Variety Adds Spice to Film Picks

by Sura Wood

If there’s a through line for cinema in the Bay Area this month, it’s variety.

The mother/daughter relationship of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a look at O.J. Simpson through a sociological lens, emerging Italian filmmakers and the unfairly neglected canon of an influential British filmmaking duo are on offer here in November.

The enthusiasm for film noir shows no signs of abating. The trend is borne out by the arrival of a third installment of "The French Had a Name For It," a series that trades in heightened sensuality, an acute awareness of class and a deep probing of psychological excess. After playing to sell-out crowds for the last two years, the series returns to the Roxie with 15 movies, dating from 1939 to 1965, that embody the four-decade love affair between French filmmakers and the classic American crime dramas they made their own. Of particular interest is Pierre Chenal's hard-boiled "The Last Turn" (1939), the first screen adaptation of James M. Cain's novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice," a tale of lust, greed and murder that unfolds when a naïve, good-hearted older man and his much younger, conniving wife hire a drifter. (The steamy American version with Lana Turner would be released seven years later.) A step up in class but no less venal is the tale of an alcoholic doctor (Michel Simon) who succumbs to a god complex and descends into madness in Henri Decoin's "Not Guilty." Following a night of drinking, the provincial family physician runs over a motorcyclist and leaves the scene of the fatal accident. Emboldened by getting way with the crime, he embarks on a killing spree, hoping and ultimately failing to be recognized for his homicidal genius. An entire day is devoted to actor/writer/director Robert Hossein, a triple threat who specialized in upper-class decadence and low-rent B-noir. In "The Secret Killer," based on a true story, he directs and stars as Peter Kurten, a real-life serial killer whose string of brutal murders terrorized Germany in 1929. Blending familiar tropes of horror and noir, Hossein sets up a collision between the manhunt for the monster, a transgressive encounter he has with a beguiling cabaret singer (Marie-France Pisier) and the rise of the Third Reich. Long simmering revenge is what fuels Christian-Jaque's backstage intrigue "A Lover's Return," in which a ballet director believed to be dead (Louis Jouvet) returns to Lyon to orchestrate a cunning payback against the family who tried to murder him. His Machiavellian plot ensnares a raven-haired beauty played by Russian ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina, who became famous two years later in "The Red Shoes."

Nov. 3 → 7 at the Roxie Theater;

"The Red Shoes," which follows the fortunes and tragic fate of an ambitious young ballerina (Moira Shearer), is part of "Arrows of Desire: The Films of Powell & Pressburger," a series at BAMPFA by the British writer/director/producer team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They made 24 features together, drawing on eclectic sources from Surrealism and German Expression to mysticism, but their most extravagant productions were reserved for the worlds of opera and dance. "The Red Shoes," for instance, which has a 20-minute ballet sequence roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, was shot in Technicolor by the brilliant late cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The pair followed up that film with "The Tales of Hoffmann," a colorful, lavish ode to movement and music featuring dancing, over-the-top special effects and a lush Offenbach score connecting a poet's magical-albeit ill-fated-romantic adventures. Romantic fantasy also animates "A Matter of Life of Death," a sentimental war-time love story, also shot in Technicolor by Cardiff; David Niven plays a dashing RAF fighter pilot who falls for an American radio operator shortly before leaping from his bomber, sans parachute, perhaps to his death…or perhaps not.

Through Dec. 30;

Documentaries are popular in San Francisco, which has consistently turned out award-winning topical films. Doc Stories, a boutique festival organized by the San Francisco Film Society, provides a showcase for the latest features and shorts, ranging from insightful personal portraits to examinations of hot button social issues, while offering opportunities for audiences to engage with leaders in the field. Among those special guests is Werner Herzog, the existential poet of documentarians. Here he discusses his recent exploration of the unbridled power of nature, the aptly titled "Into the Inferno," which focuses on the science, mystery and mythology of volcanoes. With co-director and famed volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, the film offers wondrous imagery and Herzog's singular commentary, taking viewers on an exotic journey from Vanuatu in the South Pacific to North Korea. The fest kicks off at the Castro Theater
with Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens's affectionate show business exposé "Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher," a peek behind the curtain at the eccentric, sometimes fractious mother-daughter relationship between the two Hollywood actresses. On the domestic front, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro" uses archival footage of the Civil Rights movement and the writings of James Baldwin to weave a portrait of the American black experience. The nature of that experience is also investigated in "13TH," from "Selma" director Ava DuVernay. Through in-depth research and interviews with Newt Gingrich, Angela Davis, Cory Booker and others, she makes connections between a loophole in the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, and the methods later employed to demonize, criminalize and imprison African-Americans. And finally, though it may seem that there is nothing to add to the "literature" on O.J. Simpson and the so-called trial of the century, Peabody/Emmy award-winner Ezra Edelman has made one of the best documentaries of the year on the subject. His enthralling multi-part opus, "O.J. Simpson: Made in America," which aired on television this summer, is a probing examination of the confluence of race, celebrity, journalism, the media, the failures of the justice system and the history of the troubling relationship between African Americans and the LAPD. Edelman discusses his approach to the material in an on-stage interview on Nov. 4.

Nov. 3 → 6, the Vogue & Castro theaters and the San Francisco Jewish Community Center;

New Italian Cinema, an avidly attended mini-fest in a city with a rich Italian cultural heritage, is an annual sampler of the work of new and veteran directors from the country that gave us Neo-Realism and Fellini. Many of the films portray complicated relationships. In the opening night feature, "Second Spring," for instance, a lonesome architect, whose wife has died under mysterious circumstances, becomes infatuated with the wife of his younger friend. In "Like Crazy," Paolo Virzi sets his story of unlikely cohorts in a mental institution where the effusive Beatrice, who tells everyone she meets that she's a billionaire countess, and Donatella, a tattoo-covered introvert, bond and plot their escape. One of only three documentaries here, Haider Rashid's "Street Opera" illuminates the lives and artistry of several thoroughly committed masters of rhyme in the Italian rap scene; their monikers-Clementino, Damage and Torment-say it all.

Nov. 16 → 20; at Vogue Theater;