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New Release Review - BEASTS OF NO NATION

In an unnamed African nation, a young boy becomes a child soldier.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Starring: Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor




"There's no doubt Beasts of No Nation would be improved with an increased budget and a more cinematic approach to its storytelling, but only the most stubborn cinephiles could dismiss it, as it's arguably the best war movie since Full Metal Jacket."





It was inevitable that the juggernaut that is Netflix would move into the sphere of filmmaking, having had such success with original series like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Daredevil. Adam Sandler's western comedy, The Ridiculous Six (groan), arrives in December, closely followed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, a sequel to Ang Lee's crossover 2000 hit, and early next year we'll be treated to Pee Wee's Big Holiday. But Netflix are kicking this venture off with a prestigious title that has garnered Oscar talk, despite its TV origin (the movie is receiving a limited theatrical run in a few countries to qualify for awards).
Beasts of No Nation is an adaptation of a novel by Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala, and tells the tale of Agu (Abraham Attah), a pre-pubescent boy whose unnamed African nation is in the midst of civil war. On our first meeting, Agu first he's a typical young lad, getting into mischief in his previously peaceful village. When the fighting escalates and government forces, having installed themselves through a military coup, invade his home town, Agu finds himself on the run after the men of his town are gunned down, accused of being rebels. In the jungle he comes across a platoon of the real rebels, led by a charismatic but sinister Commandant (Idris Elba), who seduces the young boy into becoming a child soldier through the promise of revenge against the government forces.
Bugsy Malone  by way of Italian 'shockumentarians' Jacopetti and Prosperi, Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing look at the reality behind the charity commercials that interrupt our TV viewing. Given the litany of atrocities unveiled here, it's easy to see why Netflix would choose to follow their debut movie with an Adam Sandler romp. Heads are sliced with machetes like watermelons, women are raped before being put out of their misery with a bullet, children are sodomised (offscreen, thankfully), and in the most repugnant moment, a pregnant young woman, a mere child herself, has her belly crushed under the ill-fitting boots of child soldiers. Think of Elem Klimov's controversial World War II drama, Come and See, transferred from the bleakness of Belarus to a lush paradise soiled by the presence of man.
Setting the story in a fictional warzone is a wise choice, removing any prejudice we may bring to a real-life scenario. Here the opposing factions are meaningless, indistinguishable acronyms, and it seems nobody really knows what exactly they're fighting for.
Understandably, the film's marketing has focussed on the presence of Elba, who is great here, doing his best to finally rule himself out of the James Bond conversation with a portrayal of the year's most horrific character, but this is Agu's story, and Attah's movie. The young Ghanaian is outstanding in his debut, evolving from feckless tyke to cold-blooded warrior. His gaze in the movie's final scene is a chilling image that tells you more than any line of his unnecessary but relatively unobtrusive voiceover.
The production gets good value for its relatively miniscule $6 million budget, but aesthetically, it's very much on a par with a modern cable TV production, glossy filmmaking chopped down to bitesize French fries for a couch potato audience. Most viewers will watch Beasts of No Nation on laptops, tablets and even phones, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, doubling as cinematographer, faces a struggle here to make his movie look cinematic without his visuals being lost on screens small enough to nullify even the tightest close-ups. Shots are rarely held long enough to breath, and the movie's most impressive composition - child soldiers sheltering under an armoured vehicle, dwarfed by the machinery of an adult war - is of a blink and you'll miss it length.
There's no doubt Beasts of No Nation would be improved with an increased budget and a more cinematic approach to its storytelling, but only the most stubborn cinephiles could dismiss it, as it's arguably the best war movie since Full Metal Jacket (should you rule out the incredible set-pieces that bookend the otherwise mediocre Saving Private Ryan). If this is the future of TV, the small screen is going to prove an interesting medium in the years ahead, but it remains to be seen how Netflix's rise will effect the big screen, where this sort of project really belongs.



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