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By Jake Watt
13th September 2019

Director Bruce McDonald (‘Hard Core Logo’, ‘The Tracy Fragments’) has been one of the most prominent indie voices in Canadian cinema for the past three decades. He is known for his love for pop culture and aptitude for cheekiness in his films. His filmography spans far and wide, covering a plethora of diverse genres and themes.

McDonald and Tony Burgess first teamed up in 2008, when McDonald directed Burgess’ screenplay adaptation of his own novel ‘Pontypool Changes Everything’. The result was the sublime ‘Pontypool’, which followed a morning radio DJ named Grant Mazzy (veteran character actor Stephen McHattie, in the role he was born to play) as he began his normal day at a new gig in a small Canadian town with his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle).

Without warning, reports arise of people saying strange things, chanting, spouting gibberish. It turns violent. From there, the situation spirals out of control. It’s a thinking man’s zombie movie, a satisfyingly weird piece of filmmaking that feels like it could have been made 50 years ago, would have been particularly relevant ten years ago, and still hums in the age of Twitter and YouTube. To say much more would be to spoil its twist on a classic horror trope, but the film ends on a weird note, with a noir-inspired post-credit sequence that doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the movie.

McDonald’s latest film, a strange mix of noir atmosphere and surrealism called ‘Dreamland’, not only reunites him with Burgess, McHattie and Houle, it also acts as a spin-off to that unusual post-credit sequence from ‘Pontypool’.

Johnny Dead Eyes (the always superb McHattie, ‘Come to Daddy’) is a skilled gun for hire working for crime boss Hercules (Henry Rollins), who runs a nightclub called Al-Qaeda. For his next job, Hercules wants Johnny to take the right little finger from drug-addicted jazz trumpet player The Maestro (also McHattie, but with better grooming). Dead Eyes and The Maestro are doppelgängers, although this never factors into the story aside from the hitman musing: "We start out as a bunch of people, but we end up as one." However, Dead Eyes begins to get second thoughts about the job when he discovers that Hercules has begun a human trafficking operation. "Don’t be a fuckface," advises Hercules, clad in a gold-sequined jacket and wielding the manic demeanour of a David Lynch character.

Dead Eyes discovers that a kidnapped 14-year-old girl is being sold to The Countess (a scenery-chewing Juliette Lewis, ‘Ma’, ‘Nerve’) and will be married off at an elaborate ceremony, soundtracked by The Maestro. When Deadeyes inquires who the groom might be, Hercules replies: "The Countess’ brother. Some kinda vampire, I don’t know," because the brother (Tómas Lemarquis, ‘Blade Runner 2049’) actually is a bald Nosferatu-like vampire. Like the many other weird events in the film, nobody acts surprised by this. Dead Eyes must prevent this wedding with the assistance of Lisa (Lisa Houle), who... well, I’m not quite clear on her identity or what her relationship to anyone else is.

The violence and insanity of ‘Dreamland’ have a lightness and imaginative quality that feels quite unique - this is a film driven by a hazy, dreamlike logic.

The violence and insanity of ‘Dreamland’ have a lightness and imaginative quality that feels quite unique - this is a film driven by a hazy, dreamlike logic. Set against an unnamed Eastern European city and refusing to elaborate on its exact time period, the film is awash with odd moments and unexplained quirks. In one scene, a woman puts a rifle to the head of The Maestro and implores him to kill her husband, as the husband nods understandingly. A short time later we see the couple again, the previous encounter seemingly forgotten. This comes just moments after the hitman is gunned down by a squad of neatly-dressed children armed with pistols, barely escaping with his life.

McDonald has always been an ambitious and difficult-to-categorise director, and his latest film evokes the jumps in logic, tone, and setting that its name implies. The movie is an intentional mishmash that, if you look too closely, may well seem convoluted and the unsettling nature of the film ends up being more irritating than inviting. But there is also a genuine sense of fun that makes up for it.

‘Dreamland’ is an extremely strange movie, and that strangeness will either endear it to you or alienate you. Equal parts violent, tragic, comic, silly and surreal, your best bet is to go limp and let the madcap moments of the film wash over you.

RUN TIME: 1h 32m
CAST: Stephen McHattie
Lisa Houle
Henry Rollins
Juliette Lewis
Astrid Roos
DIRECTOR: Bruce McDonald
WRITERS: Tony Burgess
Patrick Whistler
PRODUCERS: Rob Merilees
Morris Ruskin
Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira
Sebastian Schelenz
Amber Ripley
SCORE: Jonathan Goldsmith
Looking for more Sydney Underground Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights. 
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