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Dreamland (2019)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Man Oh Man, Those Canadians Are Weird."
4 stars

If you have read my stuff on even a semi-regular basis—not that I am recommending that under any circumstances—you will know that I have never been one to shy away from cinematic excursions into the strange, the inexplicable and, when the occasion arises, the downright outre. However, every once in a while, a movie comes along that is so strange that even I am not sure how to respond to it. Such a film is “Dreamland,” a genuine head-scratcher from Canada that is so determinedly odd in so many ways that I don’t know if I could say with any degree of confidence what the filmmakers were going for in the first place, much less whether or not it truly succeeded in those efforts. In my defense, I am not sure that the filmmakers themselves could honestly answer those questions either. This is not to say that the film is bad, mind you, but it is certainly not the kind of thing where you will come away from it thinking “How many times have I seen that before?”

Set in a vaguely defined and highly stylized version of a nameless European country, the film opens has hitman Johnny (Stephen McHattie) pulls off a job that has him gunning down a car full of rich and extra-sleazy pedophiles. This would seem to be a good day’s work but when he reports back to his boss, Hercules (Henry Rollins, looking like he is about to play Daddy Warbucks in an especially angry regional production of “Annie”), he discovers that he was hired to kill them so that Hercules could corner that particularly lucrative market for himself. Johnny is understandably revolted but still goes out on the next job that Hercules has for him. A celebrated jazz musician/junkie known only as The Maestro (also played by McHattie) has crossed Hercules and while Hercules respects him as an artist, he still wants Johnny to cut off the Maestro’s pinky finger—it send a message but it will not get in the way of his trumpet playing.

The reason that the Maestro is in town is to play at a wedding being thrown by The Countess (Juliette Lewis) at her lavish castle for her beloved brother (Tomas Lemarquis). It turns out that his bride-to-be is a 14-year-old girl who is being supplied to him by Hercules. Coincidentally, the girl also happens to be a neighbor of Johnny and when her younger brother turns up at his door begging for help, he decides to take a stand for once and rescue her. This all culminates at the wedding at the Countess’s castle, where many people die in many gory ways and where no one seems to recognize the fact that Johnny and the Maestro look exactly alike. Oh, I almost forgot one other key detail. That brother of the Countess—besides being a pedophile, he just happens to literally be a vampire as well.

See what I mean about this movie being singular in its sheer weirdness? With its combination of stylized settings and performances, arch visual style and incongruously jazzy score coupled with its dark narrative involving reaching a young girl from the clutches of rich, powerful and degenerate pedophiles, there are times when the film suggests what might have resulted if Alan Rudolph had gotten the gig of directing “You Were Never Really Here.” Hell, even an absurd touch like Hercules having a bunch of gun-toting children running around as his henchmen like lethal versions of “Bugsy Malone” might actually make some kind of sense along these lines. On the other hand, what am I to make of the touch of not only making one of the key characters an actual vampire but having all of the other characters acting as though there is nothing even remotely out of the ordinary about such a thing? Even for a filmmaker like director Bruce McDonald, whose past oeuvre includes such head scratchers as “Highway 61,” “The Tracey Fragments” and “Pontypool,” this is asking a lot.

And yet, perhaps the strangest thing about “Dreamland”—not counting the vampire stuff—is that even though it sounds like a film that threatens to go completely off the rails once every few minutes, it actually finds and maintains a certain internal logic throughout. This is especially impressive when you consider that this is the kind of film where even the slightest wink suggesting that the filmmakers know how weird the proceedings are could cause the entire thing to unravel in an instant. There is hardly a single story detail that isn’t bizarre in some way but that bizarreness is at least consistent throughout. Likewise, the actors do a surprisingly good job of finding just the right notes to make the thoroughly implausible material make some degree of sense, at least during the time in which it plays out—the double performance by McHattie is especially amusing in the way that he appears to be doing two different impersonations of Mickey Rourke throughout and Lewis is gleefully over the top as the Countess.

Needless to say, my guess is that “Dreamland” will prove to be simply too strange of a cinematic bird for most viewers. This is not so much a criticism, either of the film or of any potential viewers, as it is a straightforward observation. Hell, I have a feeling that if I hadn’t been in the particular frame of mind that I was in when I watched it, I might well have disliked it as well. However, I did end responding to and even sort of embracing its admittedly singular approach and execution and if you happen to be in the right state of mind when you come across it, you might do the same.

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originally posted: 06/05/20 05:36:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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