Two Marias and At Least One Peter
In the event of your wishing to take a chance on a trip to the actual cinema this holiday season (yes, we're back in 'go out if you dare' territory, in the UK at least), what delights await you? Well, much of the name recognition value is on the side of the new version of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has taken great pains to make it clear that this is a new adaptation of the stage show, rather than a remake of the 1961 film directed by Robert Wise, but this seems to me to be more a case of pre-emptive defence – it's not like the story or the songs are wildly different, after all.
We are back in New York in the late fifties, with the redevelopers on the march and the west side slums in the process of demolition – not that this stops them being the scene of a vicious turf war between the underprivileged long-term residents and a new generation of incomers from Puerto Rico (one of the many subtle differences introduced by Spielberg and his scriptwriter Tony Kushner is that while the white youths have formed a gang called the Jets, their counterparts aren't a gang per se – even though they're still credited as Sharks).
The situation is complicated when Tony (Ansel Elgort), friend of the leader of the Jets and still on parole for a gang-related offence, finds himself smitten with Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of one of the more volatile Puerto Rican leaders, something she is happy to reciprocate. Could this be the beginning of a path to peace between the two sides, or does tragedy loom?
Naturally, a big song and dance ensues – although, if we're going to be strict about this, there's rather more singing than actual dancing. Bernstein and Sondheim's songs are all still there, albeit not in the order nor sung by the people you might expect, but Jerome Robbins' choreography has been largely reworked.
This may be part of a strategy to present the story in a more grounded and naturalistic manner: certainly it feels more aware of historical context than the 1961 film. How well it works I'm not entirely sure – part of the magic of Wise's film came from the way it mingled a relatively gritty approach with moments of pure stylised theatricality. The new film isn't actually bad, and the songs and music are as marvellous as ever, but this feels like a lesser work, both in the Spielberg canon and compared to the 1961 version.
More of a reliable crowd-pleaser – for a given crowd, at least – is Jon Watts' Spider-Man: No Way Home, umpty-tumpth film in Marvel's all-conquering series. Actually, this year's batch of Marvel offerings haven't exactly been from the top drawer, but No Way Home finds the machine back in top gear and looking as unstoppable as ever.
This time round Spider-Man (Tom Holland) has a problem, which is that everyone has found out his real name, causing no end of problems – and not just for him, but for his nearest and dearest, too. What's a teenage superhero to do in these circumstances? Well, naturally, he trots round to the house of his good friend Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the hope that he will be able to lend a sorcerous hand and wipe the collective memory of the world.
Not all goes to plan, as you might expect, and the presence in the advertising, rather prominently, of Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus (last seen in 2004's Spider-Man 2, which was part of a whole different franchise) may tip you off as to the kind of problems that develop. But we are into a whole minefield of potential spoilers here, assuming you've managed to avoid the buzz around this film.
I saw this film on opening night, with a crowd of the dedicated Marvel faithful, and their response was the kind of thing I haven't seen since – a pattern develops – Avengers: Endgame. Suffice to say there was a lot of unrestrained whooping and cheering, particularly during the latter stages of the film. And I found it myself to be immensely entertaining – clever, funny, boldly imaginative, and with a surprising amount of warmth and soul to it as well. It's nearly twenty years since the first Spider-Man film, and the new film does a spectacular job of celebrating the character's on-screen heritage with wit and generosity.
Strong performances from what's essentially an ensemble cast help give a human face to what is, after all, basically a special-effects blockbuster with an unusually convoluted and self-referential conceit. As the main guest star from the other Marvel films, Cumberbatch finds the right groove for the more comedic style of the current Spider-Man series and makes a real impression ahead of his next headlining appearance (out soon). Marvel agnostics will probably find this quite hard going but there is a reason why the brand has become one of the dominant forces in global entertainment, and the reason is that they make films as entertaining as this one.
Possibly still hanging on in an art-house cinema near you is Valdimar Johansson's Lamb (Icelandic title: The Animal), which is considerably more niche than either of the other films under consideration. Noomi Rapace plays someone else called Maria, although in this case she's a sheep farmer in a remote part of Iceland, leading an outwardly content but somehow rather empty life with her husband. Until one of the flock delivers a lamb which is rather out of the ordinary.
Basically – and the film itself is infinitely less on-the-nose about this – the lamb is half-sheep, half-human, not that this stops Maria and her husband effectively adopting it. Their home is filled with warmth and happiness, perhaps for the first time in years. But can such a good thing last forever?
As I say, this is definitely one for the art house crowd – although, given it was preceded at my cinema by a trailer for yet another Marvel spin-off, the distributors are clearly pitching it hard as a sort of horror movie. Certainly there is a sort of resemblance to one, but the measured pace of the film and its refusal to engage in anything like conventional exposition mark it out as something different.
To be honest, this is quite slow, and very likely rather pretentious, and exactly what point the story is trying to make is a bit unclear. But Rapace's performance is strong, the scenery is stunning, and the sheer oddness of the film does make it quite memorable. But it is still most notable for how peculiar it is, rather than its quality.