February 12, 2008 / 8:36 AM / 10 years ago

Berlin film festival needs hits after several misses

<p>Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley pose during a photocall to present their film 'Elegy' running in the competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin, February 10, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch</p>

BERLIN (Reuters) - Film festivals pride themselves on discovering cinematic gems from around the world that the public would never see otherwise.

The fact that at the half-way stage of this year’s Berlin Film Festival the frontrunner for prizes was a major Hollywood production with eight Oscar nominations to its name was a discouraging sign, critics said.

“There Will Be Blood,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a scheming oil prospector, was favorite for the Golden Bear award for best film after 11 of 21 competition films had screened.

“Everyone is raving about ‘There Will Be Blood’, but it’s already out in the United States,” said Lee Marshall, film critic for trade publication Screen International.

“I can see that for (festival director Dieter) Kosslick it is a difficult juggling act, and it’s great to have an Oscar-nominated film in competition as it gets people talking, but it goes against the discovery remit.”

Jay Weissberg of Variety agreed, and argued that Berlin lacked the buzz of other festivals and other years.

“Everybody is saying that there’s nothing to get excited about,” he said. “Of course every festival has good and bad years, so it does not mean Berlin is going down, but unfortunately this has not been a good year.”

Critics noted several of the 21 films in competition were not world premieres, meaning the excitement surrounding them had come and gone. Of those that were first showings, many had been disappointing, they added.

“Julia,” directed by France’s Erick Zonca, has had bad reviews despite a strong lead performance by Tilda Swinton, while “Gardens of the Night” by British film maker Damian Harris also fared particularly poorly with the critics.

SOME POSITIVES

On the plus side, the mood picked up by Monday and Tuesday with German entry “Cherry Blossoms,” Hong Kong-based pick-pocket comedy “Sparrow” and Mike Leigh’s touching London comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” all bringing a smile to audiences.

“Lake Tahoe,” a humorous story of a young Mexican teenager, and “Elegy,” starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley, also impressed, while politics came to the fore with “Tropa de Elite” from Brazil and U.S. documentary “Standard Operating Procedure.”

“Tropa,” a box office hit in Brazil dealing with corruption and violence in the police force, sharply divided critics, with one likening it to a “recruitment film for fascist thugs” and another saying it was “intelligent, energetic and watchable.”

“Standard Operating Procedure,” by Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, is a measured look at the abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison that became an international scandal.

As always, Kosslick sought to strike a balance between strong films and star power, and few argued with his choice of concert documentary “Shine a Light” as the opening film.

Although not in competition, Martin Scorsese’s picture of the Rolling Stones ensured the British rockers were on the red carpet for a huge crowd to cheer.

Critics argued that since then the festival has fallen flat, with only Day-Lewis and Cruz generating real buzz among fans.

That may change with the arrival on Wednesday of Madonna for her out-of-competition directorial debut “Filth and Wisdom.”

Also still to come, Polish director Andrzej Wajda presents non-competition movie “Katyn,” about the sensitive topic of the 1940 massacre of Polish officers ordered by Soviet authorities.

Lee said Berlin had lost ground in recent years to its European rivals, although a booming market for buying and selling movies had helped maintain big studio interest.

Reuters/Nielsen

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