Tuesday, December 20, 2011

DVD Review: SOUTH OF HEAVEN (2008)

LABEL: Synapse Films
RATING: Unrated
DURATION: 97mins
VIDEO: 16:9 Widescreen (1.78:1)
AUDIO: Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital English 2.0 Stereo
CAST: Aaron nee, Adam Nee, She Winghan, Diora Baird, Jon Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan, Elina Lowenstein

Viewing director J.L. Vara's SOUTH OF HEAVEN tonight was a real blast of fresh air, this neo-noir western is quite unlike anything else I've come across recently. The pretty simple story revolves around a naive Naval officer named Roy Coop (Adam Nee) who dreams of striking it rich writing the all-American debut novel. After being discharged from the Navy he arrives on his brother Dale's (Aaron Nee) doorstep in San Francisco with his hopes and aspirations intact. Not finding Dale home he lets himself in and gets right to typing his novel until he is disturbed by two peculiar, vaudevillian looking bruisers played by Jon Gries (TERRORVISION) and Thomas Jay Ryan (HENRY FOOL) whom mistakenly implicate him in the abduction of the daughter of their employer, a very serious mobster named Mr. Bobo. Turns out Roy's brother Dale has aligned himself with a psychopath named Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham, BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and the two are behind the kidnapping but the vaudevillians are only too pleased to punish Roy for his brother's deeds paying him several visits delivering regular beatings that leave his faced mashed to a pulp, each calling leaving fewer and fewer digits on his hands until he's quite literally all thumbs and his face is charred black having received a swirly of sorts in a burning trash can.

Meanwhile Mad Dog and Dale are burning a swath through the Southwest leaving a trail of robberies, corpses and pretty, dead girls that Mad Dog loves to death. The encounter leaves Roy a changed man, no longer the fresh-faced Naval vet he now calls himself Nobody, his face and hands wrapped in bandages DARKMAN style, he sets out to repay the brutality upon his aggressors and then trails Mad Dog and Dale across the Southwest to face the men that have set this unfortunate series of events in motion. Also entering into the equation are a gorgeous femme fatale name Veronica (Elina Lowenstein) with questionable motives, a pretty dame named Lily (Diora Baird) who causes a divide between Mad Dog and Dale plus a steady string of victims.

The film's look is a bit unreal by design, a minimalist neo-noir technicolor nightmare with Western themes filmed on tiny sets, harshly lit with highly stylized backdrops that at times recalled the classic Tex Avery drawn Looney Tunes cartoons. The film begins with an animated sequence that compliments that sentiment, very cool set design, color palette and cinematography - the film does so much with what is surely limited resources, this is indie filmmaking done right with a unique style, vision and implementation.

The acting from everyone in the film is pretty great without exception with some snappy dialogue that holds up with repeated viewings. Exceptional performances from the brothers Nee, Jon Gries, Thomas Jay Ryan and Shea Whigham - there's not a stinker in the bunch. Whigham for me was the standout as the scary crazy psycho-killer Mad Dog who lives his life according to a weird inarguable crazed inner-logic, he's scary good. The dynamic between the weak-willed Dale and Mad Dog is truly disturbing and there's some truly deranged and tense moments between the two.

- Three Audio Commentary Tracks featuring Director J.L. Vara, Star Shea Whigham and other cast/crew. Critic Commentary includes Todd Brown, Scott Weinberg and Devin Faraci
- Three Short Films by Director J.L. Vara, Including: MISERABLE ORPHAN (38 mins), AZOLE DKMUNTCH (28 mins) and A BOY AND HIS FETUS (15 mins)

VERDICT: A definite high recommend from me, SOUTH OF HEAVEN delivers the goods with a wonderful blend of arthouse surrealism and Lynchian neo-noir violence - fun stuff, there's nothing else like it out there and I say treat yourself. The DVD comes with three insightful commentaries and four delightfully fucked-up short films by J.L. Vara and looks and sounds great.
4 outta 5