Competition not generating must-see buzz

Just over halfway through this year’s Berlinale, the mood among crix and journos was hardly as clement as the weather in Germany’s Hauptstadt, with words such as “dull” and “unexciting” on most people’s lips.

Aside from U.S. entry “There Will Be Blood,” which won almost universal praise, especially for Daniel Day-Lewis’ lead performance, and Spanish helmer Isabel Coixet’s English-lingo “Elegy,” with tip-top playing by Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley as the student-prof duo, little had generated any must-see buzz in fest director Dieter Kosslick’s seventh Competition lineup.

On paper, the Competition had looked more impressive than it had in several years, though in practice some fest names have failed to deliver challenging or innovative fare. Even Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert docu, “Shine a Light,” which opened the fest, was more of a PR coup than a cinematic one.

From Asia, China’s Wang Xiaoshuai delivered a thoughtfully acted but dramatically monotonal drama of family crisis in “In Love We Trust,” while Hong Kong’s Johnnie To came up with a very personal but lightweight divertissement, pickpocket yarn “Sparrow,” that may divide his regular fan base. The other “sparrow film,” Iranian vet Majid Majidi’s “The Song of Sparrows,” won kudos for its charm but wasn’t the type of movie to set a festival alight.

Kosslick’s programming has often been backloaded in the past, and the remaining three days contain some meaty titles, including Lance Hammer’s Sundance hit “Ballast,” Robert Guediguian’s Marseilles-set noir “Lady Jane,” Eritrean kid-soldier yarn “Heart of Fire” and Henry VIII costumer “The Other Boleyn Girl,” so the 58th Berlinale could still end up delivering excitement.

Much was hanging on the Competition’s own Super Tuesday — three sizable fest names in one day — to inject some fizz. Indeed, South Korean Hong Sang-soo’s “Night and Day” proved an Eric Rohmer-like but way overlong charmer, and Errol Morris’ Abu Ghraib docu, “Standard Operating Procedure,” a relative letdown on expectations. Only veteran Mike Leigh’s uncustomarily light “Happy-Go-Lucky,” with bouncy Sally Hawkins as a problem-plagued London teacher, put a much-needed spring in festgoers’ (and buyers’) steps.

Other English-language fare in the official selection has met with so-so to poor response.

Admired rather than liked was Brit Damian Harris’ grim San Diego-set teen-prostie drama “Gardens of the Night”; not liked at all was Dennis Lee’s clumsy Midwest meller “Fireflies in the Garden,” with Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, and completely dissed was Gallic auteur Erick Zonca’s zonked-out “Gloria” riff “Julia,” with Tilda Swinton as a hysterical alkie

Elsewhere in the fest, it’s so far been business as usual rather than a daily journey of discovery, with Austrian guilt drama “Revanche” and Israeli Palestinian crowd-pleaser “Lemon Tree” among those gaining some critical traction.

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