Movie reviews: Pete’s Dragon, The Shallows, Nerve

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Pete’s Dragon 4/5
The Shallows 4/5
Nerve 3/5

 

ONCE the fire-breathing incarnation of Hell’s fury, movie dragons are much cuddlier creatures these days, and Pete’s Dragon (PG) is likely to accelerate the trend. 

Left orphaned in the deep woods when his parents are killed in a car crash, the infant Pete is adopted by a furry, moss-green dragon whose fearsome appearance belies a tender heart.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) grows up feral, a kind of mini-Tarzan as he swings through the giant redwoods of the American wilderness, his bond with Elliott the Dragon unbreakable until excessive logging cuts into their natural habitat.

A kindly forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), discovers Pete living wild, and takes him back to civilisation with the aim of finding his parents. 

The distraught Elliott is helpless — but when a group of loggers led by Gavin (Karl Urban) go hunting Elliott in the woods, the scene is set for a cataclysmic showdown.

Loosely adapted from the 1977 semi- animated musical of the same name, Pete’s Dragon is directed by David Lowery as a family-friendly action-adventure — if you can imagine ET breathing flames you won’t be too far away.

This Disney tale isn’t in the same league as Spielberg’s finest child-oriented movies, but it’s a well-crafted story of children learning to cope with loss, and teaching adults a thing or two about love. 

The CGI dragon (a master of camouflage and disguise) is beautifully blended into the live- action scenes, and while the plot evolves to a formula so precise you can almost hear the scenarios click into place, Lowery directs with a light touch that renders Pete’s Dragon a charming, upbeat fantasy.

The Shallows (12A) is as stripped-back a high-concept thriller as you’re likely to see this year. 

Nancy (Blake Lively) travels alone to a deserted Mexican beach to surf some waves and pay homage to her mother’s spirit. 

One wipe-out later, however, Nancy finds herself bleeding and marooned on a rock 200 metres from safety, with the tide coming in and a ravenous shark between her and the shore.

Written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s a great set-up that pits the wounded Nancy’s wits against the shark’s single-minded instinct, and Blake Lively does a terrific job of shouldering the entire story for the 86-minute running time, much of it spent in close-up as Collet-Serra ratchets up the tension. 

In terms of its thrills and spills, the story is Jaws boiled down to its purest essence, but the standoff between Nancy and her nemesis belies its title with a more profound dimension, as the ever-resourceful Nancy battles despair, physical weakness and the vagaries of fate as she seeks to outwit a foe as pitiless as anything on earth.

The final act descends into unnecessary silliness on occasion, as the film-makers seek to amplify an already visceral melodrama, and the nagging question as to why the shark doesn’t simply sate its hunger on the dead whale floating in the bay is never satisfactorily answered.

Those caveats aside, however, The Shallows is a chilling thriller that vividly brings to life the very stuff of nightmares.

Nerve (15A) stars Emma Roberts as Vee, a secondary school senior who reluctantly agrees to participate in an online game of truth or dare, in which the dares are suggested by anonymous ‘watchers’ who pay the player money when a dare is successfully completed.

Keen to earn money to pay for college, and buzzing on the rush of popularity, Vee and her dare partner Ian (Dave Franco) accept outlandish and dangerous dares, and soon the pair are locked into a dizzying spiral that hurtles headlong towards tragedy.

Adapted from Jeanne Ryan’s novel of the same name, and directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, Nerve offers a fascinating set-up that appears to be a critique of social media’s potential for abuse, trolling and anonymous mob frenzy (there is also an ominous warning about how quickly the masterminds behind Nerve can strip-mine your online data).

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco aren’t entirely convincing as a pair of devil-may-care risk-takers, but some of the dares are well worth watching — at one point the duo are dared to hit 90kph on a motorcycle, with Ian riding blind and Vee riding pillion and directing him through the city streets.

The mechanics of the online game are a little implausible, not least the idea that the anonymous watchers will pay thousands of dollars just to watch ordinary people act the maggot, but overall it’s a fun concept with a suitably sinister message at its heart about how the misuse of social media can have a corrosive effect on real people’s lives.


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