Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Quantrell D. Colbert / Amazon
Carlos (Sebastian Chacon), Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and Sean (RJ Cyler) find an unconscious white girl on their living room floor in the film "Emergency."

Indie films offer the best choices this weekend

This weekend independent films offer the best movie choices, with "Emergency" opening at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and "Vortex" opening at Digital Gym Cinema.

Indie films offer diverse, rewarding choices



"Emergency" is a film with a Sundance history. It is based on the 2018 Special Jury Prize-winning Sundance short film of the same name by director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila. The feature version of the film premiered at Sundance this past January (and here in San Diego at the Sundance Satellite venue of Digital Gym Cinema with some of the creative team in attendance). So it has evolved with the festival, and reveals how the festival can nurture a project along.

The story is set in motion when an unconscious white girl mysteriously ends up on the living room floor of an apartment belonging to a trio of college roommates. The simple thing to do would be to call 911 and get her the medical help she needs. Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) insists that's the right thing to do and sees no problem with the course of action because they have done nothing wrong.

But his best friend Sean (R.J. Cyler) tells him he is crazy to even think that because "we don’t have to do anything — the cops are going to come and see three brown guys hanging over this little white girl" and all hell will break loose.

Quantrell Colbert/ Amazon
Spring break does not go as planned for Princeton-bound Kunle (Daniel Elise Watkins) in the film "Emergency."

What should have been a fun night of spring break parties turns into a nightmare as Kunle, the Princeton-bound Black roommate, suggests that they try to get the girl to a hospital. But they need to avoid encountering any cops. Kunle assumes that if they do the right thing then everything will be ok.


"How many people actually get shot by the cops? It’s really unlikely, right?" he points out to Sean. Of course, Sean has a different perspective.

The film overcomplicates its story on its way to an ending that serves up what has become an all-too-familiar tragic confrontation between cops and people of color. The sad truth is that a far simpler chain of events and an even less incriminating starting point could have brought the film to the same dark conclusion.

The same themes could have been addressed with a less convoluted plot and with less oddly placed humor. But the message is still a potent one and the point of view the film provides is one that more people need to see and more importantly understand. Plus, Kunle’s realization of racism that he had not personally experienced is powerfully rendered.

"Emergency" is now playing at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and then will start streaming on Amazon Prime Video next week.

Rectangle Productions
Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun play an elderly couple in Gaspar Noé's "Vortex."


Gaspar Noé’s "Vortex" opens with what looks like end credits — fitting for a film about the end of life — but, as with so many of his films, even something as simple as a credit roll feels ominous. In this case because of the disconcerting underscore of droning sounds. He then dedicates the film, with brutal honesty that foreshadows what is to come, "To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts." Of course this only adds another layer of tension before the story begins.

The first scene, however, is a lovely moment with the elderly couple of the film as they sit outside on their patio and share a toast to their happy union. The woman says,"Life is a dream." And the husband smiles and adds, "A dream within a dream." It is a sweet, serene moment.

But brace yourself: It is the only moment of comfort in an otherwise unflinching and devastating look at the horrors that people can face at the end of life.

Noé introduces his two leads by stating their real names, Dario Argento (a famous director in his own right) and Françoise Lebrun, and showing the real years of their births, 1940 and 1944, respectively. The couple have no names in the film, they are merely a husband and wife, a him and a her.

Next we see an old video of a very young French singer, Françoise Hardy, singing a strangely enchanting song called “Mon Amie la Rose,” about the short life of a beautiful rose. The contrast between the youth of the singer and the theme of death in the song adds a layer of poignancy to what follows.

Rectangle Productions
Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento star in Gaspar Noé's "Vortex."

The film does indeed offer an agonizing portrait of what a deteriorating mind can be like. Noé uses a split screen to separate the wife’s and the husband’s differing experiences as they approach a bleak and unsentimental end. The husband busies himself with writing a book while his wife wanders aimlessly in a fog as if she cannot remember what she is supposed to be doing or even what purpose the objects around her serve. She looks painfully lost and it is heartbreaking to observe her.

Rectangle Productions
Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun share a rare tender moment in "Vortex."

The film is difficult to watch but brilliantly rendered. Noé, whose work includes "Irreversible," "Climax," and "Enter the Void," is known for being a rude and merciless provocateur and enfant terrible. "Vortex" may display his most genuine humanity. But this is a Gaspar Noé form of humanity, so there is nothing warm and fuzzy about it.

I highly recommend the film but can’t really call it entertainment. I have to confess that after watching I had to seek out a Mr. Bean episode to experience a little joy before going to bed. "Vortex" may be Noé's most mature and restrained work to date. If you are willing to venture out of your comfort zone in the name of art, then this is the perfect film.

"Vortex" pairs well and painfully with another French film about the end of life, "Amour," by Michael Haneke.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
What do you wonder about that you’d like us to investigate?