Movie #120: Once (2006)

Director: John Carney

Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglovia

Academy Awards (2007):

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova for the song ‘Falling Slowly’

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Guy (Hansard), a street musician who also works in his father’s vacuum repair shop, meets Girl (Irglova), a pianist who works odd jobs to support her mother and daughter.  They collaborate to create a demo tape for Guy.

Once is a unique musical in that it doesn’t have the flash of your typical musical.  This low-budget film shot in a more primitive fashion adds a layer of authenticity and realism that doesn’t exist in the traditional musical.  No over-the-top performances, just people making music.

I was especially impressed with Hansard and Irglova’s performances.  They are musicians first, not actors.  Their performances are very natural, and play well for the films rough and authentic feel.

The soundtrack for this movie is excellent.  I still listen to a number of the songs regularly even now.  I know it’s probably not for everyone, but I enjoy it thoroughly, even now.  I also like how the songs are integrated in the film almost seamlessly.

I heard part of an interview they did for NPR a few years back.  It was interesting to hear their side of making the film.  The dinner party they attend was shot in Hansard’s flat, and his mother was one of the ladies who sang at that party.  Little things like that intrigue me.

I hadn’t watched Once in a number of years.  One thing that I noticed this time around was a bit of a diminishing return.  I’m not sure how this one will hold up in say, 10 or 20 more years.  Still enjoyable though. The diminishing return may have more to do with me though.  Once was released when I was in college, and perhaps it doesn’t have the same effect on me now that I’m a little older.

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Once has seemed like a movie that you either love or can’t stand.  There is no middle ground.  I think the characters are enjoyable, the music is entertaining, and it’s a nice modern twist on a musical.  I’d recommend seeing this one, even if it’s only once.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Best Picture Winners: Amadeus (1984)

From now until Oscar Sunday I will be reviewing Best Picture winners. Enjoy!

Director: Milos Forman

Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, and Jeffrey Jones

Academy Awards (1985):

Best Picture: Saul Zaentz

Best Actor in a Leading Role: F. Murray Abraham

Best Director: Milos Forman

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Peter Shaffer

Best Art Direction, Set Direction: Patrizia von Brandenstein, Karel Cerny

Best Costume Design: Theodor Pistek

Best Sound: Mark Berger, Thomas Scott, Todd Boekelheide, Christopher Newman

Best Makeup: Paul LeBlanc, Dick Smith

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hulce

Best Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek

Best Film Editing: Nena Danevic, Michael Chandler

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After attempting suicide and being placed in an insane asylum, an elderly Antonio Salieri (Abraham) gives his confession to Father Vogler (Richard Frank), a young priest.  In it he tells of his relationship with God, starting as a young boy devoting himself to music that glorifies God in exchange for his own fame and immortality as a composer.  As time goes on, he gains notoriety and respect within the music world, rising to the role of court composer for Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jones) in Vienna.  His life drastically changes when a young, arrogant, vile Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Hulce) performs in Vienna and is subsequently fired by his patron Count Hieronymus von Colloredo (Nicholas Kepros) and stays in Vienna.

Mozart stays in Vienna, marries Constanze (Berridge) and establishes himself as a brilliant composer.  Salieri, upon reading some of Mozart’s music, realizes that Mozart’s music, and not his, is the voice of God.  He prays, “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”  Despite his envy of Mozart and hatred of God, Salieri can’t help but recognize Mozart’s genius.

Though ignoring historical accuracy, Amadeus tells the entertaining story of Mozart’s later life through the perspective of a fellow composer who was seriously threatened by him.  It is highly unlikely that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart or caused his death.  In what little research I’ve done on the relationship between Salieri and Mozart, it seems that their dislike for one another was more on the level of two people competing for the same job.  It was written that Salieri was one of the few people to attend Mozart’s interment.

It’s interesting to me how a period film about one of the most famous classical composers had such critical success in the MTV-driven culture of the 1980s.  It speaks volumes to the attention to detail in every facet of movie making that the cast and crew gave in Amadeus.  I’m no expert on classical music, however, I do appreciate the amount of work and talent needed to make the music.  This film does a great job in celebrating Mozart while telling an entertaining story.  The music, costuming, acting, and cinematography all come together nicely.

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F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are perfect in each of their roles.  They embody the characteristics of their characters in a way that works to perfection.

Hulce’s Mozart is more or less an 18th century rock star, knowing he’s a genius and flaunting it for all to see.  The audience can’t help but be annoyed and awed at the same time by this bratty child-like adult who writes flawless music.  As Salieri puts it, “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”  His struggle for acceptance and constantly butting heads with Viennese laws and ultimately pushing through because he knows his work is perfect speak to the transformational person Mozart was with music.

But then there’s that laugh.  That annoying, irritation, gouge-your-ears-out laugh.  It’s actually not that bad after the first few times, but still.

It was interesting to see how different Mozart was following his father’s death.  The build up with it was somewhat predictable: Mozart’s father didn’t approve of his sons actions, and despite his immaturity Mozart still wanted his father’s approval.  He sought for that approval after his father died, and ultimately it contributed to his deteriorating health and well-being, with a little help from Salieri of course.

Having primarily worked in theater and television, F. Murray Abraham was not very familiar with movie audiences.  His most significant role prior to Amadeus was Omar Suarez in Scarface the year before.  It’s difficult going from a relatively unknown to winning an Academy Award.  Where does one go professionally after a performance like Murray’s Salieri?  He’s had a number of noteworthy roles over the years, but the success Murray had with Amadeus limited him thereafter.

Salieri has to deal with fate, and that though he had the desire to make great music, he was not given the ability to create that music, and Mozart was given that talent instead.  Murray is simply brilliant in portraying this inward struggle.  His facial expressions as he read Mozart’s sheet music or secretly attending Mozart’s performances out of awe of his work build that struggle he deals with and the growing envy he has of Mozart and God.

It’s an interesting dynamic for Salieri as he describes to the priest how Mozart’s music remained popular, yet his own work has slowly deteriorated from common knowledge.  It seems a fitting punishment for his crime to watch his work fade into obscurity.

Though told through the perspective of one of Mozart’s rivals, Amadeus does a great job in celebrating Mozart’s music and life.    It’s a movie I can re-visit every 5 to 7 years and still thoroughly enjoy.  I’d recommend Amadeus for those who enjoy classical music, though I imagine most who do have seen it.

My Rating: 5/5 stars.

Movie #79: The Sound of Music (1965)

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Charmian Carr, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, and Kym Karath

Academy Awards (1966):

Best Director: Robert Wise

Best Film Editing: William Reynolds

Best Music, Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment: Irwin Kostal

Best Picture: Robert Wise

Best Sound: James Corconan (20th Century Fox-SSD), Fred Hynes (Todd-AO SSD)

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Julie Andrews

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Peggy Wood

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color: Boris Leven, Walter M. Scott, Ruby T. Levitt

Best Cinematography, Color: Ted D. McCord

Best Costume Design, Color: Dorothy Jeakins

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Salzburg, Austria, 1938

Maria (Andrews), a postulant in the local abbey is assigned as the new governess for the von Trapp family.  Georg von Trapp (Plummer), an ex-naval officer grieves the loss of his wife and runs his home like one of his ships.  As Maria encourages the children to sing and play, Georg remembers and brings music back into the home for the first time since his wife’s passing.  As time passes, Maria and Georg fall in love and marry.  Meanwhile, the Nazis move to occupy Austria, and Georg must decide whether to take a commission thrust upon him in the German Navy or flee with his family to Switzerland.

This is one of many films I’ve watched a number of times when I was younger, and it’s interesting to re-watch it now that I’m older. I suppose it’s because my perspectives have changed, which is natural when one grows up.  The Sound of Music is a film that has had such a broad appeal over the years that I just can’t see it ever fully going away.  Yes, there’s a live production of it on NBC tonight, but that to me serves as a testament to how popular and enjoyed the original film still is today.

As a film shot in 1965, The Sound of Music has a lot of great cinematography.  I watched the 40th Anniversary DVD edition for this review, and I really enjoyed the long, scenic shots throughout the film.  Robert Wise, who had directed The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story, among many others, had really mastered the craft at this point in his career, and the care given to the cinematography and balance of story really helps the musical numbers and plot flow smoothly throughout.

A number of key roles could have gone to other actors.  Julie Andrews, who was 30 at the time of this film, gives a very standout and mature performance as Maria, a free spirit and genuinely caring to the point of being somewhat naive of a person.  She strikes a nice balance of being fun but firm.  The real life Maria was much stricter, and in contrast Georg wasn’t so hard of a task master as he is portrayed.  However, for the purposes of the film, Andrews does great.

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Christopher Plummer was not all that thrilled with his performance and the film in general.  However, over the years he has come to appreciate The Sound of Music’s place in film history.  I don’t know that he gave the best performance, but he does a good job in his transition from grieving father seeking control to appreciating his family and learning to love them again and falling in love with Maria.

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Earning an Academy Award nomination for her performance, Peggy Wood does a wonderful job as the Reverend Mother.  She brings a great motherly dynamic for Maria, and serves as a strong, wise counsel.  Her scenes are among my favorite in the film because she helps Maria make sense of all her confusion.  There was also a good balance of her screen time, I think any more would have diminished her character, and any less would have made her far less effective.

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Not to be overlooked, the real star of The Sound of Music has to be, of course, the music.  Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rogers have no doubt created a masterpiece collection of songs.  They are, I would imagine, among the most widely-known songs from film.  My personal favorite, and one of my all-time favorite songs, is Edelwiess.  Since 2005, an annual “Sound of Music Sing-A-Long,” which has featured members of the cast and some of the actual Von Trapp Family Singers has been hosted by the Hollywood Bowl.  It has sold out every year.

The Sound of Music  is a good example of how a story is “based on real events.”  There were a number of changes from what actually happened.  Maria and the Captain were married for a number of years before the Nazi occupation.  The von Trapp family had also lost a great deal of their wealth.  The Captain was seriously considering taking the commission with the Nazis more out of financial necessity than anything else.  Salzburg is also nowhere near Switzerland, so fleeing and hiking through the mountains would have been entirely impractical.  By the time the film was made, the von Trapp’s had long since sold the rights to their story.

soundofmusicmariacameoThe real Maria von Trapp makes a cameo in the film as one of the three ladies shown just to the left of Julie Andrews.

Entertaining, enjoyable, and timeless, The Sound of Music has stayed popular and beloved for nearly 50 years.  With fun musical numbers, strong character chemistry, and breathtaking scenery, this film has a wide range of appeal that can be enjoyed by someone 8 to 80, everything in between and more.  It goes without saying that this is not the last time I will watch this film.   I am looking forward to sharing this with my family down the road.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #69: Mary Poppins (1964)

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Director: Robert Stevenson

Starring: Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, and Matthew Garber

“With your feet on the ground you’re a bird in flight, with your fist holding tight to the string of your kite! ”

London, 1910.

Mary Poppins (Andrews) floats down  from the sky and into a nanny position for the Banks family.  George Banks (Tomlinson) works at the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank and leaves the work of the home front to his wife and their maid, cook, and nanny.   Winifred  Banks (Johns) is a loving mother who is often distracted with the women’s suffrage movement.  As a result, Jane (Dotrice) and Michael (Garber) are largely raised by their nannies, and they cause so many problems for the nannies that they’ve gone through 6 in 4 months.

Poppins engages and helps the children to have fun while being responsible.  She, Jane, and Michael hop into a fantasy world through a sidewalk drawing by Poppins’ friend Bert (Van Dyke), have a tea party in the ceiling, and watch a bunch of chimney sweeps, including Bert, dance and enjoy a view of London not many get to encounter.  The children also accompany their dad to his work, where they inadvertently cause a run on the bank.  There is resolution in the end, though, as Mr. Banks realizes the importance of family and Poppins leaves presumably to go help another family.

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Walt Disney wanted to make a film version of P.L. Travers story for nearly 2 decades before the author gave her approval.  She felt that no one could do her books justice on the big screen.  After watching the premiere, Travers listed off a number of things she would do differently, to which Disney replied that they were far past the time for revisions.

This was also Julie Andrews first major movie role (she’d mostly done theater and TV movies to this point).  Ironically Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, which won Best Picture the following year, are probably the two biggest movies for which Andrews is known for.  They also were the two top-grossing films of 1965, with Goldfinger at third and My Fair Lady, which won Best Picture over Poppins, in fourth.

Though early in her career, Andrews does a great job of holding her own as the fun, fair, and firm title character.  She had originally been turned down for the lead role in My Fair Lady, but thanked Jack Warner at the Academy Awards for leaving her open to win the award for her performance in Poppins.  She has a good balance of being someone who follows the rules while having as much fun as she can.

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Dick Van Dyke is charming as the jack-of-all-trades Bert.  However, his accent is horrible.

Really horrible.

It is often cited for aspiring actors and actresses as what not to do.  This was also very early in his film career, but his talent was apparent, and he could do a wide range from comedy to a voice of reason for Jane and Michael after they ran away from the bank.

His chemistry with Andrews is also a lovely thing to look at in a different light for me being older now.  Though their relationship is platonic, there’s still just enough tension between the two to suggest the possibility of something more.  Although Van Dyke is 10 years older than Andrews, it really didn’t show in the film.

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This was also a film that does a lot of branching live action with animation in a way that hadn’t been done before.  It was one of the complaints from Travers, but I think they handled it well given the time period it was made in.  The sequences in the chalk drawing were entertaining.

One of the central elements of this film is the music, hands down.  That makes sense since it is a musical though.  My wife and I watched this movie together, and it was her first time watching it.  I’d seen it numerous times as a child, so a lot of it was familiar to me.  Though she hadn’t seen the film, my wife knew a number of the songs.  “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, “A Spoonful of Sugar”, “Jolly Holiday”, “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, “Stay Awake”, “Let’s Go Fly A Kite”, “Feed the Birds”, and “Step in Time” are all ones that are fairly easy to recognize.

My personal favorite from the film is Step in Time, mostly because of the accompanying choreography from the chimney sweeps.

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My wife and I had the opportunity to see a local theater do the Broadway production of Mary Poppins, and I must say it was worth every penny we paid for it.  I wish I had watched the movie before seeing it live, as I’ve found I enjoy live productions of this and other films over the original film.  It was about an hour longer than the movie, and from what I understand was more true to the book.  It also went into further detail about George Banks’ childhood and how he became the man he was at the start of the film.  For any fan of the movie I’d highly recommend seeing it live.  It’s had a run on Broadway, and as of now is only in a handful of theaters across the country, however, it will be in far more live theaters next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the film.

Mary Poppins is a fun film that explores discipline and the balance of fun and responsibility.  It also promotes the importance of family and examining some of the more important things in life.  It does it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, and full of memorable songs and dance routines.  It is one I’d recommend for all to see at least once, and it’s one I look forward to sharing for years to come.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #59: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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Director: Victor Fleming, King Vidor

Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, and Terry as Toto

The Wizard of Oz has always been a film near and dear to my heart as a native Kansan.  A number of small towns have yellow-brick roads going down main street, and it is something that’s synonymous with the state.  This is one of a number of films that I grew up with, and though I’ve seen it many times, I still enjoy it with each viewing.

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I was very skeptical when I first heard of Oz: The Great and Powerful, but my wife and I saw it a few weeks ago.  For the most part I was impressed.  I found it stayed faithful to the source material while avoiding the pitfall of being a cheap knock-off of the original.  The only change I would have made was to use someone other than Mila Kunis.  I’ve never cared for her as an actress, and that change is more my personal preference.

Released in 1939, this film uses a tremendous amount of color, and the eye-popping visuals and cinematography create a nice unique fantasy world of Oz.  There’s a nice contrast between the farm scenes in a sepia tone and Oz in full-color.

Judy Garland was 16 when The Wizard of Oz was filmed.  I have a hard time believing this, as she seemed so much older.  Her performance and talent make this film.  Frank Miller is also great in this movie.  He shows some range as the various people who greet Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion in the Emerald City.  The only other movie of his that I’ve seen is Shop Around the Corner, and I was taken aback at first because I’ve come to associate him as The Wizard and nothing else.

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The Wizard of Oz embodies a lot of the basic elements of a good film.  It offered a release and escape.  It was released at the tail end of the great depression and the beginning stages of World War 2.  Something like this would have provided a nice escape from everyday struggles and problems and whisk a person away to a fantasy land for a couple of hours.

The Mythbusters tested the effects of silver body paint and how a previous formula may have caused Buddy Ebsen, the original Tin Man, to drop out of the film.  Here is that clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WUmBGzlyrc

The American Film Institute listed The Wizard of Oz as the #6 movie of all time in its first list, and 10th on the 10th anniversary list.  Additionally, “Over the Rainbow” was picked as the #1 song in the list, “100 Years…100 Songs.”  There are so many elements of this film that have integrated into popular culture.  Numerous lines, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” “There’s no place like home.”  “I’ll get you, my pretty and your little dog, too!” – #99  “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” and “I’m melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!” to name a few.

As stated before, The Wizard of Oz is a film near and dear to me.  I enjoy it in moderation now, but the songs, the story, and the acting never get old.  I look forward to sharing this film with my future generations.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

The Blues Brothers (1980)

 

I’ll start by saying it’s a sad day for film today with the passing of Roger Ebert.  I’ve always found his reviews refreshingly honest.  Whenever I’ve looked to professional critics for more information or analysis for a film, Ebert has been at the top of the list.  Now, on with the review.

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This is my second time watching this movie.  After watching this the first time I knew I had to own it.  While I don’t consider myself an expert of film, music, and the sort, I thoroughly enjoy good (and at times bad) films and music.  You could say I’m an appreciator of the arts.

What started as an Saturday Night Live skit in the late 70s became one of the only SNL skits-turned-films that should have been made.  Most of the rest of them are a joke, this one is great.  I haven’t taken the time to watch the original sketches or do a whole lot of background information, and perhaps that’d help me appreciate and understand this movie better and on more levels.   However, I enjoy the music, comedy, and acting chemistry between John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

My only complaints about this film have to do with a couple of scenes that I felt dragged on a little too long.  The church scene with James Brown and the first car chase scene through the mall could have been shorted up a bit in my opinion.  I was watching the extended version, so that may have played a part in it.

While this film was a little over the top throughout: the growing group of people chasing the Blues Brothers specifically.  But it’s a sketch-comedy skit turned movie, so over the top works here.

Belushi and Aykroyd work well together.  One of my favorite lines was at the beginning of the film when Elwood (Aykroyd) tells Jake (Belushi) he traded their old car for a microphone.  Jake, under the impression that Elwood had traded their old car for the current police cruiser, more or less has a “that makes sense” moment and he’s not mad at his brother about it.

There is a tremendous string of cameos and major musical artists in The Blues Brothers: Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Charles Napier, Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg to name a few.

This time around Carrie Fisher’s character was a little less of a surprise since I know she’s Jake’s estranged ex-fiance.  She adds a “What in the world” element to the movie, another person keeping the Blues brothers on their toes.

The Blues Brothers is a movie that works for those who like good blues music and comedy.  John Landis has a slam dunk in this story of redemption, and I’d recommend seeing at least once.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

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Seymour is a lovable loser who works in a plant store, dreaming of winning over his co-worker Audrey.  Audrey, though is going out with the leather jacket-wearing dentist Orin (Steve Martin).  Though Audrey gets hurt in the crossfire, she stays with her man.  He seems like the classic manic tool.

Seymour happens to purchase a mysterious plant that appeared in a Chinese flower vendor during a total eclipse of the sun, and displaying the plant in the window of the flower shop brings in numerous business.  However, it starts to die, and Seymour figures out the plant feeds on blood.  Audry II, the plant, grows quickly and to the point that it’s as big as Seymour, and ends up needing to eat humans whole to get his blood fix.

From the first note of the theme song, it’s very clear that this film is quintessentially 80s, but with a nice 50s touch.

The opening number is distinctly characteristic of 80s pop music, which works for me.  Set in the 1950s, it also gives a good balance of 50s Du-Wop music, mainly through the three singers Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon.  They do a good job moving the story along, and their interactions with Audrey and Mushnik help them fit seamlessly into the story.

This was probably about the time Rick Moranis was in his prime, or at least his most notable performances (less the Honey I Shrunk the… movies).  He demonstrates his diversity both with the classic humorous acting as the lovable geek, but also more than shines in his singing abilities.  Finding a good balance in multiple areas is something I always see as a plus and sign of a talented actor.

This movie is filled with quite a few cameos, from John Candy, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, and Jim Belushi.  Murray probably takes the cake, which makes sense since this is probably in one of the better parts of his career.  His character is just so over the top that only a person like Bill could pull it off.

I know this movie is primarily a musical, but I found it more humorous, and more modern slap-stick, which made me think it would’ve been a lot of fun to perform in, work for, or just observe this movie being made.

The love arch between Seymour and Audrey seems predictable and cheesy, but I’m willing to overlook this for the simple fact that this was just a fun movie to watch.

As Audrey II grows, it’s just fun to see his (presumably because of the singing voice provided by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops) character blossom throughout the film, no pun intended.  One of the big reasons I think the music appeals to me is that fact that it’s well-written and soulful.

In something that seems uncharacteristic as part of this project, I could definitely see myself watching this movie again.  It was fun, light-hearted, well-rounded, and had good music (at least in my opinion).  It’s a movie that for those that’ve watched it, it’s memorable, and it’s one of those that you just have to experience to understand.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars