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Name Game

Lady Bird and Roman J. Israel, Esq. find themselves

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LADY BIRD is the type of movie (to this my wife will attest) that would, not so many years ago, have sent me hurtling back into a depression that would require weeks-to-months of regular therapy to re-establish anything resembling a "healthy" emotional baseline. Granted, to assign it a type does a disservice to any work of art, especially one with as clear a voice and point of view as this. Still, it tells a story of late adolescence, of teenage sex and "coming-of-age." It calls back to a time when some of us begin to feel free, for better or worse, and a time when some of us begin to feel the most constrained by the reality of life (this mostly for the worse, seldom for the better). And so it is of a type, if only the type that I find frequently devastating.

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has, in her senior year of high school, decided she would like to be called Lady Bird. And she is a free spirit, just as nearly every 17 year old thinks s/he is. Constrained by her family's economic situation, the strictures of her Catholic school and by the stifling, bucolic claustrophobia of Sacramento, she fights almost constantly with her mother, dreams of a life on the East Coast, "where culture is," and tries, with varying degrees of success, to figure out relationships and freedom and selfhood. It's all the stuff we don't have much chance of getting a handle on the way we think we should. (The movie is set in 2002-2003, so for those of us of a certain age, the scenes of crying along to a Dave Matthews song will be all too familiar. And, to some of us, infuriating; a topic for another time and place.)

Lady Bird marks the solo writing and directing debut of Greta Gerwig (she has collaborated with Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach in the past), who has risen to a sort of indie grace as an actor. She was born the same year as her movie's titular character and raised in the city where her story is set. Beyond that, it would be unfair to suggest whether that story is autobiographical but it is told with the economy and precision and shame of something well remembered. This character, particularly as Ronan embodies her, provokes laughter and frustration and sadness in equal measure. Her head-butting with her mother can seem immature and short-sighted, but then completely justifiable in the space of an instant. The experience of being a teenager — the possibility and impossibility, the newfound, addictive freedom, the chaos, the imposed order, the excitement and the fear, the inchoate irony that these experiences are gigantic but also small and entirely common — is rendered with a care and simplicity that transcend classification. Gerwig doesn't overreach visually, potentially risking the integrity of the material with attempts at a unique visual style. But she knows where to put the camera to tell her story and her comic timing is evident in the simple perfection of her cutaways.

Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, as Lady Bird's long suffering, deeply caring parents, give performances toward which most actors could strive for a lifetime without ever approaching. They immerse themselves so deeply in the lives of Marion and Larry McPherson that any artifice falls away and we're left guiltily watching a family from the inside. R. 93m. BROADWAY.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ. Writer/director Dan Gilroy, with his second feature, takes a significant creative risk, even before the first frame. To assign such an unwieldy, distinctive handle to the protagonist, and then to use it as a title, could be seen as fanciful or precious or both. But Gilroy, and of course Denzel Washington in the lead role, have built a character of singular identity, shaped by his experiences. His grammar, his patterns of speech, his wardrobe and physicality all demonstrate that fact of which there can be no doubt: This guy is most certainly named Roman J. Israel, and he would most certainly insist upon the "Esq."

That may seem to make a lot of a rather silly thing but I see it as central to the success of the work. Roman has a brilliant legal mind, he believes in fighting the good fight and in advancement for the disenfranchised. And he has spent decades in the back room of a struggling, two-man legal practice, scouring law books and preparing briefs and memoranda for his more charismatic litigator partner. On a fateful Monday morning, though, said partner suffers a severe heart attack and Roman's world is tilted toward disarray. It becomes clear that his impatience for the niceties of the courtroom, his frustration with the hypocrisy of a rigged system, leave him ill-suited for lawyering away from his desk.

George Pierce (Colin Farrell), one of the partner's acolytes, now a penthouse-successful defense and business attorney, brings Roman on, largely because he sees the possibility of nearly unlimited billable hours. As they spend time together, though, George begins to understand anew the importance of doing good work under the aegis of the law, of helping and changing things. Simultaneously, Roman, in the harsh light of a big-time Los Angeles practice, starts to see the ever-more prominent seams in his unadorned, some might say shabby existence. His frustration at his own perceived inability to enact sweeping change brings about an impulse to see how the other half lives, how things might be had he not chosen the righteous path.

Like Gilroy's debut Nightcrawler (2014), Roman J. Israel, Esq. presents a dark, unique and vividly imagined version of contemporary Los Angeles, as seen through the eyes of one of its fringe denizens. And like that earlier effort, it is made with a distinctive eye for its characters and its setting, and is thoughtful and compact and memorable.

In this case, though, our protagonist is more sadly sympathetic than he is frightening, and his foray into compromised ethics fails to yield the same fruit. In that sense, this is maybe the more optimistic movie, but it still lives in the dark places. PG13. 122m. BROADWAY.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.

Previews

JANE. Documentary about Jane Goodall's personal and professional life in the early days of her work with chimpanzees. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX, MINOR.

LOVING VINCENT. An animated drama in the style of Vincent van Gogh created with thousands of oil paintings and depicting a man's investigation into the artist's death. Starring Douglas Booth and Robert Gulaczyk. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX, MINOR.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS. Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer star as Charles Dickens and his creation Ebenezer Scrooge as the author struggles to write A Christmas Carol amid family and career strife. PG. 144m. BROADWAY.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A woman frustrated by the investigation of her daughter's murder (Frances McDormand) goes after the police chief (Woody Harrelson) with signs. With Sam Rockwell. R. 115m. BROADWAY, MINOR.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954). Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing and dance with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in a post-war holiday classic. NR. 120m. BROADWAY.

Continuing

A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS. The writing in this sequel wastes the comedic charms of leads Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn, who play frustrated moms visited by their respective mothers (the equally squandered Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon). R. 104m. MILL CREEK.

COCO. Young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) goes on a quest to the Land of the Dead to circumvent his family's generations-old ban on music in this Pixar animated feature. With Gael García Bernal. PG. 109m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

DADDY'S HOME 2. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg reprise their roles as "co-dads," this time struggling with their own polar opposite dads (racist boil Mel Gibson and John Lithgow) with mildly humorous and pointedly heartwarming results. A benign and forgettable signal that Ferrell isn't trying anymore. PG13. 98m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Following the misadventures of 6-year-old girl (Brooklynn Prince) who lives in a motel just outside the Magic Kingdom. With Willem DaFoe and Bria Vinaite. R. 111m. MINOR.

JUSTICE LEAGUE. Batman (Ben Affleck) teams up with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and a butched-up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to save the world. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Director Kenneth Branagh dons a massive mustache as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot alongside a stellar cast of suspects (Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer). Rich sets and slower pacing embraces old-fashioned movie making for a beautiful, compelling mystery. PG13. 114m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THOR: RAGNAROK. Director Taika Waititi keeps Marvel's high drama but balances it with humor and and a nimble, entertaining story. Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum excel as very different villains. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

THE STAR. This animated feature follows a donkey (Steve Yeun) and the rest of the manger crew on the road to the first Christmas. With Kristen Chenoweth, Keegan-Michael Key and Gina Rodriguez. PG. 86m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA MILL CREEK.

WONDER. Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay star in YA adaptation about a boy with severe facial deformity entering school speaks to our limited understanding of others' suffering, kindness and the comfort of kindred spirits — all things we could use right now. PG. 113m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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