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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

This ‘Demon’ is nothing like neon

You may not have seen the recent release "The Neon Demon." And after you read my review, you might not want to. Or you just might. Whatever, my review (which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio) follows:

Movie fans owe a lot to the French. The very language we use in film is peppered with French words. The term “cinema,” for example, was coined by the Lumière brothers. “Oeuvre” describes the whole of a filmmaker’s work. “Auteur” refers to an artist – in this case a filmmaker – whose style and practice are distinctive.

Think of Alfred Hitchcock. Or Stanley Kubrick. Think of Jean-Luc Godard or, even, of Steven Spielberg. These are auteurs, filmmakers whose respective work stands out from the cookie-cutter creations put forth by your typical Hollywood director.

In recent years, a number of Danish filmmakers – especially Dogma practitioner Lars Von Trier – have emerged as would-be auteurs. Nicolas Winding Refn is a Danish filmmaker.

Refn also is the guy responsible for “The Neon Demon,” a study in lurid affectation steeped in style that passes for profundity. That style, though, is distinctively Refn – recognizable in the director’s previous films “Bronson,” “Valhalla Rising,” “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” And as the funk musician George Clinton once said, “Style is whatever you want to do, if you can do it with confidence.”

Refn, as “The Neon Demon” clearly shows, is hardly lacking in confidence. The question here concerns coherence.

Based on Refn’s original idea, and on a screenplay co-written by Refn and two women screenwriters – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – “The Neon Demon” tells the story of Jesse, a 16-year-old newcomer (played by Elle Fanning) who’s attempting to break into the Los Angeles modeling scene.

Briefly, she does exactly that, charming most everyone she comes in contact with. From agents to fashion designers, all are captivated by Jesse’s nubile freshness and virginal perfection. The only exceptions are a creepy motel manager (played, bafflingly enough, by Keanu Reeves) and the two models who quickly spot the newcomer as a threat.

The way Jesse’s story plays out could fit nicely into a Lifetime network movie, one of innocence corrupted and all that entails. But Refn, remember, is a stylist. And so “The Neon Demon” is far less about actual story than a series of staged images, all accompanied by a musical score that at times is haunting, at other times merely irritating.

We see Jesse in her first photo session, bathed in blood (spoiler alert: a foreshadowing?), being shot by a nice-guy amateur photographer wearing a killer gaze. We see her being interviewed at a modeling agency (featuring Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” fame), beguiling a designer during an audition, entrancing a menacing photographer during her first professional shoot and bewitching a makeup artist (played by Jena Malone).

We also see scenes that are included purely for shock value. A mountain lion invading Jesse’s motel room. Jesse listening as Reeves’ character apparently rapes her 13-year-old neighbor. A nightclub that seems straight out of Kubrick’s sexual escapade “Eyes Wide Shut.” One character vomiting up an eyeball, another bathing – literally – in blood.

The result of all this could work as metaphor, if it weren’t so obvious and so glaringly pretentious. Which, in whatever language, is just another way of saying Nicolas Winding Refn.

Words about birds tonight at Auntie’s

If you're in the mood for some poetry this evening, Auntie's Bookstore is the place to be. Oregon-based writer Joe Wilkins, author of the poetry collection "When We Were Birds," will read from his works at 7 p.m.

Wilkins will be joined by Spokane-based writers Kate Lebo ("Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter") and Shann Ray ("American Copper").

Writing about Wilkins' collection "Notes From the Journey Westward," author Sam Green Wrote, "One way to define love is fidelity to experience, and if this is so, then Wilkins demonstrates such love over and over in his ruthless, entirely unsentimental efforts to imagine and understandthe world he inhabits—and the one that inhabits him. These are the sorts of poems one keeps close by when they’re most needed, when one can feel most lost."

As usual, the reading is free and open to the public. Seating, though, is limited. For further information, call (509) 838-0206.

Lantern openings: Life teachings

OK, we're trusting that word from the Magic Lantern this week will be correct. Which refers to the news that "Raiders: The Greatest Fan Film Even Made," which was supposed to open last week, is scheduled to open on Friday.

And the other Lantern Friday opening:

"Gurukulam": A documentary exploring the way life was lived, and how the lessons were taught, at the Indian ashram overseen by the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati (who died in 2015). Bring a worldview — and a sense of humor.

No one is more patriotic than The Boss

Today is July 4. As I stress to students who are studying for their U.S. citizenship exams, it marks the day in 1776 when the 13 original colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. It will be a day filled with celebration, underscored by fireworks and many displays of patriotism.

My display will be confined to the embedded video below, which pretty much sums up this Vietnam veteran's feelings in a mere 4 four minutes and 43 seconds:

The week’s openings: Animated pets and frat boys

A number of movies could open this week, though only a few actually will. The most likely candidates are:

"The Secret Life of Pets": What happens when a terrier named Max is left alone during the day? He has fun with his pals — that is, until his owner brings home another dog and spoils his happy life. Animated animals. Expect the obligatory breaking-wind jokes.

"Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates": Brothers Mike and Dave post an online ad for dates to a Hawaiian wedding, and … well, you can imagine the rest. Expect one long pub crawl. (Also, watch the embedded video below.)

I'll update as needed.

Books galore: Vestal and Smith at Auntie’s

Most journalists are frustrated authors of one sort or another. Some of us deal with this frustration by sticking to what we do best: churning out regular copy. Others, though, do that and write actual books.

And in the case of Shawn Vestal, they turn out books that people actually like. And want to read.

Vestal, the Spokesman-Review columnist, will read from his book "Daredevils" at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. Vestal will share the reading spot with Portland writer Alexis Smith, author of the novel "Marrow Island."

As usual, the readings are free and open to the public. Vestal, though, has a big following, so it might be prudent to show up early.

Here are some reactions to the two books on display tonight:

Kirkus Reviews on "Marrow Island": "A stunning novel about sacrifice for the sake of survival in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters."

SFGate on "Daredevils": "This on-the-road novel takes twists and turns that are on no literary map you’ve ever seen. A 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize winner and on the short list for the Saroyan Prize, Vestal plays with points of view at a dizzying speed, so that at times the novel feels like a symphonic chorus."

Friday’s openings redux: Spies and castaways

Two additions to the week's mainstream (more or less) movie offerings:

"Swiss Army Man": Paul Dano plays a guy marooned on a desert island, and Daniel Radcliffe plays the corpse that becomes his fantasy helper. My favorite headline explainer: "Cast Away" meets "Weekend at Bernie's." Bring an imagination. And maybe a strong stomach.

"Our Kind Of Traitor": This spy flick tells the story of an ordinary man (Ewan McGregor) who becomes involved in a Russian man's attempt to defect with his family. What you need to know: It's based on the John Le Carré novel.

Friday’ openings: Disney meets Spielberg

Two movie traditions offer up new looks on Friday when the week's movie offerings open. Friday's scheduled openings are as follows:

"BFG": Teaming with Disney, Steven Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl's novel about a little girl who makes friend with a Big Friendly Giant. Oh, that's what those letters refer to. I always thought … never mind.

"The Legend of Tarzan": For some reason, the Tarzan stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs refuse to die. This latest effort is directed by "Harry Potter" veteran David Yates. Maybe he can instill some, er, magic into this long-lame concept.

"The Purge: Election Year": The purge is returning, and this time it's targeting a U.S. senator who wants to end it. Don't forget your barf bags.

And at the Magic Lantern:

"Raiders! The Story Behind the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made": This documentary tells the story of two kids who, so in love with "Raiders of the Lost Ark," attempt to film their own version. Geeks galore.

"Dark Horse": The story of a group of working-class English horse lovers who attempt to break into the upper-class world of horse racing. Power to the people.

I'll update as needed.

‘The Conjuring 2’: More Warren malarky

If you still haven't seen "The Conjuring 2," you might want to check out the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In 1973, when William Friedkin’s film “The Exorcist” opened, audiences were thrilled. They were frightened. They were grossed out. And they were shocked. But in the end, they were thrilled.

Based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist” used a real-life case as its basis. But Blatty changed several aspects of the incident, and as Friedkin’s screenwriter of record, he included those changes in his screenplay.

One thing that neither Blatty nor Friedkin resorted to, however, was claiming that their work was “based on actual events.” They took a riveting story – one that, Friedkin later claimed, was a study of “faith” – and made a movie that many consider one of the scariest of all time.

That was then, though. And, changing with the tenor of the times, James Wan has adjusted accordingly. Known mostly for having co-created the “Saw” series – the films that helped spawn the sub-genre of torture-porn – Wan has become a virtual publicist for the QUOTE-UNQUOTE paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Based mostly on their association with the case popularly known as “The Amityville Horror,” the Warrens established a reputation. And based on that reputation, they are the stars both of Wan’s “The Conjuring” – which was released in 2013 – and now “The Conjuring 2.”

This new film is a retelling of a 1977 English case the Warrens apparently checked out. And by saying “checked out,” I’m being generous. According to the website History vs. Hollywood, the Warrens were just two of many investigators who visited a house in the North London suburb of Enfield allegedly haunted by a poltergeist. In fact, the site says, “most articles about the Enfield Poltergeist don’t even mention the Warrens.”

Never one to let facts get in the way of a movie plot, director Wan and his team of screenwriters put the Warrens – again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga – at the center of the story. Called by the Catholic Church to investigate – the Warrens and Church officials seem to be on first-name bases – Ed and Lorraine travel to London, camp out in the Enfield home of Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. They’re particularly interested in Hodgson’s 11-year-old daughter Janet (played alluringly by Madison Wolfe).

What they find would creep out Bram Stoker. Mysterious noises. Slamming doors. Strange entities. Crosses that turn upside down on their own volition. A levitating Janet. And so on.

And while the movie, through the Warrens, seems to address the understandable skepticism that the real-life Enfield case aroused, it does so in a way designed to act as the straw-man argument the movie then rebuts with spectacular computer-generated bombast.

But as has been proven time and again with computer-generated imagery, camera tricks aren’t a good substitute for actual dramatic flair. After the first half hour, “The Conjuring 2” devolves into a paint-by-number CGI exercise.

In 1973, some frightened audience members actually walked out of “The Exorcist.” James Wan’s lame effort, these four decades later, is more likely to make you walk out yawning – unless, of course, you’re in the market for poppycock.

Enjoy musical theatre in Spokane Valley this summer

To celebrate their inaugural season, our new friends at Spokane Valley Summer Theatre gave us a number of ticket vouchers for their upcoming shows. In the next few months, we’re giving them away in Enter to Win contests, as well as #FreeTicketTime giveaways on Facebook.

First up is “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” starring Brian Dalen Gunn, which will be performed July 7-10 and July 13-17 at CVHS Performing Arts Center (821 S. Sullivan Rd.).

Enter to win two “Buddy” ticket vouchers at spokane7.com/contest before Monday, July 27, when we will randomly draw three winners. See Rules for details.

Telling the story of Buddy’s incredible rise to fame, from the moment in 1957 when “That’ll Be The Day” hit the airwaves until his tragic death less than two years later on “The day the music died,” the show features over 20 of Buddy Holly’s greatest hits including “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Oh Boy,” “Rave On” and “Raining In My Heart.” Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” and the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” are also featured in the production. 

Audiences can also look forward to seeing “Oliver!” and “Bring It On: The Musical” on stage at SVST this summer. Stay tuned for voucher giveaways to these shows!

Another Friday opening: Model horror

Note: This post has been updated to reflect the news that the Magic Lantern is opening no new movies on Friday. On July 1, the Lantern will open "Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made" and "Dark Horse," plus pick up second runs of "Maggie's Plan" and "Love & Friendship."

Yep, there's an addition to the mainstream movie listing. It's the latest by cult director Nicholas Wind Refn. Friday's added opening is as follows:

"The Neon Demon": Danish-born Refn wrote and directed this contemporary horror film about a young fashion model in Los Angeles (Elle Fanning) who attracts the envy of all the models she encounters. Sounds like a scenario for a new reality show: "Desperate Supermodels of L.A."

FYI, just so you know what to expect, check out this snippet of a review by The Telegraph following the film's premiere at Cannes: "It’s by far the most divisive film to have screened in competition at Cannes this year: before the end credits had even begun to roll, some audience members were already on their feet, yelling abuse at the screen (It’s only fair to report there was also a phalanx of applauders, of which I was one.)"

Sounds like a Nathan Weinbender film if ever there was one.

Even more to do at Summer Parkways this year

Who could ask for better weather for 2016 Summer Parkways? The annual community event, which takes place between Manito and Comstock parks, is tonight, Tuesday, June 21, from 6 to 9 p.m., and the forecast shows mostly sunny skies and temps in the mid-70s.

Participants are able to enjoy four miles of car-free streets for running, walking, cycling or skating, as well as other family-friendly activities like fitness activities, chalk art, music and dancing, jump rope, food vendors and much more.

Spokane Summer Parkways map

And there’s something new for this year’s festivities. Pick up a “Parkways Passport” at Manito Park (Manito Place and Manito Blvd.), Jefferson Elementary (Division St. and Manito Blvd.) or Comstock Park (Post St. and 32nd Ave.). Collect stamps at booth along the route and turn in a completed Passport at the final spot to enter a raffle for the Grand Prize, a 2016 SpokeFest registration for a family of four.

There will also be a raffle giveaway of 10 Strider Bikes, courtesy of SpokeFest. Kids ages 18 months to 5 years can test out the bikes at the Strider Adventure Zone course (S. Manito Blvd. and S. Division St.) from 6 to7:15 p.m.

Don’t miss out on the sunny skies and outdoor fun! Visit Spokane Summer Parkways more information.

Friday’s openings: Sharks, aliens and history

The final movie listing of the week seldom becomes final before Wednesday. But the Hollywood schedule is usually set months in advance. So based on what IMDB is reporting, here are Friday's supposed movie openings:

"Independence Day: Resurgence": Roland Emmerich follows his 1996 alien-invasion action flick with this sequel about the aliens invading yet again. But this time Will Smith's character isn't around to help save the day. Think that will make a difference?

"The Shallows": A young medical student (Blake Lively) goes on vacation, gets stranded on a rock as a giant shark circles her perch. It's like some Hollywood producer thought, "Hey, let's make a movie about that young woman who gets eaten during the first 10 minutes of 'Jaws!' "

"Free State of Jones": Based on actual events, this historical drama tells the story of a Mississippi man (Matthew McConaughey) who broke with the South and fought Confederate forces in defense of their own mixed-race community. Why wasn't this taught in history class?

I'll update as needed.

‘The Lobster’ cooks in lukewarm water

David, the protagonist in Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ movie “The Lobster,” is in a bad situation. Just dumped by his wife, David – played by a pudgy Colin Farrell – is forced to take up residence in the strangest hotel imaginable.

Upon checking in, he is told that he has 45 days to find a romantic partner – gay or straight, though not bisexual – or he will be transformed into an animal. He does, of course, have some choice in the matter: He’ll be able to choose what animal he wants to become. Which is what his brother did, a fact we know because his brother is the dog that accompanies David during his hotel check-in.

For David, who seems destined for transformation, the animal he wants to become is the one that Lanthimos uses for his film’s title: a lobster. Why? Because, David explains, lobsters live for 100 years and they remain sexually active the whole time.

And that’s the world that Lanthimos throws us into, one that is as dystopian as it is dismaying. It’s a world that, in so many ways, is also incomprehensible, mainly because David’s life gets progressively more weird. During his stay at the hotel, where partners come together through the sharing of common traits – near-sightedness, for example, or the tendency to bleed spontaneously from the nose – David eventually pairs up with a woman who has no heart, no feelings of tenderness whatsoever.

So he, softie that he inherently is, has to pretend that he is heartless, too – though his pretense slips when his new mate targets his canine brother, which causes David to strike back. After he does, suddenly enough, David finds himself in a forest filled with “loners,” the revolutionaries whose life outside mainstream culture involves running around and dodging the hotel’s residents, who hunt them with drug-laced dart guns.

Ultimately, David does find love – though life among the “loners” turns out to be every bit as demented as life in the hotel, where any kind of sexual activity outside of partnerships is strictly prohibited. In the forest, self-gratification is fine, but any kind of hanky-panky between humans is forbidden. And when David’s lover is dealt with harshly, he faces a choice that seems even more appalling than being transformed into a crustacean.

Lanthimos, who both co-wrote and directed “The Lobster,” creates his grotesque world-view from the opening scene. A woman driving a car, suddenly stops, gets out, stumbles a few feet across a field, pulls out a pistol and shoots what looks like a donkey. Then as she walks away, another donkey comes over and nudges the now dead animal. No context is provided, no explanation given.

Like the best theater of the absurd – Samuel Beckett’s play “Krapp’s Last Tape,” for example – some early moments in “The Lobster” seem funny. But that feeling fades, leaving us with a sense of fatalism but without a larger sense of actual meaning.

Madman that he was, Beckett could do both. Imagine what he could do with a man who yearns to be a lobster.

Trek into the past tonight at Auntie’s

Above: Joseph Haeger, author of "Learn to Swim." Taken from hippocampus magazine.

A mix of memoir and poetry will be featured during a two-person reading event tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. Authors Joseph Haeger and Lauren Gilmore will begin reading at 7 p.m.

Haeger, a graduate of Mead High School, was the focus of a feature by Spokesman-Review columnist Cindy Hval. His book, "Learn to Swim," is a reflection of his 10-year friendship with a now-deceased friend. 

Spokane native Gilmore won the 2013 poetry Grand Slam, which earned her entry both to the National Poetry Slam and the Individual World Poetry Slam. Author of the poetry collection "Outdancing the Universe," Gilmore was featured at the 2016 Get Lit! literary festival. To read three poems by Gilmore, click here.

The event, as usual at Auntie's, is free and open to the public.