Renewed Keyboard Joy: Dvorak

Typing: you do it every day nearly unconsciously. You think of what you want to appear on the screen. This is followed by some rattling sound and the next instant it is there. The blinking cursor stares at you as to encourage you to keep going. Handwriting feels mostly like a thing of the past since typing is so much faster for you, likely up to two or three times. So, what would it be like if you were stripped from this ‘magical’ ability to type?

If you are like me, you probably learned how to type all by yourself. I never took a touch typing class, since it seemed like a waste of time. After all: I could already type, so why take a course to learn something I could already do?

Many self-learned typist adopt a hunt and peck style, meaning they need to look at the keyboard to find the keys. Usually this is done with only two fingers, since using more fingers obscures the view on the keyboard making it harder to ‘hunt’. I did not adopt this style, but rather used the three-finger approach: both hands hover over the keyboard and type using the three strongest fingers: the thumb, index finger and middle finger. Occasionally I used the ring finger as well, though not consistently. Observing my typing style, I noticed that my hands positioned themselves in anticipation of the next key to strike. This all went seamlessly, achieving speeds of about eighty-five to a hundred words per minute, which is not bad at all.

Though my self-learned typing style worked for me, I did try to switch to touch typing several times. Particularly because my hands would feel strained after intense typing sessions. However, switching never worked out. I would intensely concentrate for one day, keeping my fingers on the QWERTY home row of ‘ASDF-JKL;’, touch typing as one should. Nevertheless, the next day the years of acquired muscle memory would take over: I would be thrown back to my ‘own’ style. My hands seemed to have no incentive to touch type, even though I really wanted to consciously. Had I only taken that typing class when I had the chance, then I would be better off today, or … perhaps not?

The famous QWERTY layout, referring to the six top left keys on most standard keyboards, is not the only way to arrange the keys. Firstly, there are many small variations such as AZERTY, common in Belgium, and QWERTZ, common in Germany. Secondly, there are alternative keyboard layouts such as Colemak, Workman and Dvorak. Of these alternatives, Dvorak has been around the longest, since the 1930’s, and is also an official ANSI standard. The story behind both QWERTY and Dvorak, both developed for typewriters, is interesting in its own right and explained very well in the Dvorak zine.

The standardized simplified Dvorak layout is much less random than the QWERTY layout, it notably places the vowels on the left side of the keyboard and often used consonants on the right:

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The simplified Dvorak layout

Several years ago I tried switching to Dvorak cold turkey. I relabeled all my keys and forced myself to type using the Dvorak layout. It was a disaster. I would constantly hit the wrong keys, my typing slowed to near a grinding halt. I would spent fifteen minutes typing an e-mail that previously I could write in under a minute. Frustrated, I stopped after three days.

Fast forward to several months ago. I caught a bit of a summer flu and although I was recovering I could not really think straight. Since learning a new keyboard layout is rather mechanical and repetitious in nature, I figured the timing would be right to have another stab at this. My main motivation was to increase typing comfort and reduce hand fatigue. Secondary motivations included load balancing better suited for my hands, reducing the amount of typing errors and being able to reach a higher sustained typing speed. Finally, I also picked this up as a challenge: it is good to force your brain to rewire things every once in a while. I wanted to switch layouts for these reasons for quite a while and this time I decided I would go about it the ‘right’ way.

Firstly, I had to choose a layout. Hence, I determined the following criteria:

  1. Since my left hand is a bit weaker I should opt for a right hand dominant layout, meaning one that utilizes the right hand to control more keys than the left in terms of both count and striking frequency.
  2. The layout should differ sufficiently from QWERTY, as to prevent me from relapsing into my ‘own’ typing style.
  3. As I do a fair bit of software development, the layout should be programming friendly.

Based on these criteria I chose the Programmer Dvorak layout. This layout is similar to simplified Dvorak, but has a different number row. It looks like this:

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Programmer Dvorak

The main difference between this Dvorak layout and the simplified layout shown previously is that the number row is entirely different. Instead of numbers, the keys on the number row contain many characters that are often used in source code, such as parentheses and curly braces. To enter numbers the shift key needs to be pressed. This sounds cumbersome, but it makes sense if you count how many times you actually enter numbers using the number row. The numeric pad on the keyboard is much better suited to batch entry of numbers.

Awkwardly the numbers are not laid out in a linear progression. Rather the odd numbers appear on the left side and the even number on the right. This can be quite confusing at first, but interestingly it was also how the numbers were arranged on the original, non simplified, version of Dvorak. So there is some statistical basis for doing so.

If you are considering alternative keyboard layouts you should know that Dvorak and Colemak are the two most popular ones. Dvorak is said to ‘alternate’ as the left and right hand mostly alternate when pressing keys, whereas Colemak is said to ‘roll’ because adjacent fingers mostly strike keys in succession. One of the main reasons that Colemak is preferred by some is that it does not radically change the location of most keys with respect to QWERTY and, as a result, keeps several common keyboard shortcuts, particularly those for copy, cut and paste, in the same positions. This means that those shortcuts can be operated with one hand. As I am an Emacs user, used to typing three or four key chords to do comparatively trivial things – more on that later – this was not really an argument for me. I also read that the way in which you more easily roll your fingers can help with making the choice between Dvorak and Colemak. I think this was conjecture and I have no good rational explanation for it, but perhaps it helps you: tap your fingers in sequence on a flat surface. First from outwards in, striking the surface with your pinky first and then rolling off to ending with your thumb. After this do it from inwards out, striking with your thumb first and rolling back to your pinky. If the inwards roll feels more natural then Dvorak is likely a better choice for you, whereas if the outward roll feels better, Colemak may be the better choice. Again this is conjecture, interpret it as you wish.

Whichever alternative layout you choose: anything other than QWERTY, or a close variant thereof, will generally be an improvement in terms of typing effort. Dvorak cuts effort by about a third with respect to QWERTY. This means that entering hundred characters using QWERTY feels the same as entering about sixty-six characters in Dvorak in terms of the strain on your hands. If your job requires typing all day, that difference is huge. Even more so if you factor in that the number of typing errors is usually halved when you use an alternative layouts, due the more sensible and less error prone arrangement of the keys. Most alternative layouts are as good as Dvorak or better, depending on the characteristics of the text that you type. Different layouts can be easily compared here.

Now that I had chosen a layout, it was time to practice, so I set some simple rules:

  1. Practice the new layout daily for at least half an hour using on-line training tools.
  2. Do not switch layouts completely, rather keep using QWERTY as primary layout until you are confident you can switch effectively.
  3. Train on all three different keyboards that you regularly use. Do not buy any new physical keyboard, do not relabel keys, but simply switch between layouts in software.
  4. Focus on accuracy and not on speed.

Before starting I measured my raw QWERTY typing speed, which hovered around ninety words per minute sustained and about a hundred words per minute as top speed. Unfortunately, raw typing speed is a bit of a deceptive measure, as it does not factor in errors. Hitting backspace and then retyping what you intended to type contributes to your overall speed, yet it does not contribute at all to your effectiveness. So it is the effective typing speed which is of interest: how fast you type what you actually intended to type. Effective typing speed is a reasonable proxy for typing proficiency. My effective QWERTY typing speed was a bit lower than the raw speed, by about five to ten percent. This gives a sustained speed of eighty to eighty-five words per minute and a top speed of around ninety-five words per minute.

As I started with my daily Dvorak training sessions, I also started seeing a decrease in my effective QWERTY typing speed. My fingers started tripping up over simple words and key combinations, even though I still used my ‘own’ typing style for QWERTY, and touch typed only in Dvorak. The effect was subtle, but noticeable, lowering my effective QWERTY speed with about ten to fifteen percent. I deemed this acceptable, so I persevered, but it does show that using two keyboard layouts definitely messes up muscle memory. I think this effect can be mitigated to some extent by using specific layouts on specific keyboards, but I did not test this, as I would be breaking my own rules.

The first sessions in Dvorak were slow, with effective speeds of about five to ten words per minute. In fact the first days were highly demotivating, it felt like learning to walk or ride a bike from scratch again. I started out with my fingers on the home row and consciously moved my fingers into position. That process took a lot of concentration, you can think of it as talking by spelling out each word. Furthermore, every time I hit a wrong key, my muscle memory would stare me in the face full of tears and proclaim it had triggered the right motion. It did … just not for this new layout I was learning.

So, what did I use to train? I started out using a site called 10fastfingers, but I found it a bit cumbersome and it did not have a lot of variance. In the end, I can really recommend only two sites, namely learn.dvorak.nl and keybr.com. The latter has the nice property that it adapts the lessons to your proficiency level and is quite effective for improving weak keys. /r/dvorak is also good for inspiration and tips.

Some basic other tips: start typing e-mails and chats with your new layout before making a complete switch, as it will give you some training in thinking and typing, rather than just copying text. Furthermore, switching the keyboard layout of your smartphone may help as well, not for efficiency, as Dvorak is really a two-handed layout, but for memorization. Dvorak is not really designed for phones, other layouts may be better, I have not looked deeply into this, as I generally dislike using phones for entering text, it does not seem worth the trouble of optimization. I do not recommend switching the keys on your computer keyboard, or relabeling them, as doing so will tempt you to look at the keyboard as you type, which will slow you down. It is better to type ‘blind’.

It took some discipline to keep at it the first few days, but after about a week or two I was able to type at an average speed of about twenty-five words per minute. Still not even a third of my original QWERTY speed, but there was definitely improvement. After this there was a bit of a plateau. I spent more time on the combinations and key sequences that were problematic, which helped. Six weeks in I was able to type with an average speed of around forty words per minute. Since this was half of my QWERTY speed, I deemed it was time to switch to Programmer Dvorak completely.

In contrast with my previous attempt several years ago, this time the switch was not a frustrating experience. The rate of learning increased as my muscle memory no longer had to deal with two layouts. Typing became increasingly unconscious. The only things that remained difficult were special characters and numbers, for the sole reason that these do not appear often and thus learning them is slower.

Currently I am about ten weeks in. I did not use the same training tools during that entire time, but I do have data from the last eight weeks. Let us first take a look at the average typing speed:

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Average smoothed typing speed

The graph shows two lines spanning a time of eight weeks, a green one which shows the raw speed and a purple one that shows the effective speed. You can see that both speeds go up over time and the lines are converging, which implies the error rate is going down. My average speed is currently around seventy words per minute, which is close to my original QWERTY speed.

We can also look at the non-smoothed data, which gives a feeling for the top speed. In the second graph, shown below, we see that the top speed is about hundred words per minute which is actually about the same as my QWERTY top speed.

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Raw typing speed

There is still quite a bit of variation, as is to be expected: not every character sequence can be entered at a high speed and some keys have a higher error rate than others. Most errors are mechanical in nature, which means: simply hitting the wrong key. This is particularly prevalent when the same fingers needs to move to press a subsequent key, for example for the word ‘pike’ one finger needs to move thrice to hit the first three letters. More generally, my slowest keys are the Q, J and Z and the keys with the highest error rate are the K, X and Z. Luckily these are not high frequency keys, and they are also underrepresented during training, so over time the errors will likely decrease and the speed will increase for these keys.

With respect to my original goals: firstly, I can say that typing in Dvorak is more comfortable than QWERTY, particularly at higher speeds my fingers feel much less jumbled up. The hand alternation is very pleasant, though it took some time for my hands to get synchronized. Secondly, in terms of speed: after about ten weeks I am very close to my QWERTY speed, which is great. It shows that switching layouts is possible, even though it takes effort and discipline to do so. It was frustrating at first, but I feel that it was a good opportunity to purge many bad typing habits that had accumulated over the years.

There are also some downsides, the main one is that typing QWERTY is slow for me now, and that will likely continue to deteriorate. I do not see this as a major issue, as I do about ninety-nine percent of typing on my own machines. For the other one percent, it is possible to switch layouts on each and every computer out there. Some people may dislike the moving of keyboard shortcuts, and that can really be an issue, but for the most part it is just a matter of getting used to it. As an Emacs user, I took the opportunity to switch to the ergomacs layout, which I can recommend. It significantly reduces the number and length of chords: keys that need to be pressed in succession, and is also more compatible with more broadly adapted shortcuts.

Do I recommend that you switch to Dvorak, or an other alternative layout? That really depends on how frequently you type. If you type rarely, switching may not be worth the effort. However, if you have to type a lot every day then I think it is worth it purely for the increase in typing comfort. The only argument against this is if you often need to switch computers and you can not easily change the keyboard layout on those machines.

Dvorak definitely feels a lot more natural than QWERTY, and so will most other more optimal layouts. I am relieved I never took a touch typing course. It would have taken much more effort to unlearn touch typing QWERTY if I had. Thanks to not doing that I have been able to learn and become proficient using a layout suited for my hands in just ten weeks. So, if you type frequently, are willing to make the jump and have enough discipline to get through the initially steep learning curve, then I can definitely recommend it. Even just for the challenge.

Best Movies of 2014

1. Interstellar
science fiction, drama, adventure
★★★★★★★★★☆
Space science fiction as it should be: with sufficient depth, an interesting story line and focused on how human beings are affected by what they experience. Interstellar is as much about people, their motivations and relations, as about what they are exposed to: the dazzling effects of space-time. The ending could have been better, but despite that Interstellar is highly recommended.

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
science fiction, drama, action
★★★★★★★★★☆
Worthy successor to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a better and more interesting continued story. Seeing the first movie is certainly recommended, but not required to appreciate this one. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is extremely convincing in its portrayal of the apes. Ironically, they have the same basic hopes, dreams and wishes as people have, yet aligning their interests with the humans proves difficult, leading to heart wrenching scenes.

3. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
documentary
★★★★★★★★☆☆
This documentary tells the real story of Aaron Swartz: a child prodigy, prolific hacker and activist. Ending up in a legal battle that can not be won, he takes his own life at the age of 26. This documentary takes an honest and open look at the events that lead up to his death, shows the views of many of the people he touched, and makes one think about some of the twisted systems that are in place in modern society.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
adventure, comedy
★★★★★★★★☆☆
A strange, but highly entertaining movie about an eccentric hotel concierge and a lobby boy set in the fictional country of Zubrowka. Concierge Gustav is framed for the murder of one of his most beloved clients, after which a colorful adventure ensues. The way the story is told, the visuals and acting contribute to a rather unique ‘feel’. The Grand Budapest Hotel was definitely one of last year’s pleasant surprises.

5. The Lego Movie
animation, adventure, comedy
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Surprisingly fun movie about the famous toy bricks. Emmet, a construction worker, becomes the reluctant hero as he has to save the Lego world from the evil Kragle. Enough layered humor to be entertaining for both kids and adults, even those that did not play with Lego (but, who didn’t?). This is easily the best computer animated feature of 2014. “Everything is awesome! :)”

6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
fantasy, action, adventure
★★★★★★★★☆☆
This final installment in the Hobbit trilogy primarily bridges the gap between Tolkien’s original “The Hobbit” book and the start of “The Lord of the Rings”. Though, the size of the ensemble cast is a bit overwhelming, the movie is well paced, entertaining and has good dramatic impact. Perhaps not as grand as The Lord of The Rings, but certainly worth watching.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
comic, action, adventure
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Easily the best X-Men film to date, surpassing even 2011’s X-Men First Class. The film shares similarities with Terminator’s storyline: sending someone to the past to prevent a dystopian future, in this case: Wolverine. Recommended thanks to a well developed story and what must be the coolest ensemble cast of an X-Men movie to date.

8. The Edge of Tomorrow
science fiction, action
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Though poorly marketed, the Edge of Tomorrow gives an interesting spin on the “reliving similar events repeatedly” genre. The movie achieves a nice balance between action and drama, perhaps best described as a mix between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. The end result is an entertaining ‘popcorn’ movie with a hint of intellectual gleam.

Other honorable mentions:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Equalizer
  • The Maze Runner
  • Non-Stop
  • The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I
  • Divergent
  • The Amazing Spider Man 2
  • Godzilla
  • RoboCop

Her

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Many people have a love-hate relationship with their computer, and probably: so do you, but have you ever thought of dating your operating system? Her explores the concept of affection in a whole new way. A look into the future which is both endearing and unsettling.

In 2025 people no longer write personal intimate letters by themselves. Instead they resort to beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, which has professional writers that compose these for you. Theodore Twombly is one of these writers. Her follows Twombly as he goes through a divorce with Catherine, his insecure, but talented wife. One day Twombly sees an advertisement for a new operating systems and installs it on his computer. To his surprise this `OS’ has a real personality: Samantha, with which he bonds and develops an intimate relation.

The premise of Her may sound a little strange. Yet, the movie raises interesting questions: what really is love? Is a relationship between a person and an artificial intelligence any less real than one between two people? What responsibility do partners have towards each other and do those still apply in this situation? Her has some parallels with Artificial Intelligence (2001). Though, it is much more intimate and less melancholic despite the movie taking place in a dystopia.

Though it may take some time before software is as sophisticated as Samantha, it is not unthinkable that we may live to actually see similar Artificial Intelligence. However, the many mediated relationships nowadays serve as an in-between step to think about this: Catfish is a good example.

Beautifully shot, Spike Jonze’s Her leans heavily on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Phoenix, already strong in The Master, gives a performance nothing short of excellent here. This combined with Scarlett Johansson’s voice as Samantha, and Amy Adams as Theodore’s closest friend, makes for an enjoyable two hours. There’s little to fault here. Highly recommended.

★★★★★★★★★☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers Pictures.

300: Rise of an Empire

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With a single arrow the Greek Themistocles kills the Persian king Darius. This leaves Xerxes, Darius’s son, deeply troubled and determined to take revenge. Rise of an Empire is the follow up to the original 300 which appeared in early 2007. That film was based on a comic book written by Frank Miller. Both this new movie and its predecessor are heavily fictionalized versions of the Battle of Salamis. Where the first movie focused on the battle of Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire focuses on events taking place in parallel at the Straits of Artemisium.

300: Rise of an Empire starts with a long-winded narrative that ends with Xerxes transformation into an evil warlord. This suggests that the movie is about Xerxes and Themistocles, but that’s a deception. Though it is indeed a revenge story, the main antagonist is Artemisia: the Persians’s female naval commander. The conflict between her and Themistocles starts to become interesting when she is repeatedly outsmarted by him. Despite Artemisia having a much larger army, Themistocles uses clever naval battle tactics to defeat her several times. Unfortunately, just when that starts to get interesting the movie takes a completely unrealistic turn. This turn completely flips Themistocles around from capable smart leader to clueless commander with weak knees. From that point onwards the story slides straight downhill.

The original 300 was noticeable for its `testosterone’ visual style. This consisted of overexposed images combined with slow motion hand-to-hand combat. While this style is also used in this new movie, the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is a rather mixed bag. The naval scenes are nicely done, which is quite a feat considering all water was digitally added. However, there is more than a handful of scenes that look like they came straight out of a computer game: not something that appeals to cinema goers. The same applies to the excessive and mostly poor looking slow motion blood spurts, which lack any aesthetic. Rise of an empire also tosses in smashed faces and beheadings like they are nothing. This is not necessarily a problem, provided it is really an integral part of the story. However, when Artemisia calls up a Greek prisoner just so she can cut his head off, I really wonder: what were the writers thinking?

One would think that the underlying theme, the democratic freedom of the Greeks versus the feudal oppression of the Persians, would make for an interesting part of the story. The title “rise of an empire” also implies that this plays a central role. Unfortunately, this is yet an other deception: the movie does not even skim the surface of this conflict. Instead it relies on empty dull freedom rhetoric. Some feeble attempt at military drama is included in the form of an extremely predictable subplot involving a Greek father and son. Perhaps the subtitle should have been “the fall of storytelling” instead of “the rise of an empire”.

300: Rise of an Empire has some decent action scenes and good acting by Eva Green as Artemisia. However, it does not have anything else going for it. Furthermore, both the trailer and the movie’s title are misleading. This is definitely one to skip. If you really like the cinematographic style of 300 your time is better spent watching Starz’s Spartacus.

★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2014 Warner Brothers.

RoboCop

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Nearly everyone is familiar with the original 1987 RoboCop. Exploring the boundary between man and machine, that film became a critically acclaimed sci-fi classic. Hopefully many have forgotten the disappointing successor RoboCop 2 and the even worse RoboCop 3. Not long ago a new RoboCop film was announced: not a sequel, but a remake of the original. Would this be any good? I was skeptical.

It is 2028. Robots are widely deployed to provide security in in other countries that are occupied by the United States. The American public does not want those machines on their own streets. This is legally prohibited. Instead, people want safety and security to have a human element: a machine should not be able to pull the trigger by itself. Playing into this demand, the country’s market leading manufacturer of military security robots, OmniCorp sets out to combine man and machine. The CEO of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars, asks one of his key employees, the brilliant doctor Dennett Norton, to spearhead this ambitious project.

The recently seriously injured Alex Murphy is chosen for the program with the consent of his grieving wife. After waking up in his new body, Alex’s first reaction is to panic. He has major problems adjusting to his new situation, and is also much less effective in combat than the fully computer controlled robots. However, the public loves the man in the machine dubbed RoboCop, leaving Sellars and Norton with a dilemma. Furthermore, RoboCop’s human “Alex” part also wants to take revenge on those that caused his injury in the first place.

There are many parallels between this new version of RoboCop and the original, but I would not call it a remake. It’s a story with roughly the same ingredients: a maimed cop that becomes a cyborg, a vengeful arms dealer and corrupt cops and businessmen. However, the mixture and emphasis is different. This re-imagined version is a more human story, with less focus on technology and pure action. Undoubtedly, this shift is likely to disappoint fans of the original, but it makes the film more accessible.

Strangely, RoboCop himself (Joel Kinnaman) is not the main attraction of the movie. The heated conversations between doctor Dennett and Raymond Sellars give the film its gravitas, with excellent performances by Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. They become tangled in juggling public perception, business interests and scientific goals, and have to deal with their differing moral points of view.

Like other contemporary films, RoboCop also has parts where the viewer is addressed directly. Via newscasts presented by the, obviously biased, news anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson). Though this is good for laughs and intended as satire, it is also distracting. Novak hardly flinches when a machine kills a young child, which seems contradictory to his commitment to safety and security.

This 2014 RoboCop manages to evoke a better emotional connection with the characters as the original, but also manages to mix in enough humor to keep things digestible. Though the film is enjoyable for eighty percent, it suffers from a predictable and too slow cliché ending. Nevertheless, it is certainly not as bad as I expected it to be. A good choice if you enjoy not too serious rough action science fiction.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Sony Pictures.

Ender’s Game

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It is 2086. Fifty years ago the earth was attacked by the Formics, an ant-like alien species. They wiped out a significant part of the Earth’s population before being stopped kamikaze-style by the legendary human pilot Mazer Rackham. Though the Formics have not returned, an attack is still feared. Hence, the people of Earth need to be battle ready: they need a new Mazer Rackham.

The unpredictable nature of the Formics makes it highly difficult to combat them. Only children’s minds are capable of adapting quickly enough to defeat them. The brightest children are selected so that they can defend against those feared future attacks. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of these. He was selected based on his excellent reflexes and how he handled being bullied at school. Commander Hyrum Graff sees in him a great talent and enables him to go to battle school.

Ender shows both great tactical insight and leadership in battle school. Though, he also has problems with authority. Nevertheless, Graff’s faith endures. Perhaps, he reasons, Ender is the right candidate to lead a preemptive strike on the Formics.

Ender’s game is the film adaptation of the book with the same name written by Orson Scott Card. I have been told it is fairly faithful to the written version. Graff is well portrayed by Harrison Ford. In contrast Asa Butterfield’s role as Ender seems to be a better fit in the early stages of the movie than at the end.

Ender’s game is a decent military teen sci-fi film. It reminded me of the underrated cult-hit Starship Troopers, though Ender’s game is much less satirical. Because of the more serious tone, I would have expected more explanation about the Formic’s motivations, which are left more vague here then in the book. This would have brought more balance to the movie. Nevertheless, recommended especially for sci-fi fans.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Summit Entertainment.

Thor: The Dark World

2013-12-03-Thor-The-Dark-World2011’s Thor was a welcome addition to the superhero movie genre. Some characters from that first movie, Thor and Loki, also appeared in The Avengers: a decent superhero ensemble flick in its own right. Now there is this follow up movie which focuses solely on Thor again.

Drawing inspiration from the original Marvel comic, Thor: The Dark World starts with an elaborate back-story concerning evil elves, the alignment of the nine realms and the aether substance. The evil dark elf Malekith wants to obtain the aether, which looks like a floating liquid, so that he can dominate the nine realms. On earth, Jane (Natalie Portman) discovers weird gravitational and portal effects near an abandoned warehouse. We learn that this is linked to the alignment of the nine realms. Predictably she shifts into an other realm and contracts the evil aether substance. This sets in motion the film’s main conflict. Thor takes Jane to his home world, Asgard, in order to rid her from the aether. Malekith then attacks Asgard to obtain the aether.

Though nicely depicted, the opening narrative seems contrived and a bit too serious for the superhero genre. The filmmakers stylistically allude to Lord of the Rings, but it never quite gets there. What The Dark World does get right, similar to the first installment, is the depiction of Thor’s world: Asgard. Not in the least because of Loki: Thor’s evil brother, who also brings some, much needed, lightness to the film. Though imprisoned, he is summoned to assist Thor in his quest to stop Malekith.

Though Thor is an entertaining movie with plenty of action, it feels more tired then the first Thor film. There is an odd imbalance between comic relief and overtly dark overtones. For superhero fans there are better movies than this one, perhaps The Dark World is a recommendation only for die hard Thor fans.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Marvel Entertainment

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Jordan Belfort was released in 2006 after spending nearly two years in prison. Being incarcerated for stock swindling, he was left with plenty of time to write his memoirs. His autobiographical writings are the basis for this recent crime comedy directed by Martin Scorsese. The Wolf of Wall Street has both been praised and criticized for its depiction of events. One thing is for sure: the fifth collaboration between Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays Jordan Belfort, is an entertaining ride.

The ambitious Belfort takes a job as a stockbroker at a reputed firm. He quickly learns the ropes, including extensive drug use, but unfortunately the firm goes bankrupt. Belfort is forced to accept a job at a small company that trades penny stocks. Being an excellent salesmen he is highly successful and founds his own firm together with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and a group of salesmen he befriended. His new firm, Stratton Oakmont, focuses on the ‘whales': clients with lots of money. Essentially they inflate the value of a company by convincing clients to buy shares, but then quickly sell their own shares, profiting of the increased value and duping the clients in the process. And more money, for Belfort and his peers, means a matching lifestyle.

The Wolf of Wall Street paints an exuberant picture: yachts, parties, women, midgets (what?), cocaine, quaalude (look it up). It’s all there and the mix is right: it’s an entertaining roller coaster ride. Of course: you are looking at con men. Although I understand the controversy, some of the most enjoyable movies and series are about questionable characters. Secretly, everyone (also) likes characters that are not brave and honest. Though the movie does show Belfort’s downfall, it does so only very briefly. Perhaps rightly so, otherwise this would have been a very different movie.

Leonardi DiCaprio portrays an excellent Jordan Belfort, which at times borders on insane only to swing back again to overly friendly. His motivational speeches are perhaps a bit too long-winded and further drive up the running time, which is already a hefty 180 minutes. Nevertheless, perhaps this is offset after the office turns into a crazy monkey cage afterwards. There’s very little to criticize from a cinematic point of view. The story is a bit light, but that’s also characteristic of the crime comedy genre. One could also see this as satire: a complaint against a part of society where money is no longer a means, but an end. Recommended, regardless of the interpretive angle. Sell me this pen!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

Gravity

2013-11-26-GravityEvery once in a while you come across a movie that is special enough that you tell everyone to go and see it. Gravity is such a movie. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also helmed the third Harry Potter film as well as the excellent Children of Men, delivers a masterful piece of contemporary cinema. I realize I have already given away my conclusion in this introductory paragraph, nevertheless I urge you to read on, so I can tell you why you should see it.

Gravity starts with a peaceful scene in which three astronauts perform maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. The Earth serves as a serene backdrop as they go about their way. For Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) this is her first time in space, for Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) it is actually his final mission. Unfortunately for them, the destruction of a nearby satellite triggers a chain reaction which causes a debris field to fly their way. The peaceful scene quickly turns into a messy hell with debris tearing up everything, and that’s only the start.

What makes Gravity so effective is the frequent use of first-person perspective, close-ups and long takes. The entire opening scene is in fact a single shot up until the moment the chaos breaks out. The viewers can literally feel both the vastness of space as well as the claustrophobic feeling of being in space suits and shuttles. We predominantly see the point of view of Dr. Ryan Stone, who has to really struggle to survive. Sandra Bullock does a very good job with this (heavy) role, which is in some ways reminiscent of that of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, though far less action-oriented.

Some scenes are perhaps a bit overly dramatic, but when those come you are likely to be so drawn into the film already, that it won’t be a distraction. The drama is not even really the focal point of the movie, what sets Gravity apart from other science fiction films is the extreme roller-coaster-like feeling of suspense. In fact some scenes may actually leave you feeling slightly nauseas.

Despite some minor flaws, like an unrealistic brief moment at the end of the movie, this is overall one of the best two science fiction movies I’ve seen in the past five years (Moon being the other one). A must see!

★★★★★★★★★☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers

Elysium

2013-11-19-ElysiumThis summer was filled with major science fiction blockbusters. However, disappointments like Oblivion and Pacific Rim left me with little hope that any good original science fiction would hit the theaters this year. Luckily I was proven wrong, twice in fact. The second one will be the subject of an other post. Let’s first take a look at Elysium by Neil Blomkamp who was also responsible for District 9.

For those who forgot: District 9 was about aliens that – for a change – weren’t vastly superior to mankind. They just happened to make a crash landing on earth in a quite unpredictable place: South Africa. Being the polite and welcoming species that mankind is, we relegated them to live in slums. Though Elysium does not involve aliens, it does deliver the same type of social criticism that made District 9 an above average flick.

In Elysium we learn that in 2154 most of humanity still lives on earth, but in poor conditions. The wealthy minority – let us call them the one percent – live on an artificial torus-shaped space station named Elysium. Filled with villas, green pastures and advanced technology, Elysium is the dream of any earthling. However, we quickly learn that it is not easy to actually get there for the vast majority of people.

When three rogue ships carrying refugees approach the station, the minister of defense – an ice-cold lady portrayed by Jodie Foster – ruthlessly orders two of them to be shot to pieces. The third one barely manages to land on Elysium. A young mother carrying an ill child rushes into one of the deserted villas to place her child in a ‘med-bay’. To the mother’s relief, the child is instantly healed. Though a second later both are apprehended by human-form robots labeled ‘homeland security’.

Limited access to resources, like the med-bay which can instantly heal any disease, is what this movie is all about. Max is one of the lucky few earthlings that has a job. He works in a factory where the human-form robots are built. If that sounds good: it really isn’t. He is transported to work by a ramshackle bus, and the owner of the business treats his employees in a manner similar to how he handles robots: as replaceable parts. Getting to Elysium is Max’s childhood dream, and due to unforeseen circumstances he has to make that dream come true sooner rather than later.

In contrast to the other recent action science fiction films mentioned earlier, Elysium really does make you think about the story’s deeper implications. Besides that, it has plenty of action as well, which is at times perhaps a bit too visceral and too much. Luckily, the thing Elysium does gets right is populating its story with a diverse set of characters who all have clear motivations. No character is plain evil just for the sake of it.

Though not as thought-provoking and creative as District 9. With a clear story and good acting work (Matt Damon, Carly Shane, Jodie Foster), Elysium brings back some life to the action science fiction genre, in contrast with the rather lackluster attempts released in early summer. Worth watching, even if you’re not into science fiction.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Columbia TriStar