Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Jim Croce, Robert Altman, the military industrial complex, and bed hair: a conversation about X-Men: Days of Future Past

(W. and I enjoyed discussing X-Men last Saturday morning on the sun deck.)

FD: We're here to talk about how and why we both liked X-Men: Days of Future Past.

W: On a fundamental time travel movie level, there are Inception-esque qualities to it.

FD: Ellen Page.

W: That's an interesting connection. I didn't think of that.

FD: Ellen Page didn't need to act in the film. She doesn't have that major a role, but part of the fun of the film is that she's just involved, and that's all we need. She's part of the gang.

W: And her powers are a little strange because she can phase through walls but also apparently time travel, which you'd think would be infinitely more useful. I loved the cool conceit of the hook in which the mutants constantly get massacred over and over because they've been found out, but then they warn their past selves not to go to that location so they don't get massacred.

FD: Right. What are the things called again?

W: Sentinels.

FD: They basically seem to be flying around in stand up vertical coffins.

W: It reminded me of something like Tron, the evil monolithic Tron machines, the whole cityscape, only more purple.

FD: When the movie goes back to 1973, I kept thinking of Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). The filmmakers picked a good era. X-Men: Days of Future Past affected me much as Tim Burton's Dark Shadows did. Part of the pleasure came from the period details, the music, and the fashion sense.

W: There's nice touches like when they used the old time camera to film Mystique's big reveal when she falls out of the window.

FD: The political theater involving Richard Nixon reminded me a lot of--

W: Of Watchmen.

FD: But also the big political event in Nashville and the tacky period costumes. Meanwhile, Trask (Peter Dinklage) comes up with these early versions of the Sentinels and they're fun. They're like Titanfall robots, but they don't seem like anything anyone could realistically produce in 1973.

W: But they're made with a special polymer that has no metal.

FD: Trask's miniature size serves as an ironic commentary on his villainous qualities, like Mini-Me being the chief bad guy of the film.

W: Trask was the elephant in the room, and you could attribute everything he does, his entire back story stems from the fact that he's small. He's got a speech where he claims that humans need to defend our species. Otherwise, his motivation is a little weak. Why does he want to kill all of the mutants?

FD: All of the X-Men movies invite you to identify with mutants because it encourages you to think that any oddity that you may have should be defended against everyone else who exist on a lower level of evolution.

W: Right. There's all these socio-economic connections that you can make. X-Men: First Class was specifically about gay rights. One of the characters says: "You didn't ask so I didn't tell."

FD: Right.

W: Fundamentally, Professor X is Martin Luther King and Magneto is Malcolm X. One is for mutant integration with society and the other is for mutant dominance by "any means necessary."

FD: What would you say the political issue is that underlies this film?

W: They bring up Vietnam, but I don't know how that really connects.

FD: Vietnam would be a matter of intervention in another country over communism. The mutants arrive in Vietnam briefly and then they leave.

W: This film caters to the Quicksilver sequence where it's more about the fun time travel parallelism. I noticed a similarity to Cloud Atlas at the end (in part because Halle Berry's in it), but then you have similar shot compositions--superheroes rising up in parallel moments.

FD: Cross cutting?

W: Match on action.

FD: Superheroes tend to have certain poses, like you bend your back back, and you have your arms out as a way to expire. You use your power, you ascend, a lot of Christ imagery. Perhaps the major time travel theme of the film is the relationship that the older man can have with his younger self. James McAvoy plays a useless younger man, an addict. He's given up. His older version has to reassure that younger version that he can do it, that he has the power.

W: Yes.

FD: You also have the subversiveness of Quicksilver, who is fast but largely shiftless. The younger useless men change, become more responsible, and much of the tension of the film stems from the resistance between the two different ages. Oddly, of all people, the filmmakers bring in Wolverine as a negotiator, because Wolverine himself is something of a punk. Meanwhile, McAvoy's Xavier has the key character arc.

W: Interestingly, in X-Men: First Class, Mystique) Jennifer Lawrence is ashamed of her powers because she looks like a blue mutant thing, and Professor X gets off pretty easy because he just read people's minds. Days of Future Past taps into how once you've had a traumatic event happen to you, being able to read everyone's mind in the world becomes a huge burden, and it's killing. I don't think any comic book conveys how once you read someone's mind and feel all of his/her pain and all of his/her suffering throughout his/her entire life, that that would get old and maybe you would just want to walk around and do drugs all day.

FD: Xavier seems to injecting something that strongly resembles heroin.

W: You are made to think it was heroin at first.

FD: Both McAvoy and Fassbender have good roles. The people who get the best special effects out of their mutant talents end up having the best roles. After all, what really motivates Magneto beyond the fact that he can have these great scenes where he can lift train tracks, or throw around small metal balls creatively?

W: That's a direct reference to the second film. Ian McKellen murders people with two little balls.

FD: Is Magneto good or a villain?

W: Yes, he's a villain with a cause. He wants to murder all of the humans.

FD: Why doesn't he do it more often?

W: Because he's making a political statement. That's a cliche of all of the X-Men movies, where Magneto initially seems like a fun friend to have along, pal around, play some chess with, and then he threatens to the entire power structure of the United States.

FD: Wasn't he trying to save John F. Kennedy, or was that a lie?

W: I found it amusing that JFK proves a mutant. He's one of us! (laughs)

FD: I wonder why I liked Quicksilver so much in his big scene where runs circles around everyone inside the Pentagon. As everyone freezes in slow regular time, he can subversively do whatever he likes--sample the food, cause the guards to punch themselves. It reminds me of the pleasures of being invisible, and there's something about combining that with Croce's song "If I Could Save Time in a Bottle" that affects me nostalgically, a humorous sweet little ballad, all combined with the revolt against the police too.

W: It's prankish behavior.

FD: He messes with the government, the military industrial complex, the police.

W: It works on several levels.  

FD: Muck with various forms of the Establishment. That's the scene where the movie clicked into focus and got really good suddenly.

W: My only problem with that scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as an invincible God who can stop time, and it left me wondering: why don't they just use Quicksilver for most of the movie?

FD: Yes. Why does he go away?

W: He could be so helpful.

FD: Meanwhile, Mystique has this stubborn drive to kill Trask, and Xavier keeps trying to reason with her. We all know that she's wrong. Why don't the other major mutants explain the situation better to her?

W: They try.

FD: Why don't they literally lay out exactly what will happen if she kills Trask or not kill him?

W: I don't know.

FD: She's a trickster figure, like Quicksilver, and can change identity. Just as Bugs Bunny can mimic a female, she can change into a man. But ultimately Mystique's character is limited by the fact that she's being kind of obtuse.

W: She's pretty one note. In First Class, the filmmakers refer to when she switches from Professor X to Magneto at the end of that movie. She joins the dark side, as it were. She becomes Magneto's right hand woman. That switcheroo was never all that convincing. It's problematic in this film when X tries to appeal to the Raven side of her. There's never that much of a change from her earlier more innocent self to the killer. She was always a bad-ass.

FD: True.

W: Why does Magneto lift an entire baseball stadium to place it over the White House?

FD: It creates a nice frame for the scene. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

FD: I had problems with the way X-Men: First Class boiled down to a bunch of multicolored mutants flying around doing amazing things. We tend to lean towards the superheroes who have less power, such as Batman, who is just human, or Captain America, who is a slightly exaggerated human. Superman gets so tiresome so fast because he's all powerful.

W: Wolverine has always been invincible and that's why X-Men Origins: Wolverine is such a terrible movie. Wolverine and Sabertooth spend the whole movie going "Arrrrrrrr!"

FD: I still find Wolverine's spiked-on-both-sides hairdo to be silly. He looks like he's constantly going around with bed hair.

W: True. Very true.

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