OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE (2023) – Jason Statham Leads the Way in Fun Spy Adventure by Writer/Director Guy Ritchie

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I’m kinder to writer/director Guy Ritchie’s work than most.

And that’s because I enjoy most of his movies, which are not always critically acclaimed. They are generally upbeat energetic adventures, with lots of witty comedy thrown in, films like the Robert Downey Jr. SHERLOCK HOLMES movies, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015) reboot, and THE GENTLEMEN (2019), which starred Matthew McConaughey.

Now comes OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE (2023), which Ritchie both wrote and directed, a spirited spy thriller starring action star Jason Statham as a British agent who is tasked with preventing the sale of an unknown stolen item to an unknown buyer. Huh? See, the British government knows that something top secret and of high value was stolen, but they don’t know what. They do know that it has attracted the attention of many dangerous buyers. They also know who is brokering the deal, the eccentric billionaire Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant).

So, handler Nathan Jasmine (Cary Elwes) hires superspy Orson Fortune (Jason Statham) to assemble a team to find out what Simmonds is selling, to whom is he selling it to, and then to retrieve it in order to prevent the sale. The team includes tech whiz Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) and all-around expert at everything JJ (Bugzy Malone). To infiltrate Greg’s super secure surroundings, Orson blackmails famous actor Danny Francesco (Josh Hartnett) into helping them, because Francesco is Greg’s favorite actor, and he practically loves the man. With Sarah posing as Danny’s girlfriend, and Orson as his new manager, they infiltrate one of Greg’s parties and begin their work. Complicating matters is another better financed team is also on the job, helmed by Orson’s main competition, a spy named Mike (Peter Ferdinando).

The ruse is on! May the best team win!

While I do enjoy Guy Ritchie’s movies, and I did enjoy OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE, it’s a little less spirited and a bit sloppier than some of Ritchie’s other movies, which usually are very slick and polished, and that’s not the case here. While there are plenty of exotic locations, the type you expect to find in a spy movie, Ritchie’s direction and the editing seems a bit off. There are some awkwardly edited scenes, a fight sequence for instance, which ends abruptly, and then is shown again later as a flashback to explain what happened, a decision which was odd to say the least. Just show the fight when it happened. There’s also a scene that ends right in the middle of a line of dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, the screenplay by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, and Marn Davies struggles to get the humor right. The writing just isn’t as sharp as it needs to be, and the laughs aren’t always there. The situations are there, the characters interesting to watch, but the dialogue isn’t up to the task. Many of the jokes simply don’t land. What you end up with is a movie that is more amiable than humorous. And it is amiable. I did have fun watching it, but it’s just not as witty as it tries to be.

Of course, the most awkward thing about the movie is its title: OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE. Really? What a mouthful! The French “Ruse de guerre” means “ruse of war.” Yes, these spies are using trickery to wage war against the enemy. I get it. But it’s still an awful title.

But what’s not awful is the cast, which is really the best part of this movie. Jason Statham is always fun to watch, and he remains one of my favorite action stars working today. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Statham performance I haven’t liked. He’s always believable, he always has an edge about him, and he possesses a charismatic screen persona. He also has an awesome spy name: Orson Fortune. You can build a series around a guy with a name like that!

Here, Statham is rock solid once again, and he does enjoy some humorous moments, one of which is when he confuses the front door with the back door of a building and exits the wrong one, leading to an unexpected encounter.

And then you have Aubrey Plaza as Sarah who gives it her all in this movie. Like Statham, she’s also a lot of fun, and she gets one of the best lines in a movie I’ve heard in quite a while, a memorable quip involving a cocktail. Of course, if you really want to see Plaza at the top of her game, you should see EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022), one of my favorite movies last year, and a true showcase of Plaza’s acting abilities. She’s fine here, but her character plays second fiddle to Statham’s Orson Fortune.

The best performance in the movie, however, belongs to Hugh Grant as the eccentric Greg Simmonds. Grant has a field day with the role, a gay man who is attracted to actor Danny Francesco but who is equally at home wooing and trying to steal his girlfriend from him. And while Grant excels at humorous quips, my favorite part of his performance is when he shows his serious side, which is far more subtle but far more intriguing. When he goes from warm witticisms to cold calculations, like in the scenes where he comes on to Aubrey Plaza’s Sarah, there’s a sense of ruthlessness and menace that seeps to the forefront of his character.

Josh Hartnett is also fun as actor Danny Francesco, who at first is terrified at having to enter a real life dangerous situation, but later embraces it, and uses his acting skills to help with the ruse. My favorite Hartnett role remains his lead performance in the violent hard hitting horror movie 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007). And of course, he made his acting debut as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode’s son John in HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER (1998).

At the end of the day, while not my favorite Guy Ritchie movie, OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE is still a fun and entertaining spy adventure, with a terrific cast, led by Jason Statham, Aubrey Plaza, and Hugh Grant, and in spite of a script that isn’t quite up to snuff, still manages to make for very satisfying action-comedy thrill ride.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars – Perfect, Top of the line

Three and a half stars- Excellent

Three stars – Very Good

Two and a half stars – Good

Two Stars – Fair

One and a half stars – Pretty Weak

One star- Poor

Zero stars – Awful

My Top 10 Movie List for 2022

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Another year of movies has come and gone, and all things considered, it was a darn good year for celluloid.

I returned to the movie theaters this past year, after keeping away since spring 2020 due to the pandemic. I still wear a mask in the theater, except when eating popcorn, of course, and I’m usually the only one in the theater wearing a mask, but that’s okay. I have no problem wearing a mask in public places. If it was good enough for the Phantom of the Opera, it’s good enough for me!

Anyway, I returned to seeing theatrical releases in July, and so I pretty much saw films in the theater for half the year, and streaming releases the other half. An interesting thing happened during the pandemic. By watching movies at home, I discovered that streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime Video offer a lot of quality original movies, so much so, that I’ve now fully incorporated their offerings into my movie selection process. Sure, they offer duds as well, but so do the movie theaters.

I saw approximately 75 new movies this year, and the list below comprises my ten favorites of 2022. I am always amazed by the number of new movies that are released each year, which is a good thing, but there are so many that I know that you and me don’t see all the same movies, and so there are bound to be movies that you loved this year that I simply didn’t see. But of the ones I did see, here are my Top 10:

10. BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER – it’s been a rough stretch for Marvel. Even as a big Marvel fan, I’ve been disappointed with most of their recent movies of late. Not so with this superior BLACK PANTHER sequel. It pays respectful homage to late actor Chadwick Boseman and to the Black Panther character, while telling a compelling story, featuring a formidable villain, and nicely setting up the future of the Black Panther superhero. Three and a half stars.

9. BABYLON – I loved this tale of early Hollywood by writer/director Damien Chazelle, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. The movie has a lot to say, but my favorite part was its take on fans’ relationships to movies, how important movies are to people, and how film really is high art, and it says all this in the raucous, bawdy, unpredictable and unforgiving world of 1920s Hollywood. Three and a half stars.

8. THE WONDER – It was a great year for period pieces, and several of them made it into my top 10 list. THE WONDER is one of them. This Netflix original period piece thriller stars Florence Pugh as an English nurse sent to the Irish Midlands in 1862 to observe and either validate or disprove the claim that a healthy young girl has gone months without food, an event the locals are calling a religious miracle. Florence Pugh is one of the best actresses working today, and so her presence alone lifts this movie, but THE WONDER has more to offer. Where this story ultimately goes speaks to both the hypocrisy of religion, and faith in humanity. Three and a half stars.

7. THE MENU – a delightfully dark comedic thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes about a select group of rich guests traveling to a private island to partake in an extravagant meal prepared by a team of chefs led by one of the world’s finest chefs, played by Fiennes, who just happens to have an agenda which he enacts on these folks, who mostly deserve the comeuppance he has planned for them. Like Florence Pugh, Anya Taylor-Joy is also one of the best actresses working today, and while there is a lot to like about this delicious thriller, her performance is the best part. Three and half stars.

6. THE PALE BLUE EYE – Another Netflix original, and another period piece. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, THE PALE BLUE EYE tells the story of a serial killer loose at West Point Academy in 1830 who likes to cut out the hearts of the young cadets there. Disenchanted detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) is called in to solve the case, and he receives help from a young cadet there named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Beautifully shot, exquisitely written, and well-acted by a veteran cast, led by Melling in a phenomenal performance as Edgar Allan Poe, and by Christian Bale as the weary, somber detective with secrets of his own. Three and a half stars.

5. THE BANSHEES OF INERSHERIN – certainly one of the more unusual movies I saw this year, and another period piece, as it takes place in 1923 on an island off the coast of Ireland. Receiving lots of hype, deservedly so, but erroneously marketed as a comedy, this tale of a man named Padraic, played by Colin Farrell, who out of the blue is told one day by his best friend that he no longer likes him as a person and that he doesn’t want to spend any more time with him, ever, starts off light and humorous but grows increasingly dark as it goes along, building to a very somber conclusion. This one is offbeat to be sure, but you can’t beat the dialogue or the acting. Colin Farrell is superb as Padraic, the man who begins to question his very existence and being, when he is faced with an absolute and unforgiving rejection by a man who he thought was his best friend. Three and a half stars.

4. EMILY THE CRIMINAL – I loved this small market thriller starring Aubrey Plaza as a young woman struggling to pay off her college debt and pay her bills with one thankless low paying job after another, and when she says yes to taking part in an illegal credit card scheme, because it will pay her a quick $200, she finds that the criminals treat her better than her employers. The scams certainly pay her better, and as she discovers she has a talent for this sort of thing, she agrees to take on bigger scams, which earn her more money but also become much more dangerous. This is a tight, hard-hitting thriller with no fat on its bones. Much more satisfying than many of the big budget Hollywood releases and features an exceptional performance by Plaza. Three and a half stars.

3. ELVIS- I love writer/director Baz Luhrmann’s visual style, and he’s at the top of his game here with ELVIS, a glitzy rocking extravaganza of a bio pic of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. Featuring an energetic and uncanny performance by Austin Butler as Elvis, and Tom Hanks as Presley’s slimy self-serving manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ELVIS is a visual and musical tour de force. Don’t expect a deep insightful look into the inner mind and soul of Elvis Presley. This movie doesn’t go there. Instead, it plays out like an Elvis performance in Las Vegas, which artistically speaking, is a perfect way to tell Elvis’ story. Three and a haf stars.

2. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER – Another Netflix original, and yes, another period piece. This latest film version of the D.H. Lawrence novel, scores so highly for me because of the way it honestly and unabashedly features sex in its story, something that Hollywood movies these days strangely shy away from. LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is the story of Lady Connie Chatterley (Emma Corrin) who’s stuck in a loveless marriage with rich Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), and when she meets and falls in love with the gamekeeper on their estate, Oliver (Jack O’Connell), she realizes that he’s the love of her life, and she decides that in spite of the odds against her– she’s married, and Oliver is of a different social status than her— she will not conform to social norms and instead will do whatever it takes to ensure her happiness and a future life with Oliver. Wonderfully filmed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, and perfectly capturing the World War I English countryside, LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER features fine performances by all involved, but the most captivating part of this one is the way de Clermont-Tonnerre films the story’s love scenes, as they are boldly realistic and passionate, showing physical love in a way that most other films these days don’t have the guts to do. Four stars.

1. EMERGENCY – My favorite movie of 2022 was this Amazon Prime original film which received very little attention this year. I liked it because it speaks to race relations here in 2022 in a way that is far more natural and effective than most, and it does it largely on a comedic platform. EMERGENCY tells the story of two black college friends, Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (R J Cyler) who before a night of partying discover an unconscious white girl on the floor of their apartment. When Kunle attempts to call 911, Sean stops him, telling him that the police will never believe that they— two black men– had nothing to do with how an unconscious white girl ended up on their apartment floor. So, instead, they decide to take her to the hospital, and so they embark on an odyssey of an adventure trying to transport this girl across town to the hospital, while the girl’s sister and her friends try to find her, and what can go wrong, does go wrong in this comedic drama that will have you both laughing and trembling. The scene late in the movie where the police confront Kunle, and pull guns on him, is nail-bitingly tense. EMERGENCY offers a fresh and funny premise— yes, officers, this girl really did just appear on our apartment floor unconscious, and we really have no idea how she got here or who she is— thrusts it into the racially charged environment of our current culture and delivers it all in a tremendously thought-provoking and satisfying package. Directed by Carey Williams and written by K.D. Davila. EMERGENCY is my pick for the best movie of 2022.

And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2022. It was a great year for movies. Now it’s on to 2023!

As always, thanks for reading.

—Michael

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

And coming soon, my Top 10 List for the Worst movies of 2022. Look for it soon right here in these pages!

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EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022) – Aubrey Plaza Shines in Riveting New Thriller

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When the criminals treat you better than the employers, you know there’s something wrong.

I mean, if you’re going to work your fingers to the bone and get paid bare minimum, with no rights as an employee, why not work for the criminals who are paying you lots of money and are being more up front and honest with you than people in the workplace?

That’s the premise behind EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022), a new thriller starring Aubrey Plaza about a young woman who is struggling to make ends meet who turns to crime when she is finally fed up with it all.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works long hours for a food delivery service and spends her days delivering and serving food to various clients. She is saddled with student debt that she cannot pay off… we witness one phone conversation where she learns that her recent payment only covered the accrued interest and not the principal of the loan…. and her efforts to find a better paying job continually fall short. She has a criminal record, for one incident of aggravated assault, and this hinders her job search. In one interview, the interviewer tells her he hasn’t read the record yet and asks her to explain it, and when she gives an alternate account, he reveals he has read it, which she sees, and rightly so, as an act of deception.

When she interviews for an upscale design position, she learns it’s actually an unpaid internship. And when her current boss changes her hours without warning, she complains, but he tells her there’s no union, no place to file grievances, so either work or leave.

All of this is why when a co-worker gives her a phone number and tells her to call it because it’s a gig that will pay her $200, she does it. After calling the number, she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) who explains to her and the others who have also showed up that day that they will all make $200 cash, but that they will be doing something illegal. It turns out it’s a “dummy shopper” scheme where they use stolen credit card numbers to buy goods, in this case a flat screen TV, which they then turn over to Youcef who will then turn around and sell the TVs to make more money. Emily agrees, it goes well, and Youcef tells her there is another job if she’s interested, but the stakes are higher, but it will also pay $2,000.

After some soul searching, Emily decides to do the job, and even though it is more dangerous, she gets the money, and soon after decides to go all in with Youcef and continue this life of crime.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a well-made, smart and ultimately enjoyable thriller that I liked a lot. Its story works, like most good stories do, because it is based on truth. Employers often do treat workers terribly, prospective employers are sometimes less than honest in interviews, and there are lots of places that believe unpaid internships are real jobs. If you have spent time struggling to find work, especially work that pays well, you know this is the case. I certainly do.

Emily is an artist who loves to paint, but she can’t even think about doing what she loves because her life is a grind where she’s working only to pay bills and her student loans, and in spite of long hours, she’s failing at both. And so, it makes perfect sense for Emily when she discovers the illegal dummy shopper scheme, that she’s not going to say no. She’s desperate. And when she takes things to the next level, the audience understands her decision, because they understand her motives. She just wants to live her life. And capitalism just isn’t giving her a fair shake at the opportunities.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL features a terrific performance by Aubrey Plaza in the lead role. Plaza has been around for a while, and I have not seen a lot of her work, but she’s riveting here. She plays Emily as tough as nails, someone who is sick and tired of being pushed around, and when she decides to push back, it’s something to watch. Plaza of course played April on the TV show PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015) and she also starred in the TV show LEGION (2017-2019). She also starred in the remake CHILD’S PLAY (2019), which I liked, and she was in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) as well.

Theo Rossi, who has also been in a ton of stuff, plays Youcef, who in spite of seeming cold and detached at first, shows more honesty in his dealings with Emily than most of the traditional employers she has dealt with. He also has a soft side, and as the story goes along, he and Emily grow closer. Rossi nails the role, which was much more satisfying than his recent comedic turn in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). Rossi played the villain, Shades, in the Netflix Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE (2016-2018), and he was memorable as Juice on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014).

Jonathan Avigdori makes for a nice villain, playing Youcef’s cousin Khalil, who is much more heavy-handed than Youcef, and who also doesn’t like Emily all that much.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL was written and directed by John Patton Ford, and it’s his first feature film credit. I loved the script, as it both tells a riveting story based on truth, and also creates a captivating character in Emily. You’ll root for Emily the same way you rooted for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

There are some intense scenes here, like Emily’s attempt to steal an expensive car, and the sequence where a couple breaks into her apartment to turn the tables on her and rob her.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a satisfying small market movie that is more enjoyable and refreshing than many of the bigger budget movies in release today.

Definitely check this one out.

It would be a crime to miss it.

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CHILD’S PLAY (2019) – Smart, Funny, and Gory Remake Updates Chucky Story for 2019

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childs-play-2019

Do we really need a remake of CHILD’S PLAY?

Sure! Why not?

See, I’m not of the mindset that remakes are a bad thing. Did we really need remakes of the Universal monster movies? Yet Hammer Films made some of the best horror movies ever made doing just that. Did we need a remake of THE THING (1951)? Yet John Carpenter made arguably one of the finest horror movies of all time with his remake.

Sure, there are plenty of faulty remakes/reimaginings out there, but I like to keep an open mind and refuse to knock them on principle since a lot of amazingly good films have been remakes.

The original CHILD’S PLAY (1988) was a decent horror flick from the 1980s about a toy doll named Chucky possessed by the soul of a serial killer, and it starred Chris Sarandon as a police detective, following upon the heels of his success as vampire Jerry Dandrige in FRIGHT NIGHT (1985). It spawned a whole series of Chucky films.

So, how does the current reimagining hold up?

Very well.

In fact, the new CHILD’S PLAY (2019) gets off to a strong start within its first few minutes thanks to some sharp writing and spot-on storytelling.

This CHILD’S PLAY opens with a video of the president of Kaslan Industires Henry Kaslan (Tim Matheson) speaking to the camera about how their company cares for children, and he showcases their new Buddi doll, a doll that is more than just a toy. With its interactive technology, it connects to computers, phones, drones, and with its advanced robotics, it pretty much is the next best thing to a human companion/babysitter. And Kaslan stresses its safety factors, as it has safeguards that make it nearly impossible to do anyone harm.

And so you realize right off the bat that this is not going to be a story about a doll possessed by a serial killer, but about a doll with very real technology which today most likely could do all the things it does in the movie. Suddenly, Chucky’s story is based less on fantasy and more on reality. Very cool.

And when a disgruntled employee on his last day on the job removes all the safety protocols from one doll, that plot point makes sense as well.

Thirteen year-old Andy Barclay (Gabriel Bateman) lives with his young mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza) in a modest apartment. Since Andy has been having a hard time with their recent move, Karen decides to get her son an early birthday present. She works at a department store and when a customer returns a defective Buddi doll, she decides to rewrap it and give it to her son, believing it’s not all that defective since the main reason the customer cited for returning it was that it wasn’t the latest model which is due out in days.

When Andy comments that he’s kind of old for Buddi, Karen tells him that it could be a joke gift and that they could just have some fun with it. But the Buddi doll’s friendship program proves to be irresistible, and Andy, a loner, finds himself enjoying the company. When the doll asks Andy what he should name him, Andy says “Han Solo,” which is an in-joke since the doll is being voiced here by Mark Hamill, but the doll ignores Andy and says, “Chucky. My name will be Chucky.” Andy laughs off this unexpected moment of independence and fully embraces his new Chucky companion.

Of course, this is the doll without the safety protocols, and as a result it takes its job as Andy’s friend and protector very seriously. Too seriously. Anyone Chucky views as a threat to Andy ends up dead, and in the most unpleasant of ways.

I really enjoyed this new CHILD’S PLAY for a lot of reasons. For starters, Mark Hamill’s voice work for Chucky is outstanding. He’s creepy, he’s funny, and for a talking doll he’s very real. There’s a reason Hamill in spite of his STAR WARS superstardom is more known for his voice work than his onscreen acting performances. His voice work is very good. No knock against Brad Dourif who voiced the original Chucky, but Hamill made it so I wasn’t pining for the Chucky of yesteryear.

The rest of the cast is strong as well. Gabriel Bateman does a nice job as thirteen year-old Andy, and when he and his friends are on the case trying to stop Chucky, the film channels a STRANGER THINGS vibe.

I really liked Aubrey Plaza as Andy’s young mom Karen. Plaza has a comedic background. She played April on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015). Her comedic timing is on full display here, and she takes things to the next level as she’s more than just a comedian in this movie. She makes for a convincing single mom.

I also enjoyed Brian Tyree Henry as Detective Mike Norris. He also has the light touch, as his Mike Norris is much more humorous than the character Chris Sarandon played in the original. Henry has been in a lot of stuff lately, appearing in HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018), WHITE BOY RICK (2018), WIDOWS (2018), and he provided voice work for the critically acclaimed animated superhero movie SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018). ┬áHis roles in these films have all been different, and his work here in CHILD’S PLAY was much more playful than his roles in the aforementioned films.

CHILD’S PLAY has a smart and funny screenplay by Tyler Burton Smith. It carves out—heh, heh–likable characters, creates a surprisingly realistic threat in the Chucky doll, and tells a believable and often riveting story, even as it keeps things light throughout.

Director Lars Klevberg keeps the pace quick and the movie’s 90 minutes fly by easily. This one is rated R so be prepared for some grotesque horror movie violence in the spirit of the horror films from the 70s and 80s.

Speaking of which, how does this new CHILD’S PLAY stack up as a horror movie? Surprisingly well. First off, I thought it did a good job bringing Chucky into 2019, where our present day technology makes the notion of a murderous doll not that far-fetched since the science for making it happen exists in the real world. So, you have a realistic threat.

The gory murders hearken back to older films of this type and serve as an homage to these movies.

I didn’t really find CHILD’S PLAY scary, but that didn’t take away from my enjoying it. I cared for the characters and didn’t want to see them fall victim to Chucky. I also liked the look of this new Chucky, which had just enough differences to make it stand out from the original doll.

The film’s climactic third act, when Chucky exacts his revenge inside the department store at the unveiling and first sale of the new Buddi dolls, amid the rush of stampeding crazed customers, serves as a nice metaphor for the insanity of current day Black Friday shopping.

So, I’m not sure if we really needed a remake of CHILD’S PLAY, but this 2019 reimagining is a good one. So good in fact that you won’t even have to save your receipt. No refunds or returns are necessary.

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