120513_Culture-watch-2I’m not the kind of person who seeks out the latest sci-fi, special effects, shoot ’em up, vampire love story or superhero action movie. I prefer my films smart, quiet and emotionally touching, screened in familiar surroundings.

That, to me, means Laemmle’s Monica 4, my home movie house, although I also frequent The Royal, newly minted as a state-of-the-art tri-plex in West L.A., showing films that matter to audiences who care.

The Laemmle, with its storied family history, is now run by a third generation of Laemmle family members, and they’re celebrating their 75th anniversary as L.A.’s premiere art house destination. They don’t just show films, they curate them, they’re my go-to documentary house, and they create themed festivals that really show a passion for the art of film.

I am taking this opportunity to salute and thank them.

They’re throwing an anniversary bash on Dec. 17 at The Royal with a benefit evening hosted by the Laemmle Charitable Foundation, which is supporting CicLAvia and Friends of the L.A. River; all funds raised will be matched by the foundation.

For a $100 ticket you’ll enjoy drinks, tapas, and Claude Lelouche’s romantic classic, “A Man and A Woman,” historically significant to the Laemmle legacy. And attendees will receive a historic tribute book, “Not Afraid … 75 Years of Film Exhibition in Los Angeles,” about the family’s journey from Stuttgart, Germany to today.

Or just by purchasing a $5 raffle ticket at the theatres themselves, you could find yourself winning a private screening for 100, a yearlong pass to the Laemmle theatres, film festival packages, behind-the-scenes VIP access to cultural events, and other prizes assembled to recognize this significant anniversary. Winning tickets will be drawn at the benefit event.

The brothers Laemmle, Kurt and Max, founded the company in 1938, escaping the disaster looming for European Jews as Hitler achieved power. “Uncle” Carl Laemmle was the founder of Universal Studios, while the two brothers began running neighborhood cinemas in northeast L.A.

Growing and shrinking along with the economic times, ultimately Max’s son, Robert Laemmle, started a period of expansion that brought us the Monica, along with other locations in West Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and Pasadena.

Under Robert’s son Greg Laemmle’s direction, the foundation came into being in 2000, and has awarded approximately $750,000 to locally based non-profits with a twin focus on social and environmental giving. The company is expanding yet again, launching a new strategy of property ownership and ground-up construction, building distinctive neighborhood theatres.

Max Laemmle was that rare bird who recognized film as an art form and made it his mission to expose American audiences to the intelligent and sophisticated filmmaking coming from overseas.

For my tastes, the lineup at Laemmle’s theatres is the one that propels me out of my house and into the movie house.

This week at the Monica 4 I saw “Philomena” and “Nebraska,” two classic examples of the kind of films that don’t grab you by the throat and make your heart pound with tension. They do, however, quietly and with dignity, touch your heart and engage your mind.

Dame Judi Dench portrays Philomena Lee, whose real life story was written by journalist Martin Sixsmith, and was adapted as a screenplay by one of the film’s stars, the remarkable Steve Coogan as Martin.

The story is beautifully crafted, cutting back and forth in time between a harsh nunnery, where young pregnant girls act as unpaid labor and whose babies are sold to rich people without their permission, and to Philomena, 50 years later, still trying to find out what happened to her son. Circumstances will conspire to bring her together with Martin to uncover the truth.

This film is not a sob story, but one of quiet triumph, despite some of its more tragic turns. There’s plenty of sly, dry humor by way of some well-deserved comeuppance for atheist Martin, whose public scandal could have ruined him, at the gentle hand of good-hearted Irish Catholic Philomena. Their adventure will bring healing to both their souls — and yours.

And “Nebraska” is a wonder. Alexander Payne has a way with places (“Sideways” and our central coast wine region; “The Descendants” and Hawaii) that just takes your breath away. Now he’s using black and white to tell the story of a father and son road trip unlike any other you’ve seen, defined by the wide-open spaces that dominate the landscape between Montana and Nebraska and the distance that divides father and son.

Bruce Dern as the father is on the edge of dementia when he receives a sweepstakes notice that (if he has the winning prize number) he can pick up his million-dollar winnings at the prize office in Lincoln, Neb. He is convinced that he has won and will walk there if he can, but that’s a heck of a hike from Billings, Mont.

His quiet, edge of despair younger son, Will Forte, steps into the conspirator’s role, hoping that by taking his father to the prize office, he’ll see that he was wrong and the crazy quest will end at last.

But there are many kinds of truth, and this is a journey of discovery for both men, tinged with hilarious and poignant moments, featuring a cast of real-life characters who are native to the areas in which Payne has set the film.

This film is as much about the faces as the places; there are many moments of silence, a subtext of this film that reveals so much by saying so little.

For those of you who’d like to take the time to thank Laemmle Theatres for their steadfast offerings of the best cinema in the world, celebrate at the benefit gala on Dec. 17 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Visit laemmlefoundation.org or call (310) 478-1041 for benefit and/or raffle tickets.


Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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