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October 11, 2011

South of Heaven

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J. L. Vara - 2008
Synapse Films Region 1 DVD

Much of the time, the complaint is that the filmmaker doesn't try hard enough. With South of Heaven, J. L. Vara maybe tries too hard. I can't blame the guy for loving film noir so much that he might want to make his own version, and one that looks kind sort of like the films of the Forties and Fifties. Vara has a great sense of color, which may in effect be film's undoing. The sets looks like sets, and even some outdoor scenes are clearly shot on a sound stage. The problem is that with eye popping reds and yellows, South of Heaven looks like an Edgar G. Ulmer cheapie re-imagined by Vincente Minnelli.

The title is also that of a novel by Jim Thompson. The main bad guy, a psychopath named Mad Dog Mantee, recognizably has the nick name and last name of two gangsters on the run, played by Humphrey Bogart. At the same time, Vara gives way to the more contemporary presentations of sex and violence, mostly violence, especially in the scenes of when the young would be writer, the victim of mistaken identity, has his fingers cut off with a gardening tool. As Roy Coop, Adam Nee also gets his face punched a lot, so that bruised and puffed up, he looks almost like a less grotesque version of Eric Stoltz in Mask. But the what may be the biggest problem for South of Heaven is that the film gets swiped by the supporting players.

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As the femme fatale named Veronica who seems to magically appear following one of Roy's beatings, Elina Lowensohn looks the part with her Louise Brooks hairstyle, and her dresses that reveal just enough leg and decolletage. I didn't even mind that her revealing of her identity made her accented English even more incongruous. On the other hand, when Lowensohn removes her wig, all I could think was how the scene lacked any of the impact as when the equally bald Constance Towers kills her pimp in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss. Although he's only onscreen for mere minutes, Sy Richardson is memorably lit and photographed as a character named Pawn Daddy. Also upstaging everyone else are Jon Gries and Thomas Jay Ryan, whose soft-spoken patter belies their unrelenting brutality. With their green sports coats and bright yellow straw hats, the pair look more like carnival barkers than a couple of enforcers.

If you want the opinion of someone much more enthusiastic about South of Heaven, I have nothing but respect for Todd Brown of Twitch, one of three critics who provide one of the three commentary tracks on the DVD. J. L. Vara and some of the production staff also provide a commentary, as do several of the actors. For myself, I have trouble watching a feature length pastiche that never lets you forget that you are watching a series of reimagined moments from other movies and novels.

And based on J.L. Vara's commentary, I hope someone was kind enough to let him know that it was William Wellman, not William Wyler, who made Track of the Cat.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 11, 2011 08:27 AM