Sunday, January 11, 2015

From the Rental Vault: State Cinema

Here are three movies with Oklahoma connections. They are, to varying degrees, "indie films," and all were filmed here in Oklahoma.
Certainly the least "indie" of the three, 1991's My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys had a big-name cast and major studio distribution. It was produced by Oklahoma media family scion E.K. Gaylord II, the third of about a dozen movies that carry his name on a production credit line.

Scott Glenn is H.D., a rodeo cowboy injured by a bull and forced into retirement. His return home finds the family farm abandoned, his father Jesse (Ben Johnson) in a nursing home at the direction of his sister Cheryl (Tess Harper) and his longtime girlfriend Jolie (Kate Capshaw) the widowed mother of a teen son (Balthazar Getty). Although he tries to return his father home to the farm, Jesse can't be left alone without endangering himself or others, and Cheryl threatens to sell the farm to ensure Jesse has no place to stay. H.D. finds a rodeo contest that will pay the winner $100,000 and vows to compete and claim the prize to keep the farm, give Jesse a place to live and Jolie and her son security.

It's all very cut and paste, and director Stuart Rosenberg and screenwriter Joel Don Humphreys do almost nothing to blend the pieces. Every one of the cast is a top-level talent, but the retread script and lifeless direction give them absolutely no help in animating their roles. Johnson can be fun to watch as a gruff old man bewildered by a world where males wear long hair and earrings, but that only goes so far -- not nearly enough to cover Heroes' 106-minute running time, which seems much longer while offering next to nothing to remember an hour later beyond some excellent rodeo stunt work. Much of the movie was filmed at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie.
During the 1970s, Tulsa Channel 8 promotions director Carl Bartholomew "moonlighted" as the host of a children's afternoon cartoon show, Uncle Zeb's Cartoon Camp. It was a big hit for many youngsters, and one in particular will forever despise Senator Sam Ervin for his pre-emption of Zeb for some boring show of old men talking about something called "Watergate."

In 1989, Bartholomew directed his own screenplay (and himself) in the Western-themed revenge tale Cole Justice. Justice, now a professor who teaches about the history of Western movies, is forever haunted by the death of his girlfriend when he was a young man and the pair were attacked. He deeply believes in the values and the world of the Old West of the screen, and one night when witnessing a bunch of barroom toughs maul and manhandle a waitress, decides to take matters into his own hands -- and gunsight. He embarks on a streak of vigilante slayings, becoming known as "the Killer Cowboy" because of his hat, long duster, revolver and spurs. Eventually, the line for what merits his deadly attentions becomes blurred as matters at the university seem to be ready to push him aside for newer, trendier coursework and personnel.

On Amazon, Bartholomew (who passed away in 2009) says he believes he and his crew did pretty good with the limited time and money they had. Limited money can excuse a lot, but since this was one of Bartholomew's personal projects, he'd had all the time in the world to develop it, and he still came up with a screenplay that can't hold its own internal logic. Justice wants a world like the Old West where strong and brave men protect kids and the womenfolk, unless one of the womenfolk in question is threatening an old friend's job. Then she can be cornered in her office at gunpoint and threatened with death. The storyline is ridiculously hokey -- hitting Reefer Madness-level absurdity more than once -- and none of the local cast can sell it for a second. That includes Bartholomew himself, who is fine as a middle-aged professor-type (he was 57 when the movie was made) but not at all believable as a vengeful vigilante.

I was certainly sorry to read of Bartholomew's passing, but on the other hand I'm glad I never saw this movie until after it had happened. There would have been no way to have kept my inner seven-year-old from writing Uncle Zeb and telling him if he'd needed money so bad he would act in this movie I would have opened my piggy bank and helped him out myself.

Cole Justice was filmed in and around Tulsa, despite the use of New York City skyscrapers in the video cover art (and the apparent replacement of Bartholomew with Toby Keith).
Like Bartholomew, Sam & Janet director and screenwriter Rick Walker was a longtime state media fixture when he was able to get his cinematic project onscreen. The 2002 movie from the KATT-FM radio personality tells the story of two late 20-somethings who meet, fall in love and do their best to work around the issues created by previous relationships.

Sam & Janet would probably get filed as a romantic comedy on the shelves of a video store, if there were still video stores with shelves. It doesn't exactly fit the formula -- the title characters don't have a "meet-cute" so much as a "meet-ordinary" by catching each other's eyes at the gym. But there is a lot of humor and of course, the central feature is the romance between them. And there are a couple of Best Friends on either side of the leads, who offer advice of more or less help over the course of the relationship.

Sam & Janet works, mostly, and it does so because of two factors the other two movies in this triple feature don't have. Unlike Justice, it features a cast who range in ability from competent to pretty darn good. Ryan Brown (Sam) and Jennifer Ferguson (Janet) both display a solid grasp of the emotions and ideas that they want to convey, and they convince viewers that they're watching two people named Sam and Janet instead of two people reading sets of lines labeled "Sam" and "Janet." Gary Busey is funny as a rather wizened bartender and the Best Friends offer good foils for the leads to work with and against as the situation requires.

Second, unlike Heroes, the storyline connects and hangs together. There's a little bit of time-hopping within the scope of the story, and it cheats more than it should at least once, but it doesn't read like a series of unrelated sketches featuring the same actors. Walker is part of the "Rick and Brad" morning show with Brad Copeland and so had created comedy pretty regularly when he wrote the script, and he puts believably funny words in the mouths of his characters. He also has a good handle on the crisis that they face, even if the lever that sets it into motion is a little more TV-movie than it ought to be.

Sam & Janet has an air of an Oughties Sexual Perversity in Chicago -- or more accurately, the 1986 film version About Last Night.... Walker is no David Mamet, and so neither his characters, wit or commentary are as sharp. But like the lead couple of the earlier movie, the two at the center of Sam and Janet want to move forward from simple couplehood into a marriage partnership, but find themselves held back from doing so.

In the Mamet story, written in the free-wheeling 1970s, the relationship stalls because one of the characters can't let go of the potential future of possibly better options. In Walker's story, after 20 years of living with AIDS and the fallout of the free-wheeling 1970s, the relationship stalls because neither can let go of the consequences of choices from the past.

Sam & Janet is by far the best of the three movies here, primarily because it had the best talent combination -- both Ferguson and Brown have had some roles since, although nothing major and certainly not what they should have been seeing. Walker won the Best Screenplay award at the 2002 New York International Independent Film Festival. Even though he subsequently offered up the crapfest slasher movie (but I repeat myself) The Fun Park, he showed he could write a good, filmable story, which when paired with good actors makes a much better than average indie movie.

Sam & Janet was filmed mostly in and around Oklahoma City.

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