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A very good movie that didn't get the respect it deserved, probably because most reviewers were too bound by realism and materialism to understand it.

In Communist Mongolia in (judging by the cars) the 1950's or early 60's, Bagi lives in a yurt with his mother and grandfather, herding sheep. He has very keen hearing, which lets him find lost members of his flock. We are also told he has inherited a spiritual destiny from his ancestors. One winter day, while attempting to locate a lost sheep, Bagi's soul becomes detached from his body. His body lies convulsing in the snow on a treeless steppe next to the lost sheep and his faithful horse, while his spirit wanders lost in a snowy steppe that has trees in it. spoilers abound )

And here is where almost all the reviews I looked at lost any ability to understand the movie, and instead declared it "muddled" (NYT) and nonsensical (SFgate). They bought the doctor's diagnosis, and, having adopted a "rational" explanation for what is going on, were utterly unable to understand the mystical goings on in the final third of the movie, in which Baghi's visions mix and mingle with the "real world."

Baghi realizes that the plague was a lie and their animals are still alive somewhere. He learns where they are stored. Somehow that knowledge moves from the spirit world to the real world, and Zolzaya leads a raid to liberate the animals. Then the real world begins to operate by spirit world logic, so Zolzaya and her compatriots can paralyze the guards with the reflections from broken bits of mirror, and as the animals leave the warehouse where they were being held, sacred blue scarves rain from the sky so that the raiders can tie the scarves around the necks of their freed animals.

I know I missed a great deal of import in this film due to not being familiar with the culture. The complete and blessed lack of any exposition at all (minutes pass with hardly any dialogue whatsoever, this is a film of few words) obviously left most reviewers confused and drifting, but it left me deeply engaged and working hard to sort out what was going on. I see I haven't talked at all about the most significant character in the film, the magnificent, awe-inspiring, and eerie landscape of the Mongolian steppes in winter (the entire film happens in the dead of winter), and the haunting soundtrack that accompanies it.

All in all, a stunningly beautiful, thought provoking film whose ending manages to be both downbeat and upbeat at the same time, highly recommended.
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I have seen the Sherlock Holmes movie and it is excellent. I'll get to the movie in a minute, but first, a bit of a rant about the herd mentality in movie making and the recent fad for making "reimaginings" of classic books or films. on reimaginings )

So we have two kinds of "reimagining": on the one hand, the studio pitch buzz word seems to be the new way of saying "buy the rights, then don't actually use any of the source material in the new film." On the other hand, for the tiny handful of producers and directors who actually know what they are doing, it seems to mean "stop paying homage to the prior versions of what we're doing. Avoid the well worn path and make something people haven't seen before."

The first kind of reimagining is easy to do, and pretty much guaranteed to result in unwatchable crap. The second type is hard, especially for film makers, who seem to have a kneejerk reflexive instinct to borrow from their predecessors. The result might or might not be good, but it is guaranteed to be new and different.

The new Sherlock Holmes is the latter type of reimagining. Despite having been written by a committee of five writers (normally a sure sign a film is going to be awful), it's extremely good. I sat down to watch this movie expecting your standard bit of mindless action movie fluff, full of wildly inaccurate history, gapingly obvious plot holes you could pump the Thames through with room left over, and stupid storytelling. What I got was a very good, very smart film that got the history right, told a tight story with no visible plot holes, and which perfectly captured the character of Holmes, portraying him exactly as he appears in the original stories, and not as he has been portrayed endlessly since the 30's in movie after movie after TV show after movie. The Holmes we've all seen before, from William Gillette to Basil Rathbone )

The current movie, on the other hand, manages to convey both the energy and activity of Holmes, and his intellectual gifts. This is a Holmes who actually seems to be miles smarter than anyone else in the room, and who likes to relax by going to the slums and fighting in the boxing ring. Yes, because this is a major motion picture, Holmes's martial prowess and physical activity are highlighted, but not at all at the expense of his intellect.

The committee of writers who scripted the new Sherlock Holmes movie includes at least one person who knows the original stories intimately, and it shows in dozens of little touches. We see Holmes shooting a "VR" in his bedroom wall with a revolver. We see him plucking tunelessly at the strings of his violin as he sits in his messy, dirty apartment, thinking hard about the case. We see him intently observing and noticing minute trivial details, and drawing conclusions from them that leave Lestrade and Watson baffled. We hear several classic lines of dialogue taken from the various original stories and re-purposed to the current tale.

The production team took equal care to recreate Victorian London, not the picture postcard, upper class view of lovely buildings and horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets we've seen in dozens of films, but London as it really was at the time - polluted and dirty with coal dust and horse manure, filled with masses of working class people scraping by on starvation wages with no dental care and infrequent access to soap and water.

The film does play fast and loose with the canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, but I don't mind this much since Doyle himself never paid much attention to the chronology or the established history of his stories. The film takes place in around 1891, after Holmes and Watson have been living together for a decade and have gotten to the "long time married" point of finishing each others sentences. And Holmes meets Mary Morstan for the first time after Watson and Morstan have gotten engaged, whereas in "The Sign of Four" Watson meets her when she comes to Holmes for help, and the marriage happens in the early 1880's.

To which I say, so what? Keeping to canon would have required the scriptwriters to spend several minutes providing backstory that is useless to the current tale, and the key point of the movie, at the character level, is the "been together forever" relationship between Holmes and Watson, and how Watson's engagement threatens to change that relationship.

And yes, there is some (OK, a lot of) very deliberate subtext going on here. Holmes is not happy that Watson's imminent marriage will take Watson away from him. Watson finds that despite his protests, he himself is not able to disengage -- he cannot stop being Holmes' partner. They finish each others' sentences, borrow each other's clothing, correct each other on trivial mistakes in speaking, and generally act like a married couple, except for the sex and kissing.

Because this is a major motion picture, Holmes and Watson are each given beards - Watson has his new fiancee Mary Morstan (who gets short shrift in the characterization department and remains a cipher), and Holmes has Irene Adler, a woman who is fully his intellectual equal but who makes her living through less legitimate and often illegal means. Annoyingly the actors pronounce her name with a silent final e, but otherwise, both [personal profile] morgan_dhu and I very much liked the portrayal of Adler in this film. The writers took her brief appearance in one Sherlock Holmes story, stayed faithful to it, and yet fleshed out her character to be much more than Doyle allowed her to be. She made a fine, competent, smart heroine, who refreshingly played a key role in saving the day at the end of the film, and who did not get captured by the villain or need to be rescued by the hero at any point.

In the stories, Watson is very boring, very dull-witted, and despite years of hanging out with Holmes he never seems to learn to think like Holmes and is always just as bemused and bewildered by his friend's insights as he was when they first met. Thankfully, the writers ditched this characterization and instead portray Watson as quite competent and smart enough to not only follow much of Holmes' reasoning but even to sometimes see things Holmes misses. They also gave him a gambling problem (kept under control by letting Holmes keep possession of his chequebook) and a dog, both invented out of whole cloth.

As for historical accuracy, besides the afore-mentioned portrayal of London as dirty and polluted, the plot turns on the (accurate in theme if not in the specific secret society portrayed) upper class Victorian fascination with the occult, as we have a secret society of dabblers in magick and Satanism, whose leader has them all convinced he actually does have magical powers, and whose evil scheme forms the core of the plot. Tower Bridge was actually under construction at the time the film is set, and the half-built bridge is the stage for one of the climactic scenes in the film. I got the impression that we were seeing a mixture of gas and electric lighting, again accurate to the period. The film makes a nod to the current fascination with steampunk in the form of a radio-controlled bomb, but by 1891, radio was well understood in theory and early experimentation with radio waves were underway, so it's not too far fetched.

Overall, it was an excellent film, and I felt that by abandoning the hoary old tropes of a century of Sherlock Holmes stage and film productions, it managed to perfectly capture the characters of Holmes, Watson and Irene Adler. Highly recommended.

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