Saturday, April 27, 2013

Vampires go artsy again in Xan Cassavetes' chic undead-fest, KISS OF THE DAMNED

Wow -- within a week we've viewed two examples of a brand of movie-making not seen all that often: the art/horror film. This sub-genre goes back, I suppose, to Nosferatu, a movie that was trying for horror (and succeeding) but was, by the by, also art. Most of the films in this sub-genre try for art and end up horrors (not always in the way the filmmaker had intended). The problem, most usually, is pretension, in which last week's eerie doppelganger movie, Mortem, took a bath. This week's example, KISS OF THE DAMNED, flirts with pretension but most often manages to hold back from going irretrievably over the brink.

Written and directed by Xan Cassavetes (shown at right and, yes, she's the daughter of John and Gena), the movie is her first try at full-length narrative. Almost a decade ago, Ms Cassavetes made the excellent and very entertaining documentary about the Southern California-based grand-daddy of pay-cable movie stations, The Z Channel: A Magnificent Obssession, and now she's back with this odd but interesting riff on vampire habits concerning eating, drinking, dating, sleeping, sexing, love, death and family. And after a little too arty a start, Cassavetes and her well-chosen cast settle down and pretty much deliver the goods.

Kiss of the Damned posits vampires living neck-in-neck, so to speak, with their human counterparts and behaving themselves well enough to get along and not arouse undue attention. (What do they deast on? Oh, deer!) When real love leaves its mark -- even vampires, it seems, can feel this force of nature -- our human hero (above and on top: the hunky and only a little clunky Milo Ventimiglia) and vamp heroine (above, bottom, and clearly chosen for something other than her looks, acting-talent or pronunciation of English, Joséphine de La Baume), must figure out how to handle the situation.

Unlike the tortured twats of the Twilight series, these characters are determined to fuck. So love finds a way, in a scene that is one of the movie's best and offers something a little different in the annals of chains and locks. This proves quite a fraught moment. "Uh-oh," you think: "Now what's gonna happen...?"

At a vampire soirée later on, we meet the more-or-less mother of this rather large group, a famous stage actress played by the always-terrific Anna Mouglalis (above, left), a performer skillful enough -- she played Coco Chanel opposite Mads Mikkelsen's Igor Stravinksy, after all! -- to convince us that she could be worshiped internationally while still adhering to the vampire lifestyle. That's right: She doesn't do matinees.

Into this rather ideal situation (for bloodsuckers, at least) comes the de la Baume character's little sister, a born troublemaker whose occasionally over-size teeth start causing a commotion. Played by Roxane Mesquida, above, who is always fun to watch and who does not disappoint here, Sis has a favorite activity: reminding these mostly tamped-down vampires about what they really crave. The little blond virgin (Riley Keough, below), for instance, is her surprise gift to our famous actress.

Also on tap -- in more ways than one -- is the usually fun Michael Rapaport as the Ventimiglia's character's agent (did I tell you Milo plays a famous writer?) who stops in to the old homestead for a chat with his client.
If Ms Cassavetes had only stuck more to her story and less to her "style," Kiss of the Damned would have been a better movie. In fact, she seems to do just this as the film moves along. Initially, though, it's pretty tough going. Talk about a roving camera: This one is all over the place! The film begins with a shot of a bird flying. Suddenly the camera backs up. To what? Nothing. We also get a clichéd sex-thru-the-fish-tank shot which the movie could easily live without. The filmmaker also seems to love very loud, twangy music, so occasionally you might want to cover your ears. Finally, the movie proves repetitious and "arty" enough to have lost maybe ten minutes of wasted space.

That first sex scene, however, is so good and so changes the lay of the land, that this alone may hook you. Ventimiglia is great to look at and so is Ms Mesquida, while Mouglalis impresses with her every moment. There is some occasional ironic humor, as well: After reading his writer's latest and very good work, Rapaport tells his newly minted vampire client, "Congratulations -- you finally joined the human race!"

Overall, I'd give this Kiss a passing grade; it's certainly more fun than not. From the Magnet Releasing arm of Magnolia Pictures and running 97 minutes, the movie opens this coming Friday, May 3, in New York City at the Sunshine Cinema and in West L.A. at the NuArt. You can find all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here. As with many of the Magnolia/Magnet movies, this one, too, is currently playing via VOD -- in case you'd like to sample from the comfort of your couch.

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