Cinema Signal:

Laurel Canyon
by Steve Krantz

. "Wonderland"

It happened here. Here where I live, in the mountain range that runs through L.A., providing country-like living within the city. Laurel Canyon Blvd. is a north-south street that divides central from West Hollywood and is a vital gateway to the San Fernando Valley. And it's here, on a tributary street off Laurel that one of the most grisly scenes of gangland mass murder took place.

Perhaps it's every town, but Los Angeles has had its unexplained murder mysteries that have persisted in the mass memory for decades, cases like the "Black Dahlia"; like the "Wonderland Murders." It's the unsolved ones that last, that are always newsworthy, that cause moviemakers to think they can reveal the truth when the evidence and the testimony doesn't. Well, sometimes a common sense explanation based on what is known makes for compelling drama. This film is one of those.

What's more, it's put together with all the surface grit and underworld vulgarity the subject matter calls for, with a superb cast of professionals doing their colorful utmost to make it vivid. They succeed. It hits you like a ton of dope.

The incident revolves around two people "in the game." John Holmes (Val Kilmer) gained notoriety and fame in the porno world through the late sixties and seventies because of his outsized physical dimensions. It sure wasn't because of his acting ability that he ruled this shadowy world under his screen persona, "Johnny Wadd." But, by the beginning of the eighties that industry was turning to other leading men. The Holmes mystique had worn down to old glamour, though the fascination for his attributes followed him everywhere in his drug-infested world.

A very big player in that world was the notorious drug kingpin fronting as a nightclub owner, Eddie Nash, aka, Adel Nasrallah (Eric Bogosian) who took a liking to Holmes and invited him to hang in his pad on Wonderland Avenue. The kingpin and the pornking became buddies, though Holmes had his own circle of gangster friends. The pornography star became a conduit between clusters of criminals.

Leading that other troupe of Holmes associates and marked for a limited life were Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), David Lind (Dylan McDermott), and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson). They were criminals who did anything to turn a buck and pay for their habits, never anticipating that gang to gang betrayal would make them the ultimate victims of a grizzly lead-pipe attack that filled headlines but has defied full exposure ever since.

According to this account, the emotional side of Holmes' life was filled by lover Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth) and wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), even as he was under constant pressure by police investigators Captain Nimzaki (Chris Ellis) and Detective Louis Cruz (Franky G.) who knew he was the key to explaining how it all went down. The big question for law enforcement is, was he there when it happened or did he just set it up and step out of the way? Holmes was street smart enough to avoid implicating himself, hence the mystery. The only gang-intimate who knows the how and the why is prevented from telling by his selfish desire to remain alive and free. The fact is, Eddie Nash is still out there.

Director and co-writer James Cox ("Highway"), in collaboration with co-writer Captain Mauzner, pulls off a "Rashomon" caper, having the participants give their versions of the story in contradictory sequencing, allowing us to evaluate the various versions as the cops and the courts have done before them. With the romance element between Holmes and his women, presented as a major element of his otherwise tawdry and notorious life, the story suggested here as an expose is a balanced, fast paced look into the deplorable creeps who inhabit this netherworld where no one and nothing can be trusted or taken at relaxed, face value. If it weren't so nicely dramatized, polite society would want to look away.

Cox uses cinematographer Michael Grady's darkly abrasive footage for edgy cinematic devices to help convey time twists and character slants. Film editor Jeff McEvoy's quick 5-frame cuts with slight angle changes and/or light variation is but one effect pulled off suggestively on the cutting bench. I took these as moments for closer examination when truth was stuttering.

As a detailed explanation of a criminal event that has been lost in plea bargains and contradictory evidence from players whose versions of the truth are about as trustworthy as Chairman Arafat's, "Wonderland" dramatizes the most predatory forms of life that inhabit a great city. Guess that's why they call it the underworld. It's where the parasites feed. Such scum hasn't been so glamorized since "Traffic" nor have they been so energetically portrayed.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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