Wonderland attempts to go beyond entertainment

Wonderland is meant to
actually solve this open homicide

Murder, one human being taking the life of another, this topic has fascinated people since the first recorded murder in the Biblical book of Genesis. It was only natural that films would reflect this dark side on human nature. People not only enjoy watching the details of such heinous crimes they receive a vicarious thrill from trying to piece together the clues and solve the mystery of how did it. This is the basis of the enduring success of murder mysteries, it is also one of the reasons the film Wonderland falls, Wonderland attempts to go beyond entertainment to actual solve this open homicide. While there is nothing empirically wrong with this approach it is the execution that ultimately fails to deliver. In the late seventies and early eighties America was in one of the most decadent periods in history. Sex and drugs where easily available, the video tape player brought pornography from the seedy theater into typical American homes and cocaine was available in every city. John Holmes (Val Kilmer) was burnt out as a leading man in, by some accounts, over 2,500 pornographic films. He was also deep in cocaine addiction. As such he attached himself to men that wanted the kick of having a porn star willing to humiliate himself for his next fix.

On July 1st 1981 a horrible murder of four people, three known drug dealers, where discovered. They where bludgeoned to death in a house at 8763 Wonderland Ave., in the Hollywood Hills. While this story made an interesting ‘True Hollywood Story’ on the E! Channel as a movie it lacks the focus to sustain an audience for 99 minutes. While Wonderland was based on real events the characters and situations are so far removed from the typical viewers’ experiences that there is nothing for us to really grab on to and identify with. In a typical murder mystery the victim is a rich and powerful person, permitting the audience to feel good about; even people of such social heights can become a victim. Here, we don’t really care about these people; they live in the darkest parts of society, drug dealers and pornographers.

Many might even note that the terrible fate was of their own doing. A successful murder mystery should draw the audience in; here the presentation is confusing, lacking a cohesive structure so that even if you are paying attention to the details they fail to gel. A mystery like Agatha Christy or even a Coloumbo has an internal consistency, a set of rules that can guide the viewer and provides grounding in reality. Here the surroundings may be accurate but they are so dark, bizarre and foreign that the audience gapes at the screen instead of being transported into the circumstances. Since the makes state they have solved the mystery there should have been more attention paid to the mystery. The over used montages tend to distract rather than reinforce the disconnected lives portrayed.

A look at the cast of Wonderland may attract many to it. Don’t be fooled, even the best of actors can become involved in a less than stellar production. Val Kilmer has the ability to show a man’s decent into the nether land of humanity. He did this extremely well in his portrayal of Jim Morrison in the Doors. Here, his Holmes is one dimensional, already a broken and discarded man. If the script focused more on the journey rather than the end perhaps there would have been more for Kilmer to sink his teeth into. A potentially interesting dynamic between Holmes’ wife (Lisa Kudrow) and his teenaged mistress (Kate Bosworth) is ignored. A little insight here as to what motivated these characters would have humanized the story and provided something for these fine actors to work with. The usually entertaining Eric Bogosian as the nightclub owner Nash is giving even less to hold on to as an actor. He is reduced to a character of one dimension that ultimately falls flat. Even usually powerful actors like Dylan McDermott, Christina Applegate and Natasha Gregson Wagner come across as almost completely uninteresting.

This is the first try at a larger budget film for writer/director James Cox. He appears to have been heavily influenced by the temporally insightful Memento, and the works of Quentin Tarentino. With those films the audience is kept off balance by a non-linear or reversed timeline. Here, Cox jumps around almost randomly. While it was interesting to see the same events from different points of view the overall effect did not work as well as it could have. Since Wonderland was marketed as a murder mystery, one where the producers claim they have solved the case, a more linear temporal approach would have provided a much needed coherency to the work. He goes far too dark here, a few lighter moments would have given the audience a chance to step back to see the ‘clues’ that are presented and understand the complex interactions and relationships between the characters. Instead we are pushed head first into the mire. Portions of this story have already been told with the much better ‘Boogie Nights’. At least there a progression was shown, how the characters fell into this life was provided letting the audience understand them to a greater degree. His style is too ‘in your face’ without letup. This should have been paced differently to improve how the film is presented. Cox over used the hand held camera approach here. Instead of adding realism to the scenes it detracted from the presentation.

It seems that disappointing films are given well done DVDs while many classics are afforded only bare bones releases. This is such a case. The Dolby 5.1 audio has a standard mix although a bit heavy on the sub woofer and bass at times, making the dialogue somewhat unclear. While the sound stage is not impressive it gets the job done. The rear speakers are used mostly for ambience. The anamorphic video is clear and free of defects. There are a good number of extras provided on the two disc set. We get some deleted scenes, feature length documentary about John Holmes, and a intense, actual LAPD video of the crime scene. The commentary track includes the thoughts of Cox and co-screen writer Captain Mauzner. The enthusiasm for the projects comes off as forced and didn’t hold my interest at all. Based on the cast and even the subject matter Wonderland had potential that unfortunately it failed to achieve. The director must have given a great presentation to obtain such a cast. Too bad this story telling ability did not translate to Wonderland.

Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com

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