FILM REVIEW: First Girl I Loved (Sanga, 2017)

This review was originally published at ImpulseGamer.com.au

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With some relationships, admiration begins from afar. Expectations of love and ideas of sexuality are turned upside down for Anne (Dylan Gelula) as she photographs fellow teenager Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) at a high school softball game, leaving her instantly beguiled. But love isn’t all easy in the Sundance indie film First Girl I Loved, where the placement of a high school same-sex romance in the swivelling unpredictability of adolescence makes this coming-of-age tale an emotional spin that attempts to increase its stakes at every turn.

First Girl I Loved continues to track the budding romance between the two contrasting teenagers, Anne and Sasha. Anne has just discovered her attraction to girls, while Sasha is less certain about the magnetic chemistry between herself and Anne. Neither girl is a smooth-talker; instead, they giggle like you’d expect teenage girls to, becoming fixated on inside jokes that aren’t particularly funny—but it’s an inside joke, so it’s hilarious to them. Amid their unfolding captivation with each other, within a small world they’ve created for themselves, Anne’s best friend, Clifton (Mateo Aries), becomes an unwelcome presence between the two; his presumptions of sexual orientation and consent add to the confusing burgeoning of the girls’ own selves, fuelling a drama that ultimately points its finger back at society.

The messiness of modern teenagehood is encapsulated in Kerem Sanga’s directorial venture, and it’s not just because he shows text messages that pop up on screen (at one point, Anne and Sasha engage in sexting that is portrayed both amusingly but with careful tenderness). Sanga breaks down the film’s structure non-linearly, so that each important moment in the film transforms into a fragment of a story. Flashbacks and flash-forwards occasionally jumble up the timeline with unnatural incoherency that make it too easy to lose our understanding of the story, but it contributes an airy mystery to the proceedings. The film never gives too much of itself away and holds enough back from its audience to stop it from slipping into familiar beats.

An inconsistency of aesthetic tone shifts between cool, carefree vibes of teen euphoria as Anne and Clifton open a bottle of champagne, to more standard camerawork that sees Anne and Sasha participate in the everyday, mundane routines of school life—almost a separate entity to the confined spaces of a nightclub, a room or a bed. But when it becomes a sweeping, hazy portrayal of their relationship, it looks wonderful, and a grainy multitude of overlapping colours as Anne and Sasha experience their first kiss under the club lights—where their love becomes the centrepiece—makes the film glimmer with warmth.

It’s when other players enter the picture, notably the interception of Clifton’s character, that it becomes unnecessarily complicated and detrimentally too-heavily plot-driven. Cliff, represented as the antagonist, struggles with the idea that his long-time crush Anne doesn’t reciprocate his feelings, and a crushed male ego drives him to commit actions, which leaves both he and Anne waning in regret. He also becomes a tormenter of Anne’s newfound sexuality (he steals her bike and meanly teases her during class)—this distracts from an otherwise slick romance tale, whereby the imposition of Sasha’s own uncomfortable realisation of her sexuality is enough to drive complications into the film, which endeavours to critique a societal intolerance and lack of support for gay relationships.

As Anne, Gelula strips off her sarcastic, exaggerated caricature of a teen step-daughter in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and replaces it with a vulnerable young woman who fluctuates between conflict and revelation, heartbreak and love. At the end of the day, it becomes more about self-dignity and an acceptance of one’s own identity through sexuality; this makes this unflashy indie drama a charmer and somewhat resonant of its modest film title.

First Girl I Loved is now showing at Dendy Newtown.

RATING ½ out of 5

 

FILM REVIEW: Okja (2017, Joon-Ho)

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In Bong Joon-Ho’s newest film, Okja, it is a tale that delights with an undying friendship between a child and a giant-pig that reminisces off the imagination of Spielberg’s most beloved films, but never without fails to interweave it with dark undertones that commentates on our burgeoning capitalist society that profits horrifyingly off a meat-industry, fuelled by human consumerism.

Opening up in the mountains of South Korea, we meet young Mija and her giant-pig, Okja – as they run freely through the forests – (one moment is especially an endearing homage to My Neighbour Totoro) – and it is a whimsical, sweet depiction of their relationship which exhibits the strength of their connection. Away from the city and others who begin to interfere with their relationship, this is when the film is at its most aesthetically gorgeous; the display of peacefulness within the natural world depicts how animal and human can live in tranquil unison on a platform of understanding.

The jolted reality of the outside world is soon realised, and it is here that Joon-Ho finds a perfect balance between his English and Korean multi-language platforms – highlighting the miscommunication between languages and people, as well as the bizarre foreignness of the cities of both Seoul and New York City. The signature tonal shifts are at its craziest in this wild ride, that sees it constantly shifting between the comedic with hilarious chase scenes (a girl running away in horror but never forgetting to bring out her selfie stick comes to mind), to shockingly bleak scenes (and occasionally graphic) that condemn the brutal, apathetic nature of humanbeings that substitutes wealth for empathy.

Watching this in a cinema brought to the forefront the dapper camerawork by cinematographer Darius Khondji – who captures the crisp swiftness of the absurd Mirando presentations, but also finds a place for the grimier realities of the slaughterhouses that draws in the darkest elements of the film that make it impossible to dismiss Okja as a purely optimistic film. Although it stars a wide-eyed child at its centre, Okja doesn’t shy away from a satirisation of its ridiculous self-obsessed figures (both Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal impress with a top-notch act of swivelling between playfully immature and disturbing characters), or depicting the messy ideals of activist groups (led by Jay, played by Paul Dano). Both Mija and Okja become caught up in the web of diverse interests, where the solution is unclear but the problem is most overt.

While the film mildly falls into a trap of a too-neat ending and slightly didactic messages, it always retains a hint of tongue-in-cheek glee or an underlying pessimism – suggestive of the continuing callousness of our society. But in almost the entirety of Joon-Ho’s burstingly clever directional vision, he always holds tight onto Mija and Okja’s special bond as the heart of his film, and the pay-off is a cinematic treat for the ages.

Okja will be showing on Netflix Worldwide from 28 June 2017.

RATING out of 5

THEATRE REVIEW: The Chapel Perilous (New Theatre, 2017)

This review was originally published on AussieTheatre.com.au

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Photo: Bob Seary

A need for strong female representation arrives at the forefront of today’s entertainment context; to pursue well-rounded characters, and not reduce them to plot tools (the Bechdel Test is an example of how character tests are frequently applied to films/TV shows). It is a real testament to Dorothy Hewett’s 1972 play, The Chapel Perilous – with its sexually-liberal female protagonist – that it does not feel aged at all, remaining heartedly relevant in New Theatre’s polished production in 2017.

Sally Banner (Julia Christensen) is confronting but bitingly witty from the moment she sets foot on stage. She is a defiant schoolgirl at a religious Christian school, who isn’t afraid to talk back to her superiors. Transitioning between hilarious interactions with her parents, schoolteachers and classmates, to her tragic downfall following her failed relationships, the trajectory of the play works through the peaks and troughs of Sally’s school to adult life, as she navigates between her desires and her struggles against the context of World War II.

Sally begins as self-indulgent, but Carissa Liccairdello’s tender direction never suggests that this borders on the pretentious, and both Hewett’s writing and Christensen’s performance give sincerity to the deepest of her flaws. As moments of Sally’s sharp sarcasm wanes into crumbled vulnerability, Christensen gives full weight to her difficulties – relinquishing a ferocious and passionate portrayal that breathes vivacity into Hewett’s headstrong protagonist.

While its protagonist soars, Hewitt’s play struggles with its intermittence as a musical. Working more seamlessly with the first act as a provider of context, it becomes more noticeably a quasi-hyper reality that feels out of place with the continuity of the play. In one scene, all ensemble members burst into the Hockey Pockey Shake (a play on the Hippie movement?), but lighting (Martin Kinnane) nor technical direction signifies any reason for shift – and it is rendered absurd as a result. A questionable surrealist-reality also appears with the repetition of a court trial where Sally is the accused; she is put on the stand for her outrageous sexual behaviour, her disobedience – but is this a dream? Or is it a dramatization of the guilt she feels at defying pressure of her peers and authorities? The unclear barriers between real-life and this imagination don’t knit well together, befitting as an unwelcome interruption than an effective storytelling device.

The comment on male behaviour becomes more powerful as a tool to explore the harshness of realities against Sally’s freedom; particularly when Sally’s romantic interests (Michael, Thomas, David, Saul) accumulate into one – all played by the versatile Tom Matthews. Shifting convincingly between the initially charming Michael to the naïve Thomas, the quadrupling of characters is piercingly horrifying as their ultimately manipulative treatment of Sally accrues towards them labelling her a “bitch”, demeaning a character we’ve seen grow before our eyes, into a cheap label. These figures become increasingly frustrating as Sally’s character is also sacrificed; her fiery character is less recognisable in the second Act as her choices become more indecisive, and if not more unbelievable. She is desperate to be loved, but the repetition of pursuit, break-up and forgiveness, begins to mark a predictable cycle in the play that this production cannot entirely fix.

As the lights dim and the last scene plays, Sally walks through the glowing light of the chapel for the first time (the set by Martin Kinnane is simple but multifunctional). New Theatre’s production is scaringly pessimistic – questions are left unanswered about her place in the world alone. The position of the woman, especially of those who cannot conform, is equally as ambiguous.

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Photo: Bob Seary

The Chapel Perilous is showing until 27 May 2017 at New Theatre. You can find out more about the show, including how to book tickets, here.

THEATRE REVIEW: Big Fish (Hayes Theatre Co, 2017)

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Photo: Kate Williams Photography

Musicals that pull on your heart-strings are not an easy find, but the Hayes production of Big Fish – a modified 12-chair version of the 2013 Broadway musical – proves that imaginative but humble stagings can ignite the magic of storytelling equally, if not better than the often rife efforts of a full-blown spectacle.

Based on 1988 novel by Daniel Wallace (also adapted on screen in Tim Burton’s 2003 film), Big Fish focuses on a father-son relationship on the verge of breakdown. On Edward Bloom’s deathbed (Phillip Lowe), his now-adult son Will Bloom (Adam Rennie) remembers talltales his father told him as a child, questioning Edward’s identity in a series of flashbacks that attempt to discover the real father he believes he never knew.

Flicking between present day and Edward’s storybook past, the musical roots itself in the real-world present, paralleling Edward’s tumour diagnosis (a foreboding death) against Will’s now-pregnant wife (the excitement of a new life). Both personalities of father and son could not be more different; Edward is an optimist, a believer in stories and Will, a realist, naturally dismissing these tales as implausible. The world of Edward’s dreams is the one John August’s book sides with most (he also wrote the screenplay for Burton’s film), and with playful yet charming numbers, like ‘The Witch’, director Tyran Parke’s spellbinding vision brings the audience into the action of Edward’s charismatic storytelling.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

 

FILM REVIEW: The Zookeeper’s Wife (Caro, 2017)

This review was originally published at ImpulseGamer.com.au

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Blockbuster movies set during the Holocaust are not a rare specimen; but The Zookeeper’s Wife offers a unique unfolding of an untold story in wartime Poland, where zookeeper of the still-standing Warsaw Zoo, Jan and his wife, Antonia – transform their zoo into a hiding refuge for over 300 Jews during World War II. At the risk of their own lives, the Zabinski’s real-life heroism pins an arresting starting point for Niki Carlo’s feature to soar, and while it stumbles in suffusing its characters with proper development, it achieves a humanist undertone unmatched in films realised in this context.

 The picturesque depiction of pre-war peace swells in its beauty as the camera tracks Antonia Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) waking up the zoo, light streaming through the blue skies as she speaks to the animals as though they were humans. But this too-perfect setting is brutally shattered as Carlo unrelentingly shows the chaotic effects of the first Nazi bombs on the zoo, killing animals and sending them fleeing onto the streets – familiar territory turned into a disorderly mess, only a taste of what is to come. This is the Nazi’s image of an ideal “picture”, where the death of animals (a parallel to the Jewish extermination?) is simply part of the ‘war effort’; where the regal eagle is stuffed into an ornament, and majestic animals, previously frolicking and untroubled, destroyed into war resources.

The change in perspectives results in protagonists that are no longer the victims but the middle-(wo)man. Stakes are still high as Carlo effectively crafts a tense but quiet drama that sees the transformation of the zoo into a pig-farm, and the Zabinski’s occupation in the smuggling of Jews from the Ghetto into their home. Through the stained window of Jan Zabinski’s (Johan Heldenbergh) truck, we see the appalling state of the Ghettos, but we only see what Jan does, and it is so brief; the truck must move on.

It is this frustrating impediment that Carlo’s film struggles with despite its well intentions. Although a winning and torn performance by Chastain oozes compassion that delves the film with emotive feeling, both Antonia and Jan’s inability to exercise action beyond hiding their occupants signifies their limitations in a crisis that effected millions of people. In one scene, Jan lifts children to their unknowing fates on what audiences would recognise as the carriages that would transport them to Auschwitz – a feeling of doom puts into perspective the limitations of their bravery.

Victims of the German regime are also brushed over in Angela Workman’s script, which render them only familiar faces; seen as a collective than individuals. The potential depth of stories is sacrificed, even so for Zabinski’s own child, whose upbringing in the zoo household leads him to shout anti-Nazi rhetoric that turns the head of German zoologist Lutz Heck (played creepily by Daniel Bruhl in yet another Nazi role).

But where the film is lukewarm towards development of its supporting characters, it makes up in its tender treatment of the subject material. Carlo’s fearless use of silence is when The Zookeeper’s Wife becomes most disarming, and it’s when the courageous hearts of the Zabinskis’ are on full display.

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE
Directed by Niki Caro
Produced by Jeff Abberley, Jamie Patricof, Diane Miller Levin, Kim Zubick, Julia Blackman
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Michael McElhatton, Daniel Brühl

RATING ½ out of 5

FILM REVIEW: Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2017)

This review was originally published at ImpulseGamer.com.au

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Important women of influence are often excluded or forgotten from the history books. This is why Hidden Figures, a biographical film that seeks to reveal the story of three influential, African American women, is so integral. With its garnering of awards attention and financial success, it is a joy that audiences are able to finally learn of these remarkable achievements that these women struggled through gender and racial barriers to attain.

On the verge of the Space Race and the threat of a nuclear war with Russia, Hidden Figures opens on a flashback of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) as a child—a clear depiction of her early mathematical genius. A “knack for equations” and algorithms that has her exceling at school, this flashback shifts to the present, where close friends and colleagues—aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and unofficial supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer)—join Katherine as they are stopped by a white policeman as they are running late. In an amusing exchange, all the women not only shatter a stereotype of women in the workforce, but somehow also manage to convince him to escort them to the NASA station. As the title card of Hidden Figures flashes upon the screen and Pharrell William’s choral, snappy and upbeat score plays over, no longer will these women be hidden figures in the context of American history, instead their stories will be told with a sincere reflection of their charm and intelligence.

The divide between the “coloured” and “white” groups is almost immediately established from the commencement of the film, but Katherine’s new assignment to assist the Space Task Group—a department which is blatantly filled with white men—poses racial and prejudiced challenges in a job which she is more than capable of exercising. Upon setting her foot in the room, Katherine is the first African American woman to hold such a role at NASA and she sticks out and is quickly antagonised by the men in the room, who deliberately censor calculations from her to make her execution of her job more difficult. An equally tragic and frantic sequence has Katherine running to the “coloured” bathroom in record time, a stirring occurrence when she is forced to run to the building next door to use a bathroom due to the segregation between races. Theodore Melfi’s direction portrays these quieter struggles with ones that punch in the gut, particularly in a laudable performance by Henson where she vocally explodes—her pent up anger and frustration forces all in the room to sit in silence and reflect on their prejudiced behaviour and its effect upon others.

While the film occasionally loses focus due to the three stories it attempts to balance, Melfi never steers away from the core of the film which he seeks to make: the significance of female friendship. There are romantic interests introduced that show these women’s lives outside of their work and education, and white people (namely Al Harrison played by Kevin Costner) who assist in their endeavours, but it never clouds their monumental talents or shared struggles. If anything, the film emphasises the need to give chances and opportunity to minorities, and to no longer make such figures hidden from view, but to instead, recognise and foster people’s gifts.

Hidden Figures works as not only an optimistic and enjoyable experience at the cinema, but its note of remarkable achievements in our current context, signifies the power of cinema and art to give voice to women and people of colour, and to make others feel empowered to believe in possibilities and dreams. Most importantly, it highlights the incredible capacity that a unified community can accomplish, and the potential that recognising individual talents can have—and if sending men up into space is only one of them, what else is there in store?

HIDDEN FIGURES
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Theodore Melfi, Jenno Topping and Pharrell Williams
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons

RATING ★★ out of 5

THEATRE REVIEW: Cabaret (Hayes Theatre Co, 2017)

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“Life is a cabaret, old chum!” It’s one of the most recognisable lines in the history of musical theatre. Even the title, Cabaret, rings a bell to those unfamiliar with musicals. Opening on Broadway in 1966, the musical became a cultural sensation, captured forever in the 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli. It was further invigorated by Sam Mendes’ Donmar production in 1993, which cemented it as a classic that could retain its charm across decades. With a story about a society on the brink of upheaval it feels eerily pertinent in our contemporary political milieu; it’s like this new production at the Hayes production has arrived just in time.

However, under the direction of Nicholas Cristo, the Hayes production is less innovative than it is tame; it prioritises colourful extravaganza over biting political commentary, and runs out of steam well before the finale.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

FILM REVIEW: A United Kingdom (Asante, 2016)

This review was originally published at ImpulseGamer.com.au

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Occasionally British films are not afraid to offer a glimpse of optimism, which may be dismissed as clichéd. A United Kingdom is a prime example of this. Like 2015’s Brooklyn, the film locates a hopefulness in the very context hampering it, centring its story within the midst of interracial and political tensions.

Directed by Amma Asante (Belle), A United Kingdom tells the real-life story of African Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) and English office clerk Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who fell in love despite barriers barring interracial relationships in the years following the Second World War. The opening sequence sees Seretse introduced as a competent fighter in a boxing match; he is a law student, charming and intelligent, and surrounded by a group of friends. Ruth and her sister arrive at a Missionary Society dance, and when Ruth and Sertese dance together, sparks fly.

The believability of their love is integral in urging the future conflicts between the couple, and Asante’s attentive and sincere direction is an easy credit to this. She never rushes the romance between the lovers, but instead allocates a solid quarter of the film to indulge in the couple’s infatuation with each other, which ultimately leads to Seretse’s marriage proposal.

Not only does Seretse and Ruth’s matrimony face objection from Ruth’s family, but with the reveal of Seretse’s identity as the successor to the Botswana throne in Africa, the angry disapproval of his family and the Bamangwato chiefs raises questions about the acceptance of their marriage and Seretse’s own prospects as a leader. On a larger scale, Botswana’s position as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland is further opposed by the British government, which views their marriage as a threat to their link with the South African government—thus Seretse is exiled in London and the couple separated in the hope of Seretse relinquishing the throne.

Both personal and political restlessness increase the stakes of Seretse and Ruth’s love against a backdrop working against it. While Guy Hippert’s script opts for a predictable trajectory (shown through the British antagonists, Alistair Canning and Rufus Lancaster, which strike more as caricatures than characters), Asante’s ability to lift the screenplay and give it an affecting touch is a testament to her unfeigned desire to showcase the authenticity of the love between Seretse and Ruth, which becomes simply infectious.

Asante’s deep understanding of the intercultural differences and the uncertainty that permeated the context is apparent in the clear juxtaposition between the distinctly arresting shots of the African landscape against a grittier England. The segregation of race is still ironically present in Botswana; whites are privileged and the Bamangwato people are limited in their freedoms in their own country. The strain in nation ties is reflected in the voices of the people in their antagonism to Sertese’s marriage to Ruth, but an impassioned speech by Sertese, who declares his equal love for both country and wife, is an igniting point for the film. Oyelowo is magnificent here, especially in his vocal performance, which reminds us of his speeches as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, but now with a romantic spark that drives his vigour. His chemistry with Pike is magnetic, and Pike’s beguiling performance as Ruth is especially stirring when she struggles for acceptance in Botswana following Sertese’s exile.

At the heart of it all, A United Kingdom is a breath of fresh air from the cynicism that permeates through higher-brow romantic dramas. It is an open and ingenuous look at the strength of love and how it can connect people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

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A UNITED KINGDOM
Directed by Amma Asante
Produced by Brunson Green, Charlie Mason, Rick McCallum, Cameron McCracken, Justin Moore-Lewy & David Oyelowo
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Terry Pheto, Jack Davenport and Tom Felton

RATING ★★ out of 5

THEATRE REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew (Montague Basement, 2016)

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Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is easily subject to criticism about its misogyny and therefore its relevance in contemporary society. Montague Basement’s production, however, is a fresh interpretation that revitalises its outdated predecessor, forefronting victims of domestic violence and transporting Shakespeare’s comedic play to a dramatic platform.

Staged initially on a blank stage with black curtains draped on the wings, director Caitlin West has set the play in the present day.  Her direction intelligently embraces the new setting, enhancing the wit inherent in the text, while also dramatising and acknowledging its problems. Men are symbolically dressed in white to warn of the farcical image of purity, and women are immediately connected yet paradoxically distanced from them, as Bianca (Jane Watt) attempts to lure Lucentio (Tel Benjamin) from the second level of the stage. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come; that while relationships will be forged, the women in the play will have a markedly different experience to their male counterparts.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

THEATRE REVIEW: Heathers the Musical (Sydney Opera House, 2016)

Heathers: The Musical features a great score and talented cast but the flashy direction falters, making it too often vapid.

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“Freak, slut, loser, short bus,” sing the majority of teens in the opening number of Heathers: The Musical, a sharp dark comedy about the effects of teen bullying, suicide, and violence — set to a rock-pop score.

Based on Michael Lehmann’s 1988 film, Heathers: The Musical follows teenager Veronica Sawyer who joins the most popular and feared girl-clique at school: the “Heathers”. Dissatisfied with their selfishness and bullying, Veronica — influenced by the new (and slightly psychotic) boy at school, J.D. — becomes involved in a chain of homicides, which has her questioning the moral line between right and wrong.

While faithful to its source material, Heathers: The Musical lightens up the darkness of the film  – soaking it with bright coloured costumes, enhanced hair and make-up, and a fun upbeat score which contributes to the show’s contagious, sassy energy. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy — the team behind Legally Blonde: The Musical — craft a catchy, brassy rock score with bubbly melodies and clever lyrics.

From its snappy number delivered by all three Heathers in “Candy Store”, to Veronica’s belted anthem in “Dead Girl Walking”, O’Keefe and Murphy’s music is an important driver of Veronica’s identity crisis: she oscillates between seeking vengeance and morality.

Read the rest of my review over at Seventh-Row.Com