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Did I Really See That?

June 10, 2011

I reviewed hundreds of movies for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, most of which are no longer online, so it’s perhaps understandable that I have absolutely no memory of seeing some of them. In this new semi-regular feature (part of my latest desperate attempt to revive this blog), I will exhume some of these forgotten reviews from my archives, starting with three indies I don’t remember watching.

DIGGERS
87 min., R (sexual content, thematic elements and language)
Grade: B

It is the fall of 1976, but four clam diggers on the Long Island shore are in no mood to celebrate the Bicentennial. A large seafood corporation has moved into the area, bringing new restrictions to the surrounding waters. The time of independent clamming seems to be passing, a point underscored when a lifelong digger suddenly dies on his boat.

The children of the deceased, Hunt (Paul Rudd) and Gina (Maura Tierney), still live in the town where they grew up. Gina works the counter at the local diner, and Hunt carries on the family business, along with his buddies, stoner-intellectual Cons (Josh Hamilton), family man Lozo (Ken Marino, who also wrote the screenplay) and ladies’ man Jack (Ron Eldard). While Gina finds herself in an unlikely romance, Hunt toys with the idea of leaving town and starting over elsewhere.

There’s not much more to Diggers in terms of plot, but that’s okay; it’s more of a “hanging out” movie reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. The diggers shoot the breeze in bars, squabble amongst themselves, and put up a doomed united front against the corporate invaders. The ’70s atmosphere is evocative without being kitschy, and the characters are engaging and well-cast (although Lauren Ambrose’s role as Hunt’s summer crush is too sketchy and underdeveloped).

Enjoyable as it is, however, Diggers is never quite as sharp or funny or insightful as it could be. The movie gets by on sheer likeability, but fails to deliver the kind of unique sensibility that would distinguish it from the usual ensemble-indie crop.

EULOGY
91 min., R (language, sexual content and drug use)
Grade: B

The eulogy in question is the responsibility of Kate Collins (Zooey Deschanel), a college freshman who returns home for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. It’s a time-honored set-up for an ensemble comedy, although funerals are interchangeable with Thanksgiving in this context. The point is simply to drop a “normal” person into a gathering of wacky relatives and let the sparks fly.

That’s exactly what first time writer/director Michael Clancy has in mind. Upon her arrival at the old family homestead, Kate is greeted by her casually bitter grandmother (Piper Laurie), her father Daniel (Hank Azaria), once the child star of a popular television commercial and now an underemployed burnout, and an eccentric assortment of uncles, aunts and cousins.

Grandma gives Kate the task of memorializing her grandfather (played by Rip Torn in flashbacks), but her family provides little in the way of help. Lecherous Uncle Skip (Ray Romano) remembers only neglect, while strident Aunt Alice (Debra Winger) is too busy feuding with her free-spirited lesbian sister Lucy (Kelly Preston) to provide much assistance. Grandma’s periodic suicide attempts prove somewhat distracting as well.

Clancy has trouble maintaining a consistent tone while trying to keep all these balls in the air. Observational humor, black comedy and outright slapstick all jostle for dominance, but there is no clear winner. On the plus side, the cast is generally engaging and the variety of acting styles benefits the dysfunctional family theme. Deschanel is the best reason to see Eulogy; at once luminous and low-key, she’s the eye of this hurricane.

MANNA FROM HEAVEN
119 min., PG (language and some sexual references)
Grade: C+

Once upon a time, money literally fell from the sky outside the Buffalo home of a saintly young girl named Theresa and her extended family (which, a title card tells us, includes those related by blood and marriage as well as strays and freeloaders). Theresa proclaimed the windfall a gift from God intended to improve their lives and the lives of others, and each member of the clan took a share of the cash.

Thirty years later, Theresa (Ursula Burton), now a nun, calls her family together again to announce that the money must be returned. Since they don’t know where it came from or who it belonged to, this will be a difficult task, made no easier by the fact that none of them happen to have the $3300 each received when the loot was divvied up. They decide to organize a fundraiser comprised of a car raffle and a dance contest, and while most of the family members are reluctant to participate or hoping to exploit the event for their own gain, they eventually pull together and learn valuable life lessons from each other.

Produced by five sisters from Buffalo, Manna From Heaven is a homegrown family affair that’s deliberately old-fashioned and corny. The casting of long-forgotten TV faces like Shirley Jones of The Partridge Family and Frank Gorshin of Batman only adds to the quaint but somewhat musty vibe. Manna may be an independent film, but its heart is pure ’50s Hollywood – utterly inoffensive, except to viewers looking for something more substantial than a Hallmark card.

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