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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

DVD+Digital: Norwegian Wood

Posted by on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 4:36 PM

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  • Soda Pictures
Based on a hugely popular 1987 Japanese novel, the quiet drama NORWEGIAN WOOD is a haunting coming-of-age story that explores love and loss against the backdrop of 1960s Tokyo.

As his fellow students protest and march—Tokyo had its '60s radicals, too—brooding college student Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) falls into a romantic affair with the delicate, damaged Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). The two come together in unspoken grief after the suicide of their mutual friend, Kizuki, who was also Naoko's first love.

The young couple's first sexual encounter leads to a emotional breakdown for Naoko, who retreats to a countryside sanitarium. Watanabe, meanwhile, executes a retreat of his own—into books and ideas and the new vistas of college life. He soon encounters the beautiful, free-spirited Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), whose sunniness seems a light at the end of his tunnel. Then things get complicated.

Norwegian Wood is a beautiful and melancholy film that moves to its own unhurried rhythms. Not much happens, but when it does, it's tidal in force. Young love, the film suggests, is the same in any era or place—baffling, euphoric and occasionally scary as hell.

One fascinating aspect of the film's love stories is that, for the central characters, the sex is anything but casual. The young adults in Norwegian Wood are suspended between Japanese cultural tradition and the glad tidings of the sexual revolution drifting in from the West. For them, sex is decidedly liberating—but also inseparable from honesty, responsibility and loyalty.

Director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya) uses music to underline themes of past versus future; yesterday versus tomorrow. The traditional orchestral score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is punctuated by snippets from the Doors and the Beatles. Keep in mind this is 1960s Tokyo, back when Japanese hipsters shopped for American vinyl records, and not the other way around.

Norwegian Wood is one of those great little films you can usually find migrating to home video in any given week. The film had a limited release in a few North American cities earlier this year, but otherwise you'd need to have attended a festival in Toronto or Venice to catch this one.

The Extras: English subtitles, an hour-long making-of doc and a featurette on the film's premiere at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Lion award.

Formats: DVD and various digital platforms.

Also New This Week:

- Liam Neeson continues his oddly convincing makeover into hard-guy action hero with THE GREY (DVD/Blu-ray/digital) concerning planes crashes, wolves and Dermot Mulroney.

- The acclaimed indie doc WE WERE HERE (DVD/digital) documents the AIDS crisis in 1980s San Francisco through archival footage and eyewitness accounts.

- The sci-fi drama CHRONICLE (DVD/Blu-ray/digital) was a surprise critical and commercial success earlier this year, and suggests that the found-footage gimmick isn't totally played out yet.

Plus: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer in their Oscar-nominated roles in the historical drama ALBERT NOBBS, Woody Harrelson in the cop drama RAMPART, Old Scratch in the exorcism thriller THE DEVIL INSIDE and the Criterion Collection's reissue of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH on Blu-ray and DVD.

+ + +

You know what, let's just stay in and watch a movie...

Every week, the home video market is swamped with new titles released to DVD, Blu-ray and various digital platforms. Only a handful of these, typically wide-release Hollywood pictures, make it into rotation on Redbox or retail rental shelves.

If you dig around, though, you can find—in any given week—literally dozens of new movies, old reissues, TV series collections, independent films, documentaries and foreign films.

The technology of home video distribution is changing, too. Various digital release platforms (online, on cable, on demand, on and on … ) are threatening to send DVD into that vast graveyard of outdated physical media.

It's a strange time. If there's a new movie you want to see, you might have a dozen different options for getting it to your living room TV. Or maybe you want to watch on your laptop. Or your iPad. Or—if you've given up on image fidelity entirely—your smart phone.

With the weekly DVD + Digital column, I hope to cut through some of the noise and recommend the best titles on home video for the discerning movie night enthusiast. On any week, the best movie on home video is seldom the wide-release blockbuster—although sometimes it is.

I'll also be keeping tabs on format. Indie movies and foreign films are often released just to DVD, or just to digital. New reissues of old classics are often Blu-ray only. If you're looking to add to your video library, some titles are bundled in combo packs with Blu-ray, DVD, digital and hours of excruciating minutia.

The day will surely come when all of our entertainment is narrowcast directly to our frontal lobes by our cybernetic overlords. But until then, we should take advantage of our unprecedented home entertainment options and enjoy this golden age of sitting on the couch.

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