Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland is, for good or ill, on its own very particular wavelength. A strange mix of noir atmosphere and surrealism, the film seems to continue the path McDonald walked with 2015’s Hellions, with dreamlike atmospheres laid over otherwise typical genre fare. But while Hellions applied this new fascination with the surreal to horror, Dreamland turns its focus onto hard-boiled crime. Or at least, that’s the closest reference point one can make out through Dreamland’s odd, singular landscape. It’s a film that very much walks to the beat of its own drum. If that rhythm is one you can get in step with, it can be an interesting and sometimes engrossing experience. If not, McDonald’s latest effort may leave you cold.
Stephen McHattie stars in a dual role, on the one hand playing an aging and soft-spoken gun for hire, and on the other a strung-out trumpet player. The Killer is distraught to discover that his boss, played by Henry Rollins, has begun trafficking in children, a line the aging assassin won’t cross. The Trumpet Player, meanwhile, is staying in the extravagant castle of a local countess, preparing to perform at her brother’s wedding. Her brother, incidentally, is a vampire in full Nosferatu mode, and everyone seems to take this as normal. The paths of these two men seem strangely an inexplicably linked, and the Killer’s blood-splattered path to redemption brings them ever closer together.
Appropriately for its title, Dreamland 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 wife implores the Trumpet Player to kill her husband, as the dumbfounded husband looks on no less. A half-hour or more later we see them again, the previous encounter seemingly behind them. This comes mere seconds after the Killer barely escapes from a squad of hitmen, none of them over thirteen years old.
The Killer and the Trumpet Player’s strange link is never elaborated on, but in one key scene, the Trumpet Player’s distinctive black fingernail materializes on the Killer for no reason given. And again, there’s that vampire. It’s a weird, weird movie, and that weirdness will either endear it to you or alienate you. It rarely feels too much like an affectation, but it’s also really hard to discern what’s driving it all, what it all means. Is it just weird for the sake of it? Perhaps, and it’s understandable to get turned off by that. But there’s also enough atmosphere, enough offbeat charm, and enough sheer uniqueness of vision to make it worth trying at least.
McHattie, for his part, is marvelous as the two leads, playing two distinct shades of a haunted loner sometimes directly opposite one another. The Killer, with his long black hair and hard-boiled attitude, could almost be mistaken for an aging John Wick, and the strange criminal underworld he inhabits backs up the comparison more than a little. The Trumpet Player, who is less seen but no less engrossing, is the prototypical burned-out artist — never seeming quite in his right mind. Henry Rollins, meanwhile, does a decent but unremarkable turn as Hercules, a short-fused and morally bankrupt gang boss. It’s not a demanding role, but the former Black Flag frontman wears it well. Juliette Lewis plays the Countess, and gives her all to what ends up as a fairly insubstantial role. McHattie’s Pontypool costar Lisa Houle pulls up the rear in an underdeveloped role as Lisa, a character who probably had much more to do in a previous draft. It’s never quite clear who she is or what her relationship to anyone else is, making her character feel like an afterthought.
Dreamland is one of those movies that in many ways defines categorization, and that uniqueness and defiance of convention is its primary selling point. The odds are that you haven’t seen a movie quite like this before, and that promise of a unique experience could be enough to draw a lot of people in. Dreamland presents a singular vision, brought into reality with enthusiasm from all involved. It’s most assuredly not for everyone, but McDonald’s commitment to telling his story in his voice are sure to win it some fans.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
‘House of Cardin’ is a Toothless Retrospective of an Auteur
DOC NYC 2019
An enigmatic figure in the fashion industry, but one whose output has an everlasting appeal, Pierre Cardin’s stylistic choices feel prescient. They also represent an individual who has sequestered his private life away from prying eyes, while cultivating a brand that is distinct and pushes forth a public persona of eccentricity and boundless ambition. House of Cardin serves as a means of exploring the brand which Cardin has fashioned, and how it reinforces the prolific designer as an auteur. But as a look at Cardin himself, the film feels stunted.
Clearly a vanity project authorized by someone who has maintained a life of luxury and prefers to keep his life outside of the spotlight a secret, House of Cardin is a toothless but still relatively interesting beginner’s guide to Pierre Cardin. Focused primarily on his successful endeavors inside and out of the fashion industry, the documentary offers an extended look at the idea of creating a brand and preserving it as the world around is constantly in a state of flux. Littered with interviews with some of fashion’s biggest names, as well as other famous stars like Sharon Stone, Dionne Warwick, and Alice Cooper, there is a lot of ego-boosting to wade through before finding the nuggets of compelling ideas. No matter how many people say great things about Cardin and his work, there’s a distance to the man himself that the film fails to narrow. This ultimately leaves the film feeling inconsequential, even with concepts that it easily attaches to Cardin.
The trouble with House of Cardin is that it doesn’t really have much of a thesis. It opens with talk of how Cardin’s private life is a mystery to many, but then moves immediately away from that and into his public-facing self. It’s less a biography and more of a career retrospective that feels disingenuous, at best. It plays the highlights, and despite a few extremely brief moments in his early life, much of the documentary places a further level of gloss on an already shiny exterior. There’s no real examination of any specific facet of his career, effectively declaring Pierre Cardin to be untouchable.
Now, whether Cardin is truly unassailable or not is one thing; how the film handles it is another. It feels like a lot of Cardin’s work is put in a bubble, separated from the outside world and therefore excluded from a critical perspective, as there is nothing within the bubble to immediately compare and use as reference. The film doesn’t take his work and put it in the context of his contemporaries, instead opting to treat it like a separate industry of its own making. It doesn’t place Cardin in the fashion industry, but instead looks at his works as components of his brand. Yet, even then the film simply identifies it as a strong brand without actually positioning it in the pantheon of commercial enterprises. Cardin is Cardin, and the documentary refuses to believe that any other external factors are worth exploring to explain why he is so distinct from the pack.
As an officially authorized biography of the iconic fashion designer, House of Cardin is still a substantial entry-point for those unaware of Cardin and his work. Clearly equipped with a unique style, the movie has plenty of imagery to gawk and drool over, simply reinforcing how influential and important Cardin’s work is in the industry. That being said, nothing is more depressing than watching a puff piece that omits key elements of any biography simply because the subject refuses to be candid about that. House of Cardin amounts to the kind of documentary that gets played in a museum exhibit that highlights career-defining moments in a succinct and easily digestible fashion. Perhaps it’s better to just go look at the work he’s done and form one’s own opinion than have it spoon fed by the creator and his followers.
The 2019 DOC NYC festival runs 11/8-11/15.
‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres
The Divine Fury has a premise you could only find in a film that would premiere at a genre film festival like Fantasia. Yong-hoo Park, champion MMA fighter, develops a bleeding wound on the palm of his hand, and medical science cannot help him. Further assailed by voices and terrifying visions, Yong-hoo turns to a medium, who directs him to Father Ahn. Ahn is a sanctioned exorcist, and one of many Vatican agents on the trail of the sinister Black Bishop, an occult practitioner who has amassed demonic powers. Father Ahn informs Yong-hoo that his wound is a stigmata, a powerful tool in the battle against evil. This comes as something of a surprise to Yong-hoo, a devout atheist since the death of his father. With his new mentor, Yong-hoo becomes a force for good — a demon-punching holy avenger who uses his physical and spiritual gifts to battle the Black Bishop.
From that description, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining something like that one scene from Peter Jackson’s Braindead, or maybe Ninja 3: The Domination, if you’re a fan of 80s Cannon Group cheese. Even worse, you might be imagining some kind of hokey, low-rent religious superhero movie, like a South Korean Bibleman. But you’re in for a surprise; while it could easily have set its sights on camp and gunned the engine, The Divine Fury instead goes a different route, playing its bonkers premise almost entirely straight. From the outset, Joo-hwan Kim’s film remains utterly sincere about itself, mixing horror and action with some deft direction and a stellar cast to create a dark, engaging, and fun hybrid.
Painting a dark and stylish portrait of modern Seoul, Kim’s direction comes off almost from the first frame as slick and confident. Smooth, elegant camera movements glide through the dimly-lit streets, where shadows lurk and fear reigns. The film often surprises with some wonderful imagery, and walks a fine line between stylish and efficient. When things start hitting the fan and demons emerge to menace our heroes, the film also busts out some serious effects wizardry, with top-notch makeup and creature effects bolstered by clever and dynamic camera work. There are flashes of terrific art direction, with brief tantalizing glimpses of a beautifully realized world of demonic forces, and even real-world locations like the Black Bishop’s luridly-lit nightclub make for interesting and unique backdrops.
As Yong-hoo and Father Anh grow closer, it becomes apparent that their chemistry and onscreen charm is one of the cornerstones the film rests on. Even when they’re just sharing a meal, the two leads are terrific to watch together, with an easy and natural chemistry that makes them eminently believable as friends, despite their vast differences in outlook. Of course, Father Ahn’s platitudes and homilies often come across as stock and predictable, and the film’s attempts at a theological discourse are pretty shallow. But when it can’t muster a convincing theological argument, the film defaults to much more universal fare in its message: defend the defenseless, oppose evil. Who can argue with that?
The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The confident direction and charming leads do help make up for one crucial shortcoming, though: the film may have a lot of the divine, but it’s a tad short on fury. After a tantalizing fight scene early in the film teases some great action, no punches fly until the film’s showstopper of an ending. For those expecting a rock ‘em-sock ‘em actionfest, much of The Divine Fury’s middle section — the vast majority of the film — may leave them cold. But be patient. Enjoy the atmosphere and the more horror-oriented segments, because that patience will be rewarded. When the film reaches its final sequence and Yong-hoo finally unleashes his holy fisticuffs, the result is, well, divine. The climactic action sequence in The Divine Fury is one worth waiting for, a slick and deftly delivered pair of fight scenes that will have action fans cheering in the aisles. The camera maintains a perfect distance, allowing the physical performances of the actors to take center stage, and never obscures the action with jittery movement or rapid-fire editing. The presentation is dynamic, but never overwhelms or distracts from the solid physical performances by star Park Seo-joon and the stunt team. The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades.
The Divine Fury is a fun, surprising and just plain cool horror-action hybrid that offers something for fans of both genres. Kept aloft by two engaging and charismatic leads and some top-notch direction, it pulls you into its ridiculous world of exorcisms and action with gusto. While it does make you wait before it fully unleashes its premise, which can and has strained the patience of some viewers and critics, its final action sequences are worth waiting for.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 2, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.
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