Tag Archives: D-

MANNA FROM HEAVEN

This is essentially a home movie–produced by five sisters, directed by two of them, and starring another. It was written by their mother, and their parents appear in the picture, along with other relatives. It’s even being distributed privately, literally carried from city to city and shown in select theatres in the hopes it will catch on. (In most cases, one of the girls will actually pop into the auditorium before and after each screening to talk with the audience.) There’s a certain homely charm to all this; unfortunately, it doesn’t make the picture any better–it’s a feeble attempt at a family comedy that never transcends its home-made roots.

The premise is quite a silly one. A group of relatives and friends in a lower-middle class Buffalo neighborhood strike it rich in the early seventies when a pile of greenbacks comes raining down on their street one day; the cash, as it happens, had been ejected from a passing van. The bills are distributed among the finders with a mutual agreement to mention the literal windfall to no one. Flash forward thirty years. One of the partners to the plot, a very religiously-minded young girl, is now a dedicated nun named Theresa (Ursula Burton, one of the five sisters)–so dedicated, indeed, that she frequently nonpluses her superiors with her rash acts of charity. Theresa now decides that the money was intended by God only as a loan, which must now be repaid by all the recipients with interest. At her urging the others all reassemble in Buffalo to work out a plan to raise the needed funds–something that eventually involves not only a weird raffle but a dance contest, too. Unfortunately, two of the participants–a Las Vegas couple played by Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones–turn out to be crooks who aim to take any funds raised for themselves. But rest assured that despite all the difficulties–which include a mysterious investigator and many supremely unlikely twists and coincidences–everything turns out well.

Given the combination of preciousness and utter implausibility that fills the script, as well as the fact that this is a bare-bones production, a surprisingly large numbers of veterans have been attracted to the project. In addition to Gorshin (who mugs ferociously throughout) and Jones (much more restrained), we have Cloris Leachman (as an ill-tempered old broad, until she’s transformed by the power of goodness), Seymour Cassel (as an inexplicably generous car dealer), Shelley Duvall (as a corrupt cop), Louise Fletcher (as a nun) and Austin Pendleton (as a weird mental patient). Jerry Orbach’s disembodied voice even makes an appearance at the close. (The presence of the mayor of Buffalo toward the close is far more understandable.) The lesser, probably local, performers look decidedly amateurish by comparison; Burton, for example, is stiff and uncomfortable as Theresa. On the technical side, the picture is no better than okay.

It must be admitted that there are a few moments of memorable unintentional humor in “Manna from Heaven” (not even counting the reference to a television special by Siegfried and Roy, which–given recent history–should probably be overdubbed or deleted). The best probably comes when there’s a scene in which Leachman complains of never having won anything in her life besides a ceramic pig when she’d wanted the first prize–a real ham–and is told by a sympathetic hearer “There might be a real ham around the next corner”–upon which, as if on cue, Gorshin makes a particularly overbearing reappearance. Such accidental pleasures can’t make up, however, for a flimsy, overcomplicated little comedy that–despite the title–is hardly a gift to audiences, divine or otherwise.

THE ANARCHIST COOKBOOK

“Stop it, would you?” the mother of Puck (Devon Gummersall), the protagonist of “The Anarchist Cookbook,” pleads with her son at one point in Jordan Susman’s Dallas-based movie. Viewers may well join in her request. Susman obviously wanted to recapture the raucous, anything-goes atmosphere of independent pictures of the 1970s, but the result resembles only the most irritating of them. This “Cookbook” offers not feast but famine, and is more likely to cause indigestion than contentment.

The picture tries to mimic the attitude of combined flippancy and danger that marked the era of social revolution more than a quarter-century ago, but it comes across as a pale copy, and an insincere one to boot. Nothing in the story of a crew of easygoing self-styled anarchists who are steered into a life of actual nastiness by a fellow who’s the real thing rings true; at its core Susman’s film, despite its subject, is utterly conventional and as eager to please as a puppy dog. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a stuffy young banker who trades in his Brooks Brothers suit for hippie garb hoping that the new clothes will be the key to his success.

Puck, whose name’s Shakespearean links are obviously intended to express his jokingly free-spirited nature, is a suburban kid who’s fallen in with a bunch of communal fringe-dwellers led by cotton-brained ’70s radical Johnny Red (John Savage). The crew includes Johnny’s squeeze Karla (Fina Philips), amiable blockhead Double D (Steve Van Wormer) and musician Sweeney (Johnny Whitworth). These sweet-tempered would-be harbingers of change may enjoy harmless mischief, but they’re not vicious. Their happy hooliganism is changed, however, by the arrival of Johnny Black (Dylan Bruno), a cruelly Machiavellian nihilist who turns them to his own destructive purposes. Everybody suffers, including Puck, who’s arrested and put under house arrest with his family; he also meets a sorority girl named Jody (Kathatine Towne), whose prodding causes him to question his old life. His doubts increase when he links up again with Black, surveys the effect of his malevolent influence, and finds out with horror what his future plans are. A twist ending makes the bad-boy hero a darling of the establishment, though still a mischievous one at heart.

As this precis clearly shows, though “The Anarchist Cookbook” wants to appear edgy and hip, it really boils down to a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism; and in trying to have it both ways, it winds up seeming phony. The irritation the picture engenders by this tightrope-walking act is increased by the characterizations, which are uniformly one-dimensional, and especially by the perpetual narration by Puck, which consists of reams of supposedly clever remarks that resemble the ramblings of a precocious undergraduate who will spare no effort to show off his verbal dexterity without bothering to take a breath or conceive a real thought. The cast doesn’t mitigate the script’s flaws. Gummersall never manages to make Puck very sympathetic, and Savage seems nothing more than a dunderhead; Bruno is even worse–a stiff macho poseur who doesn’t exude the authentic sense of menace his character needs. Of the others, only Van Wormer makes any sort of positive impression as a lovable doofus.

Technically “The Anarchist Cookbook” is no great shakes–the gritty photography and frequently dank lighting have to be forgiven on the basis of the picture’s ostentatiously independent nature–but it’s visually watchable. Whether it’s otherwise tolerable is much more doubtful.