She-Ra Season 3 is Very Good

Really this is She-Ra season 2 part 2 but it is billed as season 3 on Netflix. The streaming service appears to be encouraging shows to run shorter seasons more frequently. That makes sense as a way of both encouraging binge watching and helping draw in viewers with new seasons appearing.

For She-Ra that meant that season 2 finished around the point where the major plot arc was just warming up again after a few fun stand alone episodes. That left season 3 as much tighter plot-arc driven set of episodes.

Starting with Shadow Weaver visiting Adora, the episodes amount to a series of revelations about Adora, the First Ones, Hordak and the ‘first’ She-Ra Mara. We learn less about Catra’s backstory but her arc from friend to rival to arch-enemy continues to be both sympathetic and unforgiving.

Lots of twists, so I can’t really summarise but it is a genuinely great bit of TV.

Love, Death + Robots: A viewing guide

I can’t recommend this series as a whole, there are just too many episodes that manage to be dull, ugly and offensive in one go. However, there are some gems and there are some episodes that are diverting if not great. Also, everybody’s taste in this stuff is very variable, so while I expect nobody is going to universally love every episode, the particular bad v good will be different per person. If it had been only nine episodes (omitting the ones I wished I’d not bothered with) it would have been quite interesting.

The following is a list of my impressions and some aspects that you might want to know in advance if you want to just watch some episodes rather than the whole bunch. Obviously your own mileage may vary. “CGI realism” means the episode has gone for the video-game cut scene look. Episode details (Director, writer etc) are from Wikipedia. [ETA According to this post Netflix have confirmed that they present different viewing orders to some people.]

Episode 1 “Sonnie’s Edge” Directed by Dave Wilson Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Peter F. Hamilton.
Violence, gore, nudity, sexualised violence, references to rape.
Watch or Skip? If you want a sense of what the ones I say ‘skip’ too, this is the best of them.
Style: CGI Realism
In a cyberpunk future a woman controls a bioengineered monster in cage fights. There are some nice visuals and an extended monster gladiator battle but the film suffers from male-gaze and dead-eyed CGI characters.

Episode 2 “Three Robots” Directed by Victor Maldonado & Alfredo Torres Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by John Scalzi.
Some corpses, cats.
Watch or Skip? Watch. Entertaining and nicely done.
Style: CGI Realism but as there’s no humans it works.
This starts with a Terminator visual joke and keeps the charm going through out. Maybe one transphobic joke about robot gender and genitals. Some good cat jokes.

Episode 3 “The Witness” Directed by Alberto Mielgo Screenplay by Alberto Mielgo
Violence, nudity, sexualised violence
Watch or Skip? Skip – an ugly mess
Style: CGI Realism but with some hectic edits and stylised aspects (written sound effects etc)
A woman is putting on make-up when she witnesses a murder in the building opposite. Realising the killer has seen her, she runs for her life to the sex club where she works as a dancer. Chaotic, violent and ridiculous in its use of nudity to the point of parody. There’s a weird little time loop story hidden inside this but the whole thing feels like a bad migraine but with the addition of CGI boobs.

Episode 4 “Suits” Directed by Franck Balson Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Steven Lewis.
Watch or Skip? Fun and diverting if you don’t think about it too deeply.
Style: CGI stylised
Some salt-of-the-Earth American farmers on an alien planet have to contend with incursions from bug like aliens. To survive they team up as a community in combat mechas. The big bonus with this one is a nice visual style that cuts down on the realism just a bit to give a better overall effect. Of course, American colonist being besieged by the native creatures starts looking less like a feel good story of people coming together the more you think about it.

Episode 5 “Sucker of Souls” Directed by Owen Sullivan Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Kirsten Cross.
Violence, some very stylised male nudity
Watch or Skip? Nice animation but not much substance.
Style: A traditional animation look.
This is self-aware enough in its own stupidity to be fun. Mercenaries helping an archeologist accidentally awaken a monstrous vampire. This also has some nice cats.

Episode 6 “When The Yogurt Took Over” Directed by Victor Maldonado & Alfredo Torres Screenplay by Janis Robertson Based on a story by John Scalzi.
Tiny bit of comical nudity but yes, even this one has some CGI boobs in it.
Watch or Skip? Watch. Funny and clever.
Style: Comical CGI
Humanity’s future history after the yogurt takes over. Told in a fun style with more comical CGI.

Episode 7 “Beyond the Aquila Rift” Directed by Léon Bérelle, Dominique Boidin, Rémi Kozyra, Maxime Luère Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Alastair Reynolds.
Nudity, sex
Watch or Skip? Skip – dull and dead-eyed CGI
Style: CGI realism
Or how to make an Alastair Reynolds story dull. A spaceship with a crew of three enters a hyperspace portal on a routine job. The captain wakes up with the ship being towed into a mysterious space station far from its original course. Waiting for him, to his surprise, is a former lover…but is everything is at it seems to be? An episode that absolutely depends on good acting and characterisation falls flat with CGI marionettes having sex unconvincingly. There’s a twist that you’ll guess fairly quickly.

Episode 8 “Good Hunting” Directed by Oliver Thomas Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Ken Liu.
Violence, gore, nudity, sexualised violence
Watch or Skip? On balance, skip. Starts well but wanders off course.
Style: A traditional animation look.
A story in three parts. It begins in rural China with a story about fox-spirits but which then reveals is set just when the industrial revolution impacts China. The protagonist (a boy in the first part) moves to Hong Kong and becomes a an engineer for the British and the episode segues into a cyberpunk version of the early 20th century. The young fox-spirit returns but is unable to use magic in this new world and is trapped in a life of sex work…and we get into a sex/torture plot.

Episode 9 “The Dump” Directed by Javier Recio Gracia Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Joe Lansdale.
Violence, gore, some comical nudity and indirect nudity
Watch or Skip? Depends – you might find it funny but I thought it was all a bit obvious.
Style: CGI stylised
A tall tale about an old man who lives in a dump with his pet. There are worse episodes.

Episode 10 “Shape-Shifters” Directed by Gabriele Pennacchioli Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Marko Kloos.
Violence, gore
Watch or Skip? Skip
Style: CGI realism
In an alternate present, the US Army employs werewolves (derogatorily called ‘dog soldiers’) to aid patrols in Afghanistan. Two friends find their loyalty tested when they encounter prejudice from their own side and a more supernatural threat from the enemy. Another unconvincing piece of hyperrealism. It looks better when everybody is werewolves but there’s not much to the story and what there is you’ll guess in advance.

Episode 11 “Helping Hand” Directed by Jon Yeo Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Claudine Griggs.
Some self inflicted gore.
Positive female protagonist.
Watch or Skip? Watch – the story is nothing new but it’s well put together.
Style: CGI realism
A ‘Gravity’ scenario with an astronaut on a routine solo repair mission in orbit. Things go badly wrong very quickly and she has to make a desperate choice to survive. The CGI realism here is less of an issue because the central character is mainly in a space helmet. This radically reduces how distractingly unconvincing facial expressions are in this medium.

Episode 12 “Fish Night” Directed by Damian Nenow Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Joe Lansdale.
One moment of violence, stylised.
Watch or Skip? Watch, nice visually but there’s not much to the story.
Style: A traditional animation look.
Two traveling salesmen get stuck on a deserted desert highway. At night the desert comes alive with the (mainly benign) ghosts of things long dead. Visually great but almost no plot.

Episode 13 “Lucky 13” Directed by Jerome Chen Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Marko Kloos.
Violent war theme
Positive female protagonist.
Watch or Skip? Watch – decent MilSF story.
Style: CGI realism
Another story whose hyper-realism is saved by helmets! This is what I call an ambiguous sentience story – where a machine might have a mind of its own and the story strongly implies that it does but with enough ambiguity that maybe it doesn’t. A pilot is assigned an apparently deeply unlucky drop ship/troop carrier with a serial number that’s got far too much 13 in it. She narrates her time with the ship and how its reputation changed.

Episode 14 “Zima Blue” Directed by Robert Valley Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Alastair Reynolds.
Some very stylised male nudity
Watch or Skip? Watch – strong visual style and a good story
Style: A traditional animation look.
A journalist is given the opportunity to interview the elusive conceptual artist Zima. He reveals to her the purpose of his final and greatest artwork and his own secret history that explains his obsession with rectangles and a very specific shade of blue that has become his signature. Nice.

Episode 15 “Blindspot” Directed by Vitaliy Shushko Screenplay by Vitaliy Shushko
Violence, sexual humour
Watch or Skip? Skip – sort of a kid’s cartoon for adults. Pointless.
Style: CGI stylised
A wild west train robbery except the outlaw gang are cyborgs in cars and the train is a big lorry. Trying too hard to be cool.

Episode 16 “Ice Age” Directed by Tim Miller Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by Michael Swanwick.
Technically there’s a whole war but not really violent
Watch or Skip? Watch – unoriginal premise but nicely executed.
Style: Live action mixed with CGI
A brief return to live action reveals to viewers what real humans look like! A couple discover a civilisation living in their frosted-up ancient fridge and watch it evolve rapidly. Some familiar tropes played with some low-key humour.

Episode 17 “Alternate Histories” Directed by Victor Maldonado & Alfredo Torres Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by John Scalzi.
Comical violence, sex and nudity
Watch or Skip? On balance I’d say skip but it’s short
Style: Very stylised CGI
A series of comical ‘what ifs’ on the theme of killing Hitler. It’s OK I guess,

Episode 18 “Secret War” Directed by István Zorkóczy Screenplay by Philip Gelatt Based on a story by David W. Amendola.
Mainly violence and gore but one brief scene of sexualised violence (a woman sacrificed in an occult ritual)
Watch or Skip? Skip. Feels like an idea for a movie that somebody thought would be great when they were 18 and stoned.
Style: CGI realism
WW2 Russian soldiers have to fight aliens or demons (not clear what they are) in a Siberian forest. That’s about it. Everybody talks in comedy Russian accents and the CGI makes it looked dubbed.

The Dragon Prince Season 2

I reviewed the first “book” of this animated series here. The main thing to note about season 2 is that paired with the first season, there is a more substantial story. With now 18 episodes in total, there is a more rounded feel to the characters and better immersion into the world.

Season 2 also has a slightly different story-telling pace. Season 1 split between two halves: the first doing a lot of backstory, world-building and setting up the stakes and characters and the second being more episodic. Season 2 has fewer events and let’s the the story follow it’s own logic more.

Aside from that, the basic qualities of the show is the same. A relatively conventional fantasy setting (elves, dragons, magic-systems) but with more diverse characters and a rejection of some plot cliches (the younger of the two brothers is the heir to throne, the brothers are nice to each other and aren’t rivals, the antagonists are sort-of nice people trying to do their best). It’s a very anti-cynical show, which is nice. There is a possible big-bad introduced to the story now but mainly the conflicts have been established by people believing they are acting for the best, while not recognizing the needs or beliefs of others.

A charming, very kid friendly fantasy with enough dark moments to give the story some bite.

Films we didn’t need but got anyway

I finally caught up with Tom Hardy in Venom and it was quite enjoyable. Mixing elements of horror, comedy and superhero origin stories, the film didn’t push any interesting new boundaries. However, it held its own as an entertaining superhero movie in what is now a crowded field with critically acclaimed comic book sourced films.

Venom was one of several films that I dismissed as pointless when I first heard about them. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was another — really Sony? Desperately trying to get what money you could out of a franchise that was overdone and which was now being done better as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It is fair to say that my opinion was stupid. It was a bit stupid when looking at the final result of Venom (a Spider-Man free attempt to wring dollars out of the Spider-franchise), it was extraordinarily stupid when looking at the final result of Spiderverse — which was frankly brilliant.

Maybe I should just stop having opinions but perhaps two bad opinions is just a coincidence? Speaking of Spiderverse, two key people involved in that film were Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. As a duo they’ve certainly managed to work some magic into films that potentially were that promising on paper. Which leads me to a third film I was wrong about: Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Lord and Miller were initially hired to direct the Solo spinoff but months into production they were sacked by Lucasfilm and replaced by Ron Howard. To what extent the final product reflects Howard or Lord/Miller or an amalgam of both, who knows. Films in general and major commercial blockbusters, in particular, don’t really represent any one single creative vision.

Solo was a solid and entertaining Star Wars movie. It didn’t have the gravitas of Rogue One but it delivered a wry space opera with great performances from all the cast. Hampered by troubled production, unwise release date and that overarching sense of redundancy, the film didn’t do that well. Yet, it was worth having. It was entertaining and well made and Donald Glover’s Lando was worth the ticket price by himself.

But shouldn’t the studios be creating new properties? Shouldn’t they be generating new franchises or getting original films to the screen? I’m not saying they shouldn’t and I haven’t abandoned my desire for more heroic failures of new properties. However, I can fall into the trap that is the cult of originality. It is a trap and it can lead you to being too dismissive of not just movie studios mining franchises but also fan-fiction and also micro-genres where the framework of the story is strongly established.

Solo wasn’t that original in terms of setting and character and rested on some lazy moves (e.g. establishing sources for backstory trivia like how Solo got his surname, or blaster or what-parsecs-mean-in-context etc) but if you see “Star Wars” as just a mechanism to get a major movie studio to produce a space-opera heist western then it stops looking quite so derivative.

Venom was given a budget to convert the IP controlled by Sony into fungible currency but that only tells us about the financial motive for the film and beyond certain limits doesn’t predict what the qualities of the film will be. What we got was a dark buddy comedy, in which Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock is sufficiently an obnoxious shithead to fit the character without being so much of a shithead that we’d be happy to see him die early of organ failure*. It’s nicely done, as is the symbiote’s later motives in the film (in which it concedes that in its own environment it is is a bit of a loser).

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse took this commercial subversion to another level, exploiting the frequently used comic-book crossover premise (lots of parallel world versions of superheroes!), to explore the absurdity of canon in superhero franchises, bring the Miles Morales Spider-man to the big screen and make a visually extraordinary animated film.

Yes, these are products of a cynical capitalist industry that aims to control our consumption by semi-monopolistic control of popular culture. That in itself doesn’t determine whether the end products are worth watching or not.

*[Viewers mileage on this point may very depending on your tolerance of shitty behaviour.]