Synapse // 2008 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // September 30th, 2011
Mad Dog wuz here.
Sometimes it feels like the novelty of films follows a law of diminishing returns. Watch enough of them and nothing seems new anymore. That doesn't change whether a film is good or bad, but seeing something you've never seen before becomes fewer and farther between all the time. Thinking back to my first viewings of movies like Suspiria or Eraserhead reminds me of the euphoria and bewilderment in thinking that such unabashed weirdness could find production at all. So, when something does come along that seems new, it deserves celebration, and that's what we find in South of Heaven, the debut film from director J.L. Vara.
Roy Coop (Adam Nee, Able Danger) has just returned from a stint in the navy and wants to get back to his brother Dale (Aaron Nee) to write the novel they've always wanted. When Roy arrives back at Dale's apartment, though, he finds Dale gone and a pair of thugs asking the whereabouts of somebody named Becky. He has no idea, but that doesn't stop them from shearing off two fingers. Meanwhile, Dale is with Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) a hardened maniac continuing a crime spree that started with Becky and will finish when Mad Dog says it will.
On the surface, it seems like the hodgepodge of styles J.L. Vara uses in South of Heaven would result in a confusing mess. But the mixture of animation with live action, eye-popping pastel colors with monochrome, and ultraviolence with goofy comedy works cohesively and almost sensibly, making for a unique viewing experience that any cult movie fan should enjoy. Given that South of Heaven is Vara's debut feature and basically a student film makes this all the more surprising.
The film wears its wide swath of influences on its sleeve, but using every thing from Dick Tracy to Looney Tunes to Film Noir to Stanley Kubrick doesn't make it an uninspired pastiche. Instead, he fits the pieces into a wholly different entity and makes everything work as though they were always meant to be together. He doesn't set it in any recognizable world; with its cheaply painted sets and rear-projection, it has no place in reality. Its closest visual equivalent might be Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That's odd in itself, but I can't stress enough the surprising confidence of this first time director. Robert Zemeckis had years to gain enough popularity for a studio to trust his stylistic chance. Vara simply makes no compromises; he throws his vision onto the screen and viewers can take it or leave it. I wholeheartedly respect that.
South of Heaven won't appeal to everybody, and will turn some people off outright, but those who it appeals to will really like it, and for more than just its commingling influences. The story is extremely funny, starting as something of a color-blasted film noir and slowly morphing into a weird urban spaghetti western with shades of Darkman on top of it. The violence is serious, but the performances aren't, even if they're played seriously. The characters are charged to say some crazy things, but there isn't even the hint of a wink at the audience and the story wouldn't work for a second without the actors performing so well. Shea Whigham is totally committed to the Mad Dog role, totally on top of his game and has to be seen to be believed. Elina Löwensohn (Fay Grim) is the complete femme fatale, with the look and the attitude and the secrets all in place. She's lovely and dangerous in all the ways we like our noir women. For cult fans, South of Heaven also features Joe Unger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sy Richardson (Repo Man), John Gries (Napoleon Dynamite), Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool) and wrestling legend George "The Animal" Steele in small roles. How Vara got all these people on the budget he had, I do not know, but it makes for a film of wicked fun, one that should prove imminently rewatchable.
Synapse does its usual great work on the DVD for South of Heaven. The image looks extremely sharp, with great detail for a standard definition disc. The colors pop off the screen, black levels are nice and deep, and whites are clean and bright. Nearly flawless, I couldn't ask much more from this transfer. The sound is very good, as well. The surround mix is better than the stereo, but both are solid for what they are, with clear dialog and good effects, though the surround features action in the rear.
The extras on the disc are really good. We have three full commentaries to listen to and, while that might sound like overkill, they're all different and all solid. The first, featuring Vara and a couple of the producers, is your standard style, with general production information and accolades for the actors. The second features a number of the actors in the film, who do many of the same things as the first, but from the perspective of those playing the parts. Their accolades are more for the writing, and I agree. If they're being truthful and there is basically no ad-libbing in the film, then those monologues are really quite well written and gives me even more respect for the film. The final commentary is a critics track, featuring Todd Brown from from twitchfilm.com, Scott Weinberg from cinematical.com, and Dennis Faraci from chud.com. It's an interesting group that works very well. They lend a lot of insight into the influences and references in the film, but there is a problem. They get confused about who Elina Löwensohn is; they call her by a different name and then make fun of her "fake" accent. I find it very odd that three critics, all of whom focus on horror, have never seen Nadja or any of the films she has appeared in, which is quite a few. It's not a deal breaker, but any time the woman is on the screen, they're distracting in their ignorance of the situation. The other group of extras is three short films from the director. They're clearly student projects, but show some of the style that the director employs here. A good disc for a very good film.
Beautiful, insane, and violent. Those are three words that don't always go together in a single film, but a combination that are supremely attractive to me. I couldn't have asked for more than J.L. Vara has delivered in South of Heaven and I will surely watch this film over and over again.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Films