Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up at the Castro

On Friday, the Castro Theatre began showing the latest Pixar film, Up, directed by Pete Docter (who previously made Monsters, Inc.) I saw it there, and here are eight reasons why I think it's the ideal Frisco Bay venue in which to watch:

1. The Wurlitzer organ which plays before the evening screenings. When I attended the organist performed well-known Disney themes by the likes of the Sherman Bros. and other songwriters. Though Disney and Pixar are now joined at the hip (or at least the knee) Up thankfully contains no tacked-on pop songs intended to add to an Oscar nomination haul. Yet its music score composed by Michael Giacchino is nonetheless essential. Hearing the organ beforehand may also evoke the silent movie era for modern audiences- quite appropriate given that Up, even more than bleepity-blooping Wall-E, has an early sequence that deserves to be compared to the most accomplished visual storytelling of the silent era.

2. The Castro is playing the film in 3-D, which, yes means paying extra for the new-fangled glasses, but it certainly adds to the experience, even if it's not essential to appreciating the film. If you don't care at all about stereoscopic gimmickry, or prefer viewing a 35mm print, the Presidio provides an opportunity for viewing without the 3-D surcharge. At any rate, the Castro ticket price makes it Frisco's second-cheapest option for viewing in 3-D, outside of certain matinee screenings at the Sundance Kabuki.

3. I really don't want to do more than hint about the content of Up, but I think it's not spoiling a key surprise to say that the film begins with a clever "Movietown" newsreel showing the exploits of an intrepid explorer, hero to our protagonist Carl, who sits in a darkened theatre looking up at the screen with his thick-rimmed glasses and aviator goggles on. It's an ingenious device to create cinema audience identification with the character; we are placed in his position from the outset, and as we're adjusting our 3-D glasses he's adjusting his goggles. As we're delighting to the images on screen, so is he. The sequence also works as a time bridge, placing us in the distant past- perhaps the late 1920's or early 1930's. Needless to say, the scene in Up is not set in a multiplex but in a single-screen theatre, and the technique is certain to work better the the latter than the former. Though the Century Theatre in Corte Madera, a fine venue in its own right, is also a single-screener on Frisco Bay in which to fully experience this dreamworld transference, it was built in the 1960s. Dating from 1922, the Castro is by far the best simulator of Carl's experience around.

4. The respectful audiences. Even when playing mainstream fare, the Castro draws a more informed, enthusiastic crowd than you're likely to find at the shopping malls. Part of this may be a function of attending opening weekend in a Frisco Bay venue, not so far from Pixar's Emeryville headquarters. Were all those people staying to sit and clap the credits just fans, or were they supporting their friends and co-workers who'd had a hand in Up's creation?

5. Perhaps the interest in seeing a new 3-D film in Frisco's grandest remaining cinema will get folks excited about seeing revival films in 3-D. The last time the Castro brought out the silver screen, the dual projectors, and prints of terrific fare such as Dial 'M' For Murder and Robot Monster was a few years ago. Might a successful Up run inspire another such series?

6. Not enough quality animation graces the Castro screen, period. Sure, we had the live-action/stop motion hybrid the Lost World (which Up clearly references) earlier this month thanks to the SF Film Society, and a somewhat recent $5 Tuesday night offering was a bill of out-of-copyright Fleischer Brothers films. But there are whole worlds of animation that would be wonderful to view on that screen. My own first visit inside the Castro's hallowed halls was during Spike & Mike's animation festival, but now both that event and the folks who tour The Animation Show use other Frisco Bay venues. Why not a Hayao Miyazaki fest in conjunction with his upcoming visit to Frisco Bay in July? Or a Tex Avery night at the Castro? Animation-heads need opportunities to be reminded how great a venue it is for our beloved medium. The next two and a half weeks provide many; here's hoping there's more to come.

7. The Castro is the venue where Frisco Bay Herzog fans were able to see the White Diamond, one of the best films the Bavarian auteur has made in the past couple of decades. I wrote a bit about that screening in a piece for Senses of Cinema back in 2005. Don't try to tell me that Up and the White Diamond are not brethren, if in a slightly oblique way. Credit Robert Davis for noticing it.

8. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Up seems particularly poignant in light of last week's news event which rocked California, and the Castro district perhaps especially hard. Though he is responding to an advance screening that took place last Tuesday, and goes further into plot detail than I personally feel comfortable sharing with readers who have not seen the film yet (he doesn't reveal anything from beyond the first twenty-five or so minutes, but as these were my favorite minutes of Up I'm still feeling conservative at this point), Arya Ponto has eloquently made a connection that I feel is worth highlighting. Somehow, it seems unexpectedly appropriate that the day after Up's Castro run ends on June 17th, the theatre is given over to the 33rd Frameline festival, which has been nicely previewed by Michael Hawley. Perhaps Frameline fans coming in from out of town might want to arrive a day early to catch Up in a unique venue.


  1. Animated features are rarely my thing (even WALL-E didn't do it for me), but I definitely hope to catch this at the Castro sometime between now and Frameline (and thanks for that link).

  2. I liked Wall E but didn't fall in love with it like so many people I know. In case you can't tell from the gushing in this post, I fell for Up pretty wholeheartedly. I hope you like it too, Michael!

    A friend who I sent a link to this post to reminded me of a 9th reason to prefer the Castro: no ads or previews, unlike some of the Multiplex theatres where the movie is playing.