Watching with Matthew Modine, star of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’

Matthew Modine as Pvt. Joker

Matthew Modine has been making movies for thirty years. After making his big screen debut in a small role in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, he quickly became one of the most in-demand young actors of his generation, with major roles in Robert Altman’s Streamers, Alan Parker’s Birdie, and Gillian Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel, before landing the leading role in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The film’s 25th Anniversary is marked by a special edition Blu-ray release, with the new documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes and contributions from Modine himself. Photographs that Modine took on the set of the film are included in the disc’s booklet and he wrote an essay for the edition.

I spoke with Modine by phone in June, catching him between a visit with a programmer developing an iPad app based on his book “Full Metal Jacket Diary” (“The reason I’m excited about it is that he just showed it to me this morning”) and a meeting with John Scully (“the man who fired Steve Jobs from Apple”), who he’s portraying in the upcoming Steve Jobs film. Since then he’s been seen by millions of viewers in “The Dark Knight Rises” and premiered a new film short film at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and he’s currently developing his second feature as a director.

We talked about Kubrick, Altman, making movies, and what he’s been watching.

What are you watching on home video?

The only thing I watch on television is sports and right now I’m enjoying the Oklahoma Thunder is one game to nothing against the El Fuego. That means The Heat, if you don’t speak Spanish. I don’t like saying the name of the team because I really, really can’t stomach them. So it’s just El Fuego to me. [Note: the interview was conducted weeks before the Olympics]

Do you still go to the movies?

Absolutely. I go to see as many movies as I can. That’s my profession. I go to see as much theater as I can – that’s one of the pleasures of living in New York, we have the greatest theater in the United States – and watch as many movies as I can.

You had taken substantial roles in films before Full Metal Jacket, but taking the lead role in a Kubrick film must have had an effect on your career.

It’s flattering when any director asks you to be the star of their film and there’s a tremendous responsibility that comes with that invitation. But yes, absolutely, to be invited to work with someone who had previously worked with Jack Nicholson onThe Shining” which I really enjoyed, who worked with George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, two actors I think are just brilliant, James Mason, Kirk Douglas twice, Malcolm McDowell…. To work with Stanley and know his history as a filmmaker, it was a tremendous invitation and a wonderful opportunity. Not just as an actor and an artist, but as a man, having the opportunity to work with somebody who is going to teach me about  filmmaking, who is going to teach me about writing, who is going to teach me about being a human being. This extraordinary experience, this brief moment that we have that we share on this planet, I think of all the people that I’ve met and worked with in my life, probably Stanley understood the brevity of time better than most.

How did you get the part and what was the audition process like?

There was a funny thing about Full Metal Jacket. You were supposed to send a videotape audition to an address in London. And I didn’t. It’s not that I couldn’t afford one, really, but I didn’t have the ambition to go find someone with a video camera or spend some money to hire a casting director  to videotape me, because video in 1984 was something that was not so readily available like it today. To tape yourself, you had to make a real investment of time and effort and money. And  I didn’t. I was busy working and I thought that things were coming to me pretty easily so I didn’t videotape myself and it was quite by accident…

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The “Barry Lyndon” Conspiracy!

Honoring Kubrick's intentions?

The works of Stanley Kubrick never failed to generate debate and, at times, deep-seeded controversy when they arrived in theaters, so it’s no surprise that they have generated almost as much debate (though for entirely different reasons) in their home video releases.

Kubrick was a perfectionist in all areas of his filmmaking, including presentation, the one arena over which he had very little control. He could and did set the desired specifications for proper projection but couldn’t enforce them or, given the realities of projection standards in the U.S. and elsewhere, even always count on theaters being conducive to following them. His preferred aspect ratio for his post-“2001” releases was 1.66:1, a standard format in Europe but not in the U.S., where most theaters routinely set non-anamorphic films at the 1.85:1 standard.

While Kubrick was alive, he insisted the DVD releases of his films be formatted at his preferred specifications. Even so, Warner Bros. was raked over the coals for their initial DVD release of his films, which simply reused old laserdisc transfers rather than freshly-mastered high-definition editions. Now there is a hue and cry from a small but vocal sector of the critical community over the Blu-ray release of “Barry Lyndon.” And the debate, not surprisingly, has gotten very passionate and a little personal.

The whole thing was kicked off when Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere (always good for explosions of indignation) blew a gasket over the specs on the Blu-ray cover, which listed the aspect ratio at 1.85:1: “storm the barricades!” MSN’s own Glenn Kenny, on his blog Some Came Running, tried to slow the rush to judgment by looking at the disc itself, which he found at first glance to be 1:66:1.

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Like Clockwork: Stanley Kubrick on Blu-ray

A Clockwork Orange: 40th Anniversary Edition (Warner)
Lolita (Warner)
Barry Lyndon (Warner)
Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection (Warner)

Few film directors have generated as much partisan devotion as Stanley Kubrick, a demanding creator whose control reaches to every detail of the finished film and his coolly removed style and exacting methods resulted in one masterpiece after another, many of them critically hammered upon release, all of them grown in stature with time and distance. He’s the perfectionist’s perfectionist and a director whose films offer a portrait of mankind as an animal defined by our capacity for violence, cruelty and destruction.

So it’s always news when his films are given an upgrade, be it a new special edition or format debut. This week we get both.

A Clockwork Orange (Warner), Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s futuristic satire, was the most controversial film in a career defined by pushing the envelope of controversy. With its ultraviolence, wicked black humor,  cynicism and darkly compelling hedonistic bully as the anti-hero (a hearty, energetic Malcolm McDowell), the film’s portrait of a society spiraled into slums and roving bands of violence hooligans provoked an outcry from politicians and social critics who suggested that the film was responsible for real-life violence in the wake of the film. In fact, it turned out to be quite prescient of gang culture, but that wasn’t necessarily Kubrick’s intent. He was grappling with the idea of free within society, even while suggesting that the primitive violence of sadistic street thugs is somehow a more pure state of being than the repression of destructive impulses that social living demands.

Those issues got lost in the media  controversy that in Britain became so heated that, fearing for the safety of his family, prompted Kubrick to withdraw the film from circulation in that country. It remained unavailable in any form in Britain for 28 years.

More on A Clockwork Orange: 40th Anniversary Edition, Lolita and Barry Lyndon at MSN Videodrone

“A.I. Artificial Intelligence” debuts on Blu-ray

Spielberg meets Kubrick

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Paramount)

Steven Spielberg meets Stanley Kubrick in this dark, visionary fairy tale, something like a cyber-punk “Pinocchio” with a robot boy who wants to be human despite the cruelty and hate he finds on his odyssey. It makes for a fascinating melding of sensibilities: the cold pessimism of Kubrick’s view of humanity’s self destruction warmed by Spielberg’s passionate belief in the power of love and faith in the human soul.

Haley Joel Osmet, so preternaturally removed from himself in “The Sixth Sense,” is the robot boy David, and he proves his abilities in a performance so controlled and so genuine that it’s been unfairly overlooked by many critics. Jude Law is the “love robot” Gigolo Joe, gliding on confidence and charm as he dances and traipses through the movie with a song in his neck. He’s a clockwork recreation of a Hollywood Lothario without a scheming circuit in his body: sex and innocence with a seductive sheen. Spielberg’s craft is impeccable and the challenge of meeting Kubrick’s story with his own sensibility (Spielberg wrote the script from Kubrick’s treatment and notes) has pushed him into new, somewhat scary territory: more cerebral, less hopeful, yet just as passionate. If the film seems to fall short of his ambition, perhaps it’s because he’s never set himself such an ambitious goal.

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DVDs for 6/16/09 – Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Zulawski’s First French Film

Arguably the most famous of Ingmar Bergman’s films and certainly his most iconic, The Seventh Seal is Bergman at his most allegorical. Max von Sydow, young and blond and heroic, is a disillusioned knight returned from the Crusades in a state of spiritual desperation: his faith has been shaken by senseless death and terrible cruelty he’s seen perpetrated in the name of a silent God. Coming home to find his own country ravaged by the Black Plague doesn’t help matters much and as he searches for some sign of a benevolent God, he plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot), personified as a cloaked figure with a grim white face. Gunnar Björnstrand is his skeptical squire, suspicious of religion that plays upon and encourages the blind fears of a superstitious population and cynical about a culture that values human life so cheaply. The landscape in the opening scenes mirrors the harsh reality of his existence: rocky, cold, with jagged cliffs that look torn out of the land, scrub grass hills with scraggly trees.


In the face of such heavy themes and harsh landscapes it’s easy to forget how cinematographer Gunnar Fischer brings the world alive with his painterly photography and overlook the warmth and hope shining through the doom. The sun comes out for a traveling juggler with a wife and child and the knight finds something worth dying for in this loving family. The beauty and the intensity of the film has been lost to the reputation over the years. Watching it again brings it back to life.

The Seventh Seal was one of Criterion’s initial DVD releases. This new special edition, on DVD and Blu-ray, is beautifully mastered from a a 2006 film restoration. It’s never looked so vivid on home video (especially the Blu-ray) and the clarity and intensity of the image grounds the themes in a palpable, solid world, giving the weight of life on the line to the philosophy discussed in the film. The new editions are supplemented by Marie Nyreröd’s feature-length 2006 documentary Bergman Island (featuring candid interviews with the director conducted four years before he died and Bergman 101, a 35-minute video essay on Bergman’s life and career by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie (illustrated by stills and film clips), plus the commentary recorded by Cowie for the original release and other supplements.

L’important c’est d’aimer (aka The Important Thing is to Love), the first French feature by Polish expatriate Andrzej Zulawski, debuts on American home video courtesy a gorgeous DVD from Mondo Vision, which includes commentary by and a 16-minute video interview with Zulawksi (the former in English, the latter in French with subtitles) and a elegantly designed digipak. The film itself is:

a romantic drama of frustrated desires, frail relationships and explosive passions directed with understated intimacy. Romy Schneider strips away the glamour to play an aging actress with a failed career and won a Cesar for her emotionally fragile performance. Italian leading man Fabio Testi is the photographer who wants more than the impersonal affair she offers and Klaus Kinski as at his most charming as a flamboyant actor.

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‘Dr. Strangelove’ – a screwball satire of mutually assured destruction

Stanley Kubrick’s First Strike

The funniest film ever made about nuclear holocaust, Stanley Kubrick’s screwball satire of Cold War posturing and mutually assured destruction didn’t begin as a comedy. The source novel for Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was Peter George’s “Red Alert,” a grave contemplation of the Cold War gone hot with a rogue nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Such a possibility seemed all too plausible in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.

The story remains the same: A paranoid head case of a general launches an anti-Soviet first strike with misguided patriotic zeal, a timid American president tries to work out a solution with an inebriated Soviet premier, and the president’s warmongering staff tries to turn disaster into opportunity with a modest proposal to just finish the job. Kubrick simply transformed a serious military thriller into a surreal farce of ideological hysteria and military arrogance. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”

Directing in a coolly precise style that director Barry Sonnenfeld once described as “absurdist realism,” Kubrick lets the absurdity slowly seep into the film. George C. Scott’s growling understatements as Gen. “Buck” Turgidson (“I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir”) and Sterling Hayden’s deadpan intensity as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (whose rants about fluoridation being a commie conspiracy to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids” are rooted in impotence) erupt into slapstick scuffles of international diplomacy. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!” admonishes President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers in milquetoast mode). “This is the war room!”

No stranger to multiple roles, Sellers takes on three characters: Muffley, British officer Lionel Mandrake (Ripper’s unflappable but noticeably alarmed executive officer) and the calculating weapons scientist Dr. Strangelove, played as a demented combination of Werner von Braun, Henry Kissinger and Dr. Mabuse in a perverted, purring German accent. His eyes flash as he contemplates Armageddon and his arm reflexively salutes “mein Führer” as talk of worldwide destruction brings him to a kind of orgasm.

The conflation of war and sex is there from the opening credits, where bombers refuel in scenes of mechanical copulation. In Dr. Strangelove, it seems all too plausible that it’s not politics but arrogance, machismo and an extreme act of sexual overcompensation that brings about the end of the world.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.