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Berlin: Variety Critics Compare Hits and Misses From First Half of Festival

Halfway into the massive Berlin lineup, Variety critics (mostly) impressed so far with quality offerings from Jeff Nichols, Mia Hansen-Love and Andre Techine.

PETER DEBRUGE: I’ve gotta say, Guy, of all the festivals we cover during the year, none inspires me to spend my time indoors quite like the Berlinale, even if the movies are typically every bit as cold, grey and depressing as the weather. While it’s too early to generalize about the massive lineup before us, I’m actually quite keen on my competition viewings so far, most notably Jeff Nichols’ old-school “Midnight Special.” The Warner Bros. release was pushed back from its original November date, and Berlin was the one to benefit.

It’s not exactly an art film (more of a supernatural road movie, really), but it needs all the help it can get exposure-wise, since Michael Shannon isn’t quite the box office draw he deserves to be. That, plus John Michael McDonagh’s wicked funny wrong-cops comedy “War on Everyone,” which premiered in Panorama, remind me of the kind of movies studios famously don’t make anymore — which may as well be the subject of the wildly uneven Coen brothers opening film, “Hail, Caesar!”

GUY LODGE: The Berlinale certainly has a more challenging reputation than its fellow European majors, though that’s partly what I like about it: Dieter Kosslick takes chances on voices and visions that other fests would relegate to the sidelines, so even at its chilliest, the program has the burning shock of the new.

That said, I’m surprised how warmed I’ve felt by my favorite films thus far here — the clear standout being Mia Hansen-Love’s gorgeous, sun-streaked “Things to Come,” a wry heartbreaker of midlife renewal with Isabelle Huppert in uncharacteristically gentle, vulnerable form. It’s the kind of role jury president Meryl Streep would kill to play if more U.S. filmmakers had Hansen-Love’s compassionate interest in human life at all ages and stages; I expect she’ll show her approval.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face during “Le Fils de Joseph,” Eugene Green’s sweet, sly, Nativity-referencing fable of invented families, or even “Hail, Caesar!,” an undeniably discombobulating bauble that I sense I enjoyed rather more than you did.

Hail, Caesar!

DEBRUGE: To be honest, I enjoyed the heck out of “Hail, Caesar!” but that’s in spite of the fact it paradoxically manages to be the Coens’ messiest and most precise film. How to reconcile all that miscalculated zaniness (like an elaborate Channing Tatum dance number that hits every mark except the punchline: when a roomful of sailors freeze in sexually compromising positions) with the way its creators manage to so eloquently justify the fact that “pictures have worth”?

Festivals like Berlin help to remind us what pictures can accomplish, whether that means taking an incredibly populist subject and re-contextualizing it for an elite arthouse audience, as Austrian helmer Nikolaus Geyrhalter does by revisiting the now-alien landscapes of abandoned cinemas, shopping malls and sports arenas in “Homo Sapiens,” or expanding a niche experience so nearly anyone can relate, as Andre Techine accomplishes with “Being 17,” which identifies universal truths about adolescence alongside an incredibly specific French coming-out story.

LODGE: I haven’t caught up with the Techine yet, but your and other enthusiastic notices for it have me eager to do so: “Wild Reeds” was a formative film for me, and to see its director back on such spry form after the televisual indifference of his recent films would further brighten an already rewarding festival. It would also make up for my greatest disappointment of the festival’s first few days: Terence Davies’ airless, affected Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion,” in which a seemingly ideal marriage of filmmaker and subject is scuppered by some peculiar comic digressions — talk about recontextualization! — that prove Davies, for all his many refined virtues, no Whit Stillman.

But hey, there have to be a few misses, and the Davies already has some learned critics genuflecting; we still have just under a week to unpack and argue over what we’ve already seen, and hopefully make some invigorating discoveries. New offerings from Thomas Vinterberg, Michael Grandage and Alex Gibney lie ahead; I, for one, am awaiting Filipino master Lav Diaz’s eight-hour opus “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery” with a kind of daunted excitement. For better or worse, you certainly wouldn’t catch Cannes throwing down that kind of gauntlet in Competition.

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