Doodad Kind of Town

This Week: "Lions For Lambs," "August Rush"
November 25, 2007, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I haven’t been hitting the multiplexes much this fall. The preponderance of depressing, violent “gloom and doom” flicks just hasn’t appealed. Normally, I get all excited when “serious movie season” rolls around since I’m not much for the mindless fare that fills the theaters in the summer. This year, I guess I’ve had my fill of bad news and disappointment in my real life (on too many fronts), so when I plunk down my $9.25 at the box office, I’m actually looking for happy endings and feel-good optimism.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen many good, if dark films, this year: “Michael Clayton,” We Own the Night,” “Eastern Promises” and “Gone, Baby Gone.” All were well-crafted, well-acted, admirable efforts. But enough, already.

I also made it through Robert Redford’s equally lugubrious “Lions For Lambs” – well intentioned and interesting enough, but directed more like a tennis match than a movie. Like this: Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise debate the pros and cons of the American involvement in Iraq. The camera cuts to Streep making a point. Cut to Cruise making a counterpoint. Cut to Streep for a response. Cut to Cruise for his response to her response. And so on and so on. A parallel scene between Redford as a college professor and his wise-ass student is edited exactly the same way. Occasionally the action switches to Afghanistan where two of Redford’s former students are wounded and lost, but those scenes are just as dull. I give Redford points for presenting the pro/con arguments about Iraq in a way that allows you to hear and digest each side’s rhetoric – a blessed relief from the “screaming head” political pundit environment on TV. However, Redford’s biggest achievement here may be making an 85-minute movie feel like a 3-hour epic.

Anyway, when my friends wanted to go to a movie last night, I made a request “Please no more violent and depressing movies. And no “Love in the Time of Cholera,” because I’m in the middle of reading the book, and I don’t want to see the movie before I’m done.”

Well, that left precious few options. I reluctantly chose “August Rush,” even though a local film critic had dubbed it “Sugar Rush.” I figured it would be hokey and unbelievable, but I was fairly sure it would end happily.

Gotta tell you folks – I was very pleasantly surprised.

Kerri Russell is an acclaimed cellist, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is an Irish rocker. On a magical night in 1995, they meet by chance on a rooftop overlooking Washington Square in Greenwich Village (don’t ask me how they got there – if the movie told us, I was too distracted by the teenager kicking the back of my seat to process it.) They groove to the sounds of a street musician covering Van Morrison’s “Moondance” below. Soon they’re locked in a passionate embrace which, of course, develops into more intense expressions of mutual passion. Come morning, the beautiful cellist must run back to the Sherry-Netherland to meet her controlling father. Said father whisks her away in anger, never to be seen again by the eager young rock singer who follows her in hot pursuit.

As you may have guessed from the trailers, that night of rooftop passion produces a baby boy, but Russell never gets to see him. While she’s unconscious following an emergency Cesarean, her father arranges to have the boy sent to an orphanage, then tells his daughter that the baby died.

Cut to 2007. Russell and Rhys Meyers are leading music-less, love-less existences in Chicago and San Francisco respectively. Meanwhile in a Dickensian orphanage somewhere in the East, their offspring (Freddie Highmore) is yearning to be found by his parents and to make music. He knows in his heart that his ability to hear music in everyday sounds comes from them.

Eventually he runs away to New York to try to locate his folks, and the “Oliver Twist” parallels start coming fast and furious. He is taken in by a young street performer, who brings him to meet “Wizard” (Robin Williams), a former musician who who houses a motley band of youngsters in the dilapidated Fillmore East auditorium, and, of course, lives off their earnings. (Hello, Artful Dodger and Fagin?) Meanwhile, from their far-flung locations, his mom and dad start to recover and reawaken their original musical passions, and their separate paths lead them both to New York.

I won’t reveal too much about how things all work out. I will say that “August Rush” takes a little time to find its footing. But about halfway through, I became so engrossed and invested in it, that I honestly can’t tell you if it stopped being implausible and hokey – or I just stopped noticing and caring.

Early on, it bugged me that, except for Highmore, most of these characters are not well-thought out or even very real. Rhys Meyers brings a certain Celtic soulfulness to his role, but Russell lacks the inner light of a true artist. I never really believed she was a cellist. And we don’t see these two together long enough or generating enough chemistry to care whether they get back together. We only want them to reunite so their son can be part of the reunion.

The deal with Russell and her father is never adequately explained. Who really knows why he’s so controlling? Is he living vicariously through his daughter’s achievements? Is she expected to marry someone of a certain social standing? The film doesn’t give us so much as a hint. It’s more like the screenwriters said “We’ve got to come up with a roadblock to her happiness, so let’s give her an evil father,” and then stopped thinking about it altogether.

And yet…

Once the plot mechanics are established and the movie finds its groove, it does draw you in. The greatest strength of “August Rush” is how full-heartedly it captures the explosive joy of making good music. There are many lovely, offhanded scenes where everything stops, and the focus is completely upon happy people caught up in the rapture of singing or playing. I like that these scenes are indulgent and lingered over. I was less impressed by scenes in which the sounds of the city converge to become music inside Highmore’s head. It’s not that the scenes are bad, but the whole idea was much more impressive in Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” where the sounds of factory machines and train wheels provide the driving beat for full-blown production numbers in Bjork’s imagination.

One thing is for sure, this movie could NOT work without an exceptional child actor in the central role, and Highmore is nothing if not exceptional. He has a innocence and purity that transcend even the most ridiculous moments of this film. You ultimately believe in the movie because you believe in him. (You’ve seen him before in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s a shame he’s now 15 and too old to play “Oliver Twist” because he would have been fantastic.)

I groaned inwardly when Robin Williams showed up, a reaction I’ve had every time I’ve seen him a in a movie for the last ten years. (Notable exception: “One Hour Photo”). But by the film’s end he had won me over. He’s restrained, and his character is more mean and bilious than charming; a climatic scene in which he tries to pass himself off as Highmore’s father literally had me on the edge of my seat.

At the end of “August Rush,” I had tears in my eyes and joy in my heart. That seems appropriate for the start of the holiday movie season. It’s a little sugary and a little sappy, but Freddie Highmore makes it all worth the time. See it if you can.

(Photo credits:,

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