Category Archives: Book, Film, & TV Reviews

Posts about books you might find of interest!

A philosopher explains “Arrival” and “Stranger in a Strange Land”

Summary: Today we have a twin review by the philosopher Kelley Ross, looking at the use of language as the driving force in the book Stranger in a Strange Land and the film Arrival. Heinlein is one of the great science fiction authors (his worst works are excellent). Arrival is powerful film based on a science fiction story, staring Amy Adams — one of the great actresses of our time.

Arrival (2016)

……………Available at Amazon..


The Whorfian Hypothesis in Stranger in a Strange Land and Arrival.
Review of the book and the film.

Arrival (2016) stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner;
directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer.

Stranger written by Robert Heinlein (1961).

Review by Kelley L. Ross, Posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.

In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein and in the movie Arrival (2016), the stories depend on the Whorfian Hypothesis about language being true. In both of them, simply learning a new language enables characters to manipulate the world, and apparently suspend laws of nature, in ways not possible to them previously.

In Heinlein’s book, Michael Valentine Smith, who was orphaned on Mars when his astronaut parents died (or were murdered) there, was raised by Martians and then later was returned to Earth by a subsequent expedition. He does not know that human beings, without the benefit of the Martian language, do not experience reality in the same way that he does and that they lack abilities that he takes for granted. Thus, levitation and control of ambient conditions are things that he does not find remarkable or in need of explanation. Most dramatically, if he perceives or “groks” (glossed as “to taste,” like Latin sapio, “to taste” or “know”)wrongness” in anything, including people, he can, remotely, tip them out of our universe of three dimensional space. They disappear. When he realizes that humans cannot do these things, he cannot explain how he is able to do them without teaching his human friends the Martian language, which he begins to do. They are then able to perform similar feats.

Heinlein, of course, cannot explain what it is about the Martian language that makes interaction with the physical world so different. Ex hypothese, he could not. Eventually, Smith turns his language instruction into a religion (like Heinlein’s science fiction colleague L. Ron Hubbard?) and allows himself to be martyred to the faith. It is not clarified whether the circumstance that his spirit survives death is also due to the Martain language or is just true in general, as it appears to be.

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The Great Wall is a fun film showing us a great Chinese-American future

Summary: The Great Wall is a powerful film misunderstood by critics. It is masterfully produced and acted, with a vision we need to see — about working together for something greater than ourselves, and about the promise of America and China working together as partners.

The Great Wall - poster

“The Great Wall”

Now in theaters. Directed by Yimou Zhang.
Staring Willem Dafoe, Matt Damon, Tian Jing, and Andy Lao.

“The Great Wall” tells the story of European mercenaries searching for the secret of gunpowder who become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China by an elite force against a horde of monsters. The first English-language production for Yimou is the largest film ever shot entirely in China.”

I grow sad reading the critics’ reviews with their inability to be reached by simple emotions and stories. They get excited by films embodying Leftist ideology or post-modern sensibilities (almost overlapping categories). They like especially fine CGI, and nice children’s films. These are people that would hate most classic films, if they saw them for the first time without knowing their reputations. We see this in their reviews of “The Great Wall”. They hated it (a Rotten Tomatoes score of 35%); many appeared to have watched it blindfolded.

A Taotei

It is a simple film the key to a great story. As in the best monster films (e.g. The Thing, in both the 1951 and the 1982 versions), the monsters provide an existential challenge to the group. In this case, an endless horde of monsters (the Taotie) from a meteor attack China. If China falls, so will the world. They are fought at a re-imagined version of the Great Wall by the Nameless Order, an elite force of China’s army of awesome skill, wielding impressive (but appropriate for the time) weapons.

The film has many strengths. The cinematography is fantastic, with skillfully shot combinations of gripping panoramas and close-in shots of the battles. Unlike many films these days, I could always follow the action — knowing who was where, and what they were doing.  The many small touches gave it texture seldom found in American films. Some of these were visual, such as the stack of bloody harnesses of the dead Crane Soldiers. Some were plot notes, such as the monsters’ adaptive tactics (like Afghanistan insurgents, not as dumb as believed).

The settings showed imagination on a scale rarely found in Hollywood. The actors portrayed exception people, but avoided the rug-eating so popular today. Instead they respond to events as actual people do.

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A philosopher reviews “The Phantom Menace”, a great film with hidden depths

Summary: Today we have a review of The Phantom Menace by philosopher Kelley Ross. He looks beyond the CGI and Hollywood glitz to see the underlying themes. There is much to examine. The depth of the Star Wars films accounts for much of their enduring popularity.


Review of Star Wars: Episode I,
The Phantom Menace

Staring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, and Jake Lloyd.
Directed and written by George Lucas.

Review by Kelley L. Ross,
Posted at Friesian.

Re-posted with his generous permission.


…It is the first movie since Titanic to move me to tears — over the death of Qui-gon. But I must be a sentimentalist, since I also recently found The Sixth Sense just as moving.

Liam Neeson (as Qui-gon Jinn), Natalie Portman (as Queen Amidala), and Jake Lloyd (as Anakin Skywalker) are perfect and convincing in their roles. Neeson is what we always needed to see about a mature, functioning Jedi, going about the business of defending peace and justice. He does it most convincingly, right from the beginning, as we might expect from the man responsible for the portrayal of Oscar Schindler. We see quite a bit more of Neeson in Phantom than we did of Alec Guiness in the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). Qui-gon is basically present and in charge of most of the action for most of the movie. We become familiar with him in many circumstances and come to know him as a tall, commanding, confident, and noble but also fatherly figure (note the graying hair).

Perhaps after many years of Homer Simpson, Ed Bundy, and contempt for the 50’s ethos of Father Knows Best, it is hard for critics to recognize a real father figure again. This is no buffed up Rambo and certainly no “wooden character,” nor, as McCarthy says, “a basically stolid guy with only moderate charisma.” No way. At key moments Qui-gon is even notable for his affection:  touching on the shoulder with concern and protection Anakin’s mother (caressing with his thumb), Anakin (with both hands, twice), and Padme (during the pod race), and in the end, while dying, lovingly touching the cheek of Obi-Wan. In our day, we might even be afraid to show such affection for fear of being accused of …

  • sexual harassment,
  • child molestation, or
  • being gay.

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The Right strikes back! A philosopher reviews the Hunger Games films

Summary: Many modern films have CGI action obscuring the deeper issues they raise. So we turn to a philosopher, Kelley Ross, for this series of film reviews. Here he reviews The Hunger Games, showing its role in the ideological battles of our time. At the end are other reviews of these films.

“Books such as The Giver, Divergent and the Hunger Games trilogy are, whether intentionally or not, substantial attacks on many of the foundational projects and aims of the left: big government, the welfare state, progress, social planning and equality. They support one of the key ideologies that the left has been battling against for a century: the idea that human nature, rather than nurture, determines how we act and live. These books propose a laissez-faire existence, with heroic individuals who are guided by the innate forces of human nature against evil social planners.”

— “{Young Adult} dystopias teach children to submit to the free market, not fight authority” by Ewan Morrison in The Guardian — “The Hunger Games, The Giver and Divergent all depict rebellions against the state, and promote a tacit right-wing libertarianism.”


Review of “The Hunger Games”

Staring Jennifer Lawrence.
Directed by Gary Ross.
Written by Gary Ross & Suzanne Collins .
Released in 2012.

Review by Kelley L. Ross,
Posted at Friesian.

Re-posted with his generous permission.


The Hunger Games is a series of books and now movies that began with a 2008 novel by Suzanne Collins. It is set in a fictional and perhaps post-apocalyptic version of North America in which a malevolent “Capitol” has enslaved 12 subordinate “Districts” to supply its excessive desires for luxury and entertainment. As with the sacrifices to the Minotaur, every year each District sends a boy and a girl to the “Hunger Games,” where they hunt and kill each other until only one is left. This is supposed to engender pride in each District as its representatives fight for their lives, but it really is a way of punishing and humiliating the Districts after they lost an earlier rebellion against the Capitol.

Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movies) is a young woman from the mining town of District 12. As the story begins, she volunteers to replace her younger sister as the offering to the Hunger Games. She survives the Games, with her friend, Peeta Mellark, but in a way that angers the government of the Capitol, especially President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland), who plots to force them back into the Games in the second book (Catching Fire), so that they can be killed, but from which she is actually rescued by the forces of the rebellion that has been organized from the secret and hidden District 13.

In the third book, Mockingjay, the rebellion succeeds, the Capitol is overthrown, and Katniss is actually given the privilege of personally executing President Snow with her trademark bow. However, Katniss has come to believe that Alma Coin (played by Julianne Moore), President of District 13 and leader of the rebellion, has been using her for 13’s own purposes and has actually arranged the death of her sister in the final battle for the Capitol. Katniss shoots and kills Coin instead of Snow.

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Review of “The Matrix”: why there is no spoon

Summary: The Matrix was a pathbreaking film, marking the start of a new era in Hollywood. Few reviews do it justice, usually ignoring the philosophy underlying the story. So we turn to a philosopher, Kelley Ross, for an explanation. The Matrix is one of the rare films where we learn much by digging behind the gunfire, CGI, and acting. Spoilers!


Review of “The Matrix”:
There Is No Spoon

Written & directed by “The Wachowski Brothers” (now Lilly & Lan).

Staring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne,
and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Released in 1999.

By Kelley L. Ross, posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.


The central philosophical interest of The Matrix lies in its exploitation of the classic fear of René Descartes:  what if all of life is actually just a dream? Armchair philosophical speculation is turned into terrifying reality in this movie. But there is more. If the “Cartesian fear” applies to one level of reality, why not to the one that is, we think, subsequently revealed to be genuinely and ultimately “real”? Beyond Descartes is still Platonism and Buddhism, echoes of which we find in this movie.

The Matrix is classic science fiction, one of the box office giants of 1999, a powerful movie and a disturbing one in many ways. Besides the mind-bending revelations about reality, the level of violence is significant, and might appear gratuitous to some, especially when the “lobby” shootout may now remind viewers of the horrific Columbine High shootings. But the violence is surreal and relatively sanitized. There is nothing like the gore of the true high school massacre movie, Carrie (1976); nor are we quite at the level of the climactic shootout in The Crow (1994), but The Matrix is definitely in that aesthetic category — and was intended to be, with the most slow motion falling shell casings since Rambo (1985) [my note].

Most of the action, however, is not shooting at all but sophisticated martial arts, for which the actors themselves trained intensively with professionals from Chinese martial arts movies. This is becoming a trend, as George Lucas also wished to dispense with stuntmen and have the actors do the fighting themselves in The Phantom Menace (my note). While The Matrix is of greatest philosophical interest for other reasons, it cannot be denied that it is very definitely both a science fiction and a martial arts/action movie and that much of its emotional and aesthetic punch comes from the violence. The explosive beginning of the film, with “Trinity,” played by Carrie-Anne Moss, running up walls, taking out five armed policemen with her hands and feet (in no more than twenty seconds), and leaping between buildings like Superman (or Superwoman), sets the stunning physical tone for the whole. That she also appears to vanish into thin air deepens the initial mystery about what is going on.

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James Bowman reviews Disney’s “Frozen”, & its frozen ideology

Summary:  James Bowman reviews Disney’s Frozen, looking beneath the animation to show how it reflects the changing nature of women in America. That makes the film even more interesting — to people interesting in the New America rising on the ashes of the America-that-once-was. Better or worse? You decide.


Film review of Frozen:
“Frozen in Ideological Time “

By James Bowman.

American Spectator in the
issue of 14 February 2014.

Posted with his generous permission.


…The very concept of “seriousness” as applied to the arts hardly has any meaning now, ever since — as the Times’s film critic A.O. Scott announced nearly a decade ago — “children’s entertainment has become the cornerstone of the American movie industry, not only commercially, but artistically as well.”

But cartoons and the cartoon-like dominate to the extent that they do not only because so much of the movie audience today is made up of juveniles but also because they are the means of re-mythologizing the culture along progressivist lines with the help of the sort of fantasy known as ideology. Star Wars was a big part of that effort, of course, as was Star Trek.

Thirty years ago when I was a teacher, I once assigned a class to do a presentation on someone each pupil regarded as a hero. One boy gave his talk on Captain James T. Kirk. I made him go away and re-do it on someone real, as I thought he was mocking the assignment; but I wonder now if, even then, he simply had no better idea of heroism. Certainly you would be surprised nowadays if any child didn’t assume that what was wanted was an account of his favorite superhero. Real heroes, being no longer politically correct and gaining no advantage from their mere reality, can no longer compete with the fantastical kind.

The job that has been done on girls, while less well-recognized has been no less thorough than that which has been done on boys. Princesses are to girls what superheroes are to boys: objects of admiration not in spite of but because of their unreality. Recently Harrod’s teamed up with Disney to introduce a Disney-world-style “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique” to London — “a magical beauty salon,” according to Disney, “where any little girl can make her dream of becoming a princess come true.” That should tell you something about the Disney concept of truth. Tanya Gold of the London Sunday Times fulminated against the move as a politically retrograde step, but she must not have seen many Disney princesses of recent years. Now they don’t just look pretty until Prince Charming comes along. They’re more like “Princess” Leia of Star Wars, their faux-royalism mere camouflage as they doff their tiaras to lead the revolution.

The latest example comes with Frozen, which is similarly a tale of disenchantment masquerading as enchantment. Getting real would truly be a momentous step for Disney if real meant real, but of course it doesn’t; it means getting ideological.

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Learning from “Fort Apache”, recovering our past.

Summary: One reason we’ve become weak is our amnesia about American history, to an astonishing extent overlaid by myths and falsehoods. Some of our best classics can help us recover this lost knowledge. Oddly, these are often despised due to our indoctrination to believe they are all myth and propaganda. In today’s post, a retired philosopher reviews Fort Apache — one of the greatest westerns.


Review of “Fort Apache”

Directed by John Ford.
Staring Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Shirley Temple.
RKO Pictures (1948).

By Kelley L. Ross, posted at Friesian.
Re-posted with his generous permission.


One expects John Ford’s classic western Fort Apache to exhibit the typical mindless racism of other western movies of its era. Indeed, the Turner Classic Movies version begins with an introduction that, among other things, warns the viewer that the image of American Indians presented in the movie is not “politically correct.” The host perhaps had not actually watched the movie, for Fort Apache is definitely not what one expects and, politically correct or not, the American Indians it presents to the viewer are not the sort that are typical in other movies.

The movie centers around Henry Fonda’s character of Lt. Col. Thursday. Thursday is a martinet, a bigot, and a fool–not the kind of character we usually see Henry Fonda playing. His assignment at Fort Apache, he makes clear, is beneath his abilities. He thinks he should be off fighting serious Indians, like the Sioux, and he totally ignores the warnings of Capt. York (John Wayne) that he should not underestimate the Apache warriors they may have to face in battle. Thursday doesn’t learn better until it is far too late.

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