Independent films offer the best choices this weekend

This weekend’s independent films offer top movie choices, with “Emergency” opening at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas and “Vortex” at Digital Gym Cinemas.

Independent films offer diverse and rewarding options


“Emergency” is a film with a history of Sundance. It is an adaptation of the 2018 Special Jury Prize-winning Sundance short film of the same name by director Carey Williams and writer KD Dávila. The premium version of the movie premiered at Sundance last January (and here in San Diego at Sundance Satellite at Digital Gym Cinema with some of the creative team in attendance). So it has evolved with the festival, revealing how a festival can sponsor a project.

The story begins when an unconscious white girl mysteriously ends up on the living room floor of an apartment belonging to three of her college classmates. The simple thing to do is to call 911 and give her the medical help she needs. Conley (Donald Elise Watkins) insists that it is the right thing to do and sees no problem in the course of action because they have done nothing wrong.

But his best friend Sean (RJ Cyler) tells him he’s crazy even thinking about it because “we don’t have to do anything – cops will come and see three brown guys hanging over this little white girl” and all hell will break up.

Quantrell Colbert / Amazon

Spring break doesn’t go as planned for Conley (Daniel Elise Watkins) heading to Princeton in “Emergency.”

What should have been a fun night of spring break parties turns into a nightmare as Princeton’s black roommate Conley suggests they try to get the girl to the hospital. But they should avoid confronting any policemen. Conley assumes that if they do the right thing, all will be well.

“How many people do cops shoot? That’s really improbable, isn’t it?” Refers to Shawn. Of course, Sean has a different perspective.

The film overcomplicates its story as it makes 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 much simpler chain of events and a less damning starting point could have brought the film to the same bleak conclusion.

The same subjects could have been treated with less complex plot and less outlandish humor. But the message is still strong and the point of view the film presents is one that more people need to see and understand more importantly. Additionally, Conley’s awareness of racism that he did not personally experience is powerfully rendered.

“Emergency” is now playing in Landmark’s Hillcrest cinemas and will then begin airing on Amazon Prime Video next week.


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Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun play an elderly couple in Gaspar Noé’s “Whirlpool”.


Director Gaspar Noé’s “Vortex” begins with what seem like definitive credits — fitting for an end-of-life movie — but, as with many of his films, even something as simple as a credit slate feels bad. In this case due to the disturbing underscore of buzzing sounds. Then he dedicated the film very sincerely foreshadowing what was to come, “to all whose minds dissolve before their hearts.” Of course, this adds another layer of tension before the story begins.

The first scene, however, is a lovely moment with the elderly couple in the movie sitting outside in the yard and sharing a toast to their happy union. The woman says: “Life is a dream.” And the husband smiles and adds: “A dream in a dream.” It’s a sweet and quiet moment.

But brace yourself: It’s the one moment to rest in an unshakable and devastating look at the horrors people can face at the end of life.

Noé introduces two of his leads by mentioning his real name, Dario Argento (a famous director in his own right) and Françoise Lebrun, showing the real years of their births, 1940 and 1944, respectively. The couple has no names in the movie, they are just husband and wife, he and she.

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


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Françoise Lebrun and Dario Argento star in Gaspar Noé’s “Vortex”.

The film does indeed present a haunting picture of what a deteriorating mind can be. Noé uses a split screen to separate the wife and husband’s different experiences as they come to a bleak, unemotional end. The husband is busy writing a book while his wife wanders aimlessly in the fog as if she cannot remember what she is supposed to do or even the purpose of the things around her that serve. She looks painfully lost and sad to watch.


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Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun share a rare tender moment in “Vortex”.

The movie is hard to watch but brilliantly presented. Noe, whose work includes Irreversible, Peak and Enter the Void, is known for being rude, ruthlessly sexy, and horribly naughty. Vortex may show his most authentic humanity. But this is a form of humanity for Gaspar Noe, so there is nothing warm and mysterious in it.

I highly recommend the movie but I can’t really call it entertainment. I must admit that after watching I had to look up the Mr. Bean episode to experience a bit of joy before going to bed. “Vortex” may be Noe’s most mature and restrictive business to date. If you are willing to step out of your comfort zone in the name of art, this is the perfect movie.

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

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