Thursday, October 22, 2015

"Advantageous" and "Beasts of No Nation"

I promised a review of the Netflix distributed film "Advantageous" a while back, and I thought I'd pair it with their latest release, "Beasts of No Nation," which is currently making waves.  The two films have nothing at all to do with each other.  They're in different genres, with different audiences, and their releases are being handled very differently - "Beasts of No Nation" is being prepped for awards season while it doesn't appear that "Advantageous' got any sort of theatrical release at all.

Of the two, "Advantageous" is the more niche film, directed by Jennifer Phang.  It takes place in a dystopian future where jobs have become so scarce that keeping one can be a matter of life and death.  Meanwhile, social advancement has become much tougher, and getting into the right schools and the right programs determines a child's whole future.  Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) works a s spokeswoman for a cosmetics company, and has a bright young daughter named Jules (Samantha Kim).  Gwen's loses her job, which endangers Jules' enrollment at an elite school.  A possible solution is a new process created by her company that would allow Gwen to transfer her consciousness into a younger, more marketable donor body.  There are, however, some terrible risks and side effects.

I want to point out up front how heartening it is to see a genre film directed, written by, and starring Asian-American women.  The special effects are minimal, but the ideas are certainly ambitious.  "Advantageous" is exactly the kind of low-key, small scale, terribly intimate science-fiction film that could only be made these days as an independent film, and I'm so happy that Netflix took a chance on it.  I only wish it were a better film than it is.  It starts out well enough, slowly revealing the ins and outs of a ruthlessly automated future that has made more and more of the population obsolete.  I like the mother-daughter relationship too, which is warm and genuine without feeling overly precious.  Jacqueline Kim carries the film easily, and she's very sympathetic as her situation becomes increasingly dire.  

Unfortunately, the final third of the film doesn't live up to the rest.  The POV shifts from Gwen to Jules, which doesn't go well.  There's also a big build-up to Gwen's decision, the consequences of which are difficult to parse.  The most damaging issues is that the movie completely loses all the previous momentum at this point.  Phang's prone to languid, dreamy scenes of private introspection, which just feel more and more indulgent as the film goes on.  While I admire the simple, minimalist nature of the filmmaking, and the avoidance of big, flashy gimmicks, occasionally it seems to forget that it's telling a dystopian story and seems more interested in being a mood piece.  The ending in particular is awfully pat and oddly cheerful, offering a resolution that is tonally incongruous with the rest of the movie.  While I see a lot of promise in Phang's work, this doesn't feel like a finished product.

Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation," however, feels like a complete film, and it is a relentless one.  Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, "Beast of No Nation" follows the tragic life of an Africa boy named Agu (Abraham Attah), who loses his family to war, and is then forced to become a child soldier under the command of a brutal rebel Commandant (Idris Elba).  He participates in countless brutalities as the rebels fight their way toward the capital, but Agu also faces threats from his fellow soldiers, harsh conditions, and the dangerous whims of the Commandant.  He manages to becomes with another boy named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), but otherwise Agu feels hopelessly trapped.  Though the film was made largely in Ghana with local actors, the country in "Beasts of No Nation" is never specified.

This is not a viewing experience for the faint of heart.  Though bookended by quieter segments of tranquility, once the bullets start flying the violence rarely pauses for long.  Fukunaga, who was also the film's DP and writer, constructs some fantastic sequences here, including a battle where a drug-addled Agu sees the jungle literally turn red, and a long tracking shot where the boys callously murder a woman and child.  Abraham Attah turns in an exceptional performance as Agu, and Idris Elba won't want for villainous roles after this.  I can find little fault with the film's aims or its tenacity in authentically portraying so much of the pain and suffering experienced by African child soldiers.  At the same time, the film felt overly familiar and oddly shallow.  I can't help thinking that we've see quite a few of these narratives before, in films like "War Witch" and "Blood Diamond."  "Beasts" is probably the most direct in its aims, and the most gorgeous of them visually, but I found it difficult to connect to the characters on anything more than a visceral level.

Fukunaga depends heavily on the shock and awe of all the awful things that Agu experiences, and doesn't spend as much time examining what's happening to him on a more personal scale.  The few times he does try for introspection are all through overbearing narration or very blunt, obvious monologue, often accompanied by somber music.  It makes the whole film feel too much like a parable rather than a real person's genuine experiences.  I also found it very distracting that though most of the dialogue in the film is in the Ghanese language Twi, all the narration and several important scenes have Agu speaking English, which is heavily accented and takes effort to understand.  It's an odd choice, one that seems to point to an uneasy distance between the director and the material.  Fukunaga's accomplished something very admirable with "Beasts of No Nation," but there are some flaws here that left me ill at ease.


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