Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why Chennai Express is disappointing

We're diehard Shah Rukh Khan fans, and think Deepika Padukone is often the best thing about the movies she's in (Exhibit A: Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)). And we've been wondering how long it was going to take before a producer figured out that the charming jodi of Om Shanti Om (2007) should be reunited.

So why did we find Rohit Shetty's Chennai Express (2013) to be so disappointing? Let me count the ways:

1. It starts out as a parody of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, and ends up as a remake: The woman-running-for-the-train scene from DDLJ has been appropriated by many filmmakers, often with parodic intent. (For my money it was most effectively used in Dor (2006), where Ayesha Takia's character reaches out for the hand of Gul Panang.) Chennai Express offers the parody with a bit extra—four extra, in fact—and as Rahul (Shah Rukh) hauls person after person onto the train we have a growing (and well-founded) sense of foreboding:

This scene is also a quick introduction to Rohit Shetty's directorial style: present a joke, repeat it until it's no longer funny, and then keep repeating it in the hope that it starts to become funny again—which, amazingly enough, it often does.

The woman racing for the train is Meena (Deepika), and the DDLJ echoes should tell you how the rest of the film unfolds. Yes, there's a stern, unbending father, and yes, there's a violent and completely unsuitable guy to whom (against her will) Meena has been promised in marriage. Will Rahul and Meena fall in love, and will Rahul attempt to convince her stern, unbending father to agree to their marriage? If you don't know the answer to those questions, you're sentenced to a remedial viewing of DDLJ.

But just as DDLJ ends with a scene of violence that almost ruins the movie for me, so does Chennai Express. Only the scene in Chennai Express is far more violent and goes on far longer. While dishoom-dishoom has a long and unavoidable history in masala movies, the hyper-realism (spraying blood, thudding soundtrack) of the scene in Chennai Express kept my finger firmly on the fast-forward button. And why, apart from the DDLJ parallelism, is the heroine left to stand and helplessly watch the hero getting beaten up by a gang of thugs? Hema Malini's Geeta (from Seeta aur Geeta (1972)) or Fearless Nadia might have something to say to the filmmakers about that.

2. The lack of songs: "Great songs" is one of Beth Loves Bollywood's criteria for masala films, but Chennai Express felt song-poor to me. Of the film's seven songs, one is essentially background music and one (the Rajinikanth tribute "Lunghi Dance / Thalaiva") happens over the closing credits, leaving only five for the movie itself. 

Perhaps I'm mis-remembering, but I think only one dance number happens before the intermission, and it's an item. On a first listen, I didn't find Vishal-Shekar's efforts to be particularly memorable—at least, in a good way. Learning to say "hichaka-michaka" (from "1-2-3-4 Get On the Dance Floor") was fun, though.

And given that Chennai Express features two stars who can actually dance, if not perhaps quite at a Hrithik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai level, it felt like some opportunities were missed. Deepika has a few seconds of long-limbed gracefulness towards the end of "Titli," (at 3:25, to be precise), but it's not nearly enough:

3. Where is the dil? In Veer-Zaara (2004), Shah Rukh's Veer impulsively decides to help Preity Zinta's Zaara on her road trip through India to immerse the ashes of her Hindu ayah. Since Zaara is a Pakistani Muslim, this tells us something about her loyalty, courage, and sense of familial obligation. And since Veer is an Indian Air Force officer, this tells us something about his humanity and sense of duty. And when Zaara asks Veer to participate in the immersion ritual, we know that a deep emotional bond has been formed between them.

In Chennai Express, Shah Rukh's Rahul (a joking reference to previous characters he's played in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), among others) must immerse the ashes of his demanding, crotchety grandfather. Of course, Rahul learns that he must do the right thing and honor the wishes of the dead despite their shortcomings in life and his own inclinations to take the easy way out. But somehow, despite the significant looks exchanged by Rahul and Meena during the immersion, it just doesn't have the same resonance.

4. Throwing away the best bits, lingering on the worst: In the middle of the film one of its best scenes is thrown away. While they're staying together in Meena's father's crowded house, Rahul wants to see Meena alone for a few minutes to plan their escape. He scrawls "Meet me in the storeroom" on a piece of paper and throws it at her. She reads it, signals to him with her eyes, then crumples up the message and throws it away. Only, it hits someone else, who thinks that it's a message that Meena intends for him. Then he throws it away, and it hits someone else...Later, ten people arrive in the darkened storeroom, each seeking someone who is looking for someone else. It's a brilliant moment. I understand that it's an homage to a scene from Muthu, a 1995 Tamil film starring Rajinikanth and Meena, but it also echoes the garden scene in Act IV of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Alas, the scene is far too short and most of its comic potential is unrealized. And then Shetty moves on to another lengthy car chase, another confrontation with thugs, or another bit of slapstick.

So despite SRK's charm and Deepika's grace and beauty, Chennai Express sinks under the weight of a rehashed scenario, mediocre songs and picturizations, and way too much dishoom-dishoom. I recommend instead taking the local, and lingering over the better SRK films to which this one pays both too much and too little homage.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Favorites of 2013: Music

Happy New Year! I'd like to bid farewell to the old year and welcome the new with the final installment of my Favorites of 2013: Music.

Live performances

Tales of Hoffmann, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, June 5:

Christian Van Horn in Tales of Hoffmann (Photo: Weaver/SF Opera)
This is exactly what I'd love to see more of at the San Francisco Opera: A striking production of an uncommon opera (Hoffmann was last performed at SFO in 1996) with a superb cast. Laurent Pelly's visually arresting staging of Offenbach's late masterwork employed the recent critical edition of the score edited by Michael Kaye. Kaye's edition restores much material in this frequently cut and rearranged opera—particularly in the prologue and epilogue, making the Muse's transformation into Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse and back much more dramatically coherent.

The cast was virtually flawless: it featured tenor Matthew Polenzani as an ardent Hoffmann, thrillingly sinister bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the four villains, the lovely (and lovely-voiced) mezzo Angela Brower as the Muse/Nicklausse, the (almost literally) stratospheric Hye Jung Lee as the doll Olympia, and Natalie Dessay as the tragic Antonia. It's difficult to imagine a more compelling production of this dark, eerie, and beautiful work. (See my full review here.)

Teseo, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Herbst Theater, April 11:

Dominique Labelle and Valerie Vinzant in Teseo (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Speaking of superb casts in rarely-performed works, this semi-staged version of Handel's 1713 opera was a delight. Dominique Labelle was a standout with her fierce performance as the sorceress Medea (yes, that one), but the rest of the cast was also very fine, especially the women: Amanda Forsythe as the heroic Teseo (Theseus, a role originally written for the castrato Valeriano Pellegrini), Céline Ricci as the flirtatious Clizia, and Valerie Vinzant as Teseo's steadfast lover Agilea. (Vinzant was such a last-minute substitute that our programs only named the soprano originally scheduled for the role—there wasn't even an insert—but she was so assured that you would never have known.) The cast and orchestra under the leadership of Nicholas McGegan gave a vividly rewarding account of this unjustly neglected Handel opera.

Missa Salisburgensis
, American Bach Soloists, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 13:

This mass of celebration composed by Heinrich Biber for the 1100th anniversary of the founding of the archbishopric of Salzburg is, well, massive. It has 53 parts for voices and instruments, divided into eight groups plus continuo. Given its sheer scale, it's no wonder the mass is so rarely programmed. American Bach Soloists' performance of the work, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, practically lifted us out of our seats. This rehearsal video recorded by the San Francisco Classical Voice will give you a sense of what we experienced (especially if you boost the volume a bit):


Vivaldi: Ercole sul Termodonte. Rolando Villazón (Ercole), Joyce DiDonato (Ippolita), Vivica Genaux (Antiope), Romina Basso (Teseo), Patrizia Ciofi (Orizia), Diana Damrau (Martesia), Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste), Topi Lehtipuu (Telamone). Europa Galante, Fabio Biondi, conductor; Virgin Classics.

Talk about luxury casting: all the roles on this amazing recording are taken not only by first-rate singers, but by major international stars. And while this opera may not quite have the emotional depth of, say, Handel's best works, it is filled with scintillating, virtuosic music, brilliantly realized by the cast and Europa Galante under the direction of Fabio Biondi. Now if only some enterprising opera company would consider getting these singers together onstage and not just in a recording studio...

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin. Thomas Allen (Onegin), Mirella Freni (Tatiana), Anne Sofie von Otter (Olga), Neil Shicoff (Lensky). Staatskapelle Dresden, James Levine, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon.

This operatic version of Pushkin's narrative poem may be Tchaikovsky's greatest work. In my full-length posts on the Letter Scene and the Duel from this opera, I wrote "Levine's lush, passionate approach is highly effective, and the cast is excellent (even if none of the principals is Russian)."

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater. Julia Lehzneva and Philippe Jaroussky. I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis, conductor; Erato.

Composed by Pergolesi in the final months of his tragically short life, Stabat Mater has become his best-known work. If you are not already familiar with this gorgeous music (and even if you are), I recommend seeking out this new recording. The voices of Lezhneva and Jaroussky blend beautifully, and Fasolis' tempos are well-judged. Here is the opening duet, which imagines the grieving Mary standing at the foot of the cross:

Arias for Caffarelli. Franco Fagioli. Il Pomo d'Oro, Riccardo Minasi, conductor; Naïve.

For the soundtrack of the film Farinelli (1994), the voice of the famous castrato was approximated by electronically combining the voices of countertenor Derek Lee Ragin and coloratura soprano Ewa Godlewska. Had Franco Fagioli been available, the filmmakers could have spared themselves the trouble. On this album of pieces written for Farinelli's chief rival Caffarelli, Argentinian countertenor Fagioli displays an astonishingly wide range and can sing coloratura with an almost Cecilia Bartoli-like intensity.

Also like Bartoli, Fagioli will be an acquired taste for some. When I first heard his voice, I compared it to an Islay single malt scotch for its smoky, dusky quality in the lower range. Decide for yourself: here is the opening track from his Arias for Caffarelli album, "Fra l'orror della tempesta" from Johann Hasse's Siroe:

I applaud Fagioli's decision to seek out works by lesser-known composers such Cafaro, Sarro, and Manna. Interestingly, he does not include arias by either Handel (Caffarelli created the title role in Serse (1738)) or Gluck (he sang Sextus in that composer's La Clemenza di Tito (1752), to the same libretto later set by Mozart). Arias for Caffarelli is a wonderful album, and we'll definitely be watching for Fagioli in the future.

Stephen Sondheim: Company. Book by George Furth; direction and musical staging by John Doyle. Image.

This DVD records the 2006 revival of Sondheim's groundbreaking musical, and was originally broadcast on PBS as part of the Great Performances series. As he did in his 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, director John Doyle strips down the musical accompaniment and has the actors playing instruments onstage—which heightens the intimacy of this ensemble work. Up until this year I had known Company only from a cassette tape I was given in college of the original Broadway cast album, which has received hundreds of plays over the years. Seeing the show onstage made me realize for the first time how formally inventive and funny it is. Raúl Esparza gives a strong performance as Bobby, the 35-year-old protagonist who resists his married friends' attempts to fix him up, but still yearns for connection:

Incidentally, three of my five favorite recordings from 2013 were gifts—many thanks again to the givers (you know who you are)!

More Favorites of 2013: Classic Bollywood, Contemporary Bollywood, Movies, Books