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Next Fest brought a taste of Sundance to LA last weekend

Last weekend in downtown Los Angeles, Next Fest, Sundance’s two-year old film festival, featured a small selection of films previously screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which were each paired with either a conversation with the filmmakers or a musical performance. Each day of the three-day festival concluded with a musical performance chosen to complement the preceding movie and for many of the films, music was a prominent component.

The festival was held at the newly renovated theater at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The theater was recently retrofitted with a projection and sound system for both movie screenings and musical performances. The location felt very angeleno with the hipster Ace Hotel coffee shop and restaurant as one in-between-show snack option as well as a taco shack with criminally delicious $1.50 tacos next door. Here are a few highlights of the weekend.

"The Guest," photo by Ursula Coyote

“The Guest,” photo by Ursula Coyote

“The Guest”

Thrilling and funny, “The Guest” stars Dan Stevens as a returning soldier, David, who shows up at the home of a fallen comrade’s family and begins to integrate himself into their lives, eventually wreaking havoc. The style of the movie, which begins with the throwback purple ‘80s-style title font, was a result of director Adam Wingard staying up one night watching “Halloween” followed by “Terminator.” The movie features heavy synth music that harkens back to ‘80s new wave/dark wave but still comes off as modern given the massive popularity of EDM.

Stevens was exceptional in the role of a sociopathic drone-like murderer, having an eerily cold disposition while still being able to hit all of the comedic marks that made this retro comedy horror flick successful. David ingratiates himself with the Peterson family with a southern drawl and perfect manners but as people in their small town start to die, the rebellious Peterson daughter Anna begins to suspect David is involved. The final action goes down at the location of the Halloween high school dance with Anna, who works in a diner, in a classic diner uniform, which provides laughs, thrills and nostalgia in equal measure.

The film could have done a better job of explaining David’s backstory, with a few scenes in the middle of the movie that felt out of place. Writer Simon Barrett later explained that these scenes were actually added as an afterthought when test audiences were a bit confused by the plot. Overall though, the audience seemed to find the movie very funny, and it was a very entertaining piece that will be particularly enjoyable for those with a fondness for ‘80s action and horror movies.

“Life After Beth”

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in "Life After Beth," photo by Greg Smith. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza in “Life After Beth,” photo by Greg Smith. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Jeff Baena’s comedy/horror story of high school love with a zombies twist, “Life After Beth,” was a light-hearted dark comedy which, while not genre-defining, was enjoyable nonetheless. Dane DeHaan plays Zach, whose girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza) comes back to life as a zombie. There were definitely some good laughs, as John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon and Cheryl Hines were their usual hilarious selves in supporting roles, but many of the characters were one-dimensional tropes. But in all fairness, this type of slapstick comedy usually doesn’t involve particularly complex characters.

The film vacillates between understated humor in the interactions between Zach and the cast of zany characters, and over-the-top physical comedy scenes, like a zombie chained to an oven falling down a mountain leaving limbs strewn in its wake. Music played a minor role: This particular breed of zombies seemed to love and be soothed by smooth jazz. Overall, it was a fun atypical zombie movie, but not all that groundbreaking.

The screening was followed by singer/songwriter Father John Misty, whose folky vibe didn’t seem to go with the movie. But after listening to some of the sarcastic lyrics and darker themes sung in a somewhat emotionally distant way, the pairing with an at times deadpan film made sense. Both the film and the movie had a subdued sardonic feel and went well together in a non-obvious but pleasant way.

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in "Listen Up Phillip," photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Elisabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman in “Listen Up Phillip,” photo by Sean Price Williams, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

“Listen Up Philip”

The titular character, Philip (Jason Schwartzman), is an up-and-coming novelist, with success from his first book and a second novel about to come out when the film begins. He’s a jerk to the few people who care about him. We watch Philip as he alienates everyone around him except for aging writer Ike Zimmerman, who ends up becoming a mentor to Philip — for better or for worse.

Ike is even nastier to the women in his life than Philip. About a third of the way through the movie, the story goes from being centered on Philip to following his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). We see how angry and cruel Philip can be through his effect on Ashley, who attempts to move on from Philip.

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry describes the movie as having literary qualities, especially when the perspective shifts between characters for the middle third of the movie, a technique Perry thinks is underused in film. He summed up the melancholy, morose vibe of the film, saying he wanted to make “the next great brown movie.”

Schwartzman was able to garner sympathy as Philip, just as he always does when playing a version of his typical depressed, isolated and easily annoyed immature character.

For the post-screening conversation, Perry and Schwartzman were joined by author Bret Easton Ellis, chosen in part because the protagonist of “Listen Up Philip” is a writer. Bret Easton Ellis made an interesting point about the movie, that thankfully Perry didn’t get caught in the trap that many independent filmmakers do when they make movies about “earnest PSA topics […] like gender and race.” It was pleasant to watch a movie that didn’t feel that it had to have a big message and was instead just a glimpse into this writer’s world and the people he affects for a small but pivotal point in his life.

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The idea for Next Fest, an offshoot of Sundance proper’s “Next” section, a festival experience that pairs stylistically bold movies with music, definitely has promise as these two art forms are so often more powerful when used in conjunction. The festival program was well thought out, especially the pairing of the super-stylized female driven Iranian vampire flick, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” with the equally dark and mysterious all-girl band Warpaint. But perhaps, in the future, the films that get paired with the music will be more music-driven. For example, the more musically bold “The Guest” could have been paired with a musical performance in place of “Life After Beth.” For Los Angeles residents looking for a taste of Sundance with an L.A. spin, Next Fest is definitely a great way to spend a weekend celebrating independent makers of music and film.