13 Hours limps to finish; Panda 3 moves toward biculturalism

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13 Hours limps to finish; Panda 3 moves toward biculturalism

By Jacob Oller

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells an exciting story in the most boring way possible, like a patronizing picture book describing warfare. The cobbled collection of clichés follow the true story of a mercenary brigade attempting to rescue a tiny American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya housing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The ensuing military incident lasted for 13 hours, although you’d think it was longer watching the movie. Battered down alongside the paramilitary contractors, we limp to the finish, just hoping to see our families again.

The film almost parodies itself. Not that the subject matter is uninteresting or light, but that each and every bad movie stereotype shambles in as lazily as possible. Meaningless platitudes go back and forth; families are mentioned long enough for us to remember that if anyone dies, they’re leaving at least one kid behind; and there’s one blonde woman there, whose purpose in the film seems to be purely chromosomal.

In the midst of bro-humor groaners, including multiple animal humping jokes, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”, and the mockery of a translator’s probabilistically impending death, we meet the squad composed of John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, and Max Martini. “Characters” may be too strong a word to throw around considering they all share the same beard, build, and personality. Individual performances drown in the chaos, lost in the multi-jigger testosterone and beard hair cocktail, any nuance or individuality obliterated in a queasicam shaker.

During a lull in the action, one of the Sweaty Beards notes that the downtime is always the worst in a combat situation. Adrenaline pumping, the mind wanders with nothing pragmatic to focus on. 13 Hours fails to pump a microgram of chemical excitement, allowing your mind to think poignantly about the better, more interesting things you could be doing with your time – how brief a moment we have on Earth – regardless of the witching hour gun battles writ large on the silver screen in front of you.

Bay’s action shots fall into two categories: gruff men shooting off-screen in waist-up mid-shots and the wide, chaotic Polyphonic Spree gun-and-light show between Americans and “the bad guys”. You can’t follow a bullet to a target, which means you never feel threatened or excited. People drop randomly, often indistinguishable from their neighbor. Lacking tangible action causality, the film flexes the flawed empowerment of a poorly-designed video game. With invincibility, even perceived invincibility, excitement cannot exist. The combat feels like watching kids play make-believe in the backyard with stick rifles, bobbing in and out of wooded cover and quarrelling over who shot whom. Michael Bay fails to rouse our imagination, so we cannot follow his action.

Still stuck in the child’s mindset of egocentrism, assuming everyone can see what he sees, Bay dictates explosions and gun battles whose dramatic justification resides only within his mind. Unfortunately for those subjected to 13 Hours, playing with GI Joes is always more fun than watching said player.

Kung Fu Panda 3
An often exhilarating, kaleidoscopic manhua combining the traditions of overblown martial arts and the simple, fantastic stories of folklore, Kung Fu Panda 3 pushes the series forward towards its potential as a centerpiece of biculturalism.

A co-production between DreamWorks and Oriental DreamWorks, Kung Fu Panda 3 is the first major American animated film co-produced with a Chinese company. Despite its goofy veneer, the Kung Fu Panda series has long incorporated Chinese mythology into its narratives – it’s no coincidence the main characters anthropomorphize a variety of Chinese martial art disciplines (mantis, tiger, monkey, crane, snake, and – in lieu of panda – dragon).

Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, along with executive producer Guillermo del Toro, understand the rich (ha) potential of China, delivering the third chapter as an extraordinarily accessible fable drenched in the life-encompassing chi that inspired George Lucas’s Force.

Po (Jack Black) the panda, protects his valley home as the legendary and prophesied Dragon Warrior until supernatural trouble catalyzes another quest for personal growth. Two new figures enter his life – his biological father, Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and the power-hungry spirit, Kai (J.K. Simmons) – that thrust him out of comfort once again on a journey to stop an unstoppable force by better understanding himself. A simple enough plot underestimates its audience through repetitive explanation while our brains progress through its Campbellian story components like assessing the trajectory of a baseball: an unconscious appraisal that allows us to focus on other things, like running in the outfield or cackling to one-liners with our kids. The jokes, often quite good, come from a variety of talented actors: Seth Rogen and David Cross slay as the snide Mantis and Crane, but the deadpan delivery from venerable talents like Dustin Hoffman and James Hong embrace the versatility of their talents.

The entrance of Po’s panda father means that the noodle shop owning goose, Mr. Ping (Hong), who raised him faces genuinely touching problems of jealousy and fear. While his alloparenting introduces the loving theme that parents can be defined many different ways, with Po eventually referring to his “dads”, the lessons are not exclusively father-based. Deeper themes of personal acceptance and cultural heritage mesh with the modernity of multiculturalism. The dichotomy of intentions vs. results when raising a child, as well as the fathers’ eventual embrace of each other’s importance in Po’s life provide the most moving moments of the film.

However, some of the production seems leftover from different cuts of the production. The hidden panda village to which Po returns features a slew of names but few memories, like the first day on the job. Kate Hudson’s Mei Mei, an aggressively flirtatious ribbon dancer, feels like an ineffectual toy whittled from the branch of a cut sub-plot. If the filmmakers reigned Black’s sometimes grating riffing (he’s played the same character since…his cameo in X-Files? High Fidelity?), they’d have time for the endless characters they’d like to merchandize. This feeling of competing priorities floods over to the specifics of the plot, as well. Despite deigning to the mystical, the climatic embrace of chi becomes a mistuned magical panda ex machina.

The real draw here, though, is the animation. Visual spectacle enthusiastically speeds along, driven by excellent 3-D effects (including some unique paneling shots done as well as the unique Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and rapid editing diverse enough to intone the film’s various montages and battles with a joyful beauty and softer brushstrokes than the sharp, bombastic cartoonishness found in Japanese-inspired anime. Fights, often narratively flat, demand attention with perspective depth and gorgeous art style. A variety of moves and the imaginative environments in which these battles occur provide a clumsy captivation in the vein of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master series.

The divine spirit of fools run deep within a film too relatively light and inconsequential to have too much staying power, but as an artistically rich Saturday morning puff piece, you could do far worse.
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