The Sopranos (HBO). Fans who found Season 4 slow can rejoice: "Tony and the bad boys are back in action. A lot of action." The new plotline involves the prison release of a group of mafiosos (including Robert Loggia and Steve Buscemi); otherwise, "character growth has been miniscule" and there are "the same old morbid expectations: Who's going to end up with his head in a bag?" (Or, as Dr. Melfi might say, "this new season is full of echoes and variations relating to past patterns.") The difference, says Salon, is the emotional landscape—"far more desolate and grim." For some, familiarity breeds contempt: New York's John Leonard can't find "a compelling reason to spend any more time among wiseguys with a chemical dependency on olive oil, roadkill, and Frank Sinatra." But Time's James Poniewozik says The Sopranos shows that TV storylines are like family issues: "the same damn thing over and over again, yet each time they affect and sting as if they were brand new."
Starsky & Hutch (Warner). "The most intuitively attuned comic duo of our time"—aka Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson—star in this remake of the '70s TV series. The film plays up the gay subtext, pays homage to wah-wah pedals and Ford Gran Torinos, and tests critics' tolerance for irony. Rolling Stone praises the way it "lays waste to an army of macho clichés" and the Onion says it feels like "an enjoyable lark rather than cultural recycling run amok." But Newsweek thinks it's lazy, "the movie equivalent of a Barcalounger," and the Dallas Observer complains that whole scenes feel "stolen from other movies these guys have made." Expertly diagnosing the film's mix of nostalgia and satire, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman compares it to VH1's I Love the 70s series, "in which all entertainment is recalled as junk, and affection and derision merge into the same arch sense of superiority." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to Starsky & Hutch).
Hidalgo (Touchstone). "The first Middle East western" stars Viggo Mortenson as a washed-up cowboy who enters a high-stakes horse race in the Arabian desert. Every frame might "have sprung from a film made in 1954," says LA Weekly, which means "compelling adventure, awesome cinematography and dynamic stunt work," according to the Hollywood Reporter. It also means what Entertainment Weekly calls "the Fox News Channel version of modern Muslim geography—"wily rulers devoted to mysterious rituals," "untrustworthy aides who refer all decisions to Allah," and "a sheikh's young daughter chafing for freedom." Mortenson carries the film with "grace and nobility," admires Premiere, but "he doesn't ride a horse so much as a four-legged embodiment of the triumph of the human spirit," gripes the Onion. Indeed, so glorified is the titular horse and so bad is the script, says the New York Times, that he seems "smart enough to have typed it" and "shrewd enough to keep quiet." (Buy tickets to Hidalgo.)
Kingdom Hospital(ABC). Stephen King's latest TV series is a remake of film director Lars Von Trier's critically adored Danish serial The Kingdom—with a generous helping of autobiography thrown in. "Clearly some sort of cathartic therapy for King" (the third dose—he's already written about it in two books), the show in its first episode dramatizes the 1999 accident in which the author was hit by a car. The New York Times calls that "shocking and scary" sequence "far more powerful than any of the gothic eccentrics and woeful ghosts that haunt Kingdom Hospital," and other critics concur, collectively yawning at King's "old matinee horror-show tricks" (and laughing at the talking anteater that appears to chat with his alter-ego and "looks like, of all things, ALF.") The Detroit Free Press does think King's "twisted shout of righteous health care indignation" might resonate, but the Boston Globe says the show's "critique of the corporatizing of medicine" is "unsubtle."
iPods. With iPod mania showing no signs of abating, the New York Times recently warned of the invasion of "zombielike robots" wearing white wires "as distinctive as the bolts in the Frankenstein monster's neck." Inspired by one Michael Bull, an English media lecturer given to McLuhanite pronouncements ("the aesthetic has left the object" for "the artifact," he told Wired), the Times called iPods a "significant escalation" in New Yorkers' campaign to ignore one another. But the Village Voice managed to draw the opposite conclusion from a similar premise, reading the headphones as symbolic of "a growing community" and outlining a dubious new music-sharing scheme: swapping iPods. Because the iPod logs listening habits, said the Voice, it's "a record of the owner's internal aural landscape. Listening to someone else's iPod is thus an intimate, almost invasive activity." The Voice also claims that suburban New Jerseyites "greet by briefly plugging … earbud cords into each other's jacks"—maybe the Times is on to something after all. (Read Seth Stevenson's review of the iPod ads.) (Buy the iPod Mini.)
The Oscars. How boring were the Oscars? "Squarer than robot shit," said Salon's Cintra Wilson. So boring, they were "a plausible answer to a future trivia question about the least memorable Oscars ever," according to the New York Times' A.O. Scott. So boring, the Washington Post's Tom Shales wants the schedule moved back again because then it "has a sort of climactic sensibility to it, and that helps one tolerate the torture." So boring, the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano missed the dance numbers: "Watching people fling themselves across the stage in a miasma of dry ice was the best thing about the show." (Be careful what you wish for!) Even Billy Crystal's opener "sounded exactly like his monologues from years past, only with different titles," griped the Boston Globe. Still, at least one glorious Oscar tradition was upheld by Uma Thurman, who took home the Fashion Goat Award: "She looked like she was mugged by a Russian peasant," said the New York Post.
The Last Crossing, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic Monthly). "Big, satisfying, and sudsy as an ice-cold Molson," as Entertainment Weekly cheekily puts it, this best-selling Canadian Western has critics throwing Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy comparisons around with abandon (not to mention adjectives like "assured and impassioned, brutal and tender"). Simultaneously "a Western with literary chaps" and "literary fiction that carries a six-shooter," the book pulls a motley crew of characters into its tale of two Englishmen searching for their missing brother in Canada's vast western territories. "The main plot eddies and flows like an undammed river veering in unexpected directions," says the Denver Post, and the New York Times appreciates the baroque subplots: "At his best," it says, Vanderhaeghe "is something of a Dickensian sensationalist. His flair for the lurid can be exquisite." Yet he maintains a narrative "balance between epic sweep and close-up personal drama" that's worthy of Lawrence of Arabia, raves the Seattle Times. (The Last Crossing.)
The Swallows of Kabul: A Novel, by Yasmina Khadra (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). This male Algerian writing under a female pen name conveys "a tactile sense of what life under the Taliban might have been like," according to Michiko Kakutani. The plot involves two couples, one poor and uneducated, the other ex-professionals, who wrestle with their identities in a fundamentalist society. The Miami Herald calls Khadra's style "as spare and flinty as the craggy hills that surround the city"; he traps the reader "beneath a woman's burqa, where we can do nothing but gaze from behind the veil, helpless," says the Times-Picayune. (The Oregonian, however, complains about "exposition-heavy passages that attempt to pass as conversation.") The Christian Science Monitor is inspired to some fiery rhetoric, drawing overheated parallels with Janet Jackson's Super Bowl controversy (even in America, "abomination" "usually looks like a woman") and calling the book "a surgical strike against fundamentalism more penetrating than anything the Pentagon could devise." ( Buy The Swallows of Kabul.)