Raleigh News & Observer

According to scientific studies, most people don’t laugh out loud when alone. When you’re by yourself and read or watch something funny, you might smile or even chuckle a little. Laughter in a crowd is contagious, but full-on laughter by yourself is a strictly spontaneous reaction.

So it must mean something that I laughed out loud a dozen times – all by my lonesome – watching “Damsels in Distress,” the delightful new comedy from director Whit Stillman.

The weird thing is, “Damsels” isn’t really a laugh-out-loud kind of movie. A modest, eccentric comedy of manners, the movie earns its laughs with its quiet surprises and unexpected absurdity. You don’t laugh at Whitman’s movie. You laugh with it.

“Damsels” tells the story of four young women at a small Ivy League-type college in New England. Led by the unsinkable Violet (Greta Gerwig), the ladies are dedicated to improving themselves and others through random acts of kindness and well-intentioned condescension.

Violet’s specialty is rehabilitating frat-boy doofuses – or doofi, to use the preferred plural form. Violet actually enjoys dating losers, since there is so much room for improvement. “They’re in that sympathetic range of being not good-looking, and yet not smart,” she says.

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Raleigh News & Observer

It’s been more than 50 years since Alfred Hitchcock made his most famous movie, “Psycho,” in 1960. Since then, an entire generation of movie lovers has come of age admiring the great director from a distance, via home video, late-night TV broadcasts or – heaven help us – dubious Hollywood remakes.

But starting this weekend, film geeks and casual fans alike can experience Hitchcock films the way they were meant to be seen. Beginning with Friday’s 7 p.m. screening of “Psycho,” the Carolina Theatre in Durham kicks off two weeks of screenings with “An Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective,” featuring a curated assortment of his classic films on the big screen.

Of the 15 films being screened, 11 will be presented in the original 35-mm format, with the remaining four projected digitally in high definition. Carolina Theatre senior director Jim Carl, who curated the program, said several of the 35-mm prints in the retrospective are rare archival reels – some of them the sole remaining print of a particular film in the United States.

Tracking down the surviving prints can be an adventure in sleuthing. “There’s a supposition that there is this catalog where everything is listed alphabetically,” Carl said.

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Independent Weekly

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.

Yahoo Digital Crave

Is there a certain film that, if you come across it flipping channels randomly, you feel compelled to watch no matter what? Even though you’ve seen it roughly 34,000 times? Even if it’s just the last half hour of the movie? Even if it’s on the Spanish language station?

I have a theory about these films — I call them comfort movies. They’re familiar and soothing, and you can watch them again and again in the same way that you listen to old favorite records. For instance, anytime The Hunt for Red October is broadcast on basic cable (according to my rough calculations, about once every 9.4 hours), I must watch that movie. It might be a submarine movie thing, because the same happens with Crimson Tide and The Abyss.

Evidently, I find underwater drama soothing, for reasons I probably don’t want to know. I suppose I could pay a therapist $120/hour to find out, but I suspect no good news can possibly come of that.

Comfort movies and DVD

I review movies and DVDs for a living, so I have copies of all these films on a shelf somewhere. For me, they really are like old records, and knowing that I have a physical copy of them really is a comfort. Because I’ve learned the hard way: If you’re relying on digital download and on-demand services for your movies these days, you might literally not know what you’re missing.

As with music, movies are slowly but surely “going digital.” Increasingly viable digital distribution — via iTunes or Netflix or your local cable provider — prompts the question: Why even bother anymore with DVD, or its posh cousin the Blu-ray disc?

Well, I’ll tell you. I spend an alarming amount of time watching films and TV series collections on home video, and as such have given this matter an inordinate amount of thought. Here are some of the reasons to stick with DVD and Blu-ray in an increasingly downloadable world….

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Theater Review: Wicked

May 19, 2012

Raleigh News & Observer

There’s a moment toward the middle of “Wicked,” the popular musical playing at DPAC tonight through May 27, when it all comes together.

As the music swells, Elphaba the Wicked Witch (Christine Dwyer) appears to levitate to the top of the proscenium via concealed wires and clever stagecraft. Below, the ensemble dancers swirl, and the musicians pull out all the stops. Above, a giant clockwork dragon roars and the strobed spotlights kick into overdrive.

Holding aloft her magic broom, Dwyer finishes the show’s signature song, “Defying Gravity,” with a powerhouse final note as the lights cut out. After an instant of stunned silence, the DPAC cheers come in waves.

These are the moments you’re paying for with a show like “Wicked,” returning to Durham for a encore run after a series of sold-out shows in 2010. And with ticket prices running up to $170, these moments need to deliver. For the most part, they do. “Wicked” is top-shelf theatrical entertainment almost by definition. A touring show of this magnitude draws the industry’s best performers and designers, and the story and songs proved their staying power long ago.

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Raleigh News & Observer

Don’t let the name fool you.

El Anatsui, the artist featured in the newest exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art, might not be a household name like Rembrandt or Rockwell – the museum’s most recent marquee presentations. But the art is no less astonishing.

Museum officials said promoting the El Anatsui exhibit has been challenging, with patrons assuming from the name that the artist is Japanese, or Spanish, or maybe both. Actually, El Anatsui is among the biggest names in contemporary African art, and the exhibit, “When I Last Wrote to You About Africa,” is a fascinating experience.

Chronicling more than four decades of his vast body of work, “Africa” features 61 pieces, including sketches, drawings, sculptures, carved woodwork, wall hangings, ceramics and large-scale floor installations. Many of the larger works incorporate found objects, like the gigantic wall sculptures that stitch together thousands of discarded liquor bottle tops.

For the viewer, the impression often depends on simple proximity. Up close, the gigantic wall hangings look like a mosaic of modern detritus – bottle tops, labels and scrap metal. Step back, though, and the piece becomes a warm and threadbare quilt.

This might be the most surprising element of the El Anatsui exhibit. Terms like abstract sculpture and found object art can suggest the sort of chilly, cerebral aesthetic that sometimes gives modern art a bad name. But El Anatsui’s creations are warm, approachable and disarmingly familiar.

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Raleigh News & Observer

As a classically trained violinist and music scholar, UNC-CH professor Mark Katz might seem an unlikely choice to champion hip-hop and DJ culture in the hallowed halls of academia.

But Katz’ new book, “Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ,” is likely to change a lot of perceptions. The result of five years of intensive research, the book aims to bring the art of the hip-hop DJ – sometimes called turntablism – to students, scholars and anyone else interested in this musical form.

Katz joined the UNC music faculty in 2006 and was recently elected chair of the department; he will begin his five-year term this summer. In addition to the book, Katz teaches several classes related to DJ culture and the use of turntables as musical composition tools. Speaking from his office in Hill Hall – next to a shiny new Technics turntable rig – Katz discussed musical open-mindedness, teaching DJ classes and wandering Tokyo dance clubs at 3 am.

Q: How did the book project get started in the first place?

Well, my Ph.D. dissertation was called “The Phonograph Effect,” and it was about the influence of sound recording on musical life in the early 20th century. Then in 2004 I wrote a book, “Capturing Sound,” that expanded on the topic – about how technology has changed music generally. One of the chapters in that book was about DJ battles, and a friend of mine said, you know, you could really write a whole book on this.

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