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Friday, August 22, 2014

Movies You Missed & More: How I Live Now

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2014 at 3:41 PM

click to enlarge Ronan and MacKay play kissing cousins during World War III. - MAGNOLIA
  • Magnolia
  • Ronan and MacKay play kissing cousins during World War III.

This week in movies you missed:
 These days it sometimes seems like every new movie release that isn't adapted from a comic book is adapted from a young adult novel. Last week it was The Giver, from Lois Lowry's classroom standard. This week it's If I Stay.

For this trend we can thank the success of Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. But not every YA novel makes for a hit movie.

Case in point: Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, a seeming response to 9/11 in the form of a coming-of-age story, won solid sales and prizes when it was published in 2004. Briefly released last fall, the movie version sank without a trace.

What happened?

What You Missed
click to enlarge screen_shot_2014-08-22_at_1.14.16_pm.png
American teen Daisy (Saoirse Ronan faking a nasal accent) has been sent to rural England to live with her aunt while her (never-seen) dad is busy with his new wife and baby. She's pissed off about that, and spends the first half hour of the film showing it with incessant sulking while her adorable English cousins try to interest her in life on their adorable farm. Her aunt, meanwhile, goes to Geneva on deliberately-kept-vague political business.

Then a nuclear device explodes in London. Trees thrash, snow falls, power goes out, and martial law is declared. The "enemy" (apparently a terrorist group, but never identified) has poisoned the water supply and is roaming the countryside. Daisy has just realized she's in love with her cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), when they're ripped apart. Now she and her youngest cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), must fend for themselves in an increasingly bleak landscape.

Why You Missed It
Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) directed this British production, which reached 68 U.S. theaters, none here. Now on Netflix and Amazon Instant.

Should You Keep Missing It?
How I Live Now inspired such strong and divergent reactions in me from moment to moment that I want to read the novel to see if the issue is the source material or the adaptation.

My 20-point, highly scientific scale for the assessment of indie films:

1-4 points: Does it look pretty?
3/4. The whole film has that yellowy Instagram look for insta-nostalgia. Being a child of the '70s, I'm fine with that.

Not so fine with the director's habit of zooming in on things he wants us to find important. That felt like an apocalyptic '70s movie in a bad way.

1-4 points: Does anything happen?
3/4. Twenty-first-century Britain is overrun with invisible enemies and turns its young men into cannon fodder, so yes. On the other hand, Ronan never changes her expression, and she's the one we're focused on, so no.

1-4 points: Does what happens make sense?
4/4. Here's what I like about How I Live Now. From Red Dawn to The Hunger Games, a lot of movies have indulged the adolescent fantasy-slash-terror of having your home become a battleground. (Hey, at least there's no more homework and probably no one to keep you from making out with that hot guy.)

In most of these movies (and books), the teens get to save the world — or at least kill a bunch of bad guys and look cool. How I Live Now takes a far darker approach to the wartime scenario. Daisy isn't a hero; she's a frightened refugee, then a helpless bystander to atrocities. Ignorant about the larger causes of the war (as is the viewer), she focuses on survival and the dream of seeing her boyfriend again. In short, it's about as close as a teen movie has come to the realities of living in a war zone.

1-4 points: Do the characters seem like real people? Failing that, do they look pretty?
2/4. Macdonald never found a substitute for the novel's strong first-person voice. Daisy just looks dazed throughout — it's the first dull, unvaried performance I've ever seen from Ronan — and her beloved Eddie barely has a personality. So their love story, which is supposed to be the film's core, was about as interesting to me as Twilight.

Macdonald uses a device of staticky, overlapping background noises to convey the cultural messages swarming in Daisy's head — telling her to be skinny, perfect, etc. — all of which the war will render irrelevant. This may have worked brilliantly on the page, but in the movie, it just makes Daisy seem a bit off.

1-4 points: Does the movie give us a reason to care about anything happening on screen?
click to enlarge screen_shot_2014-08-22_at_1.14.53_pm.png
2/4. I'm a sucker for home-as-battleground imagery, owing to a Cold War upbringing and my conviction for many years that nuclear winter could happen tomorrow. I got chills when the distant detonation darkened the skies above the idyllic farm, and continued to get them throughout the film.

I worried a lot about Daisy's younger cousins, who had more vivid and endearing presences than she did. But when it came to her, her crucial decision and her quest for her strong-and-silent dude, the movie left me cold.

Verdict: 14/20. I suspect that How I Live Now bombed in the U.S. for the wrong reasons — it's small, it's dark, it's too "real" to work as a fantasy. It has so many genuine flaws that I can't recommend it as an unsung gem, but I think some teen viewers might get really into it.

This Week in Theaters
Chloë Grace Moretz has to decide whether she wants to live after a car crash in If I Stay. Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a title that tells you everything you need to know about the latest comic-based flick. When the Game Stands Tall tells the fact-based story of a high school football coach.

This Week in Your Living Room
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Fading Gigolo, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Quiet Ones.

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How I Live Now
Rated R · 101 min. · 2013
Official Site: www.facebook.com/HowILiveNow
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Writer: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and , Meg Rosoff, Penelope Skinner, Jack Thorne
Producer: John Battsek, Alasdair Flind, Andrew Ruhemann and Charles Steel
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, George MacKay, Corey Johnson, Sophie Ellis, Harley Bird, Sabrina Dickens, Natasha Jonas and Gavin Sims

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

More by Margot Harrison

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