Quick takes: Forever My Girl (dir. Bethany Ashton Wolf, 2018) / Den of Thieves (dir. Christian Gudegast, 2018)

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Forever My Girl (USA: PG; BC: G; Ontario: PG)

Forever My Girl has been getting a strong push towards the “faith-based” market, and it’s not hard to see why: it begins in a church, one of the key characters is a pastor, it’s a prodigal-son story that celebrates small-town life and family values, and it’s the sort of PG-rated movie in which the worst epithet a hardened veteran of the entertainment industry can think to use — and he won’t use it around his children! — is “flippin'”. Alas, it’s also a pretty phony movie. The premise of the film is that a country-music star named Liam Page (Rings’ Alex Roe) abandoned his bride Josie (Happy Death Day’s Jessica Rothe) on their wedding day and spent the next eight years enjoying all the perks and vices of fame, and now — upon hearing about the death of one of his friends — he returns to his hometown and discovers that he has a seven-year-old daughter (Ant-Man’s Abby Ryder Fortson). The film, adapted by director Bethany Ashton Wolf from Heidi McLaughin’s novel (which I have not read), tries to explain why Liam left Josie and how both he and the world-at-large never learned about the family he left behind (how did the tabloids miss that?), but the answers are both too simple and too contrived. Supposedly, Liam left Josie and everyone else because, despite the fact that he never even tried to get a music career, he suddenly became famous overnight — and that’s it? Good films are curious about what makes their characters tick, but this one isn’t: it shows no interest in what there might have been in Liam’s relationship with his neighbours that left him predisposed to abandon them so quickly (I guess a closer look at them might have tarnished the film’s rosy depiction of small-town life), and it doesn’t care at all that the same manager who was arranging one-night stands with groupies at the beginning of the story is also helping Liam patch his family together at the end. And don’t get me started on the super-smart seven-year-old, or the decade-old cell phone that Liam clings to because he doesn’t want to lose a message that Josie left him (I don’t think voicemail works that way…), or the various other odd gaps in the storytelling. “I’m not a fully formed human being,” Liam says at one point, and the same could be said of all the other characters, too.

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Den of Thieves (USA: R; BC: 14A; Ontario: 14A)

Den of Thieves wants to be Heat so bad you can taste it. It’s a cat-and-mouse tale about a gruff bad-boy cop named Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and the criminal he is pursuing, an ex-military guy named Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) who steals an empty armoured car at the beginning of the film and goes on to plot a much, much bigger heist by the end — and of course, along the way, there are gun battles in the open streets. The collapse of Flanagan’s marriage feels like obligatory character development, but there are other scenes that work pretty well (like the bit where one of Merriman’s associates, played by 50 Cent, intimidates his daughter’s prom date). As with many heist films, there is some pleasure to be had in following the various complicated security measures that the thieves have to work around, and there are a few ironic twists that I wish had played out just a little more bleakly than they do here. I was particularly impressed by Schreiber, who I know primarily from his more comical roles in Orange Is the New Black and American Gods; here he’s quite credible as a toughened criminal, albeit one who isn’t quite as in-control as he seems at first. The film was co-written and directed by Christian Gudegast, who co-wrote another Butler film, the amazingly bad London Has Fallen, and suffice it to say, this one may not be great but it’s at least good enough to make up for that one.

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