Sunday, November 2, 2008

What's Love Got To Do With It?

How cynical have we become?  

Several years ago, I was at a friend's birthday party when his current beau asked about all the framed pictures of ex-boyfriends on the wall. Inquiring as to why his picture wasn't on the wall, he was told "You're in the here and now.  When you became an ex is when your picture gets framed."

I once asked a hopelessly narcissistic man I knew why he didn't wear his glasses when he was out and about town.  "Is there really anything on the opposite side of the street that I need to see?" he hissed as he narrowly missed colliding with a telephone pole.

Then, of course there was the sexual rebel who proudly described how he had perfected the timing of his orgasms with such precision that one night, while someone was working very hard to get him off, he reached over, picked up the phone and ordered in a pizza so that his happy ending could be followed by "pie."

Despite what Hollywood and other outlets for romantic fiction would have you believe, love isn't the only thing that makes the world go 'round.  People lust for money, power, clothing, jewelry, the fountain of youth and, on rare occasions, pizza.  

However, they sometimes need help with the mechanics of moving on with their lives. That's the premise behind Kissing Cousins, the romantic comedy written and directed by Amyn Kaderali which is the opening night feature for this year's 3rd I South Asian Film Festival.
The setup is easy to understand.  Amir (Samrat Chakrabarti) is the opposite of a matchmaker. He's a relationship terminator, the "fixer" busy men and women in Los Angeles call when they lack the time, integrity and/or the social skills to honestly confront a lover and tell them that their affair has ended and it's time to move on.  

Like any successful self-employed consultant, Amir has various package plans to offer his clients. These include such services as returning a wedding band, returning the clothes one party had left in the other's apartment -- even retrieving a pet from someone who won't let go of a doomed relationship.

Given a choice, Amir would prefer to hang out with two male pussyhounds (David Alan Grier and and Manish Goyal) who live in his swingers' apartment complex.   Amir's problem is not the lack of love in his own life.  It is that he has noticeably become the odd man out as his close friends continue to get married.  When his best friend (ever since second grade) returns from Nepal with a starry-eyed potential bride, Amir's identity crisis reaches critical mass.  

Thanks to his infatuation with Tina (Nikki McCauley), Charlie (Zack Ward) has suddenly gone all "New Agey" and is now refusing to let Amir be the best man at their wedding.  Why?  Because Amir's career has obviously covered him with "bad relationship karma."

When a newly-married couple with whom Amir had planned to spend Thanksgiving dinner start fighting as they decorate their new home, he flees north to the Bay area to surprise his family with an unexpected visit for the holidays.  At this point Amir is keenly aware that he is not even looking for love.  Although happy to see him, his mother (the delightful Anoush NeVart) has pretty much given up hope that her bachelor son will ever settle down.

Upon arriving at his parents' home, Amir quickly discovers that his place in their lives has been usurped by new faces.  His father (Gerry Bednob) is parked in front of the television, excitedly watching football with the highly energetic Justin (Bradford Anderson) whom he met through a "Big Brother/Little Brother" organization.  

They have become inseparable buds.

His very pregnant sister Jasmine (Meena Kumari) is married to a macho jerk (Jaleel White) who is about to be deployed.  Toyoka (Amy Rider), a spoiled Japanese teenager who is quick to scorn American ways but ecstatic that the weakened dollar has made shopping so much fun, is renting out Amir's old bedroom.  

Adding insult to previous injury, when Amir goes downstairs to the guest room, he discovers a naked woman in the shower who turns out to be his cousin Zara from England (Rebecca Hazlewood).   The last time they met, Amir and Zara were cast in a family reenactment of Prince Charles & Lady Diana's wedding.   When Amir refused to apologize for kissing Zara on the lips, she hit him in the head with a shovel.

Can you see what's coming?

When Amir heads back to Los Angeles, his mother suggests that Zara accompany him during the long drive.  Hours turn into days, days into weeks and soon the two are bonding nicely, although sleeping separately. When Amir shows up with Zara at a picnic with his married friends, she introduces herself as Amir's girlfriend.

Shock and awe all around.  Especially for Amir.  

You can pretty much imagine what follows without being surprised to learn that Zara has been on the run from her English boyfriend, Grant. When Amir and Zara return to the Bay area for Christmas, Grant is waiting for her there, hoping for a reconciliation.  At the end of the film we see Amir placing his picture in the photo gallery of former clients who have been mercilessly dumped.  

The player has been played.

Kissing Cousins is a very gentle romantic comedy which benefits from Kaderali's talent for slick dialogue among jaded young lovers.  He does a neat job of capturing the fatuous and smug statements we've all heard from couples in the throes of young love and balancing their rosy optimism with the deadpan cynicism of the sadder-but-wiser singles in the crowd.  The attractive cast of actors has no problem communicating the frustrations of finding and ditching potential lovers in Los Angeles.  If love is a commodity that bites, this film is indeed a story of the freshly bitten and those with multiple teethmarks.

* * * * * * *
Opening soon on Bay area screens is a visual treat not to be missed -- a digitally-restored print of Max Ophuls' cinematiic masterpiece, Lola Montes.   When it premiered in 1955, Lola Montes became the most expensive French film at the time. 

Due to various social and economic constraints, the film  suffered merciless cuts and degradations in quality as it was released in English, French, and German versions over the years.  In fact, it was originally a disaster at the box office.  This new version hews closely to the original concept in its entirety and captures the glory of the cinematography by Christian Matras.   With Peter Ustinov acting as the ringmaster of a surreal circus, the film shows the circus troupe reenacting the scandalous life and loves of the acclaimed and provocative beauty, Lola Montez.

Ophuls (who died in 1957) has painted a huge tapestry which ranges from the garishness of a wonderfully deranged circus to the realism of a trip across the Alps, from the intimacy of traveling in a horse-drawn carriage with composer Franz Liszt to the opulent lifestyle which comes with being the King of Bavaria's mistress.  

After it was screened at the New York Film Festival in 1963, Andrew Sarris wrote that "in my unhumble opinion, Lola Montes is the greatest film of all time and I am willing to stake my critical reputation on this one proposition above all others."  Its heroine is a sturdy match for Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara.  Although, at 99 minutes, it is much shorter than Gone With The Wind, Lola Montes embraces a similarly epic approach to storytelling.

At the very least, this film is worth seeing for the sheer glory of Georges Annenkov's costumes and Jean d'Eaubonne's set design.  The strong cast includes Martine Carol in the title role, Anton Walbrook as Ludwig I, King of Bavaria, and a very young Oskar Werner as the student who rescues her from a revolutionary uprising.  

There are also some great laughs for classical music fans.  I particularly liked the moment when Ludwig I, upon telling his physician that he would like to regain some of his hearing so he could listen to music, is told, "Yes, but not by Richard Wagner.  You could hear that music from inside the belly of a whale."

Treat yourself to a cornucopia of delights by seeing Lola Montes on a large screen (it opens at the Castro Theater on November 19).  The experience may prove to be far more fulfilling than any turkey dinner you ingest this month.  Here's the trailer:

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