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‘Renegade Nell’ with Louisa Harland is addictive

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'Renegade Nell' with Louisa Harland is addictive

Disney+, Apple TV+ and Showtime deliver the entertainment goods this week with two series — “Renegade Nell” and “A Gentleman in Moscow” — and an excellent documentary about Steve Martin.

If you want to head to the theaters, check out Luc Besson’s wacky “DogMan” and our find of the week “Lousy Carter” (showing one night only in San Francisco).

Here’s our roundup.

“Renegade Nell”: “Happy Valley” creator Sally Wainwright enlivens the popular tween fantasy-tinged genre with this exemplary female powered Disney+ series set in 18th-century England. In eight addictive episodes, the on-point filmmaker succeeds where others have failed, injecting just the right doses of intrigue and humor into a quietly subversive feminist story.

Best of all, the series is thankfully not a prequel nor a reboot, and, refreshingly, not a sequel. And what joy it is to have a lively female protagonist at the center of it all, a quick-tempered young adult who’s confident and rebellious and restless. Nell is infamous, too, trying to clear her name in a shocking murder.

“Nell” is made stronger by its well-written characters. And it is purpose-driven Nell (Louisa Harland, channeling some Jessie Buckley intensity) — a legend in the making — who anchors it. She’s gained not only notoriety but superpowers via a Tinkerbell-esque sidekick Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed).

When Nell and her two sisters flee from those who want to keep them quiet, their paths continue to cross with a duplicitous highwayman/aristocrat (Frank Dillane, providing much of the humor) who is the younger paramour of an irresponsible, gossip-mongering newspaper editor (Joely Richardson, living it up here), and a privileged brother (Jake Dunne) and sister (Alice Kremelberg) who are enabled int their tapping to the dark side by the Earl of Poynton (Adrian Lester).

There are many more engaging characters and a slew of clever cameos from British stars. Each play essential parts in the action, and do their fair share of conniving and derring-do to aid or defeat the grand, evil purposes of the bad guys. “Renegade Nell” gallops ahead of other Disney+ offerings by telling a new story tremendously well, and giving us a young woman who defies the ruling class to gain not only justice but freedom. Details: 3½ stars out of 4; all episodes available starting March 29.

“A Gentleman in Moscow”: Anyone who gulped down Amor Towles’ 2016 literary page-turner and then campaigned friends to follow suit will approach Showtime’s eight-part adaptation with a touch of trepidation. Rest easy, dear readers, showrunner and executive producer Ben Vanstone and creator/writer Joe Murtagh have done this one a solid and nothing more.

Ewan McGregor initially seems like an odd casting choice to play Count Alexander Rostov — a 1920s aristocrat whose mouthy ways lead to his getting forever confined by a Bolshevik court panel to the ritzy Metropol hotel. But he grows on you and gives another one of his emotionally complex performances, even if he’s not a Russian.

What might look on the outside look like a cushy sentence is anything but as Rostov’s ordered to never step outside and is confined within the dilapidated, uncomfortable accommodations in a drafty, chilly attic. Down below, he befriends many: confident actress Anna Urbanova (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, giving a classic, classy performance) who relishes her healthy sexual appetite, and a precocious child instrumental in playing a critical, life-changing part in his life as the decades fly by and the screws get tightened on dissent.

Unlike some series, the extended length of this one benefits the decades-spanning story arc, with each episode cycling us through Russian history and showing how the changing political winds whisked away some in power leaving the powerless to find strength, love and greater meaning. Details: 3 stars; starts streaming March 29 on Paramount+ (with Showtime) and then on March 31 on Showtime.

“STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces”: The first part of Morgan Neville’s entirely worthwhile two-part Apple TV+ series blows the audience away in its creative approach in charting comedian Steve Martin’s childhood, fledgling stand-up career and then his phenomenally successful stage shows. Told entirely without the fallback plan of a talking head, it overlays interviews with Martin and others with video and images of the time. It’s an immersive experience and one of the most creative and unique approaches used for a documentary about a famous person. The second part is less adventurous but finds Steve at home, preparing for a show with his friend and “Only Murders in the Building” co-star Martin Short, his wife, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, friend Tina Fey and costar Diane Keaton, amongst others. It focuses more on his film career, and features clips from some of his biggest successes (“The Jerk,” “Parenthood”) and his biggest failures (“Pennies From Heaven” and Nora Ephron’s “Mixed Nuts”). The energy and momentum of the first part deflates in the second, but it is in tempo with the man himself, as a much more content, less anxiety-ridden Martin candidly reflects on the films, his greatest loves (including art), his emotionally shut-off father and a renaissance-like career that includes author, painter and playwright amongst other talents. It is a telling glimpse into the life of a creative artist who learns the invaluable truth that all the trappings of success mean so little until you’ve built a place you call home. It’s an exceptional documentary, even if the second half can’t quite keep up with the first. Details: 3½ stars; drops March 29 on Apple TV+.

“DogMan”: Luc Besson’s bizarro but commendable character study swings from great to awful, sometimes in a matter of seconds. What prevents its erratic tendencies from going entirely off leash is Caleb Landry Jones’ gutsy, fully committed performance. You can’t take your eyes off this underrated actor. He’s unforgettable as Douglas Munrow, a loner drag performer (he does a very cool Marilyn) in a wheelchair who’s more at home with his own pack of scraggly dogs than he is with humans. He has a good reason — his cruel dog-fighting father kicked him out and locked him in the filthy backyard kennel till he broke out. The dogs were the only ones who showed Douglas unconditional love and also protected him. Besson wrote this outlandish story, and while his directing is better than his screenwriting there is an undeniable flair to everything about this weird affair. Yes, it continually goes on and off the rails, but then it spits you off into an unexpected, but rather ingenious, place at the end. So given all that, is it worth seeing? Yes, but only if you plunge rather than lean into its chaotic  mindset from the very start. Details: 2.5 stars, in theaters Friday.

Find of the week

“Lousy Carter”: Indie filmmaker Bob Byington’s biting comedy fails on all counts in the originality department with its worn-out premise of a pompous professional – in this case a college literature professor who’s teaching a master’s course on “The Great Gatsby” –  confronting mortality when his doc says he has six months to live. A “death sentence” is one of the most overused plots but Byington’s dry-witted black comedy works better than the bulk of ‘em because it is wickedly funny and uncompromising and that’s due to the acidic screenwriting from Byington and the wry lead performance from David Krumholtz as a former dreamer with a big, hardly commercial idea to make an animated movie out of a Nabokov novel. Byington’s cast this droll comedy well with funny turns from actors portraying Carter’s forthright ex-girlfriend (Oliva Thirlby), a funeral-loving grad student (Luxy Banner) who challenges him all the time and his sorta best friend (Martin Starr) and his horny wife (Jocelyn DeBoer). Told in just under 80 minutes, “Lousy Carter” made me laugh uncomfortably quite often and then even shocked me at the end. Details: 3 stars; screens March 31 at the Roxie in San Francisco; also available On Demand starting March 29.

Contact Randy Myers at [email protected].



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