Take 59

Joe Leydon begins his year-long excellent movie adventure with Sonny & Cher's Good Times

Joe Leydon begins his year-long excellent movie adventure with Sonny & Cher's Good Times

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Joe Leydon emulates Travis Bickle (from the classic Taxi Driver) by getting lost in the movies
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Movie poster for Good Times
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A scene from Good Times
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Check out the vanity plates.
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Sonny and Cher with their custom Ford Mustangs designed by George Barris for the movie
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Cher and Sonny during a rehearsal break at ABC Television’s Wembley studios in 1967
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On Monday, I turned 59. Which means that, if there's anything I want to accomplish while I'm still in my 50s, I have only 52 weeks left to cross it off my to-do list.

And there's the rub: Even though I have spent a goodly portion of my life writing about films, interviewing film actors and filmmakers, and teaching college-level film studies courses, and hope to continue doing so until I'm even deeper into my dotage, there are many noteworthy movies — some classic, some not — that I have not seen. Yet.

So I'm launching — with, I admit, no small amount of trepidation — a project that I've dubbed "Take 59." During the next 52 weeks I'm going to view, once a week, a 20th-century movie that I've never seen before, that I feel I should see before I turn 60. But wait, there's more: I'm also going to post an appraisal of each movie, and each posting will come with the Take 59 label.

 During the next 52 weeks I'm going to view, once a week, a 20th-century movie that I've never seen before, that I feel I should see before I turn 60. But wait, there's more: I'm also going to post an appraisal of each movie, and each posting will come with the Take 59 label. 

I’m likely going to embarrass myself, and get a fair amount of heckling, when I fess up and name the names of classics that I've missed up until now. Because, mind you, I'm not talking about movies I saw decades ago at on-campus screenings, or watched on late-night TV, or viewed at the Gentilly-Orleans art house in New Orleans way back in the day, but can't recall very clearly, if at all. Much to my chagrin, I've never —  ever — seen Intolerance. Or Out of the Past. Or Heaven's Gate. (OK, maybe that's not really a classic, but still . . .) Or The Lady from Shanghai. Or Masculin, Féminin.  Or Say Anything.

In the course of my Take 59 project, I plan to catch up with all of those films. But I also want to include some non-classics in the mix — movies I've always heard about and meant to see, but for various reasons always managed to miss. (Until now.) Especially some '60s and '70s films. Like, I've never seen Roger Corman's The Trip. Or Richard Lester's How I Won the War (which many folks actually consider to be a classic — and many others don't).  Or Christian Nyby's Operation C.I.A. (with Burt Reynolds fighting the Viet Cong — in 1965). Or Robert Mulligan's The Pursuit of Happiness (which, as far as I can tell, has nothing whatsoever to do with the similarly titled drama starring Will Smith).

And here's the beauty part: I already have DVDs (or, in a few cases, Blu-Rays) of these and many other movies I've never seen before. Hell, they're all still shrink-wrapped, stacked on a closet shelf dedicated to films I've always intended to see . . . someday.

There will be 52 somedays as Take 59 unwinds. I cordially invite you to join me for all of them.

First up: Good Times with Sonny and Cher

You may feel tempted, as I did, to take a gander at Good Times (1967), if only because of its curiosity value and camp potential as the one and only movie to jointly showcase Sonny and Cher at the height of their mid-1960s pop-chart prominence.

And the allure of this near-forgotten concoction may be well-nigh irresistible for cineastes who know it was the very first feature film directed by future Oscar winner William Friedkin (The French Connection and on the other hand, Jade).

But after finally catching up with Good Times for this initial posting of my Take 59 project, I feel compelled to warn you: Sometimes, you should resist temptation. Because, trust me, this deservedly obscure curio would have to be considerably better than it is to begin to qualify even as a guilty pleasure, much less a high camp classic. Because, to paraphrase Huey Lewis and The News, sometimes bad simply is bad.

Good Times is unmistakably a product of that Old Hollywood era when teen-fave chart-toppers routinely were rushed into rattletrap star vehicles to exploit their probably evanescent appeal to fickle fans. Occasionally — such as when Elvis Presley was at the top of his game in Jailhouse Rock or Viva Las Vegas — the movies cranked out as fodder for pop star fans could be enjoyed as flashy, trashy fluff. And on very rare occasions — like, when the inspired Richard Lester made merry with The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! — enduring classics were the borderline-miraculous result.

 To their credit — assuming, of course, they had screenplay input — Cher (exuding a biker-chick insouciance and, in the Tarzan sequence, revealing incredibly long legs) and Sonny do engage in a fair amount of self-parody here, particularly when it comes to acknowledging what, for many non-fans, was at the time a major turn-off: Their very obvious age difference.

 Unfortunately, Good Times falls somewhere in the middle ground — or, to be more precise, the no man’s land — between the exuberant junkiness of the Elvis movies and the satirically inclined sophistication of the Beatles romps. The plot (attributed to screenwriter Tony Barrett, a prolific TV vet) has something to do with the naïve cluelessness of Sonny and Cher — played, in a bold stroke of casting, by Sonny and Cher — as they contemplate a move from the recording studio to the sound stage, and something else to do with the silken villainy of Mr. Mordicus (George Sanders — yes, that George Sanders), a smooth-talking producer who wants to make a quick buck by casting the couple in a low-budget quickie that may or may not involve upwardly mobile hillbillies.

Sonny imagines himself and the conspicuously indifferent Cher in three different spoofy scenarios — a labored Western musical, a lame Tarzan parody, and a mercilessly protracted film noir misadventure — in the hope of coming up with a big-screen project that will be sufficiently hip and groovy to not make them seem like, well, sellouts. (Or, barring that, won’t be as career-stallingly crappy as a movie about upwardly mobile hillbillies.)

Meanwhile, Friedkin — then deemed a promising up-and-comer because of his attention-grabbing work in TV documentaries — keeps things moving in a manner that suggests he is what he is, a first-time feature filmmaker who’s in way over his head, who lacks enough experience to make any of his production numbers as infectiously bouncy as similar sequences in Elvis’ movies, but who’s desperately eager to prove that he, too, is not a sellout. (Listen closely, and you'll hear a throwaway reference to the kind of movie Friedkin no doubt feared he might be accused of making — Out of Sight, a silly 1966 teen-skewing spy spoof that featured musical performances by, among others, Gary Lewis and The Playboys.)

And every so often, Sanders pops up — either as Mr. Mordicus or a bad guy in a movie fantasy — to come across as either wearily bored or dryly condescending or some mixture of both. Here and there, he appears poised to drop some sort of devastating bon mot, much like his iconic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. Alas, he never delivers on that promise. Indeed, you get the feeling that he simply didn’t feel this movie was worth that sort of effort. When Mr. Mordicus ultimately tosses the hillbilly script into a conveniently placed trash can, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Sanders really, really enjoyed that day on the set, if only because he surreptitiously slipped his Good Times screenplay into the binder.

To their credit — assuming, of course, they had screenplay input — Cher (exuding a biker-chick insouciance and, in the Tarzan sequence, revealing incredibly long legs) and Sonny do engage in a fair amount of self-parody here, particularly when it comes to acknowledging what, for many non-fans, was at the time a major turn-off: Their very obvious age difference. In the film noir escapade, they have this pointed exchange:

Cher: We’ve been engaged for seven years. People are beginning to talk.

Sonny: Not as much as they talked when we first got engaged.

In fairness, it should be noted that a couple of the musical sequences — most notably, one meant to represent a TV variety show performance of “It’s the Little Things” — appear, not unlike many sequences in the Beatles movies, to presage MTV videos. On the other hand, it should also be noted that by the time Good Times hit theaters in 1967, The Monkees was near wrapping up its first season of episodes filled with similar sequences. No wonder that moviegoers — at least, the relatively few who bought tickets — were unimpressed.

Also worth noting: The give and take between Sonny and Cher throughout the film, while not exactly Shavian in its wittiness, no doubt established the template for the bandying between the stars during their own real-life ‘70s variety show. Sonny: “Shucks, ma’am, I can’t sing.” Cher: “Don’t let that stop you.” And it doesn’t.

BTW: Don’t expect “The Beat Goes On” or “Baby Don’t Go” or even the original version of “I Got You Babe” here. They’re conspicuous by their absence from the soundtrack. So, really, why bother?

Joe Leydon writes about movies on MovingPictureBlog