In Dani Menkin’s Is That You?, young film student Myla (Naruna Kaplan de Macedo) is making a documentary, asking strangers what they regret. If she asked me, I might just have told her that I regret having watched Is That You? Nominated for an Israeli Academy Award for Best Picture and winner of Best Indie Film, Dani Menkin’s Is That You? is a convoluted road-trip movie that manipulates its paper-thin plot until almost none of it makes sense. Israeli film, television, and stage favorite Alon Aboutboul (London Has Fallen, The Dark Knight Rises) stars as Ronnie, an outdated analog man in an ever-more-digital world. After losing his job as a projectionist in an Israeli art house, Ronnie heads to the States, determined to find his lost love, Rachel, who he has not seen in nearly forty years. He picks up an old used car (no fancy new styles for him) from his brother, Jacob (Rani Bleier), and sets out on his mission. The lemon soon breaks down, and Ronnie is offered help by Myla, whose film is called The Road Not Taken. Moved by Ronnie’s story, Myla joins him on his journey, taking her brother’s SUV, without permission. As Ronnie and Myla try to track down Rachel, who can’t seem to settle down in one place for very long, they stop along the way so Myla can interview people on the street and in their homes, getting them to share what they would change in their lives if they could. But the hardest person to get to open up is Ronnie himself.
Is That You? is a narrative mess from the start, as Menkin (39 Pounds of Love, Dolphin Boy) keeps trying to force square pegs into round holes; if a plot development doesn’t quite work, he forges ahead anyway, leaving viewers scratching their head in disbelief. Aboutboul (Out of the Blue, One of Us) is a wonderful actor, but Ronnie is just too dour and withdrawn, too uncommunicative, while Kaplan de Macedo, a real-life documentary filmmaker in her acting debut and a dead ringer for Zooey Deschanel, is fun to watch, although her character is overly quirky. Even the opening credits are a disappointment; Menkin uses the font associated with Woody Allen films, but there’s nothing in Is That You? that shares any of the wit and intelligence in even the Woodman’s lesser works. There are some interesting ideas in the film, but it probably would have worked better as a short instead of an eighty-three-minute feature. Is That You? opens August 26 at Cinema Village, with Menkin, Aboutboul, and other members of the cast and crew participating in several Q&As over the weekend.
Who: Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener, Netta Yerushalmy
What: Beach Sessions Dance Series
Where: On the sand at Beach 86, Rockaway Beach
When: Saturday, August 27, free, 6:30
Why: Now in its second year, Beach Sessions Dance Series, begun in 2015 by Sasha Okshteyn via a Kickstarter campaign, got under way last weekend with performances by Laurie Berg and BOOMERANG and concludes August 27 at 6:30 with a shared bill featuring Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener and Netta Yerushalmy. Former Cunningham dancers Mitchell and Riener will present the premiere of a new piece, while the Israel-trained, New York City-based Yerushalmy has scheduled “traces, residues, new old horizons; a byproduct of my current project Paramodernities.” Beach Sessions is a labor of love for Okshteyn, who is the digital marketing manager and tour coordinator for Stephen Petronio Company and a curator for Black & White Gallery/Project Space in Brooklyn. The performances, held on an outdoor stage on the sand with the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop, will be followed by a beach cleanup hosted by the Surfrider Foundation. If you participate in the cleanup, you’ll get a free drink ticket for the after-party at event sponsor Rockaway Brewery + Co. at 415 Beach 72nd St. and Amstel Blvd.
FATIMA (Philippe Faucon, 2015)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Howard Gilman Theater
144 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Opens Friday, August 26
Inspired by Fatima Elayoubi’s Prayer to the Moon, a collection of writings by a Moroccan woman trying to make a new life for herself and her family in France, Philippe Faucon’s Fatima is a tender, poignant look at the immigrant experience in the twenty-first century. In her film debut, nonprofessional actress Soria Zéroual, who was discovered after a massive talent search, stars as Fatima, a traditional woman raising two daughters in a small Muslim community in France. While her children, Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), who is starting pre-med, and Souad (Kenza-Noah Aïche), a typical disenchanted teenager who prefers hanging out with her friends and flirting with boys rather than studying, speak French and dress in contemporary styles, Fatima converses primarily in Arabic and wears a head scarf. Her ex-husband (Chawki Amari) has remarried, so she has taken on the primary responsibility of raising the kids, working several jobs as a cleaning woman in order to make money to improve their lives and offer them every possibility they deserve. On the surface, Fatima is simple and plain, struggling to communicate with her daughters, her employers, and her doctors. “If my daughter’s a success, my happiness is content,” she tells Nesrine. “You drive me so mad I could go out without a head scarf,” she says to Souad. But Fatima slowly begins revealing that there is much more to her when she picks up a pen and starts sharing her deepest thoughts in a notebook, writing poetry, letters, and short pieces about her life.
Winner of Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Most Promising Actress (Hanrot) at the 2016 César Awards, Fatima is a beautifully made drama, written, directed, and produced (with Serge Noël) by Faucon, warmly photographed by Laurent Fenart, and edited with a soft gentleness by Sophie Mandonnet. Faucon (L’Amour, Samia), whose grandparents came from North Africa, maintains a patient, naturalistic pace throughout, centered by Zéroual’s sweetly innocent César-nominated performance, as Fatima faces racism from the French and shame from her fellow Muslims. She is a mother who would do anything for her children but is stuck in a world that traps and confines her, limiting her options, some of which Zéroual, who was cleaning banks when she auditioned for the role, has experienced herself. Hanrot excels as Nesrine, a young woman who is nervous about her future, while Souad wonderfully captures the angst and ennui of the rebellious teenager who loves her mother but wants to break free of old-fashioned traditions and outdated social mores. Although the film is not overtly political, it is clearly making a point, one that takes on ever-more-urgent meaning in the postcolonial age of Trump and Le Pen, when immigration, particularly concerning Muslims, is under attack every day.
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Ave. at 75th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 4, suggested admission $12-$25
In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s 2014 biopic about British artist J. M. W. Turner, the controversial landscape painter (played with a splendid curmudgeonly gruffness by Timothy Spall) examines a canvas of his hanging at the Royal Academy, approaches it with his brush, and dabs on one last bit of color, as if adding a period to complete the painting. But what really determines whether a work of art is finished? That is the question asked by the Met Breuer in its inaugural exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” The show, which features nearly two hundred paintings, drawings, and sculptures, explores various aspects of completion while referencing the Met’s takeover of Marcel Breuer’s building, originally built for the Whitney, which recently moved to its new home in the Meatpacking District. (At the very least, the downstairs of the Met Breuer has not been finished.) “A work is complete if in it the master’s intentions have been realized,” Rembrandt said. However, Pablo Picasso asserted, “To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul.” The exhibition, spread across two floors, includes several canvases by Rembrandt and Picasso as well as works by Titian, Pollock, Velázquez, Monet, Homer, Whistler, Friedrich, Hesse, Gericault, Ruscha, Bourgeois, Cézanne, Sargent, Matisse, Szapocznikow, Tuymans, Richter, Johns, Twombly, Dumas, and many others, from the Renaissance to the present, a fascinating journey into the creative process. But the majority of the pieces on view — divided into such sections as “The Infinite: Art Out of Bounds,” “To Be Determined: Painting in Process,” and “Decay, Dwindle, Decline” — are not immediately identifiable as being incomplete, especially given curators Andrea Bayer, Kelly Baum, and Nicholas Cullinan’s wide employment of the concept of “unfinished.”
Edouard Manet kept repainting the face of “Madame Edouard Manet” and eventually gave up, not satisfied with the results. James Tissot’s “Orphan” etching was made from a painting that is now lost. Elizabeth Peyton’s “Napoleon (After Louis David, Le General Bonaparte vers 1797)” was based on an unfinished portrait by Jacques Louis David. Lucian Freud continually reworked the face in a 2002 self-portrait with oil paint, leaving the rest of the canvas as a charcoal sketch. Gustave Courbet chose not to give definition to his visage in “The Homecoming.” Alberto Giacometti made significant changes to “Annette” after it was first shown publicly. Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait with Wounded Eye” is an unsigned piece that mirrors the vision problem the artist was suffering from. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Dirty Bride or The Wedding of Mopsus and Nisa” was a design for a woodcut. Gustav Klimt’s “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III” was commissioned half a dozen years after the subject committed suicide, and then Klimt died before it was complete. Janine Antoni licked and washed with the two busts of “Lick and Lather,” but the materials she used (chocolate and soap) will eventually disintegrate on their own. It is not known why Albrecht Dürer did not finish “Salvator Mundi” after he fled Nuremberg for Venice and later returned. Camille Corot’s “Boatman among the Reeds,” a finished work, looks unfinished when seen from up close; one critic noted, “When you come to a Corot, it is better not to get too close. Nothing is finished, nothing is carried through. . . . Keep your distance.” Meanwhile, X-radiographs have revealed an earlier state underneath Corot’s signed “Sibylle.” Vincent van Gogh committed suicide before completing “Street in Auvers-sur-Oise.” Edgar Degas reworked the 1866 “Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey” in 1880-81 and again around 1897; the artist reportedly said to Katherine Cassat, mother of Mary Cassat, “It is one of those works which are sold after a man’s death and artists buy them not caring whether they are finished or not.” Indeed, the nature of death, the ultimate finality, hovers over many of the works. “The painting raises fundamental questions regarding the transitional nature of the moment of death and the inherent ‘unfinishedness’ of human life,” the wall label says about Ferdinand Hodler’s “Valentine Godé — Darel on Her Deathbed,” a poignant oil depicting the Swiss artist’s ailing lover.
The centerpiece of the show is a side room — missed by many museumgoers — that contains five glorious later canvases by Joseph Mallard William Turner, abstract seascapes and landscapes painted between 1835 and 1845. Pre-Impressionist, they seem to stand at a sort of gateway to the modern and a transition between earlier ideas of “unfinished” related to product and later notions associated with process. There are few definable objects in the works — “Margate (?), from the Sea,” “The Thames above Waterloo Bridge,” “Rough Sea,” “Sun Setting over a Lake,” and “Sunset from the Top of the Rigi” — and there is debate over whether they are non finito (intentionally unfinished), never completed for various reasons, or in fact finished paintings. Given the experimental nature of the glowing canvases, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Spall walked into the room, carefully surveyed the canvases, then added a dab of paint here, a splotch of color there. It also makes one question whether it even matters if a work is finished or not; without knowing any of the background behind these five Turner paintings, you’d be hard-pressed to consider them unfinished; Turner’s magnificent use of light and color and exquisite brushwork take your breath away, filling every bit of you with emotion, leaving nothing untouched, even if, to Turner, they were not done. As Barnett Newman said, “The idea of a ‘finished’ picture is a fiction.”
The exhibition finishes September 4; be sure to also check out Tatsuo Miyajima’s first-floor installation, “Arrow of Time (Unfinished Life),” which was specially commissioned as a companion piece for the show; it consists of approximately 250 red, numeric LEDs hanging from the ceiling, counting down from nine to one over and over at different intervals, an endless cycle evoking life, death, and rebirth. Miyajima named the piece after Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s theory concerning thermodynamics and entropy and was inspired by the Buddhist notion of samsara, which fits right in with the theme of the Breuer’s first major exhibit.
Ostensibly a female Deliverance gone underground, Neil Marshall’s The Descent is a piss-poor piece of putrefaction. A year after Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and daughter in a terrible car accident, an adventurous group of friends go spelunking in the Appalachians (though the film was actually shot in England, at Pinewood Studios). But Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has pulled a fast one; instead of the well-traversed caves they thought they were going to, Juno has taken them to unexplored territory, where lying in wait for them are fast-moving mutant Gollums with hardy appetites. There is actually one genuine scare, but everything else is manipulatively mundane and morbidly mangled. Inexplicably, The Descent was a hit in its home country, garnering a handful of British film awards and nominations, and there was even a sequel made in 2009. Oh, and by the way, what ever became of the child’s laughter? The Descent is being shown August 26 at 12:10 am as part of the Nitehawk Cinema series “Nitehawk Midnite Screenings” and “Hot Horror,” but you must have something better to do with your time than descend into this disappointing maelstrom.
Lincoln Center, Josie Robertson Plaza
Columbus Ave. at 63rd St.
August 26 - September 5, free, starting time between 7:30 and 8:00
Looking to catch up on your opera viewing? The Met has just announced the full schedule for its annual — and free — Summer HD Festival, eleven nights of filmed operas from 2008 to 2016, projected onto a large screen on Josie Robertson Plaza, beginning August 26 with Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning 1984 drama Amadeus, being shown as a tribute to playwright and screenwriter Peter Shaffer, who passed away in June at the age of ninety. The first-come, first-served festival, which has 3,100 seats up for grabs at every screening, continues August 27 with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, directed by Richard Eyre, conducted by James Levine, and starring Amanda Majeski, Marlis Petersen, Isabel Leonard, Peter Mattei, and Ildar Abdrazakov; August 28 with Sir David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, with Anna Netrebko, Dolora Zajick, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Yonghoon Lee; August 29 with Verdi’s Otello, directed by Bartlett Sher, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and featuring Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona, and Željko Lučić as Iago; August 30 with Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, with Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez; August 31 with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, with Dessay, Joseph Calleja, and Ludovic Tézier; September 1 with Rossini’s La Cenerentola, conducted by Fabio Luisi and with a cast led by Joyce DiDonato and Flórez; September 2 with the popular double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, with Marcelo Álvarez (as the lead in both), Eva-Maria Westbroek, Patricia Racette, and George Gagnidze, conducted by Luisi; September 3 with Renée Fleming singing the title role in Susan Stroman’s adaptation of Lehár’s The Merry Widow, with Nathan Gunn and, in her 2015 Met debut, Kelli O’Hara; September 4 with Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Puccini’s Turandot, starring Nina Stemme; and September 5 with Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, with Diana Damrau, Matthew Polenzani, and Mariusz Kwiecien, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (EL ABRAZO DE LA SERPIENTE) (Ciro Guerra, 2015)
Socrates Sculpture Park
32-01 Vernon Blvd.
Wednesday, August 24, free, live music at 7:00, screening at sunset
Colombian writer-director Ciro Guerra takes viewers on a spectacular journey through time and space and deep into the heart of darkness in the extraordinary Embrace of the Serpent. Guerra’s Oscar-nominated film, the first to be shot in the Colombian Amazon in thirty years, opens with a 1909 quote from explorer Theodor Koch-Grünberg: “It is not possible for me to know if the infinite jungle has started on me the process that has taken many others to complete and irremediable insanity.” Inspired by the real-life journals of Koch-Grünberg and botanist and explorer Richard Evans Schultes, Guerra poetically shifts back and forth between two similar trips down the Vaupés River, both led by the same Amazonian shaman, each time guiding a white scientist on a perilous expedition in a long, narrow canoe. Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, ailing white ethnologist Theo (Jan Bijvoet) and his native aid, Manduca (Yauenkü Migue), seek the help of Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), a shaman wholly suspicious of whites and who believes he is the last of his tribe. However, Theo claims he knows where remnants of Karamakate’s people live and will show him in return for helping him find the magical and mysterious hallucinogenic Yakruna plant that Theo thinks can cure his illness. Forty years later, white botanist Evan (Brionne Davis) enlists Karamakate (Antonio Bolívar Salvador) to locate what is thought to be the last surviving Yakruna plant, which he hopes will finally allow him to dream in order to heal his soul. Evoking such films as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Embrace of the Serpent makes the rainforest itself a character, shot in glorious black-and-white by David Gallego (Cecilia, Violencia) in a sparkling palette reminiscent of the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. As the parallel stories continue, the men encounter similar locations that have changed dramatically over time, largely as a result of rubber barons descending on the forest and white missionaries bringing Western religion to the natives. It’s difficult to watch without being assailed by imperialist concepts of the “noble savage,” mainly because the Amazon — and our Western minds — have been so profoundly affected by those ideas. “Before he can become a warrior, a man has to leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams,” the older Karamakate says. “In that journey he has to discover, completely alone, who he really is.”
Winner of the Directors’ Fortnight Art Cinema Award at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Embrace of the Serpent is an unforgettable spiritual quest into the ravages of colonialism, the evils of materialism, the end of indigenous cultures, and what should be a sacred relationship between humanity and nature. Written by Guerra (2004’s Wandering Shadows, 2009’s The Wind Journeys) and Jacques Toulemonde (Anna), it is told from the point of view of the indigenous people of the Amazon, whom Guerra worked closely with in the making of the film, assuring them of his intentions to not exploit them the way so many others have. Aside from the Belgian Bijvoet and the Texan Davis, the rest of the cast is made up of members of tribes that live along the Vaupés. Guerra actually brought along a shaman known as a payé to perform ritual ceremonies to ensure the safety of the cast and crew and to protect the jungle itself. “What Ciro is doing with this film is an homage to the memory of our elders, in the time before: the way the white men treated the natives, the rubber exploitation,” Torres, in his first movie, says about the film. “I’ve asked the elders how it was and it is as seen in the film; that’s why we decided to support it. For the elders and myself it is a memory of the ancestors and their knowledge.” Salvador, who previously had bad experiences with filmmakers, notes, “It is a film that shows the Amazon, the lungs of the world, the greater purifying filter, and the most valuable of indigenous cultures. That is its greatest achievement.” Embrace of the Serpent is a great achievement indeed, an honest, humanistic, maddening journey that takes you places you’ve never been. Embrace of the Serpent is screening August 24 in Long Island City, concluding Socrates Sculpture Park’s seventeenth annual free summer Outdoor Cinema series, programmed by Film Forum, and will be preceded by a live performance by Bulla en el Barrio, with South American food available for purchase from La Carreta Paisa.