Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

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Her, directed by Spike Jonze (2013).

Score: when love is beyond judgement.

Twenty minutes into the future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is an awkward, lonely man trying to get over his divorce. Theodore is a very sensitive man who makes a living writing personal letters for other people in a company that’s a bit of an evolution of greeting card manufacturers. One day, a software company releases an operative system equipped with artificial intelligence. Theodore’s instance of the OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) gives herself the name Samantha and starts by helping him sort through his email and computer files. Soon they start having personal conversations, and as Samantha grows more intelligent and eventually reaches sapience, they start a romantic relationship that centres the whole plot.

When I started watching I was worried that the theme behind the movie was “technology is dehumanizing us, fire is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch” but I was glad to find out this movie is the exact opposite. If you’ve ever had a shameful kink or been in an unconventional relationship, this movie understands and accepts you. Love is love and in the end life is too short to be worried about what other people think about life choices that only affect you.

The movie works on two different levels. It is a science-fiction movie through and through as it depicts people interacting with true artificial intelligences. It focuses on the sentimental and romantic side, which has been rarely explored, as far as I know. There are some moments of doubt in the beginning when it’s still not clear what Samantha is, where Theodore might have been an evolved version of these people who say please and thank you to Cortana, but once it’s clear that Samantha is sapient we’re on a whole new ground.

On a different level, Her is also a love story like many others. Theodore is having a relationship that is more or less frowned upon or unconventional. On this level of the story, Samantha could have been transsexual, disabled, ex-convict, from another ethnicity, you name it, and the story would be pretty much unchanged. He has to examine his feelings and his situation and finally embrace that maybe he’s not sure what he’s doing or how the story’s going to end but when all is said and done it makes him happy and that’s all that matters. This is what’s so beautiful and soothing about this movie: it’s all about acceptance. Acceptance of the different, of the unknown. A call to listening to your heart and doing what makes you happy.

Phoenix and Johansson are great in this. There is no Commodus or Johnny Cash in Phoenix. He’s just soft, melancholic, vulnerable. He’s a sad and awkward little man who falls in love again. As for Johansson, she’s remarkably expressive bearing in mind she can’t use the help of facial expressions or body language.

Watch this movie, it will make your day better and warm your heart. And if we could all accept that people love who they love, the world would be a better place.

Stranger things, season 1 (2013)

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Stranger things, season 1, created by the Duffer Brothers (Netflix, 2016).

Score: a very simple idea, elegantly executed.

It’s the early Eighties in a small town in Indiana and four pre-teen friends are playing Dungeons and Dragons. After their session is over for the night they go back home on their bikes. Will (Noah Schnapp) is snatched by a monster in his backyard, and his disappearance shakes the whole town. His three friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), put all their nerdy knowledge in service of finding him. Joyce (Winona Ryder) is convinced that her son Will is alive after some paranormal events in the house and will go to any lengths to bring him back, with or without the help of her elder son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). The town’s sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is going through a hard time after the death of his little daughter and being relocated from the city, but as the mystery of Will’s absence becomes more complicated, he’s reminded of why he became a police agent. Mike’s older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is busy with school and her boyfriend Steve (Joe Keery), but becomes concerned after her friend Barb (Shannon Purser) goes missing too. Last but not least, the night of Will’s disappearance a strange girl of few words in a hospital gown (Millie Bobby Brown) walks in a diner while being pursued by government agents. After escaping, she ends up being found by the three friends who were looking for Will, and she’s the key to finding the boy.

Stranger things is nothing new. In fact it’s laden with homages to Steven Spielberg’s and Stephen King’s works of the Eighties, along with horror and sci-fi classics. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an excellently written show on its own merit. At only eight episodes of forty minutes each, every episode (except for the second one, which is a bit slow and boring) flows seamlessly. Most scenes either advance the plot or develop character, but character development is not so prevalent that it stalls the action.

Characters are my favourite thing about Stranger things. They are built on archetypes so they are easily recognizable but then they are developed into something else. ***SPOILERS*** Joyce looks like she’s going to be a neglectful, incompetent single mother but turns out to be resourceful and compassionate. Hopper starts out as a depressed, demotivated agent but as the conspiracy unfolds, he proves he really cares about helping people and doing the right thing. He also proves resourceful not only bluffing and negotiating but also punching his way around. Nancy looks like she’s going to be a vain and shallow popular teenager but she’s genuinely concerned about Barb. The fact that she’s the only one who cares that Barb’s gone is the biggest flaw of the show, as it has been repeatedly pointed out by fans. (Like, they only needed to add a couple scenes showing that at least Barb’s family has acknowledged her disappearance… Maybe they shot them but then edited them out?) She also shows sympathy towards Jonathan and can see through Tommy and Carol… and so can Steve. I really liked how both Nancy and Steve are put in a situation where they can relent to peer pressure or make a moral choice and in the end they do. Also, she decides to take revenge on the monster and uses her knowledge and intelligence to design a trap for it with Jonathan. The fact that she stays with Steve instead of dating Jonathan not only avoids a cliché but is also in-character: Nancy knew and loved Steve before all the action started, and given that Steve apologized to both Nancy and Jonathan and helped them means the most natural thing for her would be to stay with him, not run to Jonathan. Like, she even says several times that she’s not romantically attracted to Jonathan. The kids feel very real, not too cute or corny or annoying. They have reasonable conflicts for their age and situation and serve as a suitable comic relief. The characters solve the puzzle not too early, not too late, but only when it makes sense for a reasonably intelligent person to do so.

The ending is not precisely surprising but the finale follows quite closely the rule of “surprising, yet inevitable” that makes for a satisfying resolution. It also provides reasonable closure for the story while at the same time leaves some openings for the confirmed second season. ***END SPOILERS***

I was quite skeptical of Winona Ryder’s performance but she does very well, also the five kids are a highlight. Special effects work well, not showing too little in order to stay in a low budget, but also not showing too much or getting bad results due to budget restraints.

This show everyone is talking about is fun and exciting and worth a watch. Enjoy!

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007)

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The Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson and written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman (2007).

Score: appealing.

The Darjeeling Limited tells the story of three selfish, entitled and shallow brothers who decide to go to India in a self-discovery and bonding journey. It’s been a year since his father’s death and Francis (Owen Wilson) wants to get closer to Peter (Adrien Brody), who is about to be a father, and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who has an abusive relationship with his ex-girlfriend and writes short stories.

The Darjeeling Limited is visually astounding. It’s colourful and charming and surprisingly cramped. It’s not the only love letter from a Westerner to that mesmerizing country but you can tell it’s an honest one. The scenes in the train were actually filmed on a moving train, which I guess contributes to the cramped and shaky feeling, but I’m left wondering if it was at all necessary. The acting is correct but nobody particularly stands out as intense or funny.

Story-wise, I had a bit of a hard time getting immersed in the movie because I was expecting something more like The Grand Budapest Hotel and this is quite different. It has a subtle sense of humour, but of a different kind. I don’t know if someone found the three brothers likable, but I also had a short lapse of awkwardness at the beginning of the movie until I figured I was watching a movie about three jerks. These guys just wander around praying to gods they just met for reasons they don’t understand and then buy things they don’t need or know how to take care of to compensate. They’re obnoxious to everyone on the train and to each other but at the same time they feel so smart and enlightened because they are on a spiritual journey. As the movie goes by you can tell they’re trying hard, but I’m not very optimistic that they actually manage to grow up as people. Something I like about the movie is that all these things are open to interpretation.

This movie is visually beautiful, entertaining and tells a fun little story about people who would like to look as better human beings than they actually care to be. Worth a watch.

***SPOILERS***

I don’t know how the writers feel about the characters, but I wasn’t convinced for a second that the Whitmans were redeemed by the little kid’s death. You can tell that they regret not having attended their father’s funeral and try to make up for it by behaving like human beings at the child’s funeral. But before and after you can tell it’s all a game to them. Peter remarks “I didn’t save mine!” as if the accident involving the three children was some sort of scripted event where they get to be heroes. They happily let go of their earthly possessions, such as the shoes and later on the luggage, but not because they have learned to renounce them, but because they have become inconvenient and it’s easier to just buy new things back home, which they can afford.

Note how Francis gives and takes back the belt from Peter repeatedly. All the songs that Jack plays on his iPod focus on how wealthy, glamorous and fashionable the singer’s love interest is. If Peter had actually leaned anything from the journey, he would go back to his pregnant wife immediately, or at least figure out if she needs him or she’s okay being left alone at home. Their decision to stay in India and meet their mother is as careless as their decision to leave in the first place, mostly out of frustration and whim. Nothing has really changed after the child’s death.

Seeing the mother’s behaviour explains a lot of things about their personalities and upbringing. Though by the end of the journey they are none the wiser or more considerate, there is something they have succeeded at: bonding as brothers. Even if that just means realizing they are all as frivolous and self-centred.

The three-body problem (Liu Cixin, 2008)

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The three-body problem, by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, 2008).

Score: awesome.

The book opens in Cultural Revolution China, where young physicist Ye Wenjie witnesses her father’s death during a public struggling session, after her mother and sister joined the Red Guard. Marked as a subversive element, Ye agrees to spend her life in a military research facility as a scientist. In the present, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is asked to infiltrate a shady organization called Frontiers of Science because a lot of scientists have been quitting their research and committing suicide lately. In the process, Wang starts playing a VR video game about a world where day and night cycles and therefore climate is chaotic except during brief periods called Stable Eras. The goal of the game is to explain and predict Stable Eras in order to save the civilization that lives there.

I really enjoyed reading a science-fiction book set in another culture. Liu’s assimilation of science-fiction tropes and transplanting into his own upbringing in order to tell a compelling and new story was very interesting to read. I hope to read many more books like this in the future and learn about other cultures and other countries’ history.

It’s not a very long book and the pacing is nearly perfect. Chapters set in different periods and contexts follow one another seamlessly and the action almost never stops. The first section provides historical and cultural context to the characters, and the mysteries start almost immediately in the second section, leading us to their progressive unraveling and final setup for the rest of the trilogy. Liu even adds chapters with different formats, such as written reports, interrogations and memories told in the first person. Some of these are awkward when introduced but work well in general.

The chapters with the Three Body video game were very exciting. I wanted to play a video game like that one! The recurring annihilation in freaky astronomical events was hilarious, like a particularly cruel game of Banished. Okay, I have a weird sense of humour. These chapters kept me interested and up reading until very late at night, definitely a highlight of the book.

The planetary scale of the conspiracy and unexplained events reminded me a lot of Spin, though luckily the characters in The three-body problem were not irredeemably stupid and insufferable like the main characters of Spin. In fact, the bad guys in this book are quite well achieved. They are given motives to be evil, as well as flaws and doubts. Hell, they even sound reasonable sometimes.

The style is quite sober, though I’m guessing that is because the translation from Chinese makes a lot of nuances and quirks of language disappear. Ken Liu speaks in his postscript of trying to strike a balance between translating faithfully, adapting culturally and not adding too many footnotes. The result is pleasant to read, but since I don’t speak Chinese I cannot assess his effort further.

This book falls on the quite hard side of the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. I don’t know enough advanced physics to justify whether what Liu lays out as an explanation for the events of the book makes a lot of sense or not, but for someone with a very basic understanding of quantum physics the result seems truthlike. Willing suspension of disbelief is not broken.

This book is entertaining, exciting and cleverly written, so I recommend it to all of you who like science-fiction.

Akira (Katsuhiro Ôtomo, 1988)

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Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (1988).

Score: an action classic.

It’s 2019 and we’re in Neo Tokyo. 31 years prior a mysterious explosion kicked off World War III and now the country is overrun by poverty, crime and police brutality. Kaneda and Tetsuo are two teenagers in a biker gang that get in a chase with a rival gang, the Clowns. Tetsuo nearly runs over a strange child with psychic powers and as a result he’s taken away by the military, who start experimenting on him. What they didn’t know is they were going to unleash a power that Tetsuo himself is not capable nor willing to control.

Compared to Manga!Akira, the plot is much simpler. Film!Akira skips most of the second half of the manga and goes direct to the action-packed ending. It also trims secondary characters and politics to get the much more straightforward story of a kid bestowed with unimaginable power who is completely unwilling to use it for the good of anyone, not even himself. This means the film avoids most of the traps the manga falls into: the grandiose narrative, the absurd plot, Kaneda driving a tank around. Fewer loose ends, simplified plot and more credible characters all make up for a work that holds up much better than the original source. Both were directed by the same person, so in this sense it is a very interesting case of an artist having two shots at developing the same idea.

But when all is said and done, I got a bit bored watching Akira. Action movies are not my favourite kind of movies. If they only fight and there’s no talky-talky or mindfucky, I get bored. But I’m aware that’s just a matter of taste and I can appreciate a good action movie when I see one. Maybe it was also a matter of being familiar with the story already, but I missed a lot of the comings and goings of the original.

Akira is technically and visually impressive for the time it was made. It features 2,212 shots and 160,000 single pictures, using 327 different colours, 50 of which were exclusively created for the film. The reason they had to order those colours is because this is one of the few animation films that happen mostly at night, a setting traditionally avoided by animators for being difficult to work with. It was also carefully animated, even with the aid of CGI. The first few scenes are live history of cinema and science-fiction: if Akira didn’t invent the cyberpunk aesthetic of ghastly neon lights in grim Asian megalopolis, this movie definitely codified it.

This movie belongs to a very specific genre but is worth watching by anyone interested in the history of cinema, animation and science-fiction.

Destiny: The Taken King (2015)

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Destiny: The Taken King, developed by Bungie and distributed by Activision (PS4, 2015).

Also: a rant about “The Dark Below” and “The House of Wolves”.

Score: just skidding over mediocrity.

It’s funny that I compared Destiny with Mass Effect in terms of heartbreaking. Little did I know back in 2014 that I was in for a bumpy ride of overpriced expansions, tedious mechanics mixed with some other clever ones and an overall love-hate for a game that despite everything manages to be fun as hell.

So, the original game came with story mode, six strikes, one raid and PvP maps and modes. Enough to last you until the first expansion.

The Dark Below” was quite a meager DLC for the 20 euro it cost when it came out. It brought four story missions, two strikes, one of which was PS4 exclusive for some time, three Crucible maps, one raid and new equipment up to level 32. Since nobody likes story missions, it brought three Crucible maps, one or two strikes, one raid and level 32. For 20 euro. “The Undying Mind” is basically “The Black Garden” backwards but it manages to be a fun strike. The highlight of this expansion is “Crota’s end”, really. The good thing about “Crota” is that it’s short and very killy, as oposed to “The Vault of Glass”. No puzzles, no jumps, you just kill stuff, and that’s good to have as an alternative. It was an expansion that didn’t stand much on its own but was easily combined with the original game for more variety.

Then came “The House of Wolves” (cue ominous music). “The House of Wolves” included six story missions, one strike, four new Crucible maps and zero raids, and it also cost another 20 euro. As an excuse, it introduced an arena, The Prison of Elders, and a different PvP mode, The Trials of Osiris. I wasn’t a fan of PvP back then so I never got to play Osiris back in the day, before The Taken King, but the persistent rumors that people kept cheating by raising their connection lag wasn’t welcoming at all.

So, what do you do when there is no raid and only one new strike? You try to play Prison of Elders. Back then it involved the following: you had to go out on Patrol and wait for a Pack of Wolves to spawn. This happened every 10-15 minutes or so. In the meantime there was pretty much nothing to do. I parked my character on a corner and read a book. Someone in my playgroup managed to farm over 600 Spirit Bloom. You killed the Pack and then you had 90 seconds to find a chest that could be in several locations in the area, sometimes hidden, almost never in plain sight, that might or might not award you a Treasure Key. Why did you want a Treasure Key? Because if you didn’t have one you couldn’t open the chest at the end of The Prison of Elders, which meant you had been playing a quite difficult arena for maybe an hour or more to go home with two Strange Coins.

If you could find the Patrol chest quickly, you could exploit a glitch and get the loot several times (sometimes, but very rarely, several Keys) by quickly leaving the area and coming back while the chest was still there. But more often than not you had the opposite problem: you had been waiting there for the Wolves to spawn and now you couldn’t find the chest in the allocated 90 seconds, so you had to start over. Only so you could play Prison of Elders and get appropriate loot. Okay, the loot was crazy. The loot was nuts, but it required so much boring farming that it was really annoying.

But was Prison of Elders at least fun to play? Well, this is mostly a matter of taste but I’ll let you know that I didn’t think it was. The mechanics called for either clearing up the room of enemies, dismantling bombs and protecting an area. These two were basically the same as they involved standing in one spot as a circle on your screen filled. Level 32 was fine but the loot was mediocre, and levels 34 and 35 were too difficult to be fun. Not difficult as in, it required skill, planning and strategy. Difficult as in, you had to keep running around the room in circles while trying to shoot at the boss because there were so many enemies that if you stayed on a spot for two seconds you got obliterated. Did I tell you it had no checkpoints? If you died you started at the beginning of the current screen but if you went to orbit you had to start over.

Oh, and they nerfed the Gjallarhorn. In hindsight I guess it was broken. But it always sucks when mommy and daddy take away your favourite toy. Come The taken king, they also indirectly nerfed the Black Hammer, Icebreaker and Thorn, among others. Only they’re selling Rise of Iron with a brand new Black Gjallarhorn. Either it’s the nerfed version again and they’re just hyping people, or it’s the real thing and they’ve played us all.

The Taken King was announced at the not at all insignificant price of 40 euro and just like that almost all of my whole playgroup decided against buying it. And then something maddening happened. When The Taken King came out and you didn’t have it, you couldn’t play with some of the stuff you had already paid for. You could play the story missions for the original and the expansions, as well as the two raids. But you couldn’t play any strikes over level 20 and the only Crucible modes you could play were the ones labeled Legacy, which is code for “these modes suck”. You couldn’t play Prison of Elders either because they changed it so the old thing didn’t even exist anymore. Some of the strikes now have Taken in them and have changed but that is no excuse to take content from players they have paid for, and not for cheap exactly.

We went without Destiny for almost a year. But almost each time we met we kept remembering old adventures, how much fun we had playing it and how we missed it. When all is said and done, if you put aside the ripoffs, the nerfing, the boring mechanics and the poor metagame balancing decisions, it’s a very fun game. So in the end we relented and bought The Taken King.

The Taken King comes with eight story missions, four new strikes (one of them PS4 exclusive), one new raid, nine new Crucible maps, three new Crucible modes, one new subclass for each character class and something new called questlines. It’s also worth noting that the Legendary Edition, which includes the original Destiny and the other two expansions, can be very easily found for 40 euro. Which is great because it’s easy to convince friends to buy it and play with you, but at the same time I’ve spent over 150 euro in the franchise since it came out and I didn’t get any special treatment (in fact I got cheated of my stuff when I didn’t buy the new expansion).

Many things have improved mechanically with The Taken King. Most of my Year 1 gear had been nerfed and I hated to see it go but I was given great gear very soon so the loss didn’t feel as big. This expansion has a lot of loot for very different activities and the maximum level of gear can be achieved in different ways, so you don’t have to play the raid if you don’t like it or don’t have a big playgroup. The Light system is changed: you reach the current maximum level of 40 via experience points and there is a separate statistic that calculates the average attack and defense of your gear and is called your Light stat. Activities have a Light estimate requirement so you can get an idea how difficult they are. The minimum requirement is quite under the recommended Light so you can get your character rushed if necessary.

You don’t need to have three top level characters anymore, since weekly activities can be done a total of three times with any of your characters. You can play the weekly strike once with every character or three times with your main, for example. Some people have complained about this but I find it an improvement. Before, playing weekly events more than once required grinding and leveling up another two characters and not everyone was up to that, some of us just wanted to have some more top-difficulty missions to play every week, not farming for hours again. If you feel special because you have three top level characters and I don’t, congratulations. Nobody is preventing you to beat the weekly missions with all three characters, while the previous situation did prevent me from having fun.

Rewards have been unified in Legendary Marks, which are common for Vanguard and Crucible activities. This is good news for people who only like one of the two, since you can buy gear from either faction with these Marks, provided you have enough reputation to buy whatever it is you want. They are also shared between your characters so if your main has all the gear they need you can buy something for your other ones. Factions such as Dead Orbit and New Monarchy are also offering gear.

You can also use these marks to infuse your gear. This is one of the most fun new mechanics of the expansion and it allows for never-seen-before variation in the game. It works the following way: legendary and exotic gear drops have random or semi-random perks and lowish stats. This means you could get the same weapon, such as the 1000-Yard Stare or The Smolder, multiple times and you might want to keep them all or just some of them depending on the random perks they get. For exotics there’s usually one fixed perk and the others are random. This means there aren’t a few chase gear items anymore but with luck and grinding you can get versatile gear for your style of play and the activities you like the most. So how do you bring the stats up? You infuse your weapon with another weapon. Remember those blue pieces or gear that nobody wanted because once you go purple you never go back? Well, now rare pieces of gear tend to have shitty perks but high stats, so when you get a very juicy blue drop you use it to improve the legendary or exotic gear you already had. This makes sorting through your loot more rewarding, because almost always you get something that can improve what you already have, and if you don’t, at least you get Weapon or Armor Parts. Class-specific armor parts are gone, by the way, which makes leveling up your alters even easier.

There’s a new faction as well: the Gunsmith. He was already there but now he does more stuff. Mostly you need to gain reputation with him by trying out prototypes he brings under certain conditions, such as killing Vex with them, or getting headshots on Knights or things of the sort. The prototypes are terrible quality weapons but that’s part of the fun, I guess. Once you have at least level 1 reputation you can buy gear from him once a week for 2500 glimmer and he delivers it every Wednesday. The gear he brings is sick, so be careful you don’t spend all your glimmer!

Questlines basically involve a new menu screen where you get follow-up on the missions you have pending. It tracks story missions and later it also tracks new quest chains that require farming for objects, killing certain kinds of enemies, achieving certain feats on Crucible and so on. This adds more variety to the activities you can do and also invites you to try new game modes, since all game modes get a questline at one point or another (except Osiris, as far as I know). There is a new kind of heavy weapon which is called a sword and that’s basically what it is. You can get them via questlines with a lot of varied required activities, which makes them fun to get.

There is a new location: in this case it’s a Hive dreadnaught stationed in Saturn’s rings. Almost all new missions, the raid and some of the new strikes take place there, and there’s also a new Patrol map. Phobos, Mars’ satellite is also a new location but for now it only appears in one story mission and one Crucible map. The Dreadnaught is populated by Hive and they tend to be fighting off Cabal a lot of the time, so aesthetically there is not a lot of innovation. But there was a lot of innovation in Patrol gameplay: you still have Patrol missions but a lot of new objects were included in Saturn Patrol. There are a bunch of treasure chests around that require keys to open and those keys require different mini-quests to complete. There’s also a new material to farm called Hadium Flakes, used to obtain the Legendary swords and the Touch of Malice.

Some enemies and events also drop consumable items called Runes. These Runes can be used in an area called the Court of Oryx to summon different events with different difficulty levels. These events are timed and the bosses in them require special feats to be beaten, such as having a Cursed Thrall explode nearby to lower the boss’ shield or killing three Wizards within a short time window. Tier 3 even has a boss that works very similarly to Crota and even looks like him! My playgroup affectionately calls him Mini-Crota. One good thing about the Court of Oryx is that it doesn’t require a fireteam, anyone who walks into the area is cooperating. Given that almost always there’s someone around the area, it’s easy to get help from other players even for the Tier 3 bosses.

The Prison of Elders has been reformed. You can still play the previous versions and they are the same as before but now we also have Level 40 Prison of Elders and Challenge of the Elders. Level 40 Prison of Elders follows the same mechanics but for some reason it’s easier than Level 35. The Challenge of the Elders is a different thing completely. Matchmaking is disabled and there are only three rounds. Each round has a boss and a bunch of minions and the round is over when you kill the boss. You can play it just like that but you won’t get the good loot if you do. Here’s what you have to do: every week you can buy an Elder’s Sigil from Variks which is basically a scorecard. The scorecard calls for a score of 30,000 in a single play and 90,000 accumulated score throughout the week. If you play enough times you will eventually get to 90,000 and get the loot, but 30,000 in a single play is more tricky. You get points for killing minions, killing the boss and more points for special kills, such as melee, grenade or super kills, as well as for creating Orbs of Light. So what stops you from killing minions until you reach 30,000? The three stages are timed. After a certain time Variks gets impatient and starts taking points from you. The fun in this mode is in that it gives you an incentive to play in a certain way, so you need to adjust your equipment and abilities to max out your scores. Definitely an improvement, compared to the previous levels.

The Taken King includes new enemies, the Taken. They’re possessed and revamped versions of the enemies we already knew. They remind me a bit of the hybrid-corrupted enemies from Mass Effect 3. Apart from being a very cute glittering grey colour, they’re not much different from the others. Well, the Taken Phalanxes have a pushy shield they like to use to push you out of the stage and make you fall to your death. Real fun, as you can see.

Eris is still around but doesn’t do much apart from handing out quests for the Calcified Fragments. There’s 50 of them and getting 45 will net you a cool Touch of Malice. These fragments are lying around in the Dreadnaught (including in the strikes and raid), some of them are in the Patrol chests and some of them are awarded in the Court of Oryx. Since you only have to get 45 of them, you’ve got some room to choose which ones you do not want to get.

The Queen’s Guard is still around as well but they mostly give out quests that do almost nothing but give you House of Wolves reputation. The packs of Wolves still spawn similarly, though this time they’re Taken and they work a bit differently. They take more or less the same time to spawn and you’re better off cooperating with someone, because three special enemies called Lieutenants spawn and you need to kill them within a time window or they get bored and leave. Then a boss comes and you still need to kill it before it gets bored and leaves. But you don’t have to look for the damned chests anymore! Also you can mostly avoid these missions if you hate farming with a passion.

There are some weapons that are more sought-after than others, like the Black Spindle and Sleeper Simulant, but instead of getting ridiculous drop rates like before there is now a special mission that always awards you the weapon when you complete it. The missions require some strategy and planning and it feels more fair when the weapon is a prize for skill and/or practice, not just the result of blind luck.

The new strikes are quite fun, except for “Shield Brothers”, which is quite straightforward. “The sunless cell” has a very quirky boss battle that I don’t want to spoil for you and “Fallen S.A.B.E.R.” has a quite long and unprecedented puzzles section in the middle. “Echo chamber” has quite fun boss mechanics, it’s a shame it doesn’t come up more in the random lists.

The new Crucible modes are Mayhem, Rift and Zone Control. Mayhem is awesome and super Timmy. It’s a variant of Clash where melee, grenade and super abilities charge much faster than normal. Score rewards are all multiplied by ten for an extra overpowered feel. Rift is a capture the flag variant where one of the players has to pick up a “spark” and carry it to the enemy’s rift while the others try to stop them. It’s fast-paced and dynamic. Not the same can be said of Zone Control, which only awards points for controlling zones. I didn’t play Crucible a lot before the expansion so I can’t comment on the nerfing of Thorn and some other things that have changed. As of today I haven’t played the Trials of Osiris either so I beg you to excuse its omission.

I have only been able to play “King’s fall” once because it was difficult to get six people to play at the same time, including most of the friends in the playgroup. It is a fun raid with a lot of variation, though it’s maybe a bit too long and puzzly. It has three bosses in it, along with two sections of jumping puzzles and a section with a quite complicated combat puzzle, the glyphs. If Crota was still playable that wouldn’t be much of a problem because you could play whichever raid you felt like that day, something short and simple or something long and complicated.

It bugs me that Rise of Iron is coming out in a few days and if things go like they have always gone people are not going to want to play “King’s fall” again, the same way no one wants to beat Crota or Atheon anymore. As you level up with the new expansions, the old raid stops being challenging and the loot drop stops being relevant, so why bother? People who started playing with The Taken King have it very difficult playing the old stuff unless they play with people who are new as well. I don’t understand why Bungie would make the effort of designing a raid and have people play it only for a few months. I get that they want people to keep playing and coughing up the money. They force people to buy the new expansions to keep playing so they have that side covered. So why not give people more content to play so they will play more and longer? They could make the old raids playable in two ways: you can raise the level of the enemies or lower the level of the players. Raising the enemy level wouldn’t need to be very elaborate: from my deep ignorance I guess that having a raid that is exactly “The Vault of Glass” but enemies’ levels are scaled to 42 instead of 26 looks like it could work fine. If you don’t want to mess with the loot, just give out regular Year 2 loot. Lowering the player’s level would mean when you enter the raid you’re level 26 again and your gear is nerfed accordingly. This one has the advantage that you can give out the same loot you were giving out before and people will still want it because it’s good to play that raid: you would still want a Year 1 Vex Mythoclast because it’s good to play “Vault of Glass”.

So all in all it looks like the new expansion was really good, wasn’t it? Well, it was a nice expansion, but there are many things they could be doing better yet. One problem is that it might look like there is a ton of content but in the end you don’t always play all of it. There is a problem with the difficulty curve. For example, once you are comfortable enough to play Nightfall strikes, Weekly strikes have become boring. You’ve grown out of them. So you either play Weekly or Nightfall, but once you have Nightfall Weekly is not a fun option anymore, and that didn’t happen before. The same goes with the other game modes, except for Crucible. I guess people who only play Crucible are fine.

The weapons don’t have such sick perks anymore. I kind of miss going into an insanely hard mission with an Icebreaker, barricade and snipe every single enemy for three times as long as the mission would take to do normally. The weapons are more balanced now, and I guess that’s good for the health of the game but it’s not as fun.

One last small objection: there is not a lot of farming but what little there is can get very annoying. 25 Zeptocyte Cores are just too much. Given that they drop about one in ten times, it means farming 250 to 300 spinmetal leaves. Farming Warsat public events for Sleeper Simulant was tedious. Nobody is saying it should be easy, but I don’t think many people enjoy spending their free time standing around waiting for an event to start which obviously wasn’t a Warsat one either.

As I said, despite all its flaws I enjoy this game with all my heart. Let’s see what Rise of Iron brings us in a couple of weeks.

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

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Green Room, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (2015).

Score: terrifying with extra nazis!

The Ain’t Rights are a dirt-poor, highly authentic hardcore punk band touring the Pacific Northwest, barely making ends meet. After a particularly deserted gig, they are promised a much better one at a neo-nazi skinhead bar. They plan to just go in, play and get out, but end up being inconvenient witnesses of a crime, and the bar management cannot allow any loose ends to leave the venue.

The movie spends just a few scenes presenting the characters and situation and then dives right into the action. There is a short period of the movie where they’re trying to figure out where they are and try to trick or negotiate their way out (which I thought would be longer and more prominent) and then it goes into full slasher, “oh god, these nazis want to kill us all” mode. I also really appreciated all the subplots that hinted at the neo-nazis having a life of their own, with their own skeletons in their respective closets. It made all the killing and running more lively.

The movie has been criticized for the dumb decisions made by the protagonists, namely opening the gig with a cover of Dead Kennedys’Nazi punks fuck off. Some people in the scene, including hardcore left-wing punks, really like conflict and provocation. They probably thought they could get away with it. We don’t even know if they’re left wing at all. Saulnier has said this movie could be part of an “inept protagonist” or “idiots in extraordinary situations” trilogy along with Blue Ruin, so at least it’s partly intentional. Though I have to admit that playing Nazi punks fuck off is probably pushing it, not because that’s too dumb a thing to do but because the audience would have none of it.

The clothes, music, dialogue and environment are quite well achieved, so immersion is guaranteed (barring you think it’s a bad writing decision to make the characters idiots). And for most common people violent gangs are quite scary, whether they are on the same side as you in the political spectrum or not. The feeling of claustrophobia earns a thumbs up.

Not an extraordinary movie but fine when you want to enjoy a nicely done horror film.

The shadow of the torturer (Gene Wolfe, 1980)

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The shadow of the torturer, by Gene Wolfe (1980).

Score: still trying to figure out the point.

See, I was very hyped about this book. I had read that it was complicated, subtle, explained very little and at the same time inspired a lot of theories and interpretations, and all of those were selling points for me. But for some reason I just couldn’t get submerged in it.

The shadow of the torturer tells the story of Severian, an apprentice since childhood of the Guild of Torturers. He lives in a feudal society that is quite obviously implied to be a Dark Era after a Space Age gone wrong. One night, he saves a nobleman from death while the nobleman and some others are in the middle of grave-robbing and as a prize he’s given a gold coin. Severian grows up, teaches the younger apprentices, becomes a journeyman, never leaves the small precinct where his Guild dwells. Falls in love with a noble prisoner, does something very wrong and gets expelled from the guild.

***Mild spoilers from here on*** Up to here it more or less made sense. The learning curve is quite steep and it’s already clear that something similar to magic must be going on somewhere but we’re good. Then Severian comes across two charlatans and looks like he’s going to join them but doesn’t, so he goes to buy a cloak. He’s there buying the cloak and minding his own business when he gets challenged to a duel to the death for no apparent reason. Like us, he has never heard of such a thing but he’s not surprised or anything. He leaves the shop with the shopkeeper’s sister and they go to the botanic gardens because apparently you need a weird flower to go to this duel. Severian and the shopkeeper’s sister fondle each other on the way to the gardens despite having known each other for about five minutes and crash into a temple when racing another cart to the gardens. Something’s fishy with the gardens because lots of weird things happen there that I can’t begin to relate to the rest of the story, including Severian telling a story about a friend of a friend who got lost in her own neighbourhood and there was a guy bouncing photons between two mirrors. When they fished a strange woman from a formaldehyde pond I decided I had completely lost interest in what would happen next.

It’s not that it’s badly written. It’s just that I couldn’t figure where the story was going so I stopped caring about what happened to the characters. It’s been said that Wolfe deconstructs the hero’s journey and maybe that expectation was detrimental to my reading, because as much as I looked I couldn’t find it anywhere. There’s a continuous feeling of “okay, but why do I need to know this?” that makes the reading increasingly annoying. I suspect it gets better if you keep reading and if you look at the Book of the New Sun as a whole, but it just couldn’t retain my interest. Or maybe if I did read the whole of it I could find that behind all the barely explained lore and events there is nothing that interests me after all. It’s like Wolfe took the iceberg writing technique too far and what you’re left with is a tiny, very boring visible part of the ice giant.

Nevertheless, it’s an acclaimed classic. I’ll be happy if any of you enjoys it more than I did.