Phantoms: A Silly Spook Show … Kenneth Branagh: From Hamlet to Hellbent

Affleck’s Lousy;(11)O’Toole’s Soused

Several otherwise serious people disgrace themselves in a stupid little spook show called Phantoms , based on a book by Dean Koontz, a writer of supernatural potboilers who has previously seen his works limited to the television screen. Mr. Koontz, who has also co-written the screenplay of Phantoms , has always played Avis to Stephen King’s Hertz. Now I know why. There isn’t one shred of originality, suspense or creative imagination here, just a lot of dopey noise and goofy special effects stolen from a dozen other movies-from the spinning head in The Exorcist to slimy things exploding from rib cages in the Alien flicks. Despite the presence of Ben Affleck, there isn’t even a gimmick worthy of engaging the attention of a teenage audience. I doubt if Phantoms could keep fans of the Spice Girls awake.

The excellent actress Joanna Going and the less-than-thrilling Rose ( Scream ) McGowan play two sisters who arrive in the small town of Snowfield, Colo., to find 700 people missing, the streets deserted, the car engines crushed, and bloated corpses everywhere. Things gurgle unspeakable sounds from the toilets and drains, dead bodies return to life, and the handsome sheriff (Ben Affleck) is attacked by a prehistoric moth that sucks the brains out of his deputy’s skull faster than Mr. Affleck’s fans can wolf down a two-for-one special at Wendy’s. Between decapitated heads, Patsy Cline sings “I Fall to Pieces” on an unplugged radio.

Enter Peter O’Toole, playing a loopy academic who looks greener and scarier than the cadavers. He’s the only one in the movie who claims to know what’s going on here, and he wants to get his facts straight for the National Enquirer . According to him, the whole town has been devoured by a force from Hell called the Ancient Enemy, which has been responsible for the disappearance of civilizations (Remember the Mayans?), disappearances that no archeologist can explain. It can assume the shape and form of everything it absorbs through diet, while its creatures leave behind piles of undigested Rolexes, gold teeth, buttons and pacemakers. No need to describe what happens next, and none of it makes one lick of sense, anyway.

It’s positively disillusioning to see Peter O’Toole in junk like this, even though disillusionment has become a staple on every Hollywood menu. Describing the Ancient Enemy as “more complex than petroleum jelly, but there’s some genetically engineered bacterium in the composition that suggests hydrocarbons,” he rolls his eyes and his R’s as seriously as if he were playing Othello. At first, he seems laughable. Later, he seems to be either inebriated or in a glassy-eyed trance. It’s quite the most terrifying thing I’ve witnessed since Harpo Marx played Isaac Newton in The Story of Mankind (with Peter Lorre as Nero and Dennis Hopper as Napoleon!).

As for Ben Affleck, I guess he’s living proof that an actor is only as good as his material. Completed two years ago, before he hit his stride as an actor and Gentleman’s Quarterly cover boy, Phantoms uncovers a performance so lousy you can’t believe he’s the same actor in Good Will Hunting . It takes forever before any phantoms show up, and when they do, they look exactly like the audience.

From Hamlet(11)To Hellbent

John Grisham is like the water supply. He never runs dry. There’s no end to his stories, and no end to the Hollywood producers standing in line with bids in hand to turn them into movies. The Gingerbread Man is not the best Grisham yet, but it is the newest. It’s not as good as The Rainmaker , it’s not as bad as The Chamber , and it’s a welcome change of pace for its director, Robert Altman, and its star, Kenneth Branagh. Maybe I’m tired of coffee-table movies about the Dalai Lama. Maybe I’m just plain tired, period. But it kept me awake and interested, and I gobbled it up like the cookie in its title.

We’re back in corn pone country, in some of the same Savannah locations as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil , with a starry cast portraying colorful characters of moral ambiguity. Every Grisham plot involves a smart, courageous lawyer fighting for justice and the American Way, but this one is about a lawyer who is a fool. Mr. Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a celebrated criminal defense attorney who has never lost a case, to the anger of the Georgia police and to the delight of every thug and reprobate he’s ever acquitted. Part hero, part villain, he loves his kids but doesn’t mind bending the law to suit his own needs.

He’s also a rampant womanizer. On the night of his latest triumph in court, there’s a big party, and Magruder makes the mistake of taking home and bedding the waitress (Embeth Davidtz). This is not only a dame in trouble, but trouble itself. Her weirdo father has been stalking her. Her car is torched. Her cat is strangled and strung up in a noose. Her life is in danger. Magruder feels sorry for her, then sexually obsessed with her, and finally takes her on as a client, to the dismay of his law partner (Daryl Hannah), who smells a rat in the woodpile. When the girl’s dangerous, schizophrenic father (Robert Duvall, terrific as a shoeless, filthy nut case) escapes from an asylum, Magruder’s own kids are kidnapped, his own life is at risk, and he’s a murder suspect on the run.

Robert Mitchum would know how to handle this situation; Mr. Branagh just looks shocked and furious. Before this movie ends, we are plunged into a complex case of treachery, deception, betrayal and violence that all takes place during a howling hurricane. He’s insulted the cops and defended so many psychos that now, when he needs help, the police are short on sympathy. The girl herself may be lying, and the cocky, arrogant lawyer learns what it’s like to become a hunted criminal on the wrong side of the law.

The title refers to the old children’s fable (“Run and run as fast as you can/ You can’t catch the gingerbread man”) and is even more pointless and irrelevant to the film than the title The Rainmaker was. Still, with more twists and surprises than a wad of boardwalk taffy, Mr. Altman creates a pervasive mood of suspense, and the moral seems to be “Never sleep with anyone beneath your class and station because someday they’ll come back and bite you in the ass”-a lesson that has never been more cautionary than in today’s Washington headlines.

Meanwhile, the film is populated with an intriguing cast, all grappling with Southern accents as thick as sawmill gravy. Among the actors, Robert Downey Jr. makes a subsidiary contribution as a seedy sidekick; Daryl Hannah, hiding behind mousy long brown hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, looks like a young Geena Davis; Robert Duvall is an old degenerate who may not be as evil as he seems; and Tom Berenger, as Ms. Davidtz’s ex-husband, may not be as innocent as he pretends.

The most astonishing performance, it should be noted, as well as the most accurate accent, is Mr. Branagh’s. As a chain-smoking cracker, with his hair and beard dyed brown, he looks like a young Orson Welles and sounds like Tennessee Williams. It’s a keen change of pace and personality for a distinguished actor famed for Shakespearian roles of great power and flourish. Think Hamlet in a battered trenchcoat with a tumbler of Jack Daniel’s. Under Mr. Altman’s direction, he shows a transformation, at the precise moment when he discovers he’s been framed and had, that provides a keen change of pace for the rest of us, too.

Conrad’s Amy(11)Sulks On Screen

For those who never get enough of Masterpiece Theater , there is the depressing costumed soap opera Swept From the Sea , based on the Joseph Conrad story “Amy Foster,” about a murky, isolated, unloved servant girl on England’s bleak Cornish coast named Amy (Rachel Weisz) and a shipwrecked Ukranian named Yanko (Vincent Perez). Lonely, lost in a foreign land, and unable to speak English, Yanko is forced to work as a slave, his only salvation the occasional kindness extended by some local eccentrics (Ian McKellen and Kathy Bates) and the odd, pitiful Amy, who bears his child. Amy is socially ostracized, Yanko is hated and feared, and much anguish, suffering and death ensue.

Despite cinematic flourishes (a freight train chugging head-on into an orange sunset, a sailing vessel smashed in the waves of an angry, churning sea), the film drags tediously toward ultimate disaster with sluggish direction by Beeban ( To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar ) Kidron until you spend more time looking at your watch than at the screen. Ms. Weisz sulks. Mr. Perez smolders. A grim, stolid tale, more Brontë than Conrad, with a bit of Thomas Hardy thrown in, and this year’s Jude .

Phantoms: A Silly Spook Show … Kenneth Branagh: From Hamlet to Hellbent