Many scholars now believe that "manna," that Biblical miracle food, may have actually been the excreted residue from the Tamarix gallica plant. Judge Bill Gibron believes it, especially since this similarly named movie definitely reminds him of cinematic excrement.
What happens when a "gift from God" turns out to be a loan?
Young nun Teresa Annunciata (Ursula Burton, Temps) is a pipeline to God. After a failed trial in the tropics where her altruistic nature irked the church, she is returned to her Buffalo, N.Y., home. Once there, she hears a divine voice and it reminds her of a little incident that happened decades before. One day, while various members of the extended Annunciata clan were hanging around, a large sum of money fell from the sky. Seeing it as a sign from "above," Teresa demanded that the money be divided equally among the members of the household. Now years later, she is determined to get the clan back together and make amends. Teresa no longer sees the cash as a "gift," but as a "loan" from the Lord that must be paid back.
So she calls her brother Tony (Harry Groener, Cats), who, along with wife Rita (Faye Grant, V), now runs an unsuccessful dance studio. She gets former boarder Ed Burns (Frank Gorshin, Batman) and his sunny spouse Bunny (Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry) to cruise up from Florida and drags family friends Inez (Wendie Malick, Fraiser), Dottie (Jill Eikenberry, L.A. Law), and Rita's mom Helen (Cloris Leachman , The Last Picture Show) back into the financial fray. They have to raise $20K by Easter, a mere six weeks away. The solution? A dance contest and car raffle. But just as it looks like everything will come together, personal secrets begin to scuttle the plans. Eventually it is up to everyone, together, to resolve their discovered differences and help replace the missing Manna from Heaven.
Well intentioned and schmaltzy as…Heck, Manna from Heaven is a failed fable that flops around like a perch out of water battling to breathe. Just when we think it's going to give up the ghost and die outright, it sucks in another maudlin gulp of air and keeps on struggling. It never really succeeds in becoming a true cinematic experience—there are too many low/no budget corners cut, and the characterization is cookie cutter at best—but there is still enough of an emotional underpinning to keep us from throwing the remote at the screen…if just barely. One, has to give the gals over at Five Sisters Production (a set of siblings known as Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle, Maria, and Charity Burton) a small amount of credit. They have cobbled together a Love Boat-like cast of forgotten Hollywood heavyweights (Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Louis Fletcher) and TV talents from then and now (Frank Gorshin, Jill Eikenberry, Wendie Malick) and have placed them in a plot that turns, if melodramatically, on kooky character more than contrivance. Of course it's all as cloying as a five-course cotton candy dinner, complete with sugar syrup side dishes, yet we never once get the impression that it is anything less than a semi-professional motion picture.
Sadly, there are two MAJOR flaws in the film that keep it from transcending its saccharine trappings. The first is the forced, foolhardy script. Certainly this is a fantasy, a portrait of a Buffalo, N.Y., that, sans snow, most residents wouldn't recognize even with a side order of wings. No mention is made of the real world outside the snug little fantasy land inhabited by our competing clans and everyone is friendly, helpful, and community oriented. Then there are the individual stories of the main family. Some of the plot points are novel (the dance instructors, the lonely hairdresser), but others are strict inventions of the world of cinema. Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones play a con artist couple who have gambled and grifted their way into the good life (or something just short of same). Yet they immediately turn miserable, then moral, when faced with this latest crisis of cash consciousness. Similarly, Wendie Malick plays a hardened Vegas card dealer whose cynicism is the size of Siegfried and Roy's bank account. Yet she melts the minute she meets a sullen Secret Service agent. There is lots of this illogic traipsing around Manna From Heaven, contrivances created to give the narrative a cyclical sense it really doesn't need.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this production is lead actress Ursula Burton, though. Naturally, such a small film couldn't afford a big time A-list name to carry this cavalcade of clichés, but putting one of the foundational Five in front of the lens was an obvious mistake. Unable to hold her own with Oscar-winning co-stars, she's supposed to be the good-hearted catalyst to the film's forced, frequent epiphanies. But Burton is bland, completely unable to spawn the spark necessary to act as inspiration. Sure, we see her doing many good works, but in the case of a movie, words speak louder than actions…and Ursula's line readings are awkward at best. Of course, it doesn't help that her bride of Christ is as dreary as she is devoted. Teresa may be a source of encouragement to her family, but she's an irritant to the audience. Had a celebrity saddled up and played this part, bringing to it both star power and presence, we might be able to understand how Teresa can consistently break the rules and not pay a substantial price. As it stands, Ms. Burton is the shaky center to what is a wealth of talent (everyone else here is more or less pitch perfect). Along with the equally substandard script, we have the main reasons why Manna from Heaven is dull, not dynamic.
MGM, looking at this 2002 project like the second coming of a certain Greek Wedding, treats Manna from Heaven rather well on the digital format. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is a little fuzzy, but this appears to be a source issue, not a transfer issue. The colors are correct, with lots of detail and acceptable contrasts. The Dolby Digital Stereo is also decent, allowing us easy access to the dialogue and the occasional nostalgic tunes used to express the era. As for the bonus features, the ones offered here swing wildly from ineffective EPK quality to an alternate narrative track as self-congratulatory back slap-a-thon. The commentary featuring what sounds like the entire Burton crew (including parents) is warm and fuzzy, filled with verbal high fives and precious memories like anecdotes. The filmmakers' Q&A is only slightly more insightful, even with its homemade camcorder conceits blatantly obvious. The deleted/extended scenes offer some depth and context to the craziness we see on screen and the bloopers are dumb, derivative fun. Along with TV spots and a photo gallery, this is a good collection of supplements for a film that really doesn't deserve them.
While Manna from Heaven is not a total abomination, it's definitely not the heartwarming family comedy it cries out to be. Perhaps with a better screenplay and a complete cast of above the title talent, the Five Sisters could have made something magical. But as long as they stay in the indie arena, their lack of artistic or aesthetic ambition will make their movies—like this one—look more amateur than assured.
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