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Dreamland (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"More daydream than nightmare."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The opening stretch of Bruce McDonald's "Dreamland" introduces a bunch of visually striking characters against a moody environment, has then open their mouths to begin a story, and then summarily has the all shot them in the head. The rest of the film isn't quite that nihilistic, but it is fairly pointedly eccentric and detached, the sort of thing that needs the idea that anything can happen in the audience's head lest they get frustrated with how little is happening right now. McDonald is going for a specific idea of cool here above all else, where it's more important to be stylish than tense.

It is plenty stylish, mostly taking place in the neighborhoods of a European capital where the movies that make a person want to visit Europe take place, the parts not developed into glass skyscrapers or filled with historical buildings that remain preserved in amber. There's cafes and clubs and pawnshops, and the assassin who frequents them taps into a network of cigarette-smoking urchins in suits, one of several places where the wires seem to be crossed and weird chimeras created. McDonald and his collaborators do a decent job of finding entertaining ways of mixing familiar tropes up into different arrangements so that there's often something both comfortingly familiar and bizarrely creative about them when he attempts to do so usually misses the mark.

Not everybody can fit into that sort of milieu, but frequent McDonald collaborator Steven McHattie can, and this movie fits him like a glove. He has a dual role, laying both a world-weary assassin and a decadent trumpet player, and a viewer probably wouldn't want anyone else playing either of those parts, even if the way the film winks at it is another thing that makes a viewer more aware of the games being played than a part of them. Watching him shamble around as the drug-addled musician or trying to do good while not really believing in his own humanity is a distinct pleasure even when a scene is going on too long. He's surrounded by similarly entertaining support - Henry Rollins as a gangster who seems laid-back to a fault but still carries grudges, Juliette Lewis as a maniacal Countess, Lisa Houle as a sympathetic ear in a bar - but these guys are never quite completely engaged with others, just as part of their nature.

Because of that, it's easy for Dreamland to become just a movie about movies, imitating the films that inspired McDonald and writers Tony Burgess & Patrick Whistler, but only occasionally building something that is memorable as their own creation. Its attempts at satire feel more contemptuous than pointed, and it floats above the violence too easily to make the outrage motivating it actually work. It probably misses its chance early, when there's just a bit of a gap between how casually Rollins's crime boss talks about his new business and how appalled McHattie's gunman is; that's the moment when the filmmakers could add some genuine urgency to their ironic take on the material, which would make this "Dreamland" a nightmare one gets caught up in rather than one later examined for significance.

And that's how you make the story of a disheveled assassin trying to rescue a trafficked kid from becoming a vampire's child bride kind of boring. It's an assembly of signifiers of cinematic cool, but barely having enough emotion behind them to make the audience do more than raise their eyebrows.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33281&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/23/20 05:00:24
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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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