Nearly two years after closing for renovations, Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex has returned, like so many other Los Angeles institutions, with a face lift and a new name. Now the Monica Film Center, the art-house chain’s six-screen theater sits poised to lure tourists and locals alike from the nearby Third Street Promenade with its promise of top-shelf cinematic fare. Not a bad strategy — everyone needs an alternative to seeing Norm of the North at that AMC next to the Coffee Bean.
Monica Film Center’s reopening comes just a few months after that of the long-dormant Ahrya Fine Arts, another of Laemmle’s eight locations. It’s also the first to feature a beer-and-wine menu, with a ground-floor restaurant opening later this year and another on the rooftop deck to follow. This is all in keeping with the move toward upscale moviegoing that shows no sign of slowing here or anywhere else, and it's a good look for a company with a heritage that doesn’t always translate to hipness.
Its opening-week offerings — Anomalisa, The Lady in the Van, Mustang, Theeb and the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts — were typical of the chain, which has long been the city’s go-to for independent and foreign new releases.
Your humble correspondent opted for Theeb, a Jordanian drama that received an Academy Award nod in the Foreign-Language Film category. It played upstairs in theater five, which features a midsize screen and some 30 seats (as does the auditorium next to it). Expanding from four to six screens seems wise; it's surely easier to draw 50 people for movies like Theeb and Mustang combined at any given time of day than it would be for either film on its own.
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Also on the upstairs level is a lounge area with luxe couches and chairs, which is presumably where the libations are meant to be imbibed. No day drinkers were sighted during my visit, but everyone knows the rowdy cinephiles don't show up until the mid-afternoon screening of the Oscar-nominated docs.
In the 15 minutes before last Saturday’s noon screening of Theeb, Explosions in the Sky played over the speakers and the screen was blank — certainly a step up from the obnoxious First Look nonsense AMC blasts for as long as possible. What few commercials played were unobtrusive (one of them was even set to Q Lazzarus' “Goodbye Horses”); when an independent establishment airs a few ads, it’s much easier to give it the befit of the doubt and think, Yeah, Laemmle, get that Gucci money.
This low-key outing didn’t have the same cool-kid cachet as a Cinefamily or Cinespia event, but sitting in the Monica Film Center (or any Laemmle theater, really) feels like embedding yourself in the cultural fabric of L.A. film culture. The company is now in its 78th year of operation — and has operated a theater on Second Street for 44 of those years — and the fact that it’s renovating and reopening theaters when so many others are closing is something to be celebrated.