August is low tide in the movie business. The dog days, effectively, provide a breather after the gargantuan superhero and super-dinosaur hits and before the wave of serious films vying for a place on the Oscar dais. Everyone seems slightly distracted this month, between kids gearing up to go back to school and adults grabbing one last weekend fling before the days get shorter. But if you can’t bear the thought of four weeks without a flickering projector, there are plenty of options.
The cynical, world-weary morality plays that Hollywood churned out in the 1940s and ‘50s mostly depicted corruption and injustice as institutionalized American values. After all, you couldn’t very well sell homespun hokum to World War II vets who’d watched the good die young while black marketers got rich. Hence the appeal of what the French critics embraced as film noir. I Wake Up Dreaming 2015: Hot Summer Noir marks local programming savant Elliot Lavine’s first series at the Castro after years of packing the Roxie with noir enthusiasts. For the occasion, he’s assembled a murderers’ row of a dozen hard-edged films spanning five Thursdays. With the exception of Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 gem, Killer’s Kiss (Aug. 27), Lavine’s lowdown litany of low-budget losers and lovers (the same thing in the noir universe) are largely unknown even to connoisseurs of the genre. For details visit iwakeupdreaming.com.
Americans get a skewed snapshot of the contemporary Japanese cinema, with imports limited mainly to anime, samurai flicks and the occasional maudlin drama. The Japan Film Festival, screening Aug. 10-16 at New People Cinema under the auspices of the J-Pop Festival, widens the frame by several degrees. I’m intrigued by The Vancouver Asahi (Aug. 8), which revisits the racism of the 1930s through a baseball team comprised of Canadian-born children of Japanese immigrants. (Giants left fielder Nori Aoki will be in Chicago with his teammates that weekend, so no chance of a surprise appearance.)
Another potential standout that explores Japanese history -- and the Japanese character -- from a sharp angle is Momoko Ando’s epic three-hour road movie, 0.5mm, adapted from her novel and starring her sister as a caregiver for the elderly. Festival guests include actor Tadanobu Asano with three films, including the opening night revival of the 2001 action film Electric Dragon 80,000V at the Castro (Aug. 7), and anime director Koji Morimoto. For details visit jffsf.org.
Some people live their lives like a performance, even if they don’t have a reality show. Going through life that way can be an act of resistance and defiance to the dominant culture. A rare quality of inspiring provocation links the trio of uncompromising nonfiction works in the YBCA series Maggot Brains: Black Sci-Fi, Punk and Experimental Film. Presented in conjunction with the current exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, the series leads off with filmmaker Khalik Allah in the house with Field Niggas (Aug. 15), his riveting one-hour portrait of the folks hanging out on the main Harlem corner of 125th and Lex. Bad Brains: A Band in DC (Aug. 22) rings the changes of the punk-reggae pioneers, while the one-of-a-kind Last Angel of History (Aug. 29) places outsider artists like George Clinton in a science-fiction context. Strangers in a strange land, so to speak. For details visit ybca.org/maggot-brains.
Not a fan of Frank Sinatra the actor? Name another singer who could play dramatic roles with conviction and power. (Elvis? Streisand? Bowie? Sting? Harry Connick, Jr.? Bjork? I rest my case.) To celebrate the Chairman’s centenary, film programmer and Chronicle writer Ruthe Stein is packing 11 flicks into a stamina-testing weekend of toe-tapping revelation. Ring-A-Ding-Ding: The Movies of Frank Sinatra (Aug. 21-23 at the Vogue) includes his Oscar-nominated performances in From Here to Eternity and The Man With the Golden Arm, as well as the underappreciated gems The Joker Is Wild and Suddenly. If you’re content to be seduced by Sinatra’s voice, moves and style, set aside Saturday for the musicals Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls, Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The greats truly live forever. For details visit voguesf.com.
You can get whiplash leaping from the '50s to the '70s or, in the case of extreme games pioneer Evel Knievel, launching your motorcycle over 14 Greyhound buses. In truth, Robert Craig Knievel of Butte, Montana, wasn’t an athlete so much as a showman and self-promoter. His jumps, over such “landmarks” as Caesars Palace’s fountains and Idaho’s Snake River Canyon, captured the country’s imagination and eyeballs throughout the 1970s. The star-spangled show-off was the ideal American hero (along with Bruce Jenner) for the Bicentennial. Daniel Junge’s garish documentary Being Evel (Aug. 21-27 at the Roxie) reintroduces a figure driven to extraordinary lengths (and heights) to achieve celebrity. Dare I say it, he was ahead of his time. For details visit roxie.com.