Film Review: SOUTH OF HEAVEN (2008) – directed by J.L. Vara

Posted: August 5, 2012 in Film Reviews
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SOUTH OF HEAVEN is the feature film directorial debut of J.L. Vara, an ambitious young filmmaker whose love of Westerns, Film Noir and David Lynch is more than apparent in this genre mashup. Unfortunately, it’s this same polygamous love of genre that hampers SOUTH OF HEAVEN to the point where it’s nearly unwatchable.

The film starts off promisingly enough with a really well-done animated intro that gives the viewer the backstory on our hero, Roy Coop (Adam Dee), who receives a letter from his brother Dale (Aaron Dee) encouraging him to come back home to write his next “Great American Novel” as a means for the two to get rich quick. However, what Roy is unaware of is that Dale has had more than his fair share of run-ins with various ruffians, including one Mad Dog Mantee (Shea Whigham) who whisks Dale away on a cross-country crime spree. Given that the two are brothers and look-alike immensely, Roy is continually mistaken for Dale which results in a series of sequences in which he is beaten, battered and bruised by all sorts of colorful characters from Dale’s past. This leads to one particular scene in which Roy’s novel is burned and then Roy himself is shoved face first into the fire. With any sense of identity gone, Roy becomes Nobody and is out for revenge.

As you can probably tell by my lackluster description of the plot, I didn’t particularly care for this picture. In fact, this film reminded me of the one film that always stands out year after year at the Fantasia Film Festival here in Montreal, Canada. Without fail, the programmers always manage to program one (or sometimes a whole retrospective dedicated to the kind of filmmaker who specializes in making this type of trite) film that is clearly aimed at the pretentious, hipper-than-thou, cultural elitists who use words like “psychotronic” and “liquid elephants” to describe how cool a film is. It’s the kind of film that is merely coasting by on its reputation as being “hip” and “cool” by hipster critics at Twitch and Spectacular Optical, rather than on any artistic or entertainment merit. Last year, that role was filled by ATTACK THE BLOCK and the Adam Wingard Retrospect.

SOUTH OF HEAVEN is one such film. In its effort to be everything to everyone at once, it fails to do what any good film ought to be doing – telling a story with characters and situations we as an audience can emotionally connect with. If you’re going to go the Alejandro Jodorowsky route, which is to say, the balls-to-the-wall, anything goes approach where style and bizarre imagery trump your typical 3-act narrative structure, fine, but at least make the imagery interesting. Here’s a film that attempts to blend both modes of filmmaking and fails miserably.

Another thing I didn’t particularly care for were the actor choices for the various characters. I’m sure these are fine actors in their own right, but they were horribly miscast in my opinion. They all looked far too young for the kinds of roles they were playing. Perhaps growing up on Lauren Bacall seducing Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP has spoiled me when it comes to watching femme fatales in film noirs, but watching a cast that looks like they’ve stepped off the set of DAWSON’S CREEK spouting the kind of dialogue best spoken by actors twice their age was far too jarring for my sensibilities.

I’m all for reinventing the wheel when it comes to filmmaking. As a filmmaker whose fame to claim” was creating a trilogy of films whose stories were told with still-images timed to music, I’m not against making experimental narratives. But even working within this framework requires an artist to comply with certain cinematic archetypes in order to win over your audience. SOUTH OF HEAVEN’s insistence of mashing up genres for the sake of mashing them up, along with a terrible script with characters played by miscast actors makes this a major thumbs down for me.

Thanks to Exploitation Retrospect.

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