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. "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 IMDb.com'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).
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. 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.