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The good, the bad and the adorable at Digital Gym Cinema

Digital Gym Cinema may be small, but it’s trying to bring as many independent films to San Diego as it can fit into its 56-seat venue. This week you have three new films to choose from at the microcinema in East Village.

'Costa Brava, Lebanon'

"Costa Brava, Lebanon" is set in what the film calls "Lebanon in a near future." But it is a future very much like the present day but just far enough off to allow the film to provide an allegory from a distance.

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Kino Lorber
The Badri family (Nadia Charbel, Ceana Restom, Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki) face a crisis when a landfill threatens their idyllic home.

The Badri family — a husband, wife, two daughters and the husband's mother — have fled the toxic pollution and political unrest of Beirut and sought refuge in a self-sustaining mountain home they have built. But they can't keep the world at bay forever.

One morning a huge statue of the president is dropped by their home to announce the location of a new garbage landfill to alleviate the waste crisis in the city. As the trash is literally dumped on the doorstep of their idyllic home, tensions rise as to how to respond.

I wish I knew more about Lebanese politics and culture because I feel I would see more layers in this allegorical tale. Nonetheless, there are clear universal themes to be found about corrupt governments and lying politicians, as well as how people react to a homeland that they love but are also critical of.

The film marks the promising feature directing debut of actress Mounia Akl. She displays a good eye for composition and sensitivity to the intimate dynamics of a family unit under pressure. Her opening sequence, which follows a statue of the president from the city — where people curse and spit at it — to the quiet countryside, is an effective means of setting the tone for the film and laying out what the social/political landscape is like.

Akl succeeds best in depicting the intimate family dynamics. We come to see the landfill as not just a metaphor for a rotting political system in need of attention but also for relationships that are decaying as family members reveal different ways of reacting to the world around them.

Nadine Labaki (an actress/director in her own right) and Saleh Bakri as the wife and husband are particularly good. Their relationship — with its long history and mix of love and hate, wanting to stay and wanting to leave — reflects how they feel about their country. Both are complicated, and the film wants us to meditate on those complexities.

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First Run Features
The documentary "Free Puppies" looks to the challenges of rescuing dogs in the American south.

'Free Puppies'

As someone who’s currently consumed by fostering a very large puppy, I confess that I have zero objectivity in reviewing the new documentary "Free Puppies." The film focuses on a group of volunteer women dedicated to rescuing dogs.

The documentary looks specifically at the challenges these women face rescuing dogs in the South, where there is a serious overpopulation problem and a lack of shelters. It is heartbreaking to hear about the abuse and neglect and about how many dogs have to be put down because people just refuse to spay and neuter their pets. But the determination of these women to make a difference through personally rescuing animals and through trying to educate people and encourage government support is inspiring.

There’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of filmmaking here, nor is the film a deep dive of investigative journalism, but it is a heartfelt work that’s trying to make a difference. If you don’t want to foster a dog after this film, then I might have to send John Wick after you.

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Courtesy of IFC Films
Alison Brie, Molly Shannon and Aubrey Plaza star in "Spin Me Round."

'Spin Me Round'

The final film opening at Digital Gym Cinema this week is "Spin Me Round," a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the restaurant world.

I know an innocuous rom-com should not stir such ire in me, but "Spin Me Round" represents so much of what I hate in movies. It’s an exceedingly pedestrian paint-by-numbers script with token people of color, character types rather than multi-dimensional characters and a blandly ridiculous plot that drags on for almost two hours. I mean, why try to be original when you can just throw in a trope?

There is no one -- except the wasted Aubrey Plaza -- that I would ever want to spend time with. And Plaza's character just disappears from the film as if the actress fled the set and just could not deliver one more line of uninspired dialogue. It was a chore just to make it through to the inane conclusion.

Writer-director Jeff Baena previously delivered better comedy with "The Little Hours" and "Life After Beth" (both starring Plaza). Those films at least displayed a spark of originality, but they also revealed some serious miscalculations in terms of tone and overall craft.

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IFC Films
The poster art for "Spin Me Round" promises more than the film delivers.

"Spin Me Round" never finds its comic footing. From the bodice-busting romance novel style poster, I thought it might be a fun romp making fun of the whole "Eat, Pray, Love" romantic formula. But the film can't even muster such low ambitions.

Alison Brie's Amber is an annoying drip that I just wanted to slap her. The film doesn't even make clever use of its restaurant backdrop or its Italian setting (except to broadly stereotype Italians). Baena tells us that Amber had a dream of running her own restaurant, but he doesn't even respect his character enough to let that dream get any traction in the film or to define her character.

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MGM
MGM famously promoted Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka" with the tagline of "Garbo laughs!"

"Spin Me Round" is exactly why I programmed a series of Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedies for the Athenaeum’s Flicks on the Bricks outdoor summer movie series. Lubitsch does rom-coms right, giving us wit, sophistication, and sly, sexy humor. I showed "Trouble in Paradise" Thursday night, and next Thursday, Garbo laughs in "Ninotchka," the final film in the series.

Lubitsch was known for "The Lubitsch Touch," a style of subtle comedy that left a space for the audience to fill in the details. His humor had an effervescence that is still intoxicating today.

Lubitsch is the perfect antidote to "Spin Me Round" and to anything else that ails you.

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.
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