Skip to main content

Come on, we need to get away from here.

How I Live Now
(2013)

(SPOILERS) There’s enough genuine grimness in How I Live Now to nominate it as the anti-Young Adult movie. It’s probably no coincidence this is the strongest aspect of the picture, an unvarnished take on (global) conflict and the collapse of society shorn of the cosy fantasy elements of most of its stable mates. Kevin Macdonald’s post-apocalyptic Britain at times conjures the spectre of a teen Children of Men, but that’s more for its iconography (a martial, desolate and dissolute landscape) than actual content.  During its best passages, How I Live Now holds the taut immediacy of plunging into a nightmare tomorrow, where everything familiar is thrown on its head.  And the murky background to events is somehow more believable than any detailed geopolitical account. But the attempts to blend this with a standard issue romance are less certain, feasible as a dream to hold onto through the dark times but less convincing when actualised.


This is Saoirse Ronan’s second recent attempt to anchor a Young Adult adaptation, and it’s considerably more effective than The Host. Notably, both aspire to depict the internal monologue of a young protagonist and here in particular How I Live Now is more successful. Partly because the voices are less crucial to the plot, but also because they aren’t nearly as silly. Daisy (Ronan) is a self-absorbed, uppity New Yorker sent to live on a farm with her English cousins Edmond (George MacKay), Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird). Afflicted by a chiding inner aspect mixing self-help instructions with vehement character assassination, Daisy’s temperament soon thaws when she and Edmond fall in love. But brewing in the background are international tensions and the threat of war. Soon after her aunt (Anna Chancellor) departs for an emergency conference there is a nuclear attack on London, and the cousins are cut off from the outside world. Their attempts to make a go of it alone are curtailed when soldiers detain, separate and evacuate them to different parts of the country. But Daisy hasn’t given up on reuniting with Edmond.


There are some whacking great gaps in the logic of How I Live Now, credited to three writers; Jeremy Brock (who also worked with Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland and The Eagle), Penelope Skinner, and Gilliam and Red Riding Trilogy writer Tony Grisoni. I’m presuming most of these pre-exist in Meg Rosoff’s novel. But one thing I really like about the construction is how oblique the circumstances of this brooding Third World War are. On that level, it echoes 1980s nuclear nightmare efforts where the reasons for the situation are less important than the situation itself. Still though, there has to be a gesture towards joined-upedness. Would a mother, no matter how vital the circumstances, leave her children unattended when the world is on the brink of darkness? Hers is a decision that introduces a brief idyll uninfluenced by adults; Enid Blyton with added lust and mushroom clouds. Such a mismatch means it’s only the naturalistic shooting style adopted by Macdonald and cinematographer Frank Lustig that holds the fort in grounding some of the more unlikely elements.


Most glaring of these is the terribly fortunate lack of radiation sickness. This is despite a cloud of nuclear ash raining on the young quartet and their consumption of poisoned food and water. The scene when the blast is heard, and then it begins to “snow”, might be the picture’s most powerful; the realisation that something terrible is happening amid a serene, pastoral setting. But at least a couple of these kids (at 16 or so, Daisy and Edmond are more age-appropriate than in the book) really should be old enough to have an inkling of the deadly effects of nuclear fall-out (who knows, perhaps it all became a bit boring post-‘80s and ignorance is bliss; yet Edmond knows enough to tell the younger ones to get inside). I won’t complain that the slow deterioration in health and faculties of When the Wind Blows is absent here, but it seems to me there’s some onus to follow through if you’re tackling weighty themes and subjects. From what we see here, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tepco commissioned How I Live Now; radiatioactivity is relatively benign and nothing to worry about at all, kids. If you don’t think about it too much, it will go away.


There are also other slightly anomalous events; does Daisy have a very important dad (we know little of him, except that the father-daughter relationship is fraught)? Why else would the man from the US Embassy show up with a plane ticket (if this is happening to all US expats, this guy will do an awful lot of driving)? Understandably, Macdonald chooses not to emphasise what appears to be a relationship between first cousins (apparently the director has said this is not the case, but there’s no evidence otherwise in the movie). I don’t think this plot is wholly successful, but it works in as much as it’s Daisy’s driving force; an ideal to be pursued, to keep her going. Ronan and Mackay give solid performances, although Edmond is as burdened with affectations as Daisy (he’s a sensitive soul, picking up on thought processes and talking to the animals, like a teenage Dr Doolittle). If their reuniting is a little schematic (Edmond is now emotionally and physically scarred and distant, Daisy has learnt the importance of devotion without expectation of reward), certain narrative choices have pushed the boundaries of our expectations sufficiently for there to be no guarantee of a happy ending.


This is a film where children are shot in the head and body-bagged amidst piles of decaying corpses. The countryside, once a haven of warmth and safety, becomes a constant source of danger and horror. Cadavers are strewn, rapists lurk at every turn and the only code is degeneracy and lawlessness. The towns are no safer, the target of pitched battles. Daisy may not be the most reassuring of parent-figures for poor Piper, but her fanciful goal keeps them going. Plus, the apparent selfishness of that motivation is somehow more believable than facing reality. Certainly more so than acting the feisty Ripley type. The scene where Daisy shoots two predators (one of whom is played by Ronan’s father) is much more powerful than the punch-pulling reluctant heroics of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.


It was inevitable that a wide audience wouldn’t see How I Live Now, but I suspect it has greater potential for cult movie afterlife than most of its peer group. The unpalatable subject matter could have been finessed a little (and by that I don’t mean sanitised), but Macdonald achieves something more powerful than mere verisimilitude; in spite of its flaws How I Live Now resonates.


***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was