Film Review: Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015)

The latest Bond film features all the hallmarks of the beloved franchise – international locals, elaborately staged espionage action sequences, a Bond girl or two, a menacing foreign-accented villain and a plot to end world safety plucked straight from contemporary headlines. Being a product of both the age of terror and mass-surveillance, the scriptwriters deftly manage to include strands of both within the films surprisingly entertaining narrative. I say surprising, as many of the reviews I’d read prior to seeing the film had had me expecting a much more derivative Bond entry. The core Bond-formula elements are all there, but returning director Sam Mendes executes them with style, wrapping up the Craig-era Bond films in a satisfying way, while leaving room for more.

It has apparently been a while since watching early Bond, as I had forgotten all about Spectre and their role and their role as being the main bad guys back in the Connery-era films. It was perhaps rather naive that I realised mid-way through this film that I was watching both a reboot and an origins story. Blofeld is back, and Christopher Waltz puts his signature twisted spin on the character, largely over-shadowing earlier versions. The classic villain has been given an expanded back story, providing more depth to his villainous motivation. Of the returning characters, Ben Wishaw is back at Q, and is given his own share of action time – a worthy successor to Ben Whishaw. Roy Kinnear is back as the of Mi6 and Judi Dench obviously exited in the last entry, but the scriptwriters have chosen to have her shadow hang over this narratives events.

The bond girl this time around is Lea Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swan, a daughter of a Spectre member living in hiding. Following on from strong female action characters of recent times such as Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, she is not just eye candy for Bond to save, but does much of the saving herself. Seydoux and Craig have chemistry, and their relationship has the usual amount of Bond-style twists and turns. In spite of the attempts to have a strong female co-star, I feel her character is at times a bit predictable and feels one of the least daring elements of the narrative.

Sometimes it’s not entirely apparently how the films enormous budget, one of the largest in history at $245 million, was put to use. Perhaps marketing and actors fees account for a large proportion of this, but one area where the money was apparent was in the use of major international locations. The opening sequence set during Mexico Cities’ Dia de los Muertos kicks things off with an ambitious single take shot, including a large amount of extras (many probably digital). Later, Bond speeds through the narrow medieval streets of Rome in a thrilling chase sequence that rivals the best of them. Things later return to London, and I was happy to see many familiar landmarks make an appearance. I’m assuming it wasn’t cheap to stage action sequences around Trafalgar Square. The action scenes are entertaining, the explosives well executed, if the violence a little less frequent as the last three Craig entries.

I wonder, with the budget being used in reasonably subtle ways (for a Bond film), are pretty locals are not enough to win over modern audiences. While the action sequences are flashy, they are not nearly as frequent as a Joss Weadon or Michael Bay action film. The ambivalent reactions toward Spectre makes me wonder if the entry is too nuanced for a modern audience, who are increasingly used to action sequences filmed like first person shooter games, and narratives with the simplest of good-bad dichotomies (every Marvel film for example). Although the narrative had it’s share of flaws, the scriptwriters usage of contemporary issues as plot devices was much more intelligent and subtle than the usual distorted cinematic propoganda (such as that of the cold war era Bonds). The film explored the connection between terrorist acts and the profit gained from private companies selling mass-surveilance to fairful governments and their people. In one scene, after South Africa remains the only country adverse to joining the fictionalized ‘9 eyes’ intellegence network, we later see a headline reporting a terrorist act taking place within Cape Town. Spectre are of course behind and profiting from all this, and their motives are not fully explained, but the subtle use of relevant issues is a welcome touch.

Mendes has given the Craig-era bond films their own continuity with this entry, and they now stand-out especially from the rest of the franchise. By revisiting and re imagining such iconic moments of Bond history as Spectre and Blofeld, Mendes manages to pay homage to the series while further drawing a line in the sand regarding the place of the Craig-era films. The Craig films have seemed a new beginning ever since Casino Royale, but now more than ever they have their own continuity and connecting themes, inspired by the old books and films, but given a slick new polish for a modern generation. Unlikely as it seems, more than ever the Bond series appears to be one with legs to continue to future generations. I hope that Craig at least gets one more, but if this is the end to his Bond career, it’s a fitting finale.

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Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

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*I’d just like to note I’m not necessarily an Atheist and you don’t have to prescribe to such specific definitions of spirituality to enjoy this book.

In the second chapter of Religion For Atheists, Alain de Botton compares the approach of education in the secular state to the religious approach to education. Talking about literature in either, de Botton raises the subject of how religion (Christianity in this case) understands the forgetful nature of people, using the term akrasia, “a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a reluctance to actually do it, whether through weakness of will or absent-mindedness”. Due to this Christianity, which is primarily dedicated to educating people on how to improve their lives on an emotional level as opposed to secular education whose primary purpose is the imparting of facts, has set up a system where the lessons of christian text (the Bible) are constantly reinforced, be it in sermons, religious holidays or other ceremonial type things. De Botton raises the point that we could learn similar life changing lessons from secular classics, such as the work of Chekhov or particularly emotionally moving films. Often we leave the theater, cinema, or finish a book and feel like completely changing our lives based on the values in that text we have just experienced. But then the feeling fades and we go back to mundane life. So whether or not that was the key point of De Botton’s chapter, I’ve decided to combat that akrasia by writing more about everything I watch, read or listen to. May as well start with the book that inspired the impulse.

Religion For Atheists argues the case that the secular world could learn a lot from religion. By largely rejecting elements of the main religions, the secular world, atheistic or not is allowing a lot of helpful ideas or activities that were in the past more general human concerns to be entirely claimed by religion. If we were to look for positively on religious things we might be able to improve the way the modern world works, de Botton argues, in areas such as community, art, education, kindness, architecture and institutions. You may find many parts of modern religious dogma unappealing but de Botton successfully illuminates the positive elements of religion, and in doing so creates a book that’s informative, eye opening and as helpful as any self help book.

Several threads from de Botton’s other books are continued here, such as looking at modern consumer societies status obsessed society, and shows how religion can help us to ask the questions about our lives and souls to really improve our existence, beyond the temporary fix that is chasing material possessions or satisfying shallow urges. De Botton uses this humanistic kind of outlook to appeal to people who have no interest at all in religion and couldn’t put even a slight belief in any deity. Regardless of how atheist or agnostic you are, it’s difficult not to relate to human creations, of which religion can be understood as one, which exist primarily to try and help people live their lives as best they possibly can.

If you don’t get totally carried away and want to start integrating into your life secular versions of religious activities, the book also proves interesting as an overview of the many varied aspects of religion that the non-religiously inclined might not be immediately aware of. At times the book felt genuinely revelatory, either that or I’m just naive and like a sponge when it comes to reading about de Botton’s self-help pop philosophy. Particularly the section about Buddhist ceremonies and their purposes I found struck a chord. De Botton partakes in a Buddhist weekend retreat for novices; there he engages in activities such as breathing meditation, which he describes the purpose as being “to open up a modest distance between our consciousness and our ego”. It just resonated with me the perhaps obvious to others thought that there are cultures of the world entirely dedicated to such things as separating your ego from your experience, such as in this Buddhist way which seeks to show people how they can view the world as it is, being mindful of such things as the blood running through our veins, the wind against our cheeks and tiny little details of what is happening right now in the present. Ignoring self absorbed, ego driven concerns is not something the modern western world does very often at all, and being so surrounded by propaganda fueling our selfish insecurities, driving our material lusts, it is refreshing to join de Botton’s search in finding the parts of human culture that are dedicated to making the human experience better.

His ideas may be commonsensical at times and perhaps over simplistic but I felt there was a lot of positive thought within the pages of Religion For Atheists. The last few chapters detail Art, Archeology and finally end up with a literature review of some of the other key idealists who have sought to reclaim religious ideas into some kind of secular church. It may not have happened yet but it’s good to know there’s thinkers out there willing to constantly challenge the capitalist modern machine and provide us with alternatives on how to better live our lives.