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The New Queer Cinema Burns On in BAM’s Grand Jarman Retro

Fire figures prominently in the passionate, furious films of Derek Jarman: the conflagrations that consume London streets in Jubilee (1978), the flares and torches held aloft in The Angelic Conversation (1985), the infernos that roar in The Last of England (1987), the flame-colored tresses of Tilda Swinton, who made her screen debut in Caravaggio (1986) and remained an indispensable collaborator until the director’s death, at age 52, in 1994. BAMcinématek’s complete Jarman retrospective — featuring all 11 of his features, several short- and medium-length works (many shot on Super 8), and music videos — provides a welcome, too-rare opportunity to marvel at the director’s burning talent and inextinguishable energy. A pioneering force in queer cinema, Jarman was not only one of Britain’s most fearless, uncompromising filmmakers, but also a diarist, poet, painter, activist — and committed gardener. His diagnosis as HIV-positive in late 1986 did nothing to slow down his prodigious output; he made six films between 1987 and 1993.

Born in 1942 in Middlesex County to a high-ranking pilot in the British military, Jarman moved around the globe as a child. From 1963 to 1967, he studied at London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. A career in stage design followed, leading to work as the production designer on Ken Russell’s feverish freak-out The Devils (1971; included in the BAM series). Co-directed with Paul Humfress, Jarman’s debut feature, Sebastiane (1976), would be even more audacious: Shot mostly in Sardinia, this life of the saint is performed entirely in vulgar Latin and teems with both naked soldiers making out in slo-mo and BDSM tableaux. (One veteran officer remains unimpressed by all the homo concupiscence: “When I was young, there were real orgies.”)

Sebastiane was the first of Jarman’s four iconoclastic, anachronistic interventions into the biopic, each of which foregrounds the queerness of its subject. Caravaggio, a simultaneously lush and austere reimagining of the Baroque master — played by Nigel Terry, another crucial member of Jarman’s stable of actors — waggishly features calculators, tuxedoes, typewriters, and light-jazz combos in 16th-century Italy. Despite the visual gags, Caravaggio is a profoundly ardent work, anatomizing a painter who found bedmates and subjects in both a street fighter (Sean Bean) and that pugilist’s lady (Swinton).

Edward II (1991), in which Jarman remixes Christopher Marlowe’s play about the 14th-century regent as a tale of gay insurgency, stands as one of the foundational titles of the New Queer Cinema. (A scene from the movie, showing two nude studs locked in a deep kiss, appeared on the cover of the 1992 issue of the Voice in which critic B. Ruby Rich laid out the defining characteristics of the burgeoning lavender film movement.) The king (Steve Waddington), forced to banish his inamorato (Andrew Tiernan) owing to the machinations of the monarch’s wife (Swinton) and Lord Mortimer (Terry, bedecked in WWII battle wear), finds himself surrounded by an army of lovers: 30 members of OutRage!, at the time an ascendant LGBT activist group that included Jarman as a member. Gentler in tone, Wittgenstein (1993), the last of the director’s singular, eros-fueled biographies, is easily the most spirited treatment of analytic philosophy ever committed to film. Its sensibility is best summarized by this quote from the Austrian-born logician of the title, read aloud by his pubescent incarnation: “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

As often as Jarman looked to the past in his films, several of his works, even those that don’t fully abandon time-toggling, seethe with the urgency of the here and now. London is terrorized by a sextet of distaff intifadists in the abovementioned Jubilee, tartly named for the silver jubilee commemorating the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne, pomp and circumstance that absorbed much of the U.K.’s attention in 1977, the year the film was shot. While this revolution is being carried out, whether in cafés where ketchup bottles are weaponized or on the city’s rubble-strewn streets (ghastly souvenirs of the Blitz three decades prior), a diabolical media mogul cackles, “As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.” That music — by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wayne County, and an Adam Ant so baby-faced that his character is listed as “Kid” in the credits — is the soundtrack of a nation soon to be riven by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative agenda.

While his own body was being ravaged by AIDS, his eyesight growing dimmer and dimmer, Jarman conceived of a project that, brilliantly and paradoxically, visualizes his sightlessness. Blue (1993), his final film, consists solely of one single frame of the title color, very close on the spectrum to the signature deep hue of the French artist Yves Klein. For 75 minutes, we stare at an unchanging ultramarine screen, listening to a dense audio collage dominated by Jarman’s first-person observations (voiced primarily by Terry and John Quentin, who played a dandyish John Maynard Keynes in Wittgenstein). Its rich text filled with details of hospital visits and the side effects of antivirals, and with the multiple metaphors engendered by the eponymous tint, Blue is many things — sober and puckish, elegiac yet intensely alive — but never maudlin. Above all, it is the work of an artist who, even in the last year of his life, was still incandescent.

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The Bug

As the stoic force behind God, Techno Animal, King Midas Sound, and the Bug, Kevin Martin has made a career out of fracturing clichés of dub, dancehall, dubstep, and more without sacrificing global legibility. His 2008 LP as the Bug, London Zoo, is a masterpiece of dystopian anger and frustration, with tracks that still easily bring the house down at UK bashments. Martin’s newest release as the Bug, Angels & Devils, is built upon his contradictory impulses for club music versus compositions that slot more easily into everyday life, as well as commenting on the modern fluidity between who or what is actually an angel or a devil in this increasingly opaque world. Concerts from the Bug are famous for Martin’s uncompromising approach to total sonic bombardment – he should be one of the biggest tests yet for Output’s Funktion-One system, aided by his touring MC Manga. The always-unpredictable Actress supports.

Wed., Oct. 8, 10 p.m., 2014

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The Ebullient Pride Pairs Miners and Gay Activists in ’80s Wales

It says something about current global affairs that a movie set during the U.K. miners’ strike of the mid-1980s — an event that tore lives to shreds, representing a dismal and damaging period in late-20th-century British history — is likely to make you feel better rather than worse about the world. Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus, is a fictionalized account of how a group of gay and lesbian activists in 1984 London responded to Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to crush the miners unions, temporarily sidelining their own battles to raise funds for the striking workers and their families. Pride is an unapologetic feel-good movie, which means it pushes many predictable buttons: There are places where the music swells in rousing, overly manipulative waves. There’s the obligatory scene of an upright Welshwoman (Imelda Staunton) in sturdy tweeds and sensible pumps encountering a dildo for (ostensibly) the first time — she waves it in the air triumphantly, cackling like a Cymry Girl Gone Wild.

But by the time she starts swinging that Day-Glo dong around, you’ll probably be laughing with her: Pride is so ebullient and good-natured it would be hard not to, though part of what makes the movie work is its willingness to tread into the more somber corners of its subject matter — all the action takes place just as the AIDS epidemic has begun to decimate the gay community, thus opening up new avenues of hatred for bigots and fools. Warchus, working from a script by Stephen Beresford, may not be the most graceful director: Pride hits some bumpy patches when it switches gears between comedy and gentle pathos, which it does often. But its spirit is bold enough to power through the rough spots. It’s easy to find fault with Pride, but it’s not so easy to resist it.

Relative newcomer Ben Schnetzer (who recently appeared in The Book Thief) plays Mark Ashton, a charismatic young activist who, just as he’s ready to hit the 1984 Gay Pride march, catches a news spot about the miners’ plight. Feeling an immediate kinship with these men and their families — they too are struggling under Thatcher’s wrinkled, deadly thumb — he grabs a few buckets and begins collecting donations. At first there’s the usual skepticism from his compatriots, among them the shy, nervous bookstore owner Gethin (Andrew Scott), his flamboyant partner Jonathan (Dominic West), and saucy, slightly brittle Steph (Faye Marsay): Will these hardworking country people want such help, or even accept it? Mark, the group’s de facto firecracker, sweeps reticence aside. Before long, they’ve picked a random Welsh mining town off a map and made a phone call: A union lodge rep, Dai (Paddy Considine), comes to London to accept the money they’ve collected, not realizing that these well-meaning individuals seem to be nothing like him.

They are, of course, very much like him; Pride is all about the need for erasing minor differences and connecting over all the things that make us human, whether that’s a love of music and dancing, the satisfaction that comes from a day of hard work, or the comfort of having family close by. When Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) descends on the town it has chosen, its members are met with a mix of curiosity, distrust, and outright hostility. Then a number of inevitable movie-world things happen: The group gets taken on a tour of the area’s finest ancient ruin by the whispery-quiet Cliff (Bill Nighy), the town’s voice of reason but also, because of his love of poetry, the subject of some ridicule: “This is a Welsh castle — none of your Norman rubbish.” When the eternally outgoing Jonathan notes the village women’s disappointment that their men — sturdy, silent guys who are happiest downing a pint –won’t dance, he gets the bright idea of giving dance lessons to the blokes, telling them it’s the best way to pull girls. Staunton’s Hefina flutters around the London crowd like a mother hen. The town biddy, Maureen (Lisa Palfrey), who disapproves of all things L and G, is slowly, and not too easily, won over. And the youngest member of LGSM, a provincial kid named Joe (George MacKay), takes the necessary but painful step of leaving his own disapproving family behind.

A lot happens in Pride, and the movie has a sprawling, wayward quality — there’s no easily diagrammed dramatic arc here. But Warchus keeps the circus moving efficiently, and he shows a deft touch in some of the picture’s more delicate scenes, particularly one involving a tense reunion between a mother and son. Pride isn’t, it’s important to note, a movie that makes one group’s concerns seem more significant than another’s — it’s simply a story about people stepping in to help when it’s needed. And at its best, it’s simply filled with joy: When the LGSM group first meets Considine’s Dai, with his chin dimple, his sweet country manners, and his Sunday tweed jacket, they find him so adorable — and boy, is he! — that they spontaneously push him onstage at a gay cabaret, so he can thank the patrons himself. He’s nervous at first, and the crowd doesn’t know what to make of him, either. But he wins them over with a joke, laying the first brick in the foundation of a seemingly unlikely kinship. The world we live in now sometimes seems to be falling apart. It’s comforting to watch something being built for a change.

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Brutal Prison Drama Starred Up Stirs Rare Empathy

The beginning of David Mackenzie’s U.K. prison drama, Starred Up, might make you wonder if you’ll survive to the end: We see a kid with a hard-eyed, shutdown face being matriculated at a new jail — apparently, he’s outgrown his old one, and so he’s been “starred up,” or prematurely transferred from a juvenile facility to an adult one. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O’Connell) defies the guards from the first moment — his glower is almost a kind of shiv by itself. Within moments of being shoved into his new cell, he expertly fashions a weapon out of a toothbrush and a razor blade. His face, meanwhile, is a wall of nothing. How will we ever feel anything for this kid when it’s almost impossible to look at him?

But a small miracle happens in Starred Up, the sort of thing that comes together when filmmakers and actors know what they’re doing. Eric never has the full-redemption epiphany, the thing you always expect to get from prison dramas — Starred Up doesn’t hand anything to us that easily. This is an unsparing picture, one whose violence, though deftly handled, is bone-crunchingly rough. Yet its emotional contours are surprisingly delicate, thanks, in large part to O’Connell’s performance. Before long, you have a stake in Eric’s life, perhaps more so than he does himself.

Eric isn’t being transferred to just any old prison: This is the one where his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn, in a taut, finely calibrated performance), has also been incarcerated for God-knows-how-long. Neville, a wiry scrapper whose skin is dotted with ill-advised tattoos — the kind that mark a person who knows he’ll never need to bother with the outside world — steps forward, roughly, to show Eric the ropes. But Eric can’t be sure of his father’s motives, or whether this association will help or hinder him as he navigates the prison hierarchy. He’s even more distrustful of Oliver (Rupert Friend), the almost unnervingly composed counselor who urges prison administrators to allow Eric to attend the anger-management sessions he oversees. “I can reach him,” he pleads. The prison honchos (Sam Spruell and Sian Breckin) give their permission, with a shrug. They have more invested in keeping Eric angry and violent: His irredeemability justifies their jobs and maybe even their existence.

Getting Eric to attend the sessions seems hopeless anyway. He’s too angry to be corralled: At one point, while handcuffed, he corners a guard and somehow — you barely see how it happens — sinks his jaws into the poor guy’s crotch, holding him hostage until Oliver, who happens to witness the scene, can talk him down. In another sequence, Eric startles out of bed when a fellow inmate innocently steps into his cell, offering the use of a lighter he’d asked for earlier. Without knowing what he’s doing, he knocks the guy out, but he’s instantly remorseful when he sees what he’s done, the first glimpse of any sort of conscience, or even human feeling, that he shows.

O’Connell — who also stars in Yann Demange’s upcoming Belfast-set drama, ’71, which earned sturdy praise when it premiered at Cannes last May — shows us more of that vulnerability as the story moves forward, but he releases it only drop by drop, like a morphine drip. He never does anything so obvious as smile, but fragments of light gradually show in his eyes. He’s wonderful in the scenes with his fellow counseling attendees: Their raunchy conversations turn fiercely emotional whenever the subject turns, even glancingly, toward any of the inmates’ mothers. When Eric steps into one of these heated conversations to keep the peace, he shows faint glimmers of leadership. For the first time, you wonder what this kid might be capable of if he weren’t stuck in the prison system.

Mackenzie, an astute, sensitive director, has made a number of pictures that haven’t gotten their due, particularly the quietly captivating 2011 sci-fi romance Perfect Sense, in which Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play a chef and a scientist, respectively, who fall in love just as the Earth is swept by an epidemic that erodes sensory perception. Starred Up — which was written by first-time screenwriter Jonathan Asser, who himself has a background working as a therapist in the prison system — has been made with precision and restraint. As harrowing as some of the depicted incidents are — this is prison, after all — Mackenzie resists sensationalism, preferring to keep his sights on the human element. By the end, he’s worked a kind of alchemy. Early on, the prison administrators don’t seem like such horrible people: They have the faces of regular folks, just going about their admittedly challenging jobs. But once we’ve gotten to know them, it becomes harder and harder to look at their faces — their phony rectitude registers as a grim mask, and their true ugliness radiates from deep within. By that point, Eric’s face and those of his fellow inmates have come to seem beautiful in the roughest, most soulful way. There’s no easy redemption in Starred Up, except maybe our own: Somehow, a pissed-off, messed-up kid wins us over.

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The White Album

At the time of his death, in May 1981, Bob Marley was 36 years old, reggae’s biggest star, and the father of at least eleven children. He was not, however, a big seller.

For Dave Robinson, this presented an opportunity.

Two years after Marley’s passing, Chris Blackwell, the founder of Marley’s label, Island Records, brought Robinson in to run his U.K. operation. Robinson’s first assignment was to put out a compilation of Bob Marley’s hits. He took one look at the artist’s sales figures and was shocked.

Marley’s best-selling album, 1977’s Exodus, had only moved about 650,000 units in the U.S. and fewer than 200,000 in the U.K. They were not shabby numbers, but they weren’t in line with his profile.

“Marley was a labor of love for employees of Island Records,” says Charly Prevost, who ran Island in the United States for a time in the ’80s. “U2 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Robert Palmer is what paid your salary.”

Blackwell handed Robinson — the cofounder of Stiff Records, famous for rock acts such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello — an outline of his vision for the compilation, which Blackwell says presented Marley as somewhat “militant.”

“I always saw Bob as someone who had a strong kind of political feeling,” he says, “somebody who was representing the dispossessed of the world.”

Robinson balked. He’d seen the way Island had marketed Marley in the past and believed it was precisely this type of portrayal that was responsible for the mediocre numbers.

“Record companies can, just like a documentary, slant [their subjects] in whatever direction they like,” Robinson says. “If you don’t get the demographic right and sorted in your mind, you can present it just slightly off to the left or the right. I thought that was happening and had restricted his possible market.”

Robinson believed he could sell a million copies of the album, but to do it he would have to repackage not just a collection of songs but Marley himself.

“My vision of Bob from a marketing point of view,” Robinson says, “was to sell him to the white world.”

Read the full story in this week’s Village Voice: “The White Album: How Bob Marley Posthumously Became a Household Name

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Glass Animals

Glass Animals only released their album debut Zaba earlier this month, but one look at the album cover—shadowy illustration of a purple anteater and wild jungle creatures lurking amidst an exotic wilderness backdrop—gives the viewer a pretty detailed indication of the Oxford hypnotronic band’s plush, rich, velvety sound. Echoes of Nina Simone, Portishead, and, fittingly, UK electronic dance band Jungle, create the experience of floating on The African Queen, or of listening to Heart of Darkness if the novel were an album instead. Despite half of their lyrics floating in a viscous puddle of literary references or unintelligible terms of endearment, the grooves are smooth and Zaba is one of this year’s most striking debuts. Their live performance should be a hypnotizing adventure too, even if it is through a man-made wilderness.

Mon., July 7, 9 p.m., 2014

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The UK Children’s Series Postman Pat: The Movie Gets an American Release

Mike Disa’s entertaining Postman Pat: The Movie is based on a long-running stop-motion BBC children’s series which is hugely popular in the U.K. but has never quite made a dent in America, possibly because it’s deeply British.

That Britishness hasn’t been toned down for the domestic release of the feature film, including borderline ethnic jokes about the Irish and Scottish, and that’s a good thing.

The setup is fairly standard: When Pat (Stephen Mangan) fails to receive the bonus he was going to use to take wife Sara (Susan Duerden) on an Italian vacation, he auditions for a Britain’s Got Talent–type show, unexpectedly becoming a national celebrity and Losing Sight of the Things That Really Matter.

Meanwhile, an evil postal executive (Peter Woodward) creates robotic doubles of Pat, and a rival talent agent (Doctor Who‘s David Tennant, letting his full Scottish burr fly) tries to sabotage Pat’s ascent. The animation doesn’t attempt to recreate the Rankin/Bass–style texture of the original show, instead using a simple CGI which adequately services the surprisingly sharp and witty script.

Postman Pat: The Movie is one of the best family films to come down the pike this year, and not just because this year has also brought us The Nut Job and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.

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UNDER THE SEA

Swoon, the street artist whose intricate life-size portraits made her famous, is taking her work indoors with a site-specific installation at the Brooklyn Museum. A landscape that centers on a large sculptural tree, Swoon: Submerged Motherlands includes “sculpted boats and rafts, figurative prints and drawings, and cut paper foliage.” The piece is a response to climate change, inspired both by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy as well as Doggerland, a landmass that bridged Great Britain and Europe 8,000 years ago before being wiped out by a tsunami.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: April 11. Continues through Aug. 24, 2014

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BOYS WILL BE BOYS

Since 2009, The Wanted have endured the extremes of boy band drama, from a beef with their main competitors, fellow U.K. kids One Direction, to romancing Lindsay Lohan, to a one-season reality show on the E! network. Unfortunately, their tumultuous time together is coming to an end as they plan to take a “hiatus” to “pursue other projects” after their tour. Though they have continued to do well back home, The Wanted can only count “Glad You Came” off their 2011 album, Battleground, as their one big U.S. hit. Seeing them now may be your last opportunity to give their tunes another chance — at least until the inevitable reunion tour.

Tue., April 8, 8 p.m., 2014

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OPPOSITES ATTRACT

Arriving from London, the real-life love story of a beauty (the delicious Julie 
Atlas Muz, a former Miss Coney Island 
and downtown performer whose neo-
burlesque works have transfixed dance 
and art fans for nearly two decades) and a “beast” (Mat Fraser, the English musician, actor, and performance artist born with vestigial arms who married Muz two years ago) is woven into the Grimms’ fairy tale. Directed by Phelim McDermott of the 
English theater company Improbable and featuring explicit sexual situations, Beauty and the Beast has been lauded in the British press. Leave the kids at home.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: March 13. Continues through March 30, 2014