If you’re passing through the video store and see a movie on a shelf that looks like the cover of Motley Crue’s album “Too Fast for Love”…you’ll be disappointed…or relieved (depending on how you feel about the Crue). The movie is James Cox’s Wonderland. Wonderland is a film about the porn star John C. Holmes (Val Kilmer) at the end of his tether. Towards the end of his life, Holmes, famously, got involved in a series of crimes known as the Wonderland Murders, which are dramatized in this movie. I wo…’t spoil how it turns out. But the movie is part love story, part biography, and part murder mystery. Sounds like there’s a lot of meat here (pardon the pun), but that’s what’s most problematic about the film. It tries to be too many things, and like Holmes’ life, spins out of control.
The director James Cox throws a lot of “style” into the soup. We got your split screens, freeze frames, fast motion, long takes, jump cuts, animation, and even a little bit of Steadicam tracking. Pretty much all the “modern” innovations in shot technique are tossed in here. Is it all for show? I don’t really think so. In a way…all the pizzazz puts the audience in the mind of the strung out John C. Holmes. Cox does a commendable job of juggling a lot of balls in air (no pun intended)…but has trouble maintaining focus.
Partly the focus issues have to do with the writing. When four people get credit for writing a film, more often than not, there are problems. The movie professes the fact that this is a story of John C. Holmes, when in reality Holmes is a supporting character for the first hour of the movie. What’s up with that? The script for Wonderland is told in Rashomon style (same story told from different points of view). This narrative technique is told with much more clarity in the original Kurosawa film than this one (check out Criterion’s disc of Rashomonif you get a chance).
There was also a point being made about the nature of truth. I’m not really sure what the filmmakers were trying to say at the end of it all. Drugs are bad. Okay. Murder is bad. I’m with you. The looooong tag credits (you know…in a true story movie…when the filmmakers tell us what happens to all the characters) try to fill us in…but at that point we’re beyond caring about the murder stuff. Or even the porn. We want to know more about the relationships. There’s a fascinating little triangle going on between Dawn (Kate Bosworth) and Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) that is touched on, but never fully explored. The murder plot is, or should be, just a device to get inside the man.
The actor chosen to play this man, John C. Holmes, is Val Kilmer. Kilmer always seems (at least to me) to give off the impression that, in any given role, he’s miscast (except The Doors of course – he is Jim Morrison). Kilmer usually pulls it off; and this film is no different. Kilmer is good at playing desperation and the “little boy” inside. Both qualities serve the film well here. The blood in the bathtub scene is some of Kilmer’s finest work. I can imagine someone else playing Holmes, but we get the “Ice Man” himself. Kilmer does very good work.
The cast is also quite eclectic. There’s Josh Lucas (at his snarling dog best), Tim Blake Nelson, Dylan McDermot, Ted Levine, Eric Bogosian, an excellent Lisa Kudrow, and a funky Kate Bosworth. Then there are the bit/cameo players like Carrie Fisher, Janeane Garofalo, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Christina Applegate, and even Paris Hilton (a nice bit of “deliberate” casting). The fine cast makes the film watching, as the filmmakers lead us, like Alice, through the grotesque world of Wonderland
Gorgeous. Wonderland is presented in all its gory glory. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent, although a bit of grainy speckling towards the end. Colors are rich and vibrant. But the transfer isn’t afraid to be deep and dark, like its subject matter. The blacks can get very black. Flesh tones are right on the money. Details of facial hair, so important to a movie with porno subject matter, are quite clear. But overall, the picture is very sharp. No edge enhancements or halos.
Turn it up to 11 and take you speakers for a ride. The sound is in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0. I love it when the music kicks in. The movie has a great soundtrack, and it sounds awesome on your speakers. The subwoofer gets some good exercise. At times, in 5.1, the music does overpower the dialogue, and it’s hard to distinguish what characters are saying. But this is a minor occurrence. The dialogue comes off very strong and clear. And then there’s the murder sequence. If you’re squeamish….then turn it down because the sound effects are brutal and frighteningly effective. Excellent use of rear speakers and directionality. Overall…. the sound is bad a$$.
There are lots.
First off there’s a Commentary by the director James Cox and one of the writers Captain Mauzner. It’s clear that they’re fans of their film. Cox and Mauzner talk a lot about the “cool” stuff, gearing their track towards younger filmmakers. They are candid about the making of this film; the use of lenses, lighting, and the problems of production are thoroughly covered. Cox and Mauzner aren’t afraid, despite some mixed critical reviews, to pat themselves on the back. It’s a good track. Hardly any lapses.
In the Interviews…Val Kilmer, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, and Eric Bogosian wax philosophic on the nature of acting and their characters. Short. But good.
Deleted Scenes. There are 7 of them. All are in pretty good condition. All seemed to have been cut for redundancy.
There’s a short featurette called Court TV: Hollywood at Large. Don’t watch this feature if you don’t know anything about the story. It’s a brief summary of the relationship between John Holmes and the Wonderland Murders.
Okay…here a gruesome feature: the crime scene video. We see the actual bodies of the Wonderland murders! I couldn’t believe it. It’s nasty to watch. For 25 minutes, the video lingers over the bodies and the blood spatters in unblinking detail. The feature has a garish snuff quality, which is in keeping with the theme of the disc.
Lastly, on Disc 1, there’s a Photo Gallery. More pictures of blood spattered walls, combined with some on-the-set pics.
Disc 2. There’s only one feature. And what a feature! It’s a feature length documentary, worth the rental by itself, called Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes. The movie traces the life and death of John Holmes, though interviews and footage. Holmes’ friends, business partners, ex-cast members, ex-wives, porn directors, P.T Anderson (Boogie Nights was inspired by the John Holmes story), and even an appearance by Larry Flynt all turn up. In a curious move, I watched this film first. So I found the focus of Waddvery tight, and, thus, found it more engaging than Wonderland. It’s the better movie on the DVD set. And it’s not even advertised on the DVD cover ! A nice surprise. You get two movies for the price of one.
Menus are very funky too.
Wonderland is a lurid mess of a film. But it’s like a crime scene photo …hard to watch…but you can’t look away. I respect the filmmakers for diving into the grisly subject matter headfirst. They just got lost in all the muck. P.T Anderson’s Boogie Nights is the superior film. But for Wonderland, full marks go to the video, sound, and special features. A lot of effort was put into the quality of this disc. My feeling is that the studio wants the film to find an audience at the home theatre level that it never found in its theatrical release. With this excellent disc, the studio should get its wish.
Special Features List
- Commentary by writer/director James Cox and writer Captain Mauzner
- Deleted scenes
- LAPD crime scene video
- Autopsy report
- Photo gallery
- Short film by director James Cox