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movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: WOnderland

Starring: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth
Director: James Cox
Rated: R
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: October 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Lisa Kudrow, Christina Applegate, Joshua Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, Eric Bogosian, Michelle Borth, Carl Ciarfalio, Chris Ellis, Carrie Fisher, Ted Levine, Dylan McDermott, Janeane Garofalo

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Whenever film-goers see something like "Wonderland," which utilizes the style of Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" while aiming for bigger stakes than the dangers of diet pills they've got to wonder just how much pleasure illegal drugs can give. After all, if the evidence is that drugs ruin people's careers, drives them into bankruptcy and worse (including violent crime), what makes people start? Yes, peer pressure, of course. For many, a party's not a party without a line. One person whose business went belly-up (so to speak) was porn king John Holmes, know as Johnny Wadd, a well-endowed guy with a 14-inch fireman that led him one day, perhaps in a bathtub, to shout "Eureka! I know my calling!" Holmes became known by the late seventies as the porn king, claiming to have slept with 14,000 women to advance his mission in the hard- core porn movies racket. Hard job, but somebody's got to do it.

As fascinating as Holmes's story must be, James Cox, director and co-scripter of "Wonderland," begins his story AFTER Holmes's porn career ends (can't win 'em all), situating the financially hard-up man with a group of unsavory characters while married to his estranged wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow) and hanging out with an adorable teen, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) who falls in love with him at the age of fifteen. "Wonderland" is an intense, dramatized version of the true story of multiple murders which took place in the summer of 1981 atop Wonderland Avenue in the Laurel Canyon district of Los Angeles. The story is violent at times as the killings are reenacted, but what hits the audience even more than the scene of revenge murder is Cox's frenetic style. As though afraid that too many moments of quiet talk and development of the characters could cause viewers emotionally to switch channels, he employs Darren Aronofsky's rapid shots, at times using a newspaper as a frame and bringing the pictures on the front pages to life.

The murders, for which nobody really paid with jail time, would have attracted little interest if Johnny Wadd were not so directly involved. But just what role did the ex-porn king have? We're given a series of Rashomon-type insights, in one instance involving the story given by biker David Lind (Dylan McDermott) which puts Johnny is one place, and one by Holmes himself which situates him elsewhere. What happened, essentially, is that the gang from Wonderland Avenue robs millionaire gangster Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian who performs his role in a Hugh-Hefner-life robe and who treats his mansion as though a replica of Hefner's). Carting away $1.2 million in cash, drugs and gems, presumably operating with Holmes's inside information that Nash's safe is under his bed, the Wonderland gangsters are so high on their success that you'd wonder why they need the drugs at all.

For every action there's a reaction. When Eddie Nash's gang, left alive by the robbers, go out for revenge, they get what they desire, illustrated on the screen with a jolt of Tarantino-like violence.

Aside from the frenetic style which on the whole is a wise choice by director Cox given the choice of developing his narrative in a more straightforward way the picture is blessed by remarkably intense acting, particularly by Josh Lucas as druggie Ron Launius, who acts so "on" that we wonder whether he has ever had a moment to meditate, and we get a particularly energetic display of vulnerability and passion from Val Kilmer, with a full, curly head of hair, a thick beard, and two lovely women (his 13,998th and 13,999th?)in tow

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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