The 70s porn 'king' John Holmes (Val Kilmer) is no longer active in adult movies as his life and career spiral towards drug-dazed oblivion in 1981. He has left his wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) and is devoted to his teenage girlfriend Dawn (Kate Bosworth) as he drifts into a business relationship with Ron (Josh Lucas) and Susan Launius (Christina Applegate) and their associate David Lind (Dylan McDermott), all based at a house in Wonderland Avenue in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. When another of John's associates, the powerful gangster and nightclub owner Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian), is robbed at his home by the Wonderland group, Nash suspects John of being an accomplice, and forces him to return the favour and let Nash's men into 'Wonderland' for bloody and deadly revenge. But John denies this and no-one has ever found out the truth of this notorious case to this day.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Director James Cox and his cinematographer Michael Grady have conspired to create the currently fashionable 'agitated' style by shooting much of the film on small hand held cameras, which allows intimacy, immediacy - and sometimes is the choice of the creatively lazy. No need to light it too well, no need to frame shots, no need, even, to dress sets much as we are not seeing much more than moving close ups of tortured faces, drugs going up noses, or hands injecting. That sort of thing.
Cox piles on the style, especially in the first half hour, using inserts, split screens, time skips, graphic inserts, colour and grain variations, slow-motion, camera angle shifts within single shots - in fact just about everything but running the film backwards. But just as you're ready to groan at this chaotic excess of style over substance, the fog clears, the story starts to gel, the characters begin to emerge and the drama of the multi-angled story grips our imagination.
And Val Kilmer is sensational - which is no small compliment from one who has not been a fan of Kilmer's work. The extraordinary, layered and contradictory character of John Holmes is captured as well as in any bio-pic of seedy people that I recall, including Johnny Depp as George Jung in Blow, say, or even those great performance in Auto Focus by Willem Dafoe and Greg Kinnear in the story of John Krane, who was addicted to porn, coincidentally. There is method to Cox's madness in that the truth of this true story is still debatable, and he has done a pretty good job of presenting the options, leaving us to ponder the circumstances and maybe decide who we want to believe. Frankly, both major scenarios are plausible: everyone involved is capable of doing what they are accused of.
But this film is best approached as cinema, not history, and it's an often brutal, confronting film of the ugly underside of recreational drug use, haywire lives and the moral vacuum of a washed up bunch of no-hopers. But it's also a compelling, fascinating film, made with bravura style that in the end serves the story's purpose.
Review by Louise Keller:
An uncompromising story about sex, drugs and murder, Wonderland lures us into a harsh, ugly world filled with violence, but fascinates by its treatment and performances. James Cox has created a startling immediacy to the film and connects the story with the events on which it is based by effective imagery that takes us from newspaper clipping to real life. Cox also plays around with the tempo of the story telling, with speeded up sequences, flashbacks and retelling of the same events from a different viewpoint.
At times, dialogue sounds as though it is coming through a tunnel, efficiently capturing the spaced out mood at the drug orgies. We are there for the parties, the wild-man confrontations, the sex and finally the murders. We see life played out to the excess, where all the characters need a hit- 'a snack' - before functioning. There is a bath taken in two memorable scenes, and in both cases there is much to be cleansed.
Val Kilmer's porn-star Johnny Holmes is truly outstanding: Kilmer managers to endow this weak and obnoxious man who makes use of everyone around him with enough charm to allow us to believe his ability to make people do things for him. Kate Bosworth lights up the screen as his innocent, impressionable girlfriend who believes everything he says, while Lisa Kudrow delivers a wonderfully nuanced and haunting performance as his long-suffering wife Sharon, desperately trying to shake her undying loyalty. The tough guys are all ultra tough, and Eric Bogosian's gangster Eddie Nash is memorable, and Dylan McDermott's David Lind and Josh Lucas' Ron Lauius unforgettable. 'A mile of dick, but no balls' says the interrogating policeman to John, as we finally see a rerun of the events of the fateful night for a final time.
John drives like he lives his life - on the edge, and drags everyone he knows with him. But this is also a story of loyalty and betrayal. We see examples of these side by side. There's a moving scene when both wife and girlfriend embrace John in a three-way hug, when he is in protective custody, followed by the three of them trying to catch some sleep - side by side in the one bed. Betrayal is rife everywhere, and greed is the trigger. The soundtrack plays a big role with a terrific string of 80s tunes, and while the images may be grisly and the theme grim, we get sucked in.
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(USA / Canada)
CAST: Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, Eric Bogosian, Ted Levine, Christina Applegate, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Janeeane Garofalo, Faizon Love
PRODUCER: Michael Paseornek, Holly Wiersma
DIRECTOR: James Cox
SCRIPT: James Cox, Captain Mauzne, Todd Samovitz, D. Loriston Scot
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Grady
EDITOR: Jeff McEvoy
MUSIC: Cliff Martinez
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Franco-Giacomo Carbone
RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hoyts
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 29, 2004