[Screen It]

(2003) (Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight) (PG)

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Drama: After being wrongly sentenced to a hard-labor camp where he and other boys are forced to dig a five-foot hole each day, a teenager tries to figure out what they're digging for as well as whether he and his family are still living under a generations-old curse.
Stanley Yelnats (SHIA LaBEOUF) is a normal teenager living in an abnormal household. Not only does his grandfather (NATE DAVIS) believe that generations of males in their family have been living under the curse of a long-dead fortune teller, Madame Zeroni (EARTHA KITT), but his inventor father (HENRY WINKLER) is also obsessed with finding a cure for sneaker odor, much to the chagrin of Stanley's mother (SIOBHAN FALLON HOGAN).

One day, Stanley is wrongly accused of stealing a pair of tennis shoes that baseball star Clyde "Sweet Feet" Livingston (RICK FOX) donated to charity. Rather than sentencing him to jail, a judge orders him to spend 18 months at Camp Greenlake, somewhere in a remote area of Texas.

Rather than there being a lake, however, Stanley finds a barren labor camp, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of five-by-five, hand-dug holes. Run by the rarely seen Warden (SIGOURNEY WEAVER) and her two minions, Mr. Sir (JON VOIGHT) and Pedanski (TIM BLAKE NELSON), the camp's "inmates" must dig one such hole each and every day.

Among them are Armpit (BRYON COTTON) and X-Ray (BRENDEN JEFFERSON), the unofficial leaders of the boys, as well as Zig Zag (MAX KASCH), Squid (JAKE M. SMITH) and Zero (KHLEO THOMAS). Everyone, and especially Pedanski, think that something is wrong with the diminutive Zero since he never talks despite being the best hole digger among the bunch.

Stanley tries to fit in with the others, eventually befriends Zero, and contemplates whether the male Yelnats are indeed cursed. As he does so, we see flashbacks of his various ancestors as they came into contact with the likes of Madame Zeroni, "Kissing" Kate Barlow (PATRICIA ARQUETTE) and Sam (DULÉ HILL).

With Stanley trying to deal with his adult captors and figure out what they're digging for, everything slowly starts to fit together and make sense regarding that as well as everyone's motives.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Having been a film reviewer for many years now, I've seen both the good and the bad (unfortunately more of the latter). I've also witnessed just about every type of film and every way of making one. Accordingly, I can usually figure out where a film's headed and/or how it will end long before it does.

That's not to say that doing so is difficult as the majority of today's movies are formulaic and otherwise predictable. Thus, any time a film comes along and has me guessing and/or stumped in such regards as it unfolds, it earns a few points just for that rare commodity.

"Holes" is one such film. Not being familiar with Louis Sachar's prize-winning novel of the same name, I had little notion of what the effort was about beyond the digging of its titular subjects. Part coming of age story, part prison chain gang flick, part Western and part wacky comedy, with elements of sci-fi, occultism and more thrown in for good measure, the film certainly can't be accused of lacking in diversity.

That has both good and negative connotations, with the former stemming from the originality and unpredictability of the mix. The latter results from the fact that too many plot elements and genres clash for storytelling supremacy. While that and the various back and forth temporal jumps might have worked seamlessly in the novel, such mixing and jumping gives the film something of a haphazard and herky-jerky feel at times.

It's not a horrible fault, and it will probably keep some/many viewers guessing about what might next transpire as the various events eventually start to consolidate and deliver ever more clues about how things will turn out. Yet, it's also something of a substantial momentum killer for any particular storyline.

The film - adapted by Sachar himself and directed by Andrew Davis ("Collateral Damage," "The Fugitive") - starts off in a visually imaginative fashion with an aerial shot that shows just how many holes have already been dug. It then proceeds as something of a quirky, kid-based prison labor camp picture where the new "inmate" goes through the standard "Cool Hand Luke" theatrics, juvenile style.

The boys are told that digging holes is good for building character, but the nebulous comment about finding something "interesting" peaks both our and the new boy's interest about exactly what the powers that be are looking for.

With the appearance of some sci-fi type, yellow-spotted lizards (complete with extended throat fins just like in "Jurassic Park"), I imagined that or something like it was the "booty" and could see the film suddenly going full-bore into the genre, possibly along the lines of "Tremors."

It wasn't long, however, before that was tempered by flashbacks to Old West type material and a European fortune teller -- Eartha Kitt ("Harriet the Spy," "Boomerang")-- as well as cutaways to the boy's home life where the father -- Henry Winkler ("The Waterboy," TV's "Happy Days") - is trying to invent a cure for smelly shoe disorder and the grandfather -- Nate Davis ("Chain Reaction," "Dunston Checks In") - won't shut up about the family curse.

From that point on, the film continually hops, skips and jumps all over the place. Everything eventually fits together and makes sense, but I kept wishing that all of it had flowed together a bit more smoothly (although that was more as it unfolded rather than in hindsight when it didn't bother me as much).

While the kids are mostly a collection of little-known performers - including Shia LaBeouf (making his feature debut), Khleo Thomas ("Friday After Next"), Brenden Jefferson ("Senseless," "Crimson Tide") and Bryon Cotton (making his debut) among others - those playing the adults are decidedly better known.

Beyond Winkler, there's Sigourney Weaver ("The Guys," "Heartbreakers") as the feared warden, Tim Blake Nelson ("Minority Report," "The Good Girl") as the "camp counselor" and Patricia Arquette ("Human Nature," "Little Nicky") as a schoolmarm turned outlaw.

The standout, however, is Jon Voight ("Ali," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider") as the steely guard who delivers a funny if quirky performance. All squinty-eyed and looking like he's hopped up on about 50 cups of coffee, he plays the standard bully wimp character who's mean to the kids but cowers in the presence of his boss.

One of the more bizarre but rather entertaining mainstream flicks to hit the big screen in some time - particularly for one aimed at kids, what with the dark and somewhat Dickens-esque material - "Holes" might not be a spectacular success, but it's good and different enough to earn the passing grade of 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 31, 2003 / Posted April 18, 2003

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