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Tom Petty+Steve Winwood

On the surface, the two rock legends don’t have much in common. Petty has made a name for himself with his jaunty folk-rock and hard-rock, the buoyancy of which is counterbalanced by melancholic lyrics that speak to the poetics of Middle American existence; Winwood, on the other hand, is known for his transition from precocious soulster with the Spencer Davis Group, to hippy groovemaker with Traffic and Blind Faith, to ambassador of gentlemanly blue-eyed soul. These are very different musicians making very different music, but what makes the Petty/Winwood double bill perfect is the sheer fact that both artists represent the pure diversity of rock ‘n’ roll at a time when we need its unifying qualities the most. If an originally African-American music can lead a boy from Birmingham, England to share a Madison Square Garden stage with a kid from Gainesville, FL, it can do so much for us in these times of fundamentalism and hyper-militarism. Damn the torpedoes, bring us a higher love!

Wed., Sept. 10, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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MUGGLE BORN

Last month, J.K. Rowling released a new short story featuring the wizard himself, (conspicuously?) in tandem with the grand opening of Universal’s Diagon Alley theme park attraction in Orlando. Publicity stunt or not, it was undeniably comforting to catch up with Harry and the gang, a great big Hagrid-hug for our inner child. Break out the robes, polish up the wands, practice your bad British accents and keep reliving the magic today at PotterCon. The annual gathering of now grown-up Harry Potter fans features a costume contest, games, trivia, and plenty of Butterbeer—the alcoholic kind. Get assigned to a Hogwarts house during the sorting ceremony and trade spells, memories, and revisionist fan-fic endings with your fellow Pottheads. Maybe your owl just got lost en route from England, there’s still hope!

Sat., Aug. 2, 2 p.m., 2014

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Wild Beasts

It’s been a few years since Wild Beasts released the excellent Smother, and the Kendal, England four-piece are back with their fourth full-length, Present Tense, which is quite possibly their most streamlined effort to date. Recorded in London with producer and engineer Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Imogen Heap), the ambitious album is heavy with the band’s signature psychic weight as vocalist Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto, divisive and ethereal as ever, floats above his band’s grumbling, ‘80s- and ‘90s-indebted synths.

Tue., March 4, 9 p.m., 2014

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A Field in England Is a Grim and Hilarious Hallucination

A grim and hilarious hallucination in monochrome, Ben Wheatley’s small-budget historical freak-out A Field in England ticks madly between unities-honoring classical drama, language-drunk existentialism, cock-brandishing Elizabethan ribaldry, and the muskets-and-sorcery madness of some as yet unconceived Vertigo comics series, one where the old ball-and-powder somehow has anachronistic power to blow right through a man’s head.

The film, Wheatley’s fourth, feels both reckless yet fully controlled, a jest that’s dead serious in the manner of Yorick’s skull, which gets a sort of cameo in the final act. Wheatley’s characters — deserters from a skirmish in England’s 17th-century civil war — wander about in the field of the title, a grand sloping meadow of the sort that British poets, rock stars, and teenagers have long considered the ideal place to get high in. It proves itself a fully singular and tough-to-shake experience even before its characters honor that national tradition by stuffing psychotropic mushrooms into their whiskery gobs. The next reel is best described by an exclamation uttered by one of Wheatley’s bearded, bespattered louts: “Shits and thistles!” Wheatley (who edited with Amy Jump, also the screenwriter) splits images in half and then flipbooks between them so that newer, stranger images emerge as other, vaguely threatening ones seem to swell up between them. It’s sweaty, disorienting, thrilling. Rarely has a narrative feature so marvelously integrated a sequence of experimental filmmaking, and that sequence alone guarantees A Field in England should thrive on the midnight circuit.

It’s got more going for it than such psilocybic spirit, of course. The story’s an unsettling series of fake-outs and take-backs, with the four deserters first agreeing to hunt down some ale (“Beer ‘as its own way of sorting things out, does it not?” one exclaims) and then applying themselves to mysterious tasks that make sense at the time. Everybody yanks together, with all their mettle, on a rope that runs out into the mist, its far end out of sight. The men find themselves hunting an enemy of Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), assistant to an alchemist-astrologer and the representative of something new and confounding to his compatriots: an educated middle class. Neither gentlemen nor yob, soft-handed Whitehead finds himself wholly out of place with soldiers and tough-guy drunks, never more so than when he corners his quarry, the cruel and wily O’Neil (Michael Smiley), who purports to be a conjurer. Whether there’s magic involved in any of this the filmmakers leave up to you, but credit O’Neil (and the persuasive, discomfiting Smiley) with this: the power to turn these men to still stranger purposes.

“I think I ‘ave worked out what God is punishing us for,” one man moans as he toils for yet another new master. “Everything.” Only Whitehead, who has lucked into a bit of book-learning, seems to believe his life shouldn’t be shaped by whatever bully happens to have more power than he does. “The only knowledge I have is that God controls my fate as he sees fit, and I try to draw consolation from that,” one man tells Whitehead, and the others, even one who fights against O’Neil’s tyranny, seem to agree. The dialogue is rich and sticky as English dessert, its archaic poetry one of the film’s chief pleasures. Just moments in, an officer shouts, “Your pretty parts are doomed, homunculus!”

Equally strong is the look of that field, shot in a sumptuous, silver-toned black-and-white. Fogs blow in, winds rub the tall grass, blood drips from a weed, and a black planet — perhaps an eclipse — sometimes seem to be just about to press down upon us all. There are magnificent reveries: a caterpillar inching along a branch, the mists melting into the sun, the cast occasionally arranged into still-life tableaux, standing motionless like they’re working with a painter rather than terrifically gifted filmmakers. (Kudos to director of photography Laurie Rose.)

Meanwhile, the men wield shovels and muskets and their own comic pricks toward each other, none of which is as effective as Jump’s plummy, gutter-foul language. Only the last few minutes, with their familiar violent standoffs, seem built of the stuff of other movies, but each image carries a peculiar, out-of-time resonance: These men, at the dawn of the modern mind, have the wits to abandon a meaningless war, but they still can think of nothing better to do than to shoot each other. That the filmmakers can’t think of anything better, either, might be an exposé of a culture in decline rather than a manifestation of it.

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OCEANS RISING

On February 5, 2004, a group of undocumented Chinese immigrant workers were collecting cockles on the coast of the Morecambe Bay in northwestern England when a massive tide engulfed them, killing 21 men and women and leaving 15 survivors. Ten Thousand Waves, a film installation by Isaac Julien at the Museum of Modern Art, is based on this tragic event. The 55-minute film shows modern-day Chinese culture while countering it with ancient myths — including the fable of the goddess Mazu, which is a story that originates from the native lands of the Morecambe Bay workers. Other artists who contributed to this display include calligrapher Gong Fagen, film and video artist Yang Fudong, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoshi, and poet Wang Ping, whose poem “Small Boats” is recited in the film.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Nov. 25. Continues through Feb. 17, 2013

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A Remarkable Story Made Mechanical, Nicky’s Family’s Presentation Undermines the Film’s Heroic Subject Matter

Nicholas Winton, a comfortable young banker in 1930s England, could have, like most of his countrymen before World War II, carried on with his life. Instead, made aware of Hitler’s movements, he took it upon himself to whisk as many Jewish children as possible out of Czechoslovakia, to be fostered by English families. It was a cruel blessing, ripping young children away from loving families to protect them. Winton managed to save nearly 700, many around kindergarten age and younger. He was ambitious and creative, even faking passports to leapfrog over bureaucratic delays. Winton, now more than 100 years old, kept quiet about his deed, so this story didn’t get out until the 1980s, when his wife found his scrapbook, a meticulous documentation of this “kindertransport.” Unfortunately, Nicky’s Family, writer-director Matej Minac’s documentary on Winton’s story, is as mechanical as a classroom lesson. It is eerie to see numbers hanging from the children’s necks as they are hustled onto trains; their parents would be given other numbers entirely. And it is moving to hear the saved children, now old folks, recount their memories and describe their lives. It’s a shame the way the film’s narrative is undermined by long stretches of soulless re-enactments, by a well-meaning but energy-sapping final tribute, and by haphazard storytelling. Yet it recounts, of course, a far greater shame. Winton helped humanity redeem itself, and that alone redeems this film.

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Even with Gritty Storytelling and Experimental Cinematography, Broken Devolves into Melodrama

A developmentally disabled man (Rory Kinnear) is falsely accused of rape, brutally beaten, arrested, acquitted, and freed in the first 10 minutes of Broken, a briskly paced study of familial collapse and neighborly decay in middle-class England. Theater director Rufus Norris translates the spatial confines of the stage into a clever narrative framework that surveys the ripple effects that neighbors of a suburban cul-de-sac have on one another’s lives. A triad of sisters and their bellicose father inadvertently launch a cascade of violence that ends in heartbreak and death, while, on a lighter note, a pair of teenage twins, symbolizing arbitrary misfortune, roll around the neighborhood flinging poop at passersby like anarchy on a scooter. Observing—and reluctantly growing up into—this civilizational decline is 11-year-old Skunk (Eloise Laurence), a sweet, smart, diabetic girl terrified of starting middle school. She soon falls prey to the sisters, though her father (Tim Roth) and teacher (Cillian Murphy) do their paternal best to help her recover. Through grainy cinematography, frequent use of handheld cameras, and the hermetic setting, the film is necessarily both intimate and claustrophobic. Even more admirable is its refreshingly impatient editing, which adopts a kind of shorthand storytelling in some scenes and a deftly garbled chronology in others that feels like the future of filmic syntax. Unfortunately, Broken lives up to its mawkish title, and the slice-of-life tragedies of the film’s first half devolve into manipulative melodrama in the latter part. When society breaks, the spell does, too.

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The Castle’s Rotten 12th-Century Power Struggle Looks Like Our Own

A lusty battalion of men comes home from the Crusades, only to fight a tougher war—a battle of the sexes. After all, it’s the fictitious 12th century in this hallucination of not-so-merry Olde England. Women are claiming new roles in defiance of the marauding menfolk, and paternal order must be restored. A new fortress-society will be built—reinforced with religious doctrine, mandatory allegiance to the phallus, and plenty of capital punishment. Let the moral tailspin begin!

The Castle, Howard Barker’s stark and sometimes funny 1985 drama, takes a long, dark view of gender and oppression, offering an epic tinged with neo-Marxist reflections on patriarchy (and perhaps Thatcherism). If you’re willing to fathom the depths of this bleak dramatist’s imagination—starting when the elevator descends four stories underground for an evening at Atlantic Stage 2—your strenuous viewing may be amply rewarded.

Barker, whose scathing and sardonic indictments of society helped redefine British drama in the 1970s and ’80s, steers away from conventional realism. As they speak, The Castle‘s warriors, priests, and villagers navigate through clouds of their own nonsensical thoughts, rarely articulated directly, even in their frequent addresses to the audience.

Admittedly, the drama can feel ponderous and hard to watch. As with some of the Potomac Theatre Project’s previous Barker stagings—this is its 10th annual New York presentation—this production, directed by Richard Romagnoli, doesn’t supply many theatrical outlets for the radical elements in the writing. The austere visuals—think body bags and burlap tunics—and dull stage tableaux don’t make it easier to take in the play’s verbal density.

But two high-wattage performances light up Barker’s elliptical psychologies with charge and nuance. As Stucley, a boyish knight who alternates between sweet talk and violent vulgarity, David Barlow embodies male insecurity and sexual frustration—underlining his contradictory impulses of control and fear. And Barker veteran Jan Maxwell delivers a transcendent performance as the witch Skinner, a victim who turns executioner in an exuberant reversal of political fortune. Her chilling final monologue transports Barker’s apocalyptic prophecy to new dimensions, unleashing a fury of desire and vengeance. When Maxwell howls for demolishing a rotten power structure, this collapsing 12th century suddenly feels a lot like our own.

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Beth Orton

England’s Beth Orton is another artist that has been combining traditional acoustic and folk sounds with more modern, electronic production. Her spare, intensely personal lyrics are complemented by plinking piano notes and melancholy strings that add a jazzy element to the simple songs. Although she’s been around for a while and collaborated with her fair share of musicians—including Ryan Adams and the Chemical Brothers—it’s on her own that Orton shines, and 2012’s Sugaring Season is fresh and well timed.

Tue., July 30, 9 p.m., 2013

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SMALL WONDERS

Puppets, action figures, dolls, sticks, bits of cloth: Does this sound like kid’s stuff? How wrong you are. For 10 years, St. Ann’s Warehouse has hosted the Toy Theater Festival, produced by Great Small Works, a celebration of adult entertainments performed by some very particular thespians. They may be lifeless, but they’re hardly inanimate. In addition to a toy theater museum, a gala benefit, a parade, and a public workshop, the festival will feature shows by performers who hail from Mexico, England, Germany, and throughout the U.S. These small-scale, big-dream dramas center on reptiles, mummies, superheroes, rickshaws, superstorms, nuns, Occupy Wall Street, the storming of the Winter Palace, a wild night at the Roman pantheon, and a one-man, multi-toy Oklahoma!

June 14-23, 2013