Animated films may come to dominate the family-film genre but they’ll never entirely edge out their live-action counterparts -- not so long as there exist characters like Nanny McPhee whose charms could never be properly rendered in a computer. After a half-decade away from the big screen Emma Thompson’s magical governess is back to take on a new batch of recalcitrant children in Nanny McPhee Returns. She's gotten better with age.
The second chapter of the Nanny McPhee saga which marks a definitive improvement over the first sends the unsightly taskmaster to the English countryside where Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) the mother of three rambunctious tots (Oscar Steer Asa Butterfield and Lil Woods) has been left alone to raise her unruly brood and manage the family farm while her husband is away at war. (Though it’s never specifically mentioned the film is presumed to take place during World War II.) Harried but capable Isabel’s tenuous grip on her unfortunate situation begins to loosen when a pair of privileged London cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson) and a shady indebted brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans) arrive to wreak fresh havoc in her already chaotic existence. On the verge of losing control of both her farm and her family she opens the door to find Nanny McPhee’s wart-covered visage staring back at her and not a moment too soon.
Though for the most part a breezy and whimsical fable Nanny McPhee Returns is unafraid to scatter a few dramatic bombshells amid its mix of lighthearted fantasy and practical life lessons trusting correctly that its youthful audience can handle a few bleak bumps en route to its happy ending. The biggest revelation of the film aside from director Susanna White and screenwriter/star Thompson’s bawdy comedic sensibilities (one of the film’s less pleasant lessons: kids never tire of scatological humor) is the proficiency of its child actors so often the weak link in even the best family fare. It’s their winning performances along with that of the always excellent Gyllenhaal that help make Nanny McPhee Returns not just an entertaining experience but an endearing one as well.
In the sci-fi thriller 28 Days Later a psychological rage-inducing virus is unleashed the type of vile horror-movie germ that infects its victims within 20 seconds and causes them to violently spew out contagious pathogens. The bug is set free when a group of animal activists free some infected chimps from a primate research facility in London. Twenty-eight days later Jim (Cillian Murphy) a bike courier wakes up from a coma and finds himself in the deserted intensive care unit of a hospital. He eventually stumbles on to the street and from old newspaper clippings littering the streets of London realizes the foggy metropolis has been evacuated. Jim eventually hooks up with another "survivor " Selina (Naomi Harris) who brings him up to speed on what has happened: All of Britain has been contaminated and they have no way of knowing if the disease has spread worldwide. Their only salvation comes in the form of a taped broadcast message by a group of Manchester soldiers saying they have the answer to infection and invite any survivors to join them at their blockade. After a harrowing hike to the barricade and dodging attacks form rage-infected lunatics the duo thinks they have found salvation. But this armed force is not there to offer deliverance--they are a militia of out-of-control megalomaniacs ready to jump-start human civilization.
Murphy and Harris the two lead actors in the film are relatively unknown yet are capable of carrying the pic and both give strong performances that complement each other. Murphy's character Jim for example first awakens in the hospital lost and confused--but by the end of the film he emerges as a leader a champion. This change however isn't triggered by any one incident and we never feel blindsided by his heroic transformation. Harris's character Selina on the other hand starts off hardened and pessimistic but gradually lets her guard down. Alone her only goal was survival. But when she hooks up with Jim her aspirations change not only because of the friendship they develop but because he is able to make her see that surviving simply isn't enough that as humans beings they also need freedom and happiness. And although Selina develops a somewhat softer side in the film she is never a helpless victim waiting to be rescued by the film's male protagonist. Another important character in the film is Hannah played by Megan Burns. Hannah is a young girl that Jim and Selina scoop up in their northbound trek to the military blockade. Burns who made her feature debut in the 2001 period drama Liam is an excellent addition to the cast and her character adds a touching and personal element to the gruesome storyline.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) delivers a post-apocalyptic horror film an homage of sorts to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in which an army of dead bodies comes to life and terrorizes a group of friends trapped inside a farmhouse. Although 28 Days Later--from The Beach author Alex Garland's debut screenplay--tells a different tale the grainy shaky camera work is very derivative of the 1968 cult pic. Shot entirely on digital video the film has a gritty appearance that makes it look and feel like a shocking documentary rather than a sci-fi feature. Boyle also uses low light levels and strobe effects to conceal the movie's cheesy low-tech special effects--specifically the flock of red contact lens wearing zombies. But despite its cost-cutting optical effects this contemporary horror has the power to shock and frighten because the protagonist's most dangerous adversaries not only come in the form of frightening flesh-eaters but militiamen in fatigues. 28 Days Later's most striking sequences however are the warily calm opening scenes in which Jim wanders through the streets of London--crossing Westminster Bridge and reading the bulletin board at Piccadilly Circus--without a body in sight. Blocking off the busy streets of such a compact bustling city had to be Boyle's most ambitious undertaking in the film's production.