Few films, stars shine as fest reaches midpoint

BERLIN – With few titles setting festgoers’ pulses racing and a distinct lack of star wattage on display, the 48th Berlin Intl. Film Festival was already being dubbed as mild as the unseasonable weather in the German capital, halfway through its 12-day span.

By Monday, the sole star attendee to draw major crowds outside the Zoo Palast was John Goodman, in with Joel and Ethan Coen for “The Big Lebowski,” which screened Sunday. At its SRO press screening, pic drew very good critical response and is already being tagged as a front runner for at least an acting nod.

In competition, the only other English-language movie generating discussion is Neil Jordan’s Irish-set drama “The Butcher Boy,” which drew mixed but generally positive opinions. Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” was well received but excited little passion.

Trident packs ‘Luggage’

Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe’s directorial debut, “Left Luggage,” shot in English, has been picked up by Trident Releasing for world rights excluding North America, the company’s biggest acquisition to date, according to Trident prez Jean Ovrum. Ovrum said the movie, an emotional drama about the Holocaust legacy and Jewish identity set in ’70s Holland, was more suitable for the European market, especially given its cast (Isabella Rossellini, Maximilian Schell, Krabbe). Critical reaction was mixed, but the film drew a standing ovation at its public preem and garnered strong emotional reactions, particularly from female viewers.

Standout among foreign-lingo fare has been Brazilian drama “Central Station,” well liked at all levels. Of other arthouse pics unspooled so far, only Alain Resnais’ comedy of manners “Same Old Song,” and Japanese B.O. champion “Princess Mononoke,” a mythical animated feature, have been generally liked. Others, like Stanley Kwan’s sexual potpourri “Hold You Tight,” were adjudged disappointments, while Jacques Doillon’s latest relationship drama, “Too Much (Little) Love,” bombed spectacularly.

Other sections of the Berlinale have so far thrown up a handful of titles. In Panorama, Simcha Jacobovici’s “Hollywoodism” and Donna Deitch’s “Angel on My Shoulder,” an intimate portrait of actress Gwen Welles when she was dying of cancer, were among docus most talked about.

The feature selection – already hit by the withdrawal of Francois Ozon’s much-anticipated debut, “Sitcom,” in favor of Cannes – has been more up and down, with Rachid Bouchareb’s Algerian-themed drama “My Family’s Honor” and veteran Petr Todorovskij’s “Menage a Trois” among the stronger titles.

‘Welcome’ draws applause

In the Forum, standout entry so far has been Koki Mitani’s warm and wacky comedy “Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald,” which brought the house down at public screenings but has yet to be tested in the marketplace.

This year’s European Film Market has so far proved, in the words of one Berlin veteran, “the flattest I can remember.” By Monday, no buzz titles had made an appearance, and most deal-making centered on sales companies rather than theatrical distributors.

On the celeb front, no-shows by A-list names have cast something of a pall over the fest compared with last year’s glitzier event. Robert De Niro (repped here by “Jackie Brown,” “Wag the Dog” and “Great Expectations”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown”) are among the latest to opt out, though Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster will be supporting the latter film, and Gwyneth Paltrow was still confirmed as of press time for “Great Expectations.”

Wednesday will see the arrival of Catherine Deneuve to receive her lifetime achievement Silver Bear, followed by a screening of “Repulsion.” In general, how-ever, the Zoo Palast’s red carpet has not been the scene of high glamour.

Rising stars

But while A-list Hollywood talent has been hard to find at the Berlinale, a group of Europe’s rising screen actors took center stage with the fest’s Shooting Stars program. Festival jury president Ben Kingsley hosted a press conference and a gala reception presenting 16 young thesps to the international press.

The Shooting Stars initiative was organized by European Film Promotion, a year-old association of 18 orgs devoted to the cooperative promotion of Euro pics. The aim is to create higher visibility for national film industries that tend to remain discrete, and whose lack of a star system in the Hollywood mode has limited pics’ exportability. Berlin’s group of Shooting Stars, representing a dozen countries, will participate in workshops introducing them to members of the industry.

Unlike Cannes’ legendary photo-op presentation of new faces, Sunday morning’s press conference was a serious-minded affair, addressing some of the toughest issues facing European filmmakers. Chief among these is the fact that most films made on the Continent don’t travel beyond national borders, despite the rise of indigenous product and international co-productions.

Kingsley, who has referred to U.S. distributors’ “octopus-like hold,” stresses that the problems facing European productions boil down to one issue. American filmmakers’ receptivity or reluctance regarding new foreign talent is beside the point, Kingsley told Daily Variety. “It’s all in the hands of distributors,” he said. “All other questions are theoretical until we hit that one.”

(Sheri Linden, David Stratton and Miriam Hils contributed to this report.)

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