leave a comment --Angel Cohn
Based on Louis Sachar's Newbury award-winning book, this coming-of-age adventure applies fairy-tale elements to a gritty situation, with surprisingly interesting results. Stanley Yelnats IV (Shia LaBeouf) is plagued with bad luck, which his family attributes to the curse placed on his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather" generations earlier, so it seems inevitable that he finds himself sentenced to serve eighteen months at a juvenile correctional facility for a crime he didn't commit. Upon arrival at Camp Green Lake — ironically, a dusty and very dry former lake bed, courtesy of a long-term drought — Stanley meets camp employees Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), the warden's gruff right hand, and overly upbeat counselor Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson). Mr. Sir hands Stanley a shovel and informs him that each camper must dig a hole five feet deep and five feet wide daily; this exercise builds character, and should anyone ever find anything "interesting," he'll get the rest of the day off. In addition to getting used to the harsh conditions, Stanley must get along with his oddball bunkmates, who answer only to their bizarre nicknames: Squid (Jake M. Smith), Armpit (Byron Cotton), X-Ray (Brenden Jefferson), ZigZag (Max Kasch), Magnet (Miguel Castro) and Zero (Khelo Thomas). After a tussle with another camper, Stanley gives up his palindromic name for "Caveman," and begins adjusting. But then he finds what appears to be a bullet with the initials KB emblazoned on it, meets the mysterious Warden (Sigourney Weaver) and begins to figure out her true motives for the incessant digging: She's looking for buried treasure. Historical stories — like the tale of how Madame Zeroni (the perfectly cast Eartha Kitt) cursed the Yelnats family and the adventures of schoolteacher-turned-outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), whose treasure the Warden covets — are intertwined throughout the modern-day action. The adult actors do wonders with their parts — especially the quietly menacing Weaver and the just-plain-creepy Voight — and sidekick Thomas steals every scene they share right out from hero LaBeouf. Though the disparate narrative threads are well integrated the film still lags periodically, but its real liability is on the special effects front: The sub-par digital effects — particularly in the scenes featuring poisonous lizards — detract noticeably from the overall atmosphere.