.Forget About It

Who needs bachelor parties (The Hangover) and cartoon senior citizens (Up) when you can get Phil Karlson's diamond-hard 1950s noirs?

It’s easy to dismiss The Hangover as Sideways for morons, or slightly more charitably as a crude rip-off of Dude, Where’s My Car?, but that’s probably unfair. Granted, in the annals of dumb-and-dumber, get-loaded-and-forget-everything comedies, The Hangover is pretty unremarkable, a routine romp through Las Vegas by a quartet of bachelor-partying dorks whose only goal is to destroy their brain cells while getting into outrageous situations they can’t remember later. But this seemingly crass four-way bromance is more than just a collection of tips on how to trash hotel rooms. It has important lessons to impart to its target audience of young males.

1) Don’t borrow your future father-in-law’s vintage silver Mercedes. Even if he’s Jeffrey Tambor. The four guys — Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha), and Doug’s odd future brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis) — are guaranteed to wreck that car. That’s too obvious. Instead, borrow the bridesmaid’s car and get her to drive.

2) Never fall in love with a Vegas pross. Henpecked pre-hubby Stu finds blond showgirl/escort Jade (Heather Graham) more sympathetic than his fiancée. Of course she is. Idi Amin Dada would be easier to get along with than harpy-ish Melissa (Rachael Harris). But remember what happened to Nicolas Cage — he fell for a hooker in Leaving Las Vegas and now his career is kitty litter.

3) When in doubt, always lock a naked Chinese gangster in your car trunk. Real-life physician turned comedian Ken Jeong is the funniest actor in The Hangover as sputtering mobster Leslie Chow. Yes, he’s a cheap stereotype, but no worse than Eddie at the wedding chapel. Mr. Chow is hilarious.

4) In a meathead bromance, no joke is too far-fetched. The whole “Holocaust ring” thing was set up for just one laugh line by Galifianakis. Try to find another reason to put that in, other than for screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore to identify Stu as Jewish, à la James Franco’s frequent references to his bubbie in Pineapple Express. Gratuitous social quotient?

5) Hunter S. who? The point of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was to overdo Vegas to such a degree as to render it meaningless forever. That didn’t work. The place already had hidden reserves of meaninglessness. It absorbed Thompson like a giant sponge. And so a younger generation is finding new stupid things to do underneath the desert sun: roofies in the Jägermeister, stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger, etc. Director Todd Phillips (School for Scoundrels, Starsky & Hutch) treats Las Vegas as a wonderland of product placement, and rightly so. The possibilities for absurdity there are unlimited, even if the writers’ supply of gags isn’t.

Pixar’s Up also has moral lessons to teach its young audience: Catch your dreams before they slip away. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Beware of heroes and men in suits.

That’s about as deep as it gets in the story of lonely, elderly widower Carl (voice of Ed Asner), who joins forces with an obese kid named Russell (Jordan Nagai) on a fanciful journey from Anytown, USA, to Paradise Falls, Venezuela, in Carl’s airborne Victorian house, held aloft by a multitude of balloons. Codirectors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (who also voices the role of the friendly talking dog, Dug) borrowed the film’s centerpiece image of a floating edifice from Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, but we could forgive them if Up had even a fraction of that 2004 animated fantasy’s sense of enchantment.

Instead, it’s a slapped-together-looking series of fantastic situations involving talking animals and the sinister Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a missing explorer with a dictatorial streak. Muntz resembles Peter Cushing; Carl looks like Spencer Tracy crossed with Robin Williams. The movie’s most successful moments use screenwriter Peterson’s rapid-fire witty dialogue and sight gags, but the overall effect is cold and awkwardly contrived — a far cry from WALL-E. The 3-D gimmickry only highlights the story limitations

Now that museums, film societies, and DVD collectors have rediscovered the work of Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, and Budd Boetticher, it’s time to shine the spotlight on another relatively unsung director of superlative genre films in the late-period Hollywood studio system, Phil Karlson. “Tight Spot: Phil Karlson in the Fifties,” a succinct four-night, eight-title retrospective opening Friday evening at the Pacific Film Archive, blasts us with Karlson’s specialty, tough and terse film noir, but also delves into a Western and a newspaper drama, all of them pumped up with Karlson’s brand of pervasive menace.

Curator Juliet Clark’s program focuses on hard-to-find Karlsons — only one, the John Payne crime pic Kansas City Confidential, is available on DVD. Nastiest of the lot is The Phenix City Story, a 1952 docudrama profile of the eponymous Alabama town, which provided gambling, booze, and B-girls to Ft. Benning soldiers and treated reformers to knuckle sandwiches and worse. The brazen racketeers, led by Edward Andrews and goon John Larch, rile up returned serviceman Richard Kiley and turn him into a righteous avenger, but not before leaving behind a string of atrocities: a murdered child flung from a speeding car, bombed homes, etc. It plays one time only, June 19.

Gunman’s Walk (1958) could fit into Nicholas Ray’s filmography with its saga of a stressed-out Western family, but Karlson finds his own kind of turmoil on the Hackett Ranch. Stern, two-fisted patriarch Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) dominates the community with the help of his two sons, brash gunman Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), the “liberal” younger brother who has eyes for half-breed Sioux Kathryn Grant — but Ed’s viciousness ends up shocking even the old man. For all its strife it’s a gorgeous film, in Technicolor and CinemaScope. Screening June 26.

The other films are more or less noir: The Brothers Rico (1957), with Richard Conte trying to keep his nose clean despite family ties; 5 Against the House, the silly but compelling mishaps of a group of college students trying to hold up a Reno casino (1955); the claustrophobic Tight Spot (1955), with star witness Ginger Rogers (!) hiding out in a hotel room with cop Brian Keith; and Scandal Sheet, Karlson’s 1952 newspaper exposé starring Broderick Crawford as the unscrupulous (what else?) editor of a sensational big-city tabloid. But save room for the apotheosis of Karlson grit, 99 River Street, the stripped-down story of an ex-boxer taxi driver (dependable John Payne) who refuses to fit into a frame. BAMPFA.berkeley.edu


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