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FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 


For all its drama, "The Gingerbread Man" fails to deliver suspense because it lacks the two fundamentals of any good stalker tale: fear of the hunter and sympathy for the hunted. In this story based on a John Grisham original screenplay, Kenneth Branagh plays Rick Magruder, a dick-swinging Savannah attorney who goes home with a troubled waitress one night and gets involved in fending off her stalker father (Robert Duvall). (The tattered Duvall has about two lines in the film, one of which is "Hrmmpumfh.") He and his mysterious band of derelict men are thoroughly un-scary. When we're told--twice--that he landed another character in the hospital for drinking out of his favorite cup, it's just not as chilling as hearing that Hannibal Lecter bit off a nurse's face. Without the threat of any real violence, the film must rely on standard devices like threatening mail and imminent bad weather to drum up suspense. Slightly more engaging is the portrayal of Magruder's emotional undoing. Early on, a party at the firm shows him schmoozing expertly with colleagues amid the wood paneling, a tumbler full of booze in his hand. But something's amiss: he's smoking (Hollywood shorthand for moral ambivalence). You can even see a bit of Bill Clinton in Magruder--he's not so much slippery as he is pathetic, unaware of how distasteful to others is the libidinous side of his persona. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with a separated lawyer sleeping with a waitress, but, of course, there is: we can see it in the black stockings stretched across her bony knees, and in the way her hand trembles as she brings the cigarette to her lips. She's trash and he'll pay. (Guess I have a problem with that sort of moral fable.) Just like in "Dead Again," Branagh seems to relish the abrasive "yeah yeah" machismo that comes with brandishing an American accent. But all the righteous talking he does (and he talks a lot) still can't win us over or add flavor to the ordinariness of the plot. (Ellen Fox)


Writer-director Jeremy Horton's first feature is a Kentucky-set crumb of regional miserabilism that convinces on no level, despite some despicable turns by a few good performers. We're dragged along on one long, long day when two women try to score drugs in any way possible, including putting up with the gropings of a filthy, muttering old man named Arco, who turns out, wouncha know, to be one of the women's blood kin. At Sundance in 1997, there were some convinced this was an authentic little patch of Appalachian damp, but none of the lingo, whether regional speech or religious ramblings, holds any truth or interest. While Pamela Holden Stewart, in the lead role, shows some power, she has an irritating role to play, and a scary barroom bit by the writer Larry Brown fizzles away. There's much abuse on screen, but there's more directed toward those who stumble into this wee, tiny, small-time story about small-timers. 94m.

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