Kurt Vonnegut, R.I.P. The Slaughterhouse-Five author died Wednesday in Manhattan at the age of 84, and the literary establishment responds with shock and grief. In the New York Times, Dinitia Smith compares Vonnegut to another giant of American arts and letters: "Like Mark Twain, [he] used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?" Gore Vidal told the Guardian (United Kingdom), "Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull." In addition to his literary accomplishments, Vonnegut was known as a public intellectual. The Washington Post points out that throughout his life, he "remained a popular public figure, lecturing, writing and giving interviews on what he saw as the insanity of war and the dehumanizing effects of technology, materialism and other staples of modern life."— D.S.
Twin Peaks: The Second Season (Paramount Home Video). The second and final season of David Lynch's bizarre ABC mystery series comes to DVD, including the episode that revealed "who killed Laura Palmer"—and Twin Peaks aficionados recall their love for the program. The New York Times rhapsodizes, "At its best the show achieved a crazy, cosmic harmony, setting the comforts of the everyday against the terror of the void." But critics point out that the series shifted noticeably after Palmer's murder was solved. "[W]ithout the eerie whodunit that had helped make Peaks a phenomenon in its abbreviated debut season," writes the Boston Globe, "the series relied more than ever on its true core: odd characters doing odder things, refracting as much as reflecting homey images of small-town life." The Seattle Times is less sanguine, commenting, "Robbed of their central story line, episodes veer off into the banal and inanely bizarre." (BuyTwin Peaks: The Second Season.)—D.S.
Cassadaga, Bright Eyes (Saddle Creek).Critics like the new album by introspective Nebraskan indie-rocker Conor Oberst, who goes by the moniker Bright Eyes. Oberst "goes in search of a (perhaps imaginary) heartland redolent of roadside bars and dusty truck stops. … Musically, it's his richest album yet, full of Nashville twang and Branson brassiness," raves Entertainment Weekly. The Los Angeles Times sees the album as "another refusal by this doggedly independent 27-year-old to make the grand, messianic, era-defining breakthrough that his partisans have been awaiting for most of this decade"—not such a bad thing, on balance. One of the only discordant notes comes from Jon Pareles, writing in the New York Times: "[Oberst] is clearly searching for a more mature style. But the musical and rhetorical convolutions of 'Cassadaga' are no substitute, yet, for the way he used to blurt things out." (BuyCassadaga.)—D.S.
The Sopranos and Entourage (HBO). Sunday night was a couch potato's dream, delivering long-awaited season premieres of The Sopranos and Entourage. The Jersey mob drama is now in its final run, with a mere eight episodes to go—and critics are too emotional to rein in their praise. Entertainment Weekly gushes,"every minute is alive, loaded with middle-aged melancholy (Tony's) and dread (ours)." And Reuters anoints the series "some of the most memorable drama we're ever likely to see on this or any other planet." In Slate's "TV Club," Timothy Noah and Jeffrey Goldberg can't seem to argue. Noah declares, "to tire of The Sopranos is to tire of life,"' and Goldberg dubs the first episode "fantastic."… Entourage also earns praise, though critics are divided over what it all means. USA Today applauds the glittery showbiz comedy's "near total absence of profundity and pretension," and the Washington Post calls it a "picnic on the beach." But the New York Times' Virginia Heffernan sees deep social commentary in the power struggle between movie star Vincent Chase and his for-now-former agent, Ari Gold; she writes, "this season is about how men love men, and how they hate themselves for loving men, and how they worry about loving men, and how they need to stand up to men so they can love women, or stand up to women so they can love men."— P.F.
Sol LeWitt, R.I.P. The pioneering contemporary artist died Sunday at age 78 at his home in Connecticut. Many of LeWitt's most famous works were installation pieces, painted directly onto gallery walls—and had to be destroyed when the shows were over. The Associated Press recalls that "LeWitt's first wall drawing, part of a 1968 display in New York, was so striking that the gallery owner couldn't bear to paint over it. She insisted [that] LeWitt come and do it himself, which he did without hesitation." LeWitt was a leading figure in the Conceptual and Minimalist movements. In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman considers the essence of LeWitt's artistic project, writing that his work "tested a viewer's psychological and visual flexibility. See a line. See that it can be straight, thin, broken, curved, soft, angled or thick. Enjoy the differences. The test was not hard to pass if your eyes and mind were open." A former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum, a museum LeWitt supported, tells the Hartford Courant, "He never felt that art has to do with the personality of the person who made it. … It's not about the star power but about the art." (Click here to see a gallery of LeWitt's work on ArtNet.)—D.S.
Grindhouse (Weinstein Co.). Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's double feature pays homage to the glory days of trashy cinema: Rodriguez directed a zombie movie; Tarantino, a slasher flick; and they dress up the whole package with fake trailers for other (made-up) films of the same ilk. Critics are swooning, and not just over Rose McGowan and Marley Shelton's skimpy get-ups. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott remarks, "[S]oaked in bloody nostalgia for the cheesy, disreputable pleasures of an older form of movie entertainment, [ Grindhouse ] can also be seen as a passionate protest against the present state of the entertainment industry."Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman is taken by the films' exuberance, especially Tarantino's, which ends with a thrilling car chase: "It will leave you laughing, gasping, thrilled at a movie that knows, at long last, how to put the bad back in badass." Writing in Slate, Dana Stevens—an admitted Tarantino skeptic—raves, "[Y]ou don't need to be an exploitation fanboy to appreciate the energy, imagination, and spirit with which Rodriguez and Tarantino pay homage to the cheapo cinema they love."— D.S.
Traffic and Weather, Fountains of Wayne (Virgin).The geeky pop quartet best known for its 2003 hit single "Stacy's Mom" stays true to character, filling its fourth full-length album with clever references to everyday suburban culture. The quirkiness seems to work. No less a giant than Robert Christgau praises the effort in Rolling Stone, writing that "the big problem with anointing [lyricists] Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger the great standard-bearers of modern pop song is that there's no one else like them." But some critics are growing tired of the shtick. Entertainment Weekly calls Traffic and Weather a "simply wonderful album" but notes that "there are times you wonder if [Collingwood and Schlesinger] have become less interested in real emotion than in making smart-alecky references to the DMV." Unsurprisingly, the rock snobs at Pitchfork hate (hate) the album for relying so heavily on nostalgia and recycled musical motifs. The online music rag scoffs, "We should expect much, much more from pop music than this kind of bullshit." (BuyTraffic and Weather.)—B.W.