There are few things more disappointing than amazing film concepts that don't even come close to meeting their potentials. Unfortunately, 'How I Live Now' is one of those.
Based on Meg Rosoff's popular novel of the same name, 'How I Live Now' kicks off in traditional indie film fashion. Via a loud, colorful and rock-filled opening credits sequence that looks like something out of a Sofia Coppola movie, we meet our central character, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan). Daisy is a rebellious teenager from the United States who embodies everything that people hate about American teenagers. She's completely immersed in herself. She's rude and arrogant. She genuinely doesn't care about a single thing in the world – that is, for now.
Daisy's mother passed away during child birth, leaving her her completely alone with her busy New York City businessman father. Although we never see him in the film, it's obvious that he's just as much an absentee father as she is a bratty child. No longer willing to put up with her rebellion, he sends Daisy to live with her aunt and cousins in a U.K. countryside village. Aside from a long-ago visit with the aunt, these are family members that she's never met. Her aunt is just as absent as her father, but with reason. Working in politics, her time is consumed trying to stop a third world war from breaking out. This has left Daisy's cousins in a similar seemingly parent-less state. The first third of the film shows Daisy fighting against their way of living. She's just as rebellious and rude to her cousins as she is to the rest of the world. Little by little, as she sees their unique style of freedom, she loves herself and becomes one of them. Their activities resemble those of The Lost Boys in 'Peter Pan' and 'Hook.'
The more that Daisy gets to know the oldest of the cousins, Eddie (George MacKay), the more she likes him. Eddie has a pet falcon that perfectly symbolizes Daisy's transformation. When Daisy first arrives, the trained bird has a broken wing. To help it heal, Eddie places it in a large closed container that keeps it from flying, allowing the wing to mend. The bird thrashes around and tries breaking out of its enclosure when it first enters, but emerges strong and grateful in the end. Daisy's time with her cousins is exactly the same. She came as a damaged thrashing animal and is healed over her time in this confined location. Up to this point, 'How I Live Now' is a standard indie film – it takes its time, establishes the characters and their world, and draws you in – but the second and third acts take it in a completely different route.
The emotional "Indian Summer" comes to an abrupt end while the teens and children play in the forest one afternoon. While standing amidst a clearing, a strange wind blows through the area, after which light flakes of ash begin to fall like a calm winter snow. A terrorist attack has occurred in London. The ash is the result of a nuclear bomb leveling the city. Marshall law is instigated prior to mandatory evacuations in soon-to-be war zones. All around the country, boys of all ages are being forced to fight the spreading world war. The girls are left like the woman of the United States in the 1940s – doing all forms of work while the men are at war. Daisy and her young cousin Piper conform, but with plans to escape and reunite with the boys back at the homestead.
The second and third acts paint a grueling picture of what it would be like to live through this scenario. The titular dialog "how I live now" is uttered here. Should such a thing come to pass, this is how we could all be living. It's like 'The Road' sprinkled with moments from 'Red Dawn.'
While the concept works well, the story within it isn't so great. You see, there's a vital part of this story that's so gross that I can't believe it's not a complaint found in other reviews. Daisy and Eddie fall in love with one another - which wouldn't be anything strange given they weren't blood cousins. Their sex scene is meant to be tender, but it's just all-out creepy. The reason that they're fighting to escape the restrictions of war is to get back to one another's arms, which is too much like teen drama for me. The third act resembles that awful film 'Cold Mountain,' only we're watching the girl trying to make her way home through the war-riddled countryside instead of the man. 'How I Live Now' could have been so much more if it wasn't fueled by an incestuous lovelorn tale of teen drama.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia has placed 'How I Live Now' on a Region A BD-25 disc that's housed in a blue Elite keepcase. Prior to main menu, you're forced to watch a Magnolia vanity reel and a commentary disclaimer. All of the trailers and commercials that play – 'Last Days on Mars,' 'Mr. Nobody,' 'Best Man Down,' 'Bad Milo!' and AXS TV – can be skipped over.
'How I Live Now' has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that presents the picture in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I can't say if it's a result of poor digital cinematography or the BD-25 disc, but the entire films carries the look of a '70s film shot on 16 mm cameras. To avoid clarification - no, that's not a compliment.
The films kicks off with a noisy-as-hell Film4 vanity reel. Sadly, it doesn't end there. Noise is prominent throughout much of the film. You'll see it in all objects – bright skies, green grassy hills, vibrantly colored images, et cetera. Many of the colors appear to be overly saturated. Chock full of warm and colorful primaries, they never quite look natural.
Sharpness is rare throughout the picture. The look and feel is so comparable to 16 mm that I was certain that's what the film's shooting specs would reveal when I looked them up. I was astonished to learn that 'How I Live Now' was shot on several types of HD cameras. Nothing in this picture points to it being shot digitally. The crispness and clarity of digital cinema are missing 90 percent of the time. There are far more shots containing mild details than there are of shots with great detail.
Even with its video quality flaws, 'How I Love Now' has some brilliant imagery. It's gorgeous. The sight of peacefully falling snow-like ash is unforgettable. Natural lighting on pretty hillside settings reveal a style similar to that of Terrence Malick. The only flaw with this style are a few nighttime scenes that lack lighting. The darkness muddles the image on the screen, washing out all should-be distinguishable details.
The film itself and the video quality are far from great, but the locations and shooting style are fantastic. It's a shame that the film and the picture quality could not match the quality of the film's cinematography.
'How I Live Now' carries a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks that's much better than the screenplay or the video quality. Truthfully, this is the most noteworthy aspect of the disc.
The opening credits sequence is filled with poppy rock/alternative music that blares from all speakers. Just like this example, music is always well-spread throughout the channels. It isn't as dynamic as it could be, but it still sounds great as it fills the space. Shortly after the credits, we're given our first taste of dynamic mixing. Throughout the film, we hear the judgmental voices inside Daisy's head. With countless layers of Saoirse's voice chaotically trash talking at the same time, different "voices" are mixed around the space. The result is an effect of dizzying madness. Unfortunately, not all voices are mixed this way. Most are simply placed in the front-and-center location.
When it comes to effects mix, there's some inconsistency. Different movie settings have different sound mixing. Exterior locations typically have fantastic mixing. As Daisy exits the airport, the sounds of whirling unseen helicopters can be heard lifting off and seamlessly imaging overhead. Later in the film, roaring jets unexpectedly pass overhead give another great example of seamless imaging. Outdoor scenes bring this type of constant active mixing, but indoor scenes are passive. If used at all, they don't add anything to the film. They're flat and unremarkable. Lucky for us, a great amount of the film is set outdoors.
Author Meg Rosoff was onto something when she conjured the idea behind 'How I Live Now.' I'm privileged to never have experienced war or first-hand acts of terrorism, but Kevin Macdonald's cinematic adaptation of her story has effectively given me a glimpse into what that harsh reality might be like. In that aspect, the film works – but the character story used to carry us through that world doesn't work well at all. Following two young lovers determined to do whatever it takes to be reunited, the story feels like something out of a teen movie or CW series. The most off-putting element is the fact that our two sexually active teenage lovers are cousins. It's only made grosser because this icky aspect of their relationship is never recognized in the film. The film itself is gorgeously shot, but the lacking video quality doesn't do it any justice. The audio quality is great, but not enough to save this three-star release. 'How I Live Now' has heightened potential, but it never reaches it. For me, it's a film only worthy of watching once.