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Holes (PG)
Official Site
Director: Andrew Davis, Teresa Tucker-Davies, Mike Medavoy, Lowell Blank
Producer: Andrew Davis
Written by: Louis Sachar; based on his book
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Patricia Arquette, Dulé Hill, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Winkler, Eartha Kitt, Siobhan Fallon Hogan

Rating: out of 5

Stanley Yelnats IV (LaBeouf) is walking down the street, minding his business, when a pair of tennis shoes drops onto his head out of the clear blue sky. Mere moments later, Stanley IV is apprehended by police who are looking for a shoe snatcher. You say you can’t get that kind of police response when burglars bust in and take your TV, let alone your tennies? Well what’s so important about this particular pair is that they belonged to baseball legend Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston, and were to be auctioned off to benefit a shelter for homeless kids. It takes a pretty lowdown so-’n’-so to steal from homeless kids, and you can imagine how Stanley’s story goes over with the judge. For his crime he is sent to Camp Green Lake. (Guess which two of the three words of this appellation are not true?) At this juvenile facility, boys pay their debt to society and build character by digging 5 foot by 5 foot holes in the ground every day the Lord sends.

If it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. Turns out the Yelnatses have been under an unlucky star for a couple of generations, ever since Elya Yelnats brought down a curse upon the family by not following the instructions of Madame Zeroni (Kitt), a gypsy fortuneteller, back in the old country. For dooming them all to mishap and misfortune, Elya is generally referred to as the “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather.”

Meanwhile, back a century or so ago, when the town of Green Lake was still a lush oasis, malign fate brought Stanley I to an encounter with Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Arquette), outlaw queen and highwaywoman extraordinaire. The story why Kate took the lawless trail is the third leg of Louis Sachar’s beautiful, symmetrically woven tale, wherein fortunes are made and lost, a curse is declared and lifted, ancient wrongs are righted, and we see the beginnings of a beautiful friendship (part Rick and Louis, part Nicholas and Smike). If it was any better, it’d be opera.

If you’re not familiar with the Holes phenomenon, here’s a little background. Holes was published in 1998, and won just about every award you can think of—National Book Award, Newbery Medal, New York Times outstanding book of the year, etc.—and deservedly so. I remember bringing it home: We read it aloud, from cover to cover, in one sitting. Holes is the popular choice of several public libraries’ “everybody read the same book” campaigns. There have been polls where kids voted this the best book ever—yes, above Harry Potter.

It must be simultaneously daunting and a delight to bring a work like this to the screen. Trifle with a much-loved book at your peril. I’m sure I was not alone in heaving a sigh of relief upon learning that Sachar was writing the screenplay. Lovers of the book will be pleased to know that they can head to the multiplex and see a pretty faithful adaptation. Yes, there are some changes. The Stanley Yelnats of the book is a fat boy. Instead, we get Shia LaBeouf, a skinny kid, but otherwise a good fit. The book had a great deal of exposition, so the movie had to resort to voiceover (lots of voiceover, practically word-for-word from the book). Some characters have been amplified. Stanley’s mom and dad (Hogan and Winkler) have more scenes than they did on the printed page. Mr. Sir (Voight) in particular, is louder and larger than life; in fact, his shifty-eyed Texas lawman is so overblown he’s almost too large for the big screen. Tim Blake Nelson, on the other hand, is spot-on as Dr. Pendanski, camp counselor and mouther of platitudes. A wonderful Sigourney Weaver radiates authoritarian menace as The Warden, a sort of West Texas Cruella deVil.

There is a mild down side. Disney, in perhaps a play for relevance with that older-kid crowd, has thrown in loud, intrusive music. Lots of it. It’s not bad music, it’s just there all the time. The minute someone shuts their mouth, music comes up. Many of the music department’s choices appear to have been informed by repeated viewings of O Brother, Where Art Thou? There’s also such excessive reliance on slow motion in the old town scenes that you may long to have the use of slo-mo declared illegal. I’ve read that the producers wanted to make kid entertainment that wasn’t pap, and good on ’em for that intent, but they’re not wholly there yet. Holes-the-movie has lots of heartfelt glances, a VO explanation of what any attentive kid would’ve figured out without the hint, a greatly amplified punishment sequence for the evildoers, plus an unsubtle gullywasher of an ending. I blame Hollywood. Sachar clearly already knows that this audience doesn’t need to be talked down to, but the suits weren’t so sure.

All said and done, though, even if my fingers were sometimes in my ears, Holes kept my eyes glued to the screen. And I knew how it was going to end.

—Roxanne Bogucka

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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