Sundance Next Fest

Sundance Next Fest – part 1

Sundance NEXT Fest that took place at Theatre At Ace Hotel from August 10-13 was billed as an entertainment event where “Movies, Music & Mischief Collide.” www.theartofla was on hand August 12 to experience this explosion of creativity within the arts. The compelling and serious subject matter of the projects challenged and open our minds and broadened deepening our perspectives.

Class warfare, strife, racism, and displacement in one’s community are relevant and pressing social issues were placed front in center the mind’s of the audience in attendance for the L.A. Premiere of “Gente-Fied and conversation with America Ferrera and the world premiere of Temptation + Gook + Conversation with Ava DuVernay and director Justin Chon.

Alicia Sixtos appears in Gente-fied by Marvin Lemus, an official selection of the Special Events program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“Gente-Fied” is a multi-protagonist drive web series with seven well-written, real flesh and blood characters dealing with effects of change Boyle Heights including rent hikes, a housing crisis, and outdoors threatening to gentrify their barrio. The story lines were believable and relatable. Every actor infused a credible level of humanity and emotional depth and complexity to the moving performances. The humor and levity interspersed between the screens was natural. It never felt forced or used felt like a cheap device as a cover for a lack of original ideas.

Sundance NEXT FEST PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)
Sundance NEXT FEST PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)

The discussion that followed the screening touched on Boyle Heights struggle among its residents trying to maintain their dignity and pride for those growing up in the city of diversity. The activism to keep the city thriving and foster future talent was part of the conversation, too. The director/creator/co-writer Marvin Lemus discussed how he came to conceptualize the idea creating “Gente-Fied.” Executive producer America Ferrera, who also acted in a segment of the web series, spoke about her passionate, emerging social activism and the impact of living in Boyle Heights had on her personally wanting very much to see her own image reflected back on her through the stories presented in “Gente-Fied.”

Mariachi Superstars – Sundance NEXT FEST PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)
Mariachi Superstars – Sundance NEXT FEST PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)

The Mariachi Superstars that gave a wonderful performance prior to the screening spoke of their struggle to stay in their apartments due to exorbitant rent increases along with a group of other concern citizens in the attendance. They urged everyone in the audience to spread the word by signing a petition online and use social media to convince their landlord to discuss greatly reducing the rent increases instead.

A film still from Gook by Justin Chon, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Simone Baker appears in Gook by Justin Chon, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ante Cheng.

The powerfully gripping, no-holds barred “Gook” used the 1992 L.A. Riots as a backdrop/war zone for the two Korean American brothers Eli and Daniel who maintain a struggling women’s shoe store and form an unlikely friendship with a young African American girl, Kamilla.  The trio tries to defend their store, to understand the meaning of family, their dreams and come to terms of an uncertain future. Critically, “Gook” has been compared to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” There are some scenes that recall similar violent bents of the film and the brewing tension people of different ethnic backgrounds and magnifying explosive racial tensions tear very tenuous relationships apart. Justin Chon, who portrays the main character, also directed and screen wrote the film, manages to create a movie that may echo “Do the Right Thing” but deliver a new story and viewpoint with an original vision of all his own juxtaposing fear, ignorance, and hatred with helpless, vulnerability and sensitivity that is heartbreaking as it ultimately tragic. Chon discussed with Ava DuVernay the making of “Gook” and all its inherent obstacles creativity and financially getting the production off the ground. Chon explained how he cast various roles including Kamilla, his father, once himself child actor in Korea, as the liquor owner and Curtiss Cook, Jr. as Keith. Along with the film getting now a major distribution boost from Samuel Goldwyn Mayer to be shown very soon at Regal Theaters and the Arclight Theater in Hollywood.

Kate Micucci – Sundance NEXT FEST PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)

Before the last movie screening of the night, Comedian Kate Micucci warmed up the audience with her own brand of offbeat, quirky humor. Micucci sang and played ukulele to parody popular songs and her comedy routines. Her unique interpretation of Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” while wearing a scuba mask with snorkel attached to it got a lot of laughs as did her song about taking a nap with a hot guy she had a crush on.

Sundance NEXT FEST
PHOTOS (© 2017 Sundance Institute)

The last screening on August 12 featured the L.A. premiere of dark dramedy “Bitch,” which no less provocative from the latter two screening but in a very different vein as far as subject matter and thematic genre. Writer-director Marianna Palka portrays a woman who snaps under the crushing pressures of life and suddenly assumes the psyche of a vicious dog. Jason Ritter is the philandering, an absentee husband who as a result of Palka’s transformation is forced to become reacquainted with his four kids and a better father to his four kids and his sister-in-law Jamie King helps him to keep the family together. Believe it or not, Palka is totally believable as a dog. Covered from head to toe in her own filth with only two eyes showing a sign of her former life as a human being, Palka conveys the ferocity of a wild animal beaten down by the neglect and abuse of her life. Jason Ritter’s character comes off his one-dimensional and stereotypical character, but as this very strange story unfolds his exposing his careless and selfish behavior toward his initially suicidal wife, he suffers a crisis of conscience has an emotional breakdown but remains in a denial because can’t cope or expect responsibility for what becomes of his wife. The facade that is stripped away is starling and in Ritter’s hands, he delivers a performance that is emotionally devastating and dramatically daring.  “Bitch” is a bold and brave movie that’s not afraid to take risks and go perilously to the edge to make a point and often succeeds.

Sleigh Bells, images by Caren Spitler

The Brooklyn, New York- based noise pop/nu-metal duo Sleigh Bills, featuring vocalist Alexis Krauss and guitarist Drake Edward Miller, closed out Saturday night’s program of the Sundance NEXT Fest. The dynamic, high-energy performance was visually dramatic framed by a multitude of constant changing colored lights and flashing white lights. The music is a dissonant, distorted sonic barrage and assault of heavy guitar riffing and computerized synth lines for a modern alt edge. Krause, who has been compared to a modern Betty Page, is a confident and charismatic front woman. Dressed all in black and tatted out, Krause comes off as a badass, but her softer, sweetheart side showed through her tough-as-nails, steely exterior. She often thanked her attentive fans for coming to this show and for their support. Krause often left the stage to go into the crowd and get closer to them and sing directly face to face with a number of concertgoers for that up close, personal connection. When the set ended, and the venue lights come on, Krauss stayed longer to talk to fans and pose for photos.

On August 12, the Sundance NEXT Fest drew nearly sold-out shows for the web series and two films shown. Sleigh Bells had a strong and enthusiastic fan base that turned out to see the band perform. Los Angeles has no shortage of entertainment and arts events to attend and receives constant positive support. Still, there is clearly a space, and always room for another and Sundance NEXT Fest fit the bill well, and its content resonates with Angelenos.