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Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron" opens this Friday at Digital Gym Cinema.
Studio Ghibli
Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron" opens this Friday at Digital Gym Cinema.

Digital Gym Cinema has offbeat holiday fare

Digital Gym Cinema in East Village is the best place to find cinematic gifts this week and any time of the year.

For anyone mourning the loss of the Ken Cinema, San Diego does have one venue that is trying to fill the void, Digital Gym Cinema.

The new Digital Gym Cinema inside the UC San Diego at Park and Market Building in East Village. May 2, 2022.
Digital Gym Cinema
The new Digital Gym Cinema inside the UC San Diego at Park and Market Building in East Village. May 2, 2022.

The 58-seat micro-cinema is run by the nonprofit organization Media Arts Center San Diego. For a decade, executive director Ethan Van Thillo has been determined to keep a community cinema running day and night and showcasing an eclectic collection of films.


The cinema first opened on El Cajon Boulevard in 2013 but moved locations during the pandemic to the new Park and Market location in East Village, where it continues to pursue Van Thillo's mission in its new state of the art facility.

As part of the nonprofit, volunteer organization Film Geeks SD, I have been helping to program year-long film series there since 2015. So I love and appreciate the cinema's openness to diverse, challenging, and just offbeat programming.

This weekend is no exception.

THE BOY AND THE HERON | Official English Trailer

'The Boy and the Heron'


As an independent, micro-cinema, Digital Gym has to compete with big chains that often get first dibs on the studio releases. This Friday, Digital Gym opens the latest Studio Ghibli adventure, "The Boy and the Heron" (I can also recommend seeing it at Reading Grossmont or Angelika Film Center).

Director, writer and animator Hayao Miyazaki has been called the Japanese Walt Disney but the more accurate description comes from author Helen McCarthy who called him "the Kurosawa of animation" because his stories are complex and epic, and his visual style is dazzling.

"The Boy and the Heron" features hand drawn celluloid animation (along with CGI) and as with all Miyazaki’s films, it’s visually breathtaking and incredibly well told. "The Boy and the Heron" is far superior to any animated film Hollywood is releasing this holiday season. The only American animated film that deserves mention in the same breath as Miyazaki's is "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse."

Although I loved "The Boy and the Heron," I still prefer the richness of "Princess Mononoke" or the sheer delight of "My Neighbor Totoro." But this story — about a boy coping with the death of his mother — is compelling and gorgeous. One of the things I love about Miyazaki (and a lot of anime) is how the real world and the supernatural exist side by side, sometimes with nothing dividing them. "The Boy and the Heron" is captivating and will take you on an epic journey.

The version of the film out now is English-dubbed and while I prefer the original Japanese language, I will say that these Studio Ghibli films offer excellent English language translations. The impressive cast here includes Christian Bale, Florence Pugh, Gemma Chan, and Robert Pattinson as the creepy Heron.

Miyazaki on the big screen is truly spectacular and transcendent so take advantage of this opportunity.

Olivia Hussey stars in the holiday slasher film "Black Christmas" (1974).
Warner Brothers
Olivia Hussey stars in the holiday slasher film "Black Christmas" (1974).

Saturday only: 'Black Christmas'

On Saturday, Digital Gym exemplifies its diversity not just in terms of the films it shows but how it shows them as the touring See It on 16mm program returns with the holiday horror classic "Black Christmas" (1974). Audiences can delight not only in a 70s cult film that is often cited as the inaugural slasher movie but also watching it with an enthusiastic crowd and 16mm projector purring in the cinema.

The Canadian film directed by Bob Clark stars Olivia Hussey as one of a group of sorority girls being stalked by a killer during Christmas break. John Saxon is the cop trying to keep the girls safe. It is a smartly crafted and well executed holiday horror film, perfect for anyone who is already fed up with saccharine holiday cheer.

The film screens once on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and it will be shown on 16mm with the projector inside the cinema. Get your ticket early because these do sell out.

What makes someone feel driven to tour around with a film projector in tow and screen films on 16mm? Find out on this Bonus edition of Cinema Junkie.

Sylvester Stallone brings Christmas cheer in the film "Cobra." (1986)
Warner Brothers
Sylvester Stallone brings Christmas cheer in the film "Cobra." (1986)

Sunday only: 'Cobra'

And then finish the weekend with another unconventional Christmas movie, 1986's "Cobra" starring Sylvester Stallone.

The film closes out the 80s action block of the Film Geeks' "Back in Action" year-long film series that I helped program. As with "Die Hard," some will argue that this is not a Christmas film. I, of course, strongly insist both films are. Both feature a Christmas time setting, display plenty of holiday decorations, and most importantly they fill you with joy and good cheer.

"Die Hard" (which screens Friday in mainstream theaters and next weekend at Cinema Under the Stars) is the epitome of the Christmas action film but "Cobra" delivers good times as well. Stallone as renegade cop Marion Cobretti looks to the criminals as the disease and proclaims himself "the cure." The lines are cheesy and fantastic, and Brian Thompson makes a villain you love to hate.

Plus we will be serving pizza Cobra-style — Stallone infamously cuts just the tip of a slice of pizza off with scissors in one scene.

There will be a single screening of "Cobra" Sunday at noon.

And on Dec. 16, Film Geeks and Bonkers Ass Cinema will be presenting "Day of the Beast" as part of the Bonkers Half-Assed Midnights (half-assed because they start at 10:00 p.m.).

The Day of The Beast (4K restoration)

In 1995, writer/director Álex de la Iglesia (of HBO’s “30 Coins”) created this deliciously sacrilegious and genuinely bonkers tale of a rogue priest (Álex Angulo) trying to save the world from The Antichrist. He enlists the help of a Death Metal record store clerk and a cheesy TV psychic in order to try and prevent the Apocalypse.

This film recently had a 4K restoration supervised by the director, and is the perfect antidote to traditional holiday sentiments.

So treat yourself to an early holiday gift and go see any of these films at Digital Gym Cinema this week. I calculated that it just takes 0.00004% of San Diego's population to fill the cinema, so my holiday wish is to see the cinema full for all these films.

Digital Gym Cinema hosts a diverse week of films

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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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