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"Adoration" is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story. It's about that
time of self-discovery when the question "who am I?" becomes an
obsession. But what makes this film so startlingly refreshing is that
it also has a classic structure rarely seen in contemporary cinema. The
viewer is never quite sure whether or not the images on screen are real
or imagined. Think of a chess game where each move prompts you to
replay the entire game in your head. Such is the experience of watching
"Adoration," brilliantly conceived and executed by
writer/director/co-producer Atom Egoyan.
Egoyan is a legend in his adopted country of Canada with dozens of awards and nominations to his credit (1997's "The Sweet Hereafter" earned him Oscar noms for writing and directing). The mere mention of his name widens the eyes of citizens north of the border, as I learned here at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I attended the film's North American Premiere (it debuted at Cannes, where it was nominated for the prestigious Palm D'Or). Locals hold him to a very high standard. For me, I prefer going in cold, knowing as little as possible about a film. Similarly, I won't reveal much about the story here.
After losing his parents under questionable circumstances, Simon (Devon Bostick) is reluctantly being raised by his Uncle Tom (Scott Speedman). Simon's memories of his mother Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), an accomplished violinist, and father Sami (Noam Jenkins) are shrouded in mystery. Enter Simon's teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian), who might be able to help Simon unlock the secrets that are the key to his youthful confusion. What follows is a brain teaser which takes great concentration. The wheels are always turning, and the viewer is constantly challenged to figure out exactly what is real or perceived, and by whom.
The look of the film enhances the mystery inherent in the story. The use of single-point lighting allows shadows to fall upon already-obscure settings. Music is essential to the plot and, as such, Rachel's violin virtuosity is extended to a string soundtrack that is as haunting as the film itself. Paul Sarossy's cinematography is cleverly integrated with composer Mychael Danna's soundtrack, with tracking shots set to music as a visual ballet. Editor Susan Shipton had a tall order working with Egoyan to craft a virtual puzzle in which nothing is at it seems.
Speedman ably plays the father figure who isn't quite ready to take on the task of raising a teen but does so out of loyalty to his late sister. Khanjian's Sabine is simply chilling and central to the power of the film. Blanchard is a joy to watch -- simply an angel on screen (and shot that way, to boot) -- and Jenkins successfully remains an enigmatic personality throughout. But, most of all, this is Bostick's film to carry on his young shoulders. Appearing in almost every scene, it's his curiosity and angst which drive "Adoration," and it's our empathy for him (weren't we all Simon once?) that gives the film its heart and soul. Bostick is one of Canada's most prolific young actors (he co-starred in Citizen Duane, one of my Top Picks from the 2006 festival) and will hopefully be introduced to a wider audience if this film gets the distribution it deserves.
The moment the credits began to roll I wanted to see "Adoration" again. If there were back-to-back screenings I would have remained in my seat. This is the first film in recent memory which has had that effect on me. There's nothing more exciting and intriguing than a film that plays with space and time, where perception matters more than anything else. What we see on screen vs. what is in our heads -- the spaces we fill with our own thoughts -- are artfully juggled by Egoyan and the result is simply a masterpiece.
Atom Egoyan's Adoration weaves a complex tale of a young man searching
for the truth about his family by perpetuating a lie in order to
witness its consequences. Simon (Devon Bostick), a young high school
student, tells his class that his Lebanese father Sami (Noam Jenkins)
was a terrorist who attempted to blow up a plane with a bomb carried by
his pregnant wife, Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), a talented violinist. In
his presentation to the class, Simon says that he is the unborn child,
his mother was the innocent being led to her demise, and his father was
the killer out to murder 400 innocent people to promote a cause. The
only problem with the story is that it is not true. The incident never
happened. The film exposes the ease with which people are willing to
accept what they are told without question and how modern technology
has become a useful tool for those eager to disseminate falsehood.
According to the director, the film is "about people dealing with absences. He (Simon) imagines having a father who is a demon; he wants to go as far as possible into what that might mean." Adoration begins with an indelible image a young woman standing at the end of a pier overlooking a river playing the violin while her husband and young son watch in awe. Moving forward and backward in time with great ease, the film slowly constructs the events which have led to Simon's school confessional. The key player is Simon's French teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) whose own family was killed in Lebanon by a terrorist attack. Sabine reads an article to the class about an incident that occurred in 1986 in which a Jordanian man, Nezar Hindawi, sent his pregnant Irish girlfriend on an El Al flight with a bomb in her handbag, of which she had no knowledge until it was discovered by Israeli airport security.
Heavily influenced by his bigoted grandfather Morris (Kenneth Walsh) to believe that his father intentionally caused his mother's death in a car crash, the vulnerable Simon constructs a parallel between the article read by his French teacher and the death of his parents. On his own, Simon posts his fake story on the Internet and has to deal with emotional responses from holocaust victims, holocaust deniers, students, and professors talking about terrorism, martyrdom, and heroism. It is a discussion that often sinks to the level of victimization as portrayed by veteran actor Maury Chaykin who blames the bogus airplane incident for "ruining" his life. Simon's uncle, Tom (Scott Speedman), who raised the boy after his parents' death, acts as a mediator between his nephew and the teacher who encourages Simon to tell his fake story in the school auditorium.
Tom is a tow truck operator with a short fuse who harbors a deep resentment against his father for the way he was treated as a child and his encounters with Sabine contain some of the film's most intense moments. Aided by a tenderly evocative violin-prominent soundtrack by Mychael Danna, Adoration is an intelligent and imaginative study of family conflict and reconciliation that serves as a compelling probe into human behavior and the ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Though it contains a great deal of ambiguity and character motivations tend to be somewhat mystifying, Adoration is a very involving film with performances that are uniformly excellent, particularly Arsinee Khanjian as the emotionally-damaged teacher and Speedman and Bostock who provide enough tension to keep us riveted throughout.
I'm never going to be the most unbiased observer when it comes to any
given Atom Egoyan movie. He is one of my favorite directors and
certainly one of the best Canadian directors currently working, and I
have enjoyed every one of his films, even the much derided "Where the
Truth Lies", which I found to be a tremendously entertaining genre
Still, I was concerned when news of the uninspiring critical response from Cannes came in, and even more concerned when I noticed that the film received several extremely negative reviews, some of them from critics whose tastes match mine. Having now seen "Adoration" at CIFF I'm not going to pretend I can't see where they're coming from- the film is a little preachy, there's bits of acting which are poor, there's a weakness to Egoyan's writing in that he seems to want to touch on every possible viewpoint on the issues being explored here within this running time, and occasionally it comes off as a little desperate.
None of that keeps "Adoration" from being an intensely involving film, and a powerful one as well; a film about prejudices, loss, the power of technology, and the effect of fiction on reality and vice versa will always be topical, but given the actual plot of the film it is particularly relevant to today's world. "Adoration" revolves around Simon (played by Devon Bostick), an orphaned teenager born to a Palestinian father and a white, North American mother, who both died in a car accident when he was a child, and was raised afterwards by his uncle Tom (played brilliantly by Scott Speedman). When Simon writes a story about a terrorist who conceals a bomb inside his pregnant girlfriend's luggage before she boards a plane to Israel and imagines himself as the unborn child that is almost killed by the terrorist bomb (a story which has parallels to his racist and intolerant grandfather's version of the story of how Simon's parents died), his drama and French teacher encourages him to share it with his class, passing it off as truth. What she didn't predict was that Simon would post the story online, creating crazed debates and political agendas. The story doesn't revolve around these discussions, but rather develops from there into a character drama which grows in quality as the film moves forward.
Egoyan does not necessarily hit a home run every time when it comes to his work as a director, but he has never shown incompetence or lack of ability and doesn't do so here. Egoyan's writing, on the other hand, is far more inconsistent and likely to cause issues. As mentioned earlier his writing here is somewhat problematic, but not nearly as bad as certain critics would have you believe. For one, "Adoration" often reminded me of discussion groups I have attended on Islamist terrorism, and the dialogue here, criticized for being artificial and even 'ridiculous' is very true to the sort of dialogue you would get out of a group interested in the topic. The only thing lacking, actually, during the chatroom scenes, was a Muslim voice, which would have only added to the dynamic and realism. Also, as heavy-handed as certain sections are here (though "Crash" makes this film look like the subtlest ever made, so it's not that bad), it's also a film which has a lot to say about human nature and our natural response to the environment we live in and to those surrounding us.
"Adoration" is an effective and intelligent look at topical and relevant issues, but really shines as an examination of the nature of human thought, the results of the sort of environment which surrounds us, where hatred and prejudice is born, and ultimately as a character study of three individuals who all need to overcome events in their past by embracing and fully understanding them.
A teenager (Devon Bostick) who was orphaned after the tragic deaths of
his parents is prompted by his teacher (Arsinee Khanjian) to deliver a
fictional monologue about his father's failed terrorist act as fact in
an elaborate "dramatic exercise" in Armenian-Canadian auteur Atom
Egoyan's latest thought-provoking piece of abstraction "Adoration". As
the fiction spins out of control over the internet, the true motives of
those involved in the lie are revealed and back-stories come collapsing
in on each other in Egoyan's signature elliptical style.
Egoyan, as always, gives patient viewers plenty to chew on. Like the young man's monologue that marries a true story to a false one about his parents, "Adoration" itself is an interesting dramatic experiment designed to provoke. It tackles many issues including the motives of terrorists, fractured familial relationships, the hollowness of alleged connections made through modern technology and the dangers of thinking those connections can replace real face-to-face human interaction. Though I always question Egoyan's motive in casting his wife Arsinee Khanjian in his films, in many ways, she gives her most understated and powerful performance here. Bostick does a decent job with a tough role, though Rachel Blanchard is curiously flat in the flashbacks as his mother. The true revelation is Scott Speedman as the troubled tow-truck driver who reluctantly steps in to raise his sister's son after she dies. His story arc proves to be the most involving, though one wishes his background had been more developed.
The bizarre detour into sleazy mediocrity with "Where the Truth Lies" seems to have made Egoyan a little rusty as he returns to a more familiar form here for those who have been watching the arc of his career. The elliptical folding in of the converging plot lines seems clumsier in "Adoration" than it did in his earlier works, and the "big reveal" comes a few scenes too early and sucks out the emotional impact. Unlike "Exotica" which had the swagger of a young auteur at the top of his game, or "The Sweet Hereafter" which came from the sublime source material of novelist Russell Banks, "Adoration" represents Egoyan bruised from years of wear left to his own devices. Though compelling, he gets the best of himself and let's the ideas take over the characters. He also relies far too much on visuals of non-characters in chat rooms or of people being recorded with cameras. However, Egoyan scores when Mychael Danna lends his musical compositions. The frequent collaborator does a magnificent job creating a haunting score with a recurring violin motif that plays integral to one of the back-stories.
Back in the late 1990's Atom Egoyan was in a league of his own and master of his own style. In the past ten years, however, international cinema has seen the emergence of filmmakers like Mexico's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros", "21 Grams" and "Babel") and Germany's Fa-tih Akin (whose superb "The Edge of Heaven" deserved a bigger audience stateside last year). They often tackle similar themes in an elliptical Egoyanesque manner. But because their films are presented on a larger scale and infused with a certain energy and immediacy, Egoyan's films, in all their isolated scholarly austerity, have been unfairly left out in the cold. "Adoration" may not be Egoyan's best, but it proves he still has some good ideas in him and he isn't ready to be dismissed just yet.
When I saw The Sweet Hereafter years ago, I thought Atom Egoyan was one
of the greatest directors alive, and the subsequent films haven't
really shaken that belief. If Adoration is not up to the standard of
his best work, it is still well worth seeing. The story is one of
terrible loss and forgiveness, and the acting is superb. We are
connecting the dots--from racist grandfather to despairing mother to an
orphan teenager (played by the excellent Devon Bostick) with big issues
around truth and responsibility. The boy's uncle has a lot of issues
himself; we can see that being a tow-truck driver is gnawing at his
soul (made me think of Repo Man). Scott Speedman as the uncle is really
good, he's hiding behind a beard, giving curt responses to Arsinée
A problem: lots of use of internet chat rooms to flesh out the story; disembodied, undramatic characters for Simon to interact with (watch for the great Maury Chaykin to heat things up somewhat). Technology is not a launching pad for art, it's just information retrieval or anger management.
There is not much to say about this convoluted story. Its based on a
real event. It relies on lots of talk and minimal action. Atom Egoyan
had full control in making this film, from writing to direction. The
main pluses are the performances of the principal three of the
principal actors. The main negative is the questionable use of
"technology", particularly of teenage chat rooms, of older people chat
rooms, of video cell phones and so on - the focus of these internet &
tech based products is to present talking heads by other means. There
is also a violin, which is the one major non-tech focus of the story.
There is no doubt that this film has potential. It has the making of a compelling plot, given its built in twists, turns and periodic surprises. Could it have been presented in a more exciting and direct way? Maybe not given budget considerations, which are so obvious.
At an early point, the movie takes on that feeling of seeming to go on and on and on. But, there is an interesting, underlying story. And Egoyan is a skilled and always worthwhile filmmaker. So, one persists watching, with some judicious use of occasional fast forwarding of the DVD (particularly the seemingly endless, ridiculous multi-channel computer talkfests). The film has craft and is a serious endeavour. But in the end, it is boring. And boring is boring.
Atom Egoyan, an Armenian born in Cairo in 1960 and living and working
in Canada, is a unique voice among contemporary filmmakers. His films
rarely follow a linear structure, electing instead to rely on
flashbacks and flash forwards to alert the viewer to respond
emotionally to the fragments of story provided - those fragments
emphasizing his obsession with alienation and isolation, the
by-products of a society homogenized by technology, bureaucracy, and
mob rule. His films have collected a wide audience of viewers who
prefer to be intellectually challenged rather than be 'entertained':
'Next of Kin', 'Speaking Parts', 'The Adjuster', 'The Sweet Hereafter',
'Felicia's Journey', 'Ararat', 'Where the Truth Lies', 'Chloe', and
this little masterpiece, 'ADORATION'.
Young Simon (Devon Bostick) is enthralled with the Internet and creating videos to place on the Internet. His parents died in an automobile accident years ago and he has been raised by his uncle Tom (Scott Speedman), a angry young man who has never married and whose only other family member living is his father Nick (Thomas Hauff) for whom he has little affection. Simon tends to his ill grandfather, videotapes him telling stories about his daughter, Simon's mother Rachel (Rachel Blanchard), swearing that Simon's father Sami (Noam Jenkins) intentionally caused the fatal accident, not unlike a terrorist action. At school Simon takes French from teacher Sabine (Arsinée Khanjian) who encourages Simon's penchant for drama by encouraging a story Simon has created: he postulates that Sami placed explosives in Rachel's bag while pregnant Rachel flew to Israel with the intention of exploding the airplane killing 400 people. Simon takes his developing tale to the Internet chat rooms where the story then leaks out to the parents of the teenagers chatting. The 'news' results in Sabine being fired from her job. Sabine visits Simon and Tom's house disguised by an elegant burka, and encounters the angry Tom who had already had a previous encounter with Sabine over a towed car. The intensity of the make-believe story of Sami being a terrorist creates havoc in the town, between Tom and Simon, and with Simon's relationship to his grandfather. There is a surprise twist to the true background of Simon's parents, Sabine, Tom, and the grandfather and Simon's fictional 'play' opens doors of emotional reaction from Simon's internet chatroom experience and from all of the people involved in the story.
While this 'summary' of the plot is confusing to read, so is the progress of the tale Atom Egoyan has filmed. He intensifies the drama with moments of utter beauty and shared love as well as condemnations from the people who are adversely affected by Simon's concocted 'lie', a falsity perpetrated by his 'accomplice' Sabine. Keeping the action level low, accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful music for solo cello and solo violin by Mychael Danna, and enhanced by the tight cinematography of Paul Sarossy, only makes this little film that much more powerful to observe and digest. As with all of Egoyan's films, it is the afterburn that lingers in the mind of the viewer that drives the power of the work home.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Like almost all of Atom Egoyan's movies, 'Adoration' is
self-consciously exploratory, gently tracing the boundaries and
pressure points that exist between characters in a manner that asks
resonant, sometimes troubling questions about wider political issues
without needing to generalise from the specifics. Egoyan doesn't
universalise, he doesn't simplify. He may be the least glib film-maker
I was lucky enough to see him speak about this film after it screened at the London Film Festival. He was asked a question about the political content of the film; rather than claim that the film isn't political, as I have heard other artists do when confronted with this question about their work, he responded that the politics in the film are entirely located within the family - a refreshingly nuanced response.
He is also far more willing to risk losing an audience than almost any other director, pushing dramatic situations into absurdism or uncomfortable comedy, or outright confounding ambiguity, when it would be easier and more surefire to go for more conventional dramatic effects, like irony, or poignancy. For instance, the entire encounter between Arsinee Khanjian and Scott Speedman's characters, in which painful confession and angry confrontation are tempered by the awkward farce of the taxi-ride and invitation to lunch, the unsettling comedy of the confrontation with the taxi-driver, and, most opaquely, the utterly meaningless and consequence-free coincidence of Simon passing his uncle in a bus, and them failing to see each other.
Most impressive of all, I think, is the balance this film strikes between intellectual engagement and emotional detachment. After the screening, I told my partner that I'd found it moving, and he expressed surprise, as he valued the lack of sentimentality, almost the dispassion, of the film. Reflecting on it, I realised that when I used the word 'moved', I was using it to express a feeling separate from being emotionally invested in the characters in a film (as in, say, 'Mysterious Skin' or 'Magnolia', both of which sent me off into crying jags). Egoyan's films (with the exception of 'The Sweet Hereafter', which is heartbreaking and cathartic and, as it happens, my favourite film bar none) almost seem to displace my emotional investment into the structure of the movie, similar to the way music engages the listener - or, perhaps, more unusually, they displace it onto the ideas themselves; ideas like the psychology of martyrdom, the instant narrativisation of internet discourse and its consequences, the elusive boundaries of personal responsibility (a recurring concern in Egoyan's films), the conciliatory and revelatory aspects of art, and all the other stuff this movie left buzzing round in my head. If you'll bear with me, I think what I'm saying is that I feel a kind of emotional topography of ideas in Egoyan's movies, a recognition that intellectual frameworks and emotional responses aren't detached in people's lives; the characters, the structure and the brainfood are all connected, in sync; you aren't manipulated into crying, but you may just feel your heart aching all the same.
Atom Egoyan is a very skilled filmmaker that is exploiting a stereotype
of the older white person's racism against a Lebanese son in law. Old
white people are easy to pick on, Hollywood routinely allows this
because there is little criticism generated from it. Does that mean
this is right? I don't think so.
The film implies that a group of people (older white people) are "monsters." Maybe Atom has experienced racism from white people because of his Egyptian father, I get the feeling that he hates me for being white and 54 years old. I give Atom a 10 for the skill in making this film, he gets a 0 for the subject.
Atom Egoyan's latest feat, "Adoration", features among Egoyan's most
profound work, and it is also one of the best independent or
underground films you can rent this year. Now, you might be wondering
how I can call a film by Atom Egoyan 'underground', when he's one of
the most renowned directors in the world. It's precisely the same
question I asked a fellow critic of mine who recommended it, and now
that I've seen it, I have the answer: It features a large cast of
'unknowns' (with the possible exception of Scott Speedman), a large
crew of unknowns, it features a small budget, it's artsy...but most of
all, it aspires and tries to be overwhelming at its impact and
appealing to the masses, and it fails to be either at the end. Not even
the seal of recognition from the Cannes Film Festival in 2008 saved
this film from being on a short release during the winter of 2009 and
from finally emerging on DVD, at the end of the same year.
But please, bear with me. The film deals with a teenager called Simon (Devon Bostick) who's written a fictional monologue where his father left his pregnant mother on a plane and hid a bomb on her carry-on bag, which is discovered by the authorities and which foils his plans of terrorism. Prompted by Sabine, his French teacher (Arsinée Khanjian), he makes his classmates believe the story is true, and publishes it on an Internet chat room which makes thousands of bloggers go crazy on the subjects of terrorism, victims, love, recognition, the value of life, etc...all of that, prompted by his story. Simon is scared to find out how much of his fictional story is true, since for some reason it has a familiar ring with some images of his past. So he decides to make a video diary where he films the bloggers who heatedly comment on his story, and who provide him with the necessary 'mind fuel' to deduct whether his father actually WAS an assassin, whether his mother was his victim, whether his grandfather (Kenneth Welsh) polluted their memory and whether his uncle (Scott Speedman) is hiding something.
I know, it sounds like a complicated storyline...and it is. There are infinite separate plots (each character has ulterior motives, an agenda, and a haunting past which establishes their present personalities), and the film is given to us in puzzle pieces, with the separate scenes jumping from present, to future to past...to imaginary present, future and past...all of this to a point where you won't understand a thing you see on screen if you're not fully concentrated. I was, thankfully, and I found it easy to keep up with so many plot lines, and as the film progressed and I discovered more details and secrets every second, I felt my heart pounding and my palms sweating from the tension and the heavy drama on screen. THAT'S where the film is genius; on the way it uses an intelligent and complicated plot perfectly, and on how it reaches over to the audience.
The film IS good, it is very very good, actually, but it tries to exceed its own potential, giving way to a large amount of unfinished plot twists, undeveloped characters and confusing situations. Stories begin to fit in together, resolutions are being taken, and by the end of the film the principal characters have all found catharsis in their own way...but what about the infinite number of other characters the film presents? They're all left behind, with no completion whatsoever. SO many topics that were effectively handled and most of them weren't developed! The main characters (Simon, the French teacher, the uncle, the grandfather and the parents) have incredible depth, and halfway through the film you're convinced that this might just be THE deepest and most intelligent film of the decade...but soon after that, the film is over and only the superficial plot lines where resolved, only the surface of the characters came full circle. It's one of those movies where the credits start rolling and you say "It's over?! But what about the...", then you start making so any questions, and you start coming up with so many answers, all of them giving birth to more questions...until you have no idea what you're even coming up with.
Perhaps this was Egoyan's point, to keep us thinking and thinking until our thoughts seem to have detached from the film itself; it's a good thing to do- to have your public ponder so much- but it's bad when it affects the movie. Like I said, it tries to overreach, it goes literally everywhere with so much plot that OBVIOUSLY there are going to be mistakes and plot lines will be left unsolved. But even through these flaws, the film delivers interesting messages, it gives us a couple of memorable characters and a story (however complicated it may be) that entertains and envelops the viewer. And even if the balance of the film slowly shattered at the end, for most of the duration it was maintained, giving the viewer a very rewarding hour and forty minutes of viewing experience.
If you love artsy, independent films- see it. If you're tired of mainstream Hollywood brainless flicks and want something new- see it. If you love Atom Egoyan or are planning to introduce him into your cinema knowledge- see it. If you're expecting to see a paramount in independent cinema that transcends our expectations on the seventh art- skip it. This is very good, but not great. Nevertheless, I still recommend it.
Rating: 3 stars out of 4!
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