrenaline-charged tragedy of operatic dimensions, where a nihilistic fatalism devalues everything that exists, as freedom is a lost cause, recalling the finale sequence of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1995), where this is simply a blitzkrieg of annihilation, leaving no room for empathy or reflection.  The reveal in the final postscript may be the most divisive aspect of the film, a flashback to what sparked the outrage, yet it’s handled with a deft precision, adding a sense of foreboding for the future, as cataclysmic divisions in France are only exacerbated by increasing political power of the far-right National Rally, whose nationalist, anti-immigration policies repeatedly connect immigration to Islamic terrorism, making any potential racial reconciliation impossible.  This deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound systems, as much of the visual style was designed for the big screen, much like Hollywood action movies, but unfortunately it spent little time in theaters and was immediately streamed on Netflix, which is disheartening, as you can’t help wondering how that happened, as it seems like a huge mistake.  The film is dedicated to DJ Mehdi, a French hip hop and house music producer, and the memory of Bernard Moussa Gomis.