Based on Louis Sachar's bestselling novel for young readers, the new movie Holes brings to life the adventures of Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), a troubled teen whose palindrome name is not the only thing that makes him unique.

Stanley is the son of an oddball visionary (Henry Winkler) determined to discover the cure for foot odor. The cure has proven elusive, but that is par for the course. The Yelnats are the latest generation to suffer under a long-running "family curse" that prevents them from succeeding at anything. Thus there is a strange irony in the fact that the family's latest misfortune—Stanley's arrest and conviction—involves a stolen pair of shoes.

Although innocent, Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at a reform camp in the desert. There, he joins a crowd of unruly youngsters in the unpleasant business of digging holes under the supervision of a cruel taskmaster (Jon Voight), a counselor with a mean streak (Tim Blake Nelson), and a mysterious warden (Sigourney Weaver). During his trials he befriends another laborer, "Zero" (Khleo Thomas), and the two help each other through trials, a desperate unplanned escape, and a mystery that involves stories of their ancestors.

Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) has taken Sachar's Newberry and National Book Award-winning story and transformed it into one of the most complex, challenging, and entertaining films for young audiences we have seen in years.

Watching it, I was reminded of such audience favorites as October Sky, The Princess Bride, and Stand by Me. It moves through a variety of different tones, from the Willy Wonka quirkiness of Stanley's family, to the fairy-tale adventures in the Old West flashbacks, to the heartfelt exchanges between Stanley and Zero during their dusty ordeals. Missing is the cheap sentimentality of those formulaic Disney after-school-specials. The film earns its emotional resolutions (even if there are perhaps one or two too many of them.) And while the boys behave like boys—rough, rowdy, and a little rude—Holes does not depend on cheap locker-room humor for laughs.

I spoke with the director this week about why Holes is such a rare and wonderful exception to the rule—a movie that rewards all ages. He explained that the secret lies in the story's source material, and in Sachar's insistence on "not talking down to the kids."

"Kids are whole people," says Davis. "They need to be addressed as caring human beings. Louis's talent as a writer is that he understands how to get into the inner feelings of kids. Most kids feel fairly insecure about themselves. They want to feel like they are a part of something. What happens in the story is that kids who were feeling left out find each other and help bring the whole group of kids to be more understanding of each other."

Article continues below

Sachar had more than just the experiences of young readers in mind, and that is why grownups enjoy the book—and the movie—alongside their kids. "They're provocative stories," Davis explains. "Holes has a tremendous amount of hope and character arc. It deals with some real issues … with some history, with who we are as people and where we come from."

It seems strange that such rewarding all-ages entertainment is so rare on the big screen. Perhaps directors should keep a closer eye on children's literature. Davis remarks: "Holes probably would have not been made if it was just a screenplay. It was the fact that there was this book that had been embraced by these kids [that] allowed it to get made. The book was the star. It works for kids from 8 to 15. Younger kids love to see [stories involving] older kids. Because of the historical layers of the story, you're reaching those a little older. You've got the issue of the family, which can reach grandparents. There's something for everybody."

Everybody? Doesn't the film focus mainly on boys?

"It does, but, when you think about it, the story is also driven by women." He's right. Madame Zeroni, a sort of wicked witch played by Eartha Kitt, sets things in motion by cursing the Yelnats family. Kissin' Kate Barlow, given grace and guts by Patricia Arquette, becomes an outlaw when local law enforcement turns against Sam, her true love, the kindhearted handyman played by West Wing's Dule Hill. The Warden, a venomous villain played with relish by Sigourney Weaver, runs the camp. "They are strong, independent women," Davis says, "driven by different reasons."

Davis admits that he resisted some coaxing to simplify the adaptation. "There were some people when we first started financing the film who said, 'Well, we'll do the story of the camp but we won't do the story of the family.' And we said, 'That's ridiculous. That's what the book is all about!' We wanted to stay close to what Louis had done in developing the relationships between the boys. I wanted to keep some subtle things in there. We didn't lose too much—we lost a couple of things that were in the book, but we also added some things that weren't in the book. Overall, Louis and I were very happy with how it turned out. People are coming out of the theatres [glad] that it's so close to the book."

Article continues below

Holes tackles the issue of race relations with surprising vigor, considering its audience. It bathes its historical romance in the sort of fairy-tale glow that enveloped Princess Bride's Prince Westley and Buttercup. Davis says, "I grew up in the '60s and was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and I know how much race relations have changed in this country. The issues of race are big in the [back story of Holes], but in the current story race is not an issue. Maybe that shows where we are and where we've come from."

Davis hopes viewers will come away considering other themes and questions as well. "Because of what we are going through right now in this country—thinking about what it means to be Americans—we realize that we are all immigrants at one point or another. Everybody has come to America and struggled, whether as a pilgrim or a slave or someone who came over last week from Mexico. That's part of what makes America great—we come together and work together to make a country where people care about each other."

Holes will endure for more than just its important social themes, though. Those in the audience familiar with Scripture will catch several echoes of Bible stories, from Daniel in the lions' den to Christ's sacrifice. One character, after a particularly difficult heroic effort to save a life, walks away with vivid scars on his hands. More than once we are reminded that a hero is a person who lays down his life for his friends, and who willingly suffers the consequences for the sins of his enemies.

Along with the earnest nature of its parables, Holes is also a whole lot of fun. This week, it has tripped up some religious press critics, but held treasure for others. You will find some strikingly different opinions of the film from other religious press critics.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Several characters are one-dimensional. The feel-good ending is a crowd-pleaser that so ties up every story strand it's hard to overlook the movie's far-fetched coincidences."

Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) argues, "Holes is likely to leave viewers under eight antsy and, as was the case in the preview I attended, screaming for something more diverting."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) complains, "The movie reduces Sachar's subtle meditation to a simplistic tale. None of the book's sublimity reaches the screen. The little ones might laugh, but the adults will be bored."

Article continues below

I certainly was not bored—it was the most enjoyable film I've seen so far in 2003. My full review is at Looking Closer. And it seemed clear to me that the story was not meant for extremely young children. I agree with Davis that it feels right for ages 8 and up.

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) did not find it simplistic at all: "Holes is a much deeper film than its … promotional campaign indicates. Unlike many book-to-film conversions, this movie maintains the book's distinction." Eaton concludes, "Parents looking for a well-crafted cinematic tale with lots to talk about afterwards will consider it a treasure trove."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "Holes is a rich, multi-layered story which adults and young adults will enjoy equally." He adds, "It is a bit of a departure for [Davis]. We can hope it is a detour which he will continue traveling. Sachar … was able to keep much of the story's thematic integrity intact."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) adds: "The qualities that make Holes hard to synopsize also make it a good story. With multiple storylines in different time periods, it's hard for the uninitiated to imagine how the filmmakers can plug seeming holes in the narrative. But they do. And adults will likely be as intrigued as children."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves that Holes "intelligently weaves together the weaknesses and self-doubts all of us have and fills those holes with a powerful life-changing message. Holes will capture the hearts of all ages."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The movie remains as dark, strange, engaging and wildly inventive as the book. Davis … displays unexpected flair with this very different material, infusing the story with energetic integrity while giving full rein to its bizarre, cartoonish and humorous elements." He concludes, "The themes of fate and inheritance and mysterious connection give the movie a surprisingly strong resonance by its conclusion."

Movieguide's critic appreciates the moral resonance of the story, but turns in one strong objection: "For those who believe in the biblical mandate against [curses], it is not appropriate, and it will alienate many people who are the very audience for the movie." Mary Draughon (Preview) also give the film "a marginal acceptability rating due to its witchcraft element."

Scripture does indeed forbid us from consulting spiritualists and casting curses. But it certainly does not forbid telling stories that show the villainy and foolishness of such endeavors—the Bible has such stories within its own pages.

Article continues below

Mainstream critics have had mixed responses. CNN's David Germain says, "Beyond the book's fans … it's hard to imagine who will want to see it. Holes totters into a pit of schmaltz, a disappointingly simpleminded, black-and-white ending to a tale that had shown unusual shades of gray for a story about adolescents."

But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "I walked in expecting a movie for thirteensomethings, and walked out feeling challenged and satisfied."

J. R. Jones (Chicago Reader) agrees: "For a kids' tale, it has a surprisingly sophisticated narrative structure. For a Disney movie, Holes is mercifully low in saccharine. The film's fidelity to the plot and tone of the book is a credit to [Sachar and Davis.] Like a lot of great children's stories, Holes evokes a world in which kids have their own language and moral code that protects them from the lies and compromises of the adult world. That's a salutary vision for children of any age."

Is a Christian Movie industry a good idea?

Last week, Film Forum provided a link to a new essay by Peter T. Chattaway, in which he expressed some misgivings about the increasing number of "Christian movies" coming to the big screen. I would like to hear from you on the subject, so that we can address some questions in a future edition of Film Forum.

Would you like to see a "Christian movie industry" that competes for big-screen time with mainstream movies, the way the Christian music industry has long been a presence on the shelves of record stores? If so, why? What do you see as the purpose and distinction of "Christian movies"? If not, why not?  Write to me at with your responses. (Please indicate if you do not want your response excerpted, or if you wish to remain anonymous.)

A Mighty Wind stirs up only a slight breeze

Remember the New Christy Minstrels? Remember their matching Technicolor outfits? Remember how different their idea of folk music was from the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary? If so, you're likely to have a deeper appreciation of the week's funniest new comedy—A Mighty Wind.

The comedies of Christopher Guest—Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and this quirky little project—are unique in that most of their hilarious moments happen in improvisation between the talented comedians who reappear in each film. They have quick wits and flair for the unexpected and outrageous. Together, they are a volatile team. A Mighty Wind features Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean (both of whom worked with Guest in Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap), Parker Posey, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge, and the wonderful Eugene Levy. Together, they have cooked up a memorable "mockumentary" about a nostalgia-driven concert of '60s-era folk music.

Article continues below

Critics everywhere are celebrating the film's arrival as a breath of fresh air in a climate of stifling and crass comedies. There is a unique tone to Guest's films. The satire is sometimes loud and sharp-edged and sometimes subtle and thought-provoking. The acting feels like well-rehearsed live theatre.

Unfortunately, Mighty Wind is also overstuffed with unnecessary sex-oriented monologues and punchlines. One particularly sleazy character get laughs by talking about her past exploits, giving us more information than we needed or wanted to know. None of the comedy glorifies sexual impropriety, but the jokes become tiresome, and it seems like the actors are too often taking the easy way to a laugh. Where Best in Show and Guffman had me aching with laughter, Mighty Wind had me wincing with its relentless off-color comedy. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth), on the other hand, found more to enjoy in this movie. "As Spinal Tap did so many years ago with heavy metal, A Mighty Wind is pitch-perfect in its skewering of folk. Unlike Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, which delighted in screaming matches and on-stage meltdowns, A Mighty Wind is much kinder to its characters, more sensitive to their travails. The movie is even touching in places. This makes for a softer brand of comedy; it's less a bust-out-loud-laughing movie and more a smile-on-your-face film."

"I enjoyed this kinder, gentler Guest film," says Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "though at times I thought the satire could have been more pointed. Guest seems closer to his subject matter this time around than in previous efforts, and Mighty Wind is his most affectionate, least satiric film. The improvisational humor is hit and miss. Some gags feel like a setup for a punchline that never comes, and some of the kookiness is just kooky without being particularly humorous. When it clicks, though, it can be really funny."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "There's no tension and little energy. Nevertheless, the movie provides frequent laughs—especially when Levy, with his soulful lost dog demeanor, dominates the screen."

Article continues below

Don Patton with Lisa Rice (Movieguide) says, "Guest and … Levy have a great talent at poking fun at self-important people, especially people who take too seriously a hobby or otherwise silly distraction making it the center of their world in a way that they believe everyone should agree with their excitement and in turn share the obsession." But looking at the overall results, they conclude, "The humor wasn't quite fresh enough."

Critics find holes in Bulletproof Monk

Bulletproof Monk is the latest in the streak of formulaic films inspired by the popularity of The Matrix and Hong Kong martial arts movies. It boasts an entertaining star turn from Chow Yun-Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), whose spectacular stunts never cease to amaze. His costar Sean William Scott needs a good deal of special effects help to keep up. The film also relies on the cliché of wicked neo-Nazis, who seem to have replaced World War II Nazis as Hollywood's expendable villains of choice. The story sets up the title character against these disposable bad guys in a tug-of-war over an ancient scroll.

The previews predicted slick special effects but few new ideas, and sure enough, religious press critics join the mainstream press in shrugging over this forgettable picture.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "While director Paul Hunter has certainly earned his black belt for the film's ultrastylized, gravity-defying acrobatics, the script at times is so hackneyed that better writing can been found in fortune cookies."

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) says, "There's nothing unique or especially creative about this Monk. The only way in which this comic book adaptation sets itself apart is through its overtly religious tone. (And that's not a compliment.)"

Shaun Daugherty (Preview) says, "The film espouses a Buddhist worldview. It has some entertainment to offer to martial-arts fans but is unacceptable due primarily to language and violence."

Movieguide's critic concludes that the movie is "an entertaining fantasy," but it should be avoided because it "teaches a lot of Eastern philosophy and Buddhist mysticism."

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) confesses, "I can't help it—I like this movie for the sheer chemistry between the two leads. The partnering of Yun-Fat and William Scott, the mentor and pupil, is what makes this story work and the sassy, witty barbs, and dialogue are what keep it funny and interesting. This is a fun, action-adventure, popcorn movie that will appeal to the hero in all of us."

Article continues below

Critics apprehend Malibu's Most Wanted

A spoiled Caucasian kid from California finds his ambitions as a rap star shot down in Malibu's Most Wanted, a comedy that, according to religious press critics, is probably not what audiences wanted at all.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a vapid jumble of mildly amusing comedy sketches … a misguided attempt to comment on the puzzling sociological phenomenon of silver-spoon youths' fascination with the subculture of gangsta rap. The film is little more than a catalogue of lewd ghetto clichés that quickly grow stale." But he concludes, "The film, to its credit, does not glamorize the drugs and violence prevalent in other films dealing with the rap subculture."

Movieguide's critic calls the storyline "cute," but concludes, "The movie goes too far in imitating the gangster rap mentality, including some of its foul language and promiscuous sexual attitudes."

Contemporary Christian music star chases Papi

It could have been called Girlfight, but that title was already taken. In Chasing Papi, three women compete for the heart of Tomas Fuentes (Eduardo Verastegui), an attractive advertising executive. His smooth-talking talent soon has each one believing that she is the sole recipient of his devotion.

Sound familiar? Maybe that is because this story seems to pop up on the big screen every few years—most recently as About Adam and Belle Époque. This version of the story is directed by Linda Mendoza. The gullible girls are played by Roselyn Sanchez, Sofia Vergara, and contemporary Christian music star Jaci Velasquez.

According to Christian press critics, the movie is an empty pursuit—and a bad career move for Velasquez.

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) says, "The moral of the story? If he's cute enough, it doesn't matter how much of a cad he is. It's simply not very funny watching three beautiful women fight over a scrap that fell off the XY table. Hardly the message young girls (or guys) need to hear and internalize."

Commenting on Velasquez, Isaac quotes one of her fans: "How can Jaci Velasquez represent the Contemporary Christian Music industry in the skimpy outfits she wears in … Chasing Papi?"

Alan Boyer (Preview) says, "Both the moral content and the entertainment value of this film are low, so you would be better off spending your time on something other than Chasing Papi."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Very little of the narrative holds together and the film's strained dialogue and contrived plot devices amount to the worst Latin endeavor since the Bay of Pigs."

Article continues below

More about Levity, Rivers and Tides … and XXX

Film Forum covered Ed Solomon's Levity last week. The movie is a challenging drama about lost souls seeking redemption in a cold and difficult part of the city.

This week, more religious press critics discovered this movie of bold questions and compelling spiritual quests.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "Levity is proof that sometimes films with the best 'Christian' message are the ones that never intended to be them in the first place.  Ed Solomon has written and directed a masterpiece that will touch every person who sees it and hopefully change lives."

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) says the film "explores remorse, repentance, and redemption. The message in the film, at least for me, was: In order to achieve Levity (lightness of being, freedom) you must first come to terms with the gravity of your own sin/reality. The film is a search for a relationship with God, who does not exist and yet does at the same time. Solomon finds truth in opposites in amazing ways. I encourage you to see Levity."


The remarkable documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, which Film Forum covered three weeks ago, has won another admirer.

Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes about what an extraordinary effect the film had on him. He says, "Rivers and Tides was the most meaningful spiritual experience I've had in the movies in many years. Goldsworthy creates such exquisite beauty out of natural elements and natural shapes that he draws our attention to the beauty already present in nature that we have forgotten how to see. He reveals, without direct comment, the earth that God created for His enjoyment, which we are invited to take part in. The pace and focus of Riedelsheimer's film is deliberately contemplative, tailor-made for a dark and quiet theater where you can focus your whole attention on it."


Now that Vin Diesel's hyperviolent action extravaganza is on video, it may be a good idea to take another look at it. Metaphilm is providing just that, with perhaps the most serious examination so far of what this popular actioner tells us about our own popular culture.

Next week: Readers and critics talk about the Christian movie genre, and whether it should be cultivated or eliminated. Plus: Reviews of Confidence, Identity, and other new releases.