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IN SHORT: Great Start. Great Climax. Deadly pacing in between. Take the kids. [Rated PG for Violence, Mild Language and some thematic elements. 117 minutes]
Writer Louis Sachar won the Newberry Award for his novel Holes, which means that just about every kidlet who has made it to sixth grade in one piece has, more than likely, read the book. His screenplay for Holes is his first, honed by his work on an award winning stage play which came first. That means we can put the blame on director Andrew Davis for the awful padding which kills the pacing of the multiple storylines that culminate in a slam bang finish. Or perhaps we can blame Sachar for ensuring that all of his novel's plot lines made it to the finished screenplay, at the expense of character development.
We also know that all the kidlets at our advance screening broke into applause at least twice during Davis' film, which means that his work was dead on true to the characters that (they) knew and loved. For us, since the beginning of this site, we've followed a policy of insisting that the film not require knowledge of the Source Material and, on those grounds, Holes needs a severe whacking by an editing razor. Covering an expansive story of 150 years is hard enough without a huge hunk of screen time getting in the way of making sense of the (flashback) sequences that fill the first act.When all the plot threads get wrapped up in a torrent of activity at the end of the film we had to lean over to our femme friend and ask for clarification. She -- another adult who hadn't read the novel -- had no problem following Holes, though she agrees about the pacing.
But, that aside, it's rare enough to find quality material that you can take your kids to without worrying about gratuitous sex or violence. Holes isn't squeaky clean on the latter but there was little that would have bothered us had we lugged the ten year old along. Holes begins as a simple story of a boy who has the unfortunate luck of having a pair of stolen athletic shoes fall on his head, one fine day. Caught and convicted, he is given the choice of eighteen months in jail or eighteen months at Camp Green Lake, a juvenile corrections center that will help build character. Never having been to Camp,or seen a Lake, that's what Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LeBeouf) chooses. He discovers that the Lake is a hundred miles of arid, dried lake bed that hasn't seen a drop of water in over 150 years. The only color anywhere is dust. All the other kids, with slang names like Zero and ZigZag and Armpit and X-Ray -- the bully who is top dog in the kidlet clique -- treat the new kid, "BarfBag" like the dirt they dig up every day. That's character building at Camp Green Lake. Digging holes in the dirt for overseer Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and "counselor" Doctor Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson). Unseen until well into the flick is The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) who will give any of her boys "a day off" if they find "something interesting" in their hole.
"BarfBag" by the way is an inherited name, just one of oodles of details you'd only know from the book.
And now the flashbacks begin. There are a lot of 'em, given the timeframe and they don't really fit together cleanly IF you are getting all the information from the film. Our rules, remember? We'll do this as succinctly as possible:
Stanley Yelnats (Damien Luvara), a Latvian, was loaned a pig with which to buy a bride by the gypsy seer Madam Zeroni (Eartha Kitt). In return, he is to carry the Madame up a mountain to get a drink of water. Stanley doesn't live up to his part of the bargain, grabs a boat to America and his family is cursed for all time. In the American west, Yelnats' stagecoach is waylaid and robbed by the infamous bandit, Kissing Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette). Barlow kisses those she kills. she leaves Yelnats to wander in the desert, where he's found sixteen days later. He should've been dead in three but curses make men luck, too.
Stanley Yelnats II (Nathan Davis) lives in a tenement with his son,Stanley Yelnats III (Henry Winkler) and III's wife (Siobhan Fallon Hogan). III is trying to invent a method for destinking athletic shoes. He has no luck -- the curse and all -- and the landlord wants 'em out of the apartment. And that's just the first set of flashbacks.
At Green Lake, in the Second Act, BarfBag pretty much takes it on the chin from the other boys. We don't discover what their crimes were, but they don't regard stealing shoes as much. BarfBag does manage to get a mute kid named Zero (Khleo Thomas) to talk, and only to him, and will eventually be upgraded by TopKidDawg X-Ray to the name Caveman. All the while they dig holes and Jon Voight tears up the screen in a flat out whack performance.
Oh, wait, there's another flashback sequence here, too, again a hundred fifty or so years back, when Green Lake was exactly that. Green. Lake. An onion salesmen and general huckster named Sam (Dulé Hill), who happens to be black, finds himself attracted to the white schoolmarm, who he calls "Miss Gatlin" Since we've already met Kate Barlow and this Miss Gatlin looks remarkably like her, there's bound to be an interesting story coming. It is. The pace of Sachar's script holds together only in this section of the film and it is a gripping piece of writing.
But the kids have holes to dig and they've got a lot of 'em to dig. The Warden is looking for something, but we don't know what -- clues are hidden all over the place in plain sight but exactly why the warden or her henchmen are running the scam (if you will) that they are is held for the end. Once the stories settle down to concentrate on a developing friendship between Caveman/BarfBag and Zero, Holes gets back on track and heads full blast towards the overwhelming series of revelations and surprises that come non-stop at film's end.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Holes, he would have paid . . .
Frankly, were we not thrown by the pacing in the middle and the lack of development of the other kid characters -- granted,there are a lot of 'em but most of the second act had us tapping our feet, thinking "and the point of all this time wasting is...?" -- and we deduct for that. The book readers already have all that info plugged in. They applauded when all was said and done.
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