Saturday, June 4, 2016

Kiss Me, Kill Me (Spellbound Productions, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s opening film for the San Diego FilmOut LGBT Film Festival was a film gris — my somewhat snotty term for a movie that attempts to be film noir but falls short — called Kiss Me, Kill Me, a great title that deserves a much better movie than this. It was directed by Casper Andreas, an attractive, youngish man who’s so far had seven films shown at the festival in San Diego (more than any other director) and will have an eighth, Flatbush Luck, as the festival’s closer on Sunday. A trailer for Flatbush Luck was shown and it turned out to be about two cousins (the schtick appears to be that both are Gay but neither knows that about the other) who end up in some sort of get-rich-quick scheme involving the financial markets. Kiss Me, Kill Me is not only a great film title but a potentially great film idea: Gay “reality TV” producer Stephen (Gale Harold) is hosting a party at which a lot of people, virtually all of them Queer in one way or another (one annoying thing about this movie is that, like a lot of the 1930’s “race films” which seemed to take place in a hermetically sealed world in which all the people were African-American, this is one of those movies in which everyone seems to be Gay or Lesbian), are drinking too much, drugging too much and cruising each other without regard for their nominal marital or relational statuses. Stephen announces that his ex-lover Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), an aspiring actor (but then this is a movie set in modern-day Los Angeles and West Hollywood, so just about everyone in the dramatis personae is an aspiring actor) is going to be the host of his next show.

This pisses off Stephen’s current partner, Dusty (Van Hansis, top-billed — apparently he’s on the current cast of the soap opera As the World Turns and he has enough of a following his name was applauded when it came up on the opening credits, but I’d never heard of him or anyone else in Andreas’s cast), not only because Dusty was hoping for the job himself but also because he immediately suspects that it means Stephen and Craigery aren’t as “ex” as advertised. Stephen offers Dusty an engagement ring and Dusty takes it, but then their argument flares up again and Stephen ends up leaving his own party and heading to the Pink Dot, which is a sort of part-convenience store and part-all-night deli that offers 24-hour deliveries (this sounds like the sort of business that might flourish in West Hollywood). Dusty follows him there and confronts him, and just then a man in a clown mask whom we’ve previously seen lurking outside the place bursts in holding a gun and demanding that the clerk (the actor is an appealing Latino who oddly isn’t listed on’s cast list for the film, though a lot of people with more peripheral parts aren’t listed) hand over all the store’s money. Gunshots are heard but it’s unclear what happens after that — a deliberate ambiguity on the part of Andreas and his screenwriter, David Michael Barrett — because Dusty blacks out and whatever went on is locked in his subconscious. When he comes to he’s in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital recovering from a minor gunshot wound in his right arm; but he’s shocked to learn that Stephen was killed (as was the clerk, who in this whole universe of spoiled rich brats and wanna-bes is one of the few characters in this movie I could actually imagine liking if I met their real-life equivalent, so it’s a real pity that he exits so soon) and he’s suspected of using the robbery as a cover to shoot his man because he was doing him wrong (you remember). The case is investigated by two typically annoying LAPD cops (I guess the Pink Dot was supposed to have been within L.A. city limits since if it were in West Hollywood, the L.A. County Sheriff would have jurisdiction), an African-American Lesbian named Annette Riley (Yolonda Ross) and her Latino partner, Noah Santos (Jai Rodriguez), and Annette proudly boasts that as a 13-year veteran of the LAPD she’s never been wrong about a case and in this type of murder “it’s always the spouse.”

In the post-film question-and-answer session director Andreas and screenwriter Barrett said they wanted to do “an Agatha Christie-Alfred Hitchcock type of story” — which points to one of the aspects where they went wrong, since Christie and Hitchcock were two profoundly different types of storytellers: Christie specialized in whodunits while Hitchcock avoided them (at least after his 1930 talkie Murder!, which itself should probably be revived at an LGBT film festival because a key character is both racially and sexually ambiguous — though modern-day Queer audiences would probably groan when s/he turned out to be the killer) and preferred to let the audience in on who the bad guy was from the beginning: the suspense in a Hitchcock film is over when the other characters will learn who the villain is and what will happen to them when they do. The film spirals through a whole bizarre supporting cast, including therapist Jeffrey Kinlan (Craig Robert Young, who admitted he got the part because he’s British and so is the character — indeed Barrett gives him a mordant line about how before he trained as a therapist he was drawn to L.A. in hopes of being “the next Tom Cruise,” an ambition he didn’t achieve because “I was Gay, and I was British … well, I was British”); a Lesbian couple who provide a sort of Greek-chorus accompaniment; a woman who apparently had an affair with Dusty “before you were Gay” (i.e., before he came out, since Dusty has a reminiscence about his life in which his father caught him making out with another boy on a camping trip when Dusty was 15 — this is not the sort of movie that’s going to do any Brokeback Mountain-style envelope-pushing questioning the bizarre insistence of the Queer establishment that we’re all “born this way,” which as I’ve said in these pages before makes a great Lady Gaga song title but lousy science) and still wants to have his baby; a twitchy drug dealer named Travis (Kit Williamson) who’s constantly putting drops in his eyes, apparently because whatever other substances he’s doing keeps irritating them as a side effect; and a Black drag queen named Jasmine (D. J. Pierce), who’s introduced in the beginning doing a hypnosis act in a club in full drag, and later, in masculine attire, hypnotizes Dusty and gets him to regain his memory as to what happened at the Pink Dot.

Along the way Dusty learns that he’s inherited Stephen’s entire $12 million fortune — though Stephen was also buying Craigery a condo that Dusty bitterly throws him out of — Dusty also turns up at some sort of sex club and is tricked (in both senses of the word) into following a masked man into a restroom for a quickie, only the masked man turns out to be Craigery and his intent wasn’t to have sex with Dusty but to humiliate him; then Dusty drifts into an affair with Dr. Kinlan (which starts when Kinlan kisses him in the middle of a therapy session, then announces that he can’t be his therapist anymore since he’s just crossed the professional boundary with him, but they can date and have sex now that Dusty is no longer his patient) and the two cops spy on them and photograph them frolicking in a swimming pool (why? And would those pictures be admissible in court for any reason?); and at the end, after Dusty is exonerated — the real bad guy is Dr. Kinlan, who hired a hit man named Albert (Michael Maize) to stage the robbery at the Pink Dot as a cover for shooting Stephen, whom Kinlan was pissed at for having seduced Craigery (ya remember Craigery?) away from him, so he determined to murder both Stephen and Craigery and frame Dusty for the crime — the male detective, Noah Santos, makes a pass at him, a twist I definitely could have done without. A tag scene I could have done without even more is one that makes the ending thoroughly confusing (and I suspect upset people in the audience who otherwise liked the film better than I did): it seems Dr. Kinlan was also in league with Dusty’s former girlfriend and one reason he had the affair with Dusty was to get a sample of Dusty’s semen that he could then pass along to her so she could have Dusty’s baby after all. (In the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”)

By coincidence I had been reading my old post on the film Hot Guys with Guns, which I’d seen at another FilmOut event and, despite its awful porn-ish title, seemed to succeed on every level at which Kiss Me, Kill Me failed: its writer-director, Doug Spearman, wrote a well-constructed script with some legitimate surprises but not the insane, jaw-dropping reversals that filled Kiss Me, Kill Me (and which Andreas and Barrett were very proud of during their Q&A:  they said they like to keep the film “ahead of the audience,” but instead — at least for me — they got so far ahead they lost me almost completely), and gave both his heroes and his villains motives that made sense. Also, one thing Spearman did right and Andreas and Barrett did wrong was give his characters a wider range of class backgrounds; Kiss Me, Kill Me is one of those maddening movies in which nobody seems to have to worry about money, and as someone who does have to worry about money I like to see at least a few people in my movies who actually have jobs and the same concerns about making ends meet as I and virtually all the people I know do. It’s a shame that Kiss Me, Kill Me isn’t stronger as a piece of storytelling because the technical aspects of the film are superb. Cinematographer Rainer Lipski goes a bit too far towards the overall brown tonalities that seem to be the default setting for just about all movie photography today, but he gets some striking compositions and hits the right balance between making his film look atmospheric and falling into too many gimmick shots. This is especially praiseworthy because virtually all the film was shot on real locations — the budget was about $260,000, half of it was raised through Kickstarter and it’s not the sort of film where they could afford studio time or built sets — and Lipski insisted on shooting virtually all the night scenes at night instead of going for day-for-night effects which would have been easier and cheaper but less effective visually. And composer Jonathan Dinerstein wisely avoided trying to come up with the full orchestral sound of a classic 1940’s-era noir score; instead he went for a jazz sound that effectively used the Miles Davis-ish trumpet of Ben Burget as a lead instrument. (Given that this is a Gay movie c. 2015 I should probably be even more grateful to Dinerstein for not drowning the score in boring and overloud “electronic dance music”!)

The technical aspects of Kiss Me, Kill Me were done so well it’s all the more infuriating that the script, direction and at least some of the actors let the side down; Van Hansis, whose name sounds to me like a disease, delivers his lines in a flat tone, not totally incompetent but not especially interesting either — though I felt better about him as an actor when he came out for the Q&A and stood in a considerably looser posture and did not come off as the annoying preppie he’s playing — and the woman playing the attorney who wants to have Dusty’s baby was even more infuriating in the gap between what could conceivably be done with the character and what she actually did. D. J. Pierce far outshone most of the rest of the cast even though s/he only got two scenes — and, as usual with a lot of drag queens (including RuPaul), he looked considerably better as a man than as a woman — Pierce brought genuine charisma and depth to an all too small role. Next to Pierce, the most effective actors were Kit Williamson as Travis and the unidentified one who played the ill-fated store clerk (whom we actually got to see quite a lot of because there were so many flashbacks to his one scene), though that may be my class bias again given that they were among the few people in the film playing characters who weren’t disgustingly rich. One of my favorite lines for a film that falls as far short of its potential is “a bad movie with a good movie in it struggling to get out,” and had Andreas and Barrett cooled it on the reversals, gone more for plot continuity and dramatic sense, given their leads more depth and avoided the occasional camp asides that took the edge of what was clearly supposed to be a serious thriller, they could have had a much better film and a chance of breaking out of the Gay film-festival ghetto and achieving a mainstream release.