DVD: South of Heaven (2008)

January 10, 2012 | By

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Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer: Excellent/ DVD Extras: Excellent

Label: Synapse Films/ Region: 0 (NTSC) / Released: October 11, 2011

Genre: Suspense / Film Noir / Crime / Pulp / Satire

Synopsis: Two stories converge in this noir tale of two kidnappers on the lam and a brother brutalized by a local crime lord.

Special Features: Audio Commentary Track #1: writer / director Vara, cinematographer Darren Genet, and co-producers Brian Udovichand and Jason Polstein / Audio Commentary Track #2: actors Adam and Aaron Nee, Jon Gries, and Shea Wigham / Audio Commentary Track #3: critic’s commentary with Cinematical’s Scott Weinberg, Twitchfilm.com’s Todd Brown, and Chud.com’s Deven Faraci / 3 short films by Jonathan Vara: “Miserable Orphan” (38 mins.) + “Azole Dkmuntch” (28 mins.) + “A Boy and His Fetus” (15 mins.)




Jonathan (J.L.) Vara’s indie film is a peculiar hybrid of the comic book crime tale, somewhat riffing the eccentric characters in Sin City (2005) with the cartoon violence and sadism in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon from The Simpsons. That utterly weird mix works extremely well because a lot of detail went into the film’s minimalist production values, and Vara managed to snatch a great cast of character actors, giving them strong dialogue and moments of behavioral absurdity to build their own interpretations.

Story-wise, South of Heaven is about a glass-jawed boxer named Dale (Aaron Nee) who’s on the lam with one Mad Dog Mantee (the inimitable Shea Whigham) for kidnapping the daughter of a local crime lord. Mantee has one small problem: his overzealous raping of his money ticket went sour when she accidentally lost her head, so the two men keep sending snipped fingers from a severed hand to her papa (one Bobo) in the hope he’ll pay the ransom.

Bobo has already sent two of his best men after the kidnappers, but neither Hood 1 (Jon Gries) nor Hood 2 (Thomas Jay Ryan) feel compelled to expand their search when they realize Roy Coop (Adam Nee) is the innocent brother of Dale; they just snip off his fingers, beat him to a pulp, and eventually flambéing his face – which turns him into a cold-blooded killer, and has him going after his brother for answers and a bit of revenge for burning the precious manuscript he and his brother were transforming into the Great Money-Making American Novel.

Now, Roy could simply leave the city and avoid losing his digits, but he’s an earnest writer, he wants to create art, and he’s also a humble, smiley-faced dope and has no idea the woman (Nadja’s Elina Lowensohn) who espouses to be a partner of Dale is also part of the sadistic troupe working him over for information he simply doesn’t possess.

While there is some gore, it’s brief and generally minimal (and cartoonish), but it does take a while to acclimatize to Vara’s surreal comic book noir that also pays homage to Tex Avery and Jim Thompson in singular shots. Mantee’s literate moral lessons, punctuated by horrible cruelty, also transcend the clichéd persona of a psycho, and the script’s truly disturbing undercurrent is almost lightened by the ridiculously bright colours in costumes, and cartoon-styled sets which often resemble the bright, cheery sets designed for musical numbers in old MGM musicals within musicals, if not Avery cartoons. Backdrops are deliberately artificial, lighting is moody, and set décor is sparse, but it all works cleverly, culminating in a shack where Dale falls for moll Lily (Young People Fucking’s Diora Bird) and further destabilizes his ‘partnership’ with Mantee.

South of Heaven is nicely shot on film, crisply edited for style and pacing, and features a strong score by Russell Howard III, who also integrates the oddball renditions of eighties songs by The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and The Cure.

Synapse’s DVD features an excellent transfer of the film, plus three (!) audio commentaries, and a trio Vara’s short films.

The filmmaker track features writer / director Vara, cinematographer Darren Genet, and co-producers Brian Udovichand and Jason Polstein, covering the production’s minutia whilst filming in Florida, casting, set design, costumes, and the editing process which had Vara fiddle with alternate structures before settling on its more linear intercutting of storylines, and the addition of great animation (the Main Titles, and the counting sheep material) by Canadian Fred Wilmot at Horus Productions.

A second cast track gathers actors Adam and Aaron Nee, Jon Gries, and Shea Wigham; and a third is designated as a critic’s commentary, where Cinematical’s Scott Weinberg, Twitchfilm.com’s Todd Brown, and Chud.com’s Deven Faraci discussing the film’s style and inspired elements. The trio are quite enjoyable, particularly since is provides a contrast between what Vara admit to riffing in his film, and what the critics think he riffed, what films were his inspiration, and interpretations of scenes discussed by Vara. Perhaps the most notable stance is the critics’ views on how indie films can gain special attention at film festivals, and the tough sell of even festival programmers, convincing hard-to-market movies deserve a chance amid sexier and higher budgeted productions. (One boo-boo the trio make in their discussion of faces & names is mistaking veteran Lowensohn for newcomer Lena Hill.)

Vara’s prior feature film is the AFI short David and Dee (2004), and while not archived on the DVD, Synapse have added three of Vara’s early shorts (presumably from film school), each featuring one or both of the real-life Nee brothers. The black & white / widescreen Miserable Orphan (undated) is Vara’s strange riff on Breathless (1960), with a rotten crook (also named Jean-Paul Belmondo) making a simple hit list and almost following through with the kills until a new girlfriend changes his plans using wordplay. Vara’s sense of the absurd has his characters indulging in badly dubbed English translations of pretentious French dialogue, and at one point, two characters break the third wall and address a theatre audience in a bar sequence that’s memorable for an ongoing series of ridiculous behaviour (namely head shoving, and Jena-Paul constantly stealing other peoples’ drinks).

The 16mm colour film Azole Dkmuntch (2001) has a schmuck telling an audience expecting a talent show his disjointed life story, and it’s here one can see strong evidence of Vara’s sense of the ridiculous, the profane (the monologue’s first tale of Azole’s German grandfather is patently offensive), and piling on bad behaviour for a sick family portrait than one can only laugh at for its craziness.

The last short, the 16mm A Boy and His Fetus (undated) is a funny satire on the kind of pretentious, heavily symbolic shorts arty-farty filmmakers produce to draw attention to a fake inner Lynch (and Lynch himself, which Vara satirizes by taking shots at Eraserhead). The lead character essentially rambles aspects of his life story before he decides the only way to have the brother he never got is incest. Rude? Surely, but spot-on in recreating the nonsensical, surreal black & white experimental shorts where jump cuts, poured blood, angels, and maggots are vainly applied to shock audiences and convince someone what’s being screened is high art.

Of the three films, the first is far too long, the second rather uneven but ultimately rewarding in small spots, and the third the best for being experimental and satirical in one groove, right down to the pretentious backwards title cards, intertitles, and distorted noisy score. The first two films also co-star Vara’s then mini-stock company, including actresses Sue-Lynn Chu and Pamela Love.

Pity this release isn’t available on Blu-ray – compression tends to affect the shorts, with Miserable Orphan really suffering from jaggies – but perhaps if South of Heaven enjoys a second life on home video, it might get a HD upgrade.



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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