Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Decades from now, when I look back at this particular time of my life, there will be one word that sums up my impressions as I enjoy all the unique opportunities that come my way at the moment:
Saturday was made up of equal parts hiking all over E3, work on a project with Harry Lime, a friend's birthday party, and a really wonderful date that didn't end till the first light of day. The one thing missing was sleep. I didn't lie down to sleep until after 10:00 in the morning on Sunday, knowing full well there was someplace I was supposed to be at 1:00 that afternoon.
So of course I blew the alarm off completely. When I finally opened my eyes, my phone was ringing. Before I could process what was happening, I was out of bed and on the other side of the room, the phone out of the cradle and to my ear, still asleep but somehow standing.
"Were you asleep?"
I didn't recognize the voice. With that little sleep, I wouldn't have recognized my own mother's voice. I growled some response, and there must have been something terrifying in my voice because the person on the other end of the line shrieked and dropped their phone, cutting the connection.
Before hanging up, I checked to see if I had any messages, and felt my heart skip a beat when I simultaneously heard "You have... one... new message" and saw the time.
I cursed as I dialed my code to retrive my message, knowing it was going to be someone asking where I was, knowing I'd screwed my chance to see...
"Hi, Moriarty," said a familiar and thankfully cheerful voice, cutting through the fog of exhausted panic. "I hope it's not a problem, but I'd like to push our thing today from 1:00 to 2:00."
I think I took the Cahuenga Pass on two tires as I raced out of Hollywood and into Universal City, pausing at Gate One to explain that the "SHOOT ON SIGHT" poster with my face on it didn't apply on Sundays, finally having to resort to a curare based compound administered by blowdart to gain admission to the Lot.
Fate must have been smiling at me. I found a great space on the side of the Alfred Hitchcock Theater, one of the best rooms in town to see a film. As I looked in the front doors at the lobby, I flashed on when I saw JURASSIC PARK there a few weeks before it opened. Seeing that T-Rex attack with a crowd of unsuspecting viewers, before any footage had been shown, is still one of my favorite summer movie memories. Hell, working at Universal during the summer of '93 was one of my favorite summers in general, thanks to the people I met there and the fun we had. When I think of the Universal lot, it's tied to thoughts of summer, no matter what.
Directly across from the Hitchcock is the front of the Henry Mancini building, where the mixing stages are, and when I stepped into the lobby, it was exactly 2:00. I had maybe ten seconds to catch my breath before the door to one of the stages opened and Lloyd Levin strode out.
Lloyd and his partner Lawrence Gordon have brought us films as disparate as BOOGIE NIGHTS and MYSTERY MEN in the past, but this is the largest production for them to date. With the support of Paramount and Mutual Film Company, they're working overtime right now to make sure that when June 15th hits, Lara Croft is ready for her debut adventure.
So far, the thing I've noticed about the summer films of 2001 is that the closer we get to them, the more we realize we didn't have them pegged right. PEARL HARBOR, the one sure thing, is already taking on water as hostile press reactions roll in, and no matter what money it makes, it's guaranteed to divide audience response. MOULIN ROUGE is the same way, but without a 45 minute action sequence to guarantee ticket sales. It's the stuff that looked like business as usual that's starting to look interesting, like JURASSIC PARK III (man, I love those pteranadons in the new trailer... sweeeeet...) and AI (dismissed by many early on due to the PINOCCHIO comparisons, but fascinating now that the first images are being released).
One of the big question marks for many film fans is TOMB RAIDER, and when I was first asked if I wanted to take a look at some of the film, albeit in very rough form, I readily agreed. I was a big fan of the shooting script for the movie, surprised at how strong the character material between Lara and her father was, impressed by the casting of Noah Taylor (ALMOST FAMOUS, FLIRTING) and Chris Barrie (RED DWARF) as Lara's support team, positively thrilled with the idea of Jon Voight actually playing Lord Croft.
As the trailers started being released, I remember liking much of the footage, but not really caring for the way the trailer was cut. To me, it was that same kind of slam-bang post-Bruckheimer hummingbird on crack bullshit that makes so much of what passes as "action" right now seem... well... dull. I thougth Angelina looked great, and there's been artwork like the billboard we first put up last weekend that I think captures the spirit of Lara Croft perfectly. I didn't really have any reason to trust Simon West, not being the biggest fan of his first few major films (CON AIR, THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER), but I knew he'd been a big part of the last draft of the script, that he really believed in this film.
Bottom line... I was nervous as I greeted Lloyd, who I've had the pleasure of meeting several times in the past. He's a compact, remarkably calm presence, even when under the intense pressure of a production like TOMB RAIDER, still working to coordinate the finishing dates on material from six different FX houses, even when working to finish the recording of a new score by Graeme Revell to replace an old score by Michael Kamen, a process that's taken more than the ten days that was recently rumored on a number of sites. Lloyd seems unfazed by it all, as friendly as ever, and as we headed upstairs to one of the Avid bays where the film is being cut, we chatted back and forth about a number of films, both in release and coming soon. It's fun to see someone actually excited about other summer movies even as he preps one of his own. Lloyd's got such a simple enthusiasm when you talk to him about the projects he's working on that you want to believe the best. You want to believe that this is going to be a monster hit, a great ride. That's what made me nervous. I knew I'd be honest with Lloyd, and no one ever likes to be the bearer of bad news.
In that upstairs office, I saw a rough version of reel one of the film, the first fifteen or twenty minutes. The title sequence I saw, a CG fly-through similar to the opening to 1989's BATMAN, has been scrapped, and Lloyd tells me something totally different will be in place for the final film. I hope so. There's so many great images and designs and details in this film that the opening titles could be rich with texture, setting the stage. If I'm not mistaken, Richard Greenberg is working on the titles, and that's good news. Like Maurice Binder or Saul Bass, Greenberg has made a career of creating vivid graphic sequences that encapsulate a film or that have an effect on an audience, like ALTERED STATES or THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, also creating memorable visual effects for films like PREDATOR, where he created the creature's distinctive POV. Most famously, he was the man who created those great opening credits for SUPERMAN - THE MOVIE.
At any rate, it was "R/Greenberg Associates" that was watermarked on the footage at the tail end of the credit sequence, starting in tight on that shot of Angelina hanging upside down. She's waiting for something. When she's ready, she drops from her spot, twisting and flipping on the way down, landing perfectly, poised, ready for trouble.
Right away, I noticed that it wasn't cut the same as it was in the trailer. Little things, but there was a refinement to it that made a difference. Lara's got her eye on a prize, and as she moves through this seemingly-ancient room, she stays focused. So focused, in fact, that she almost lets SIMON sneak up on her.
You've seen SIMON in the ads. He's the robot, one half of Lara's Kato in this film. Remember in the PINK PANTHER films when Inspector Clouseau would be randomly attacked by his henchman Kato? Well, SIMON is the physical half of the team that keeps Lara trained and ready, and in this fun opening sequence, SIMON does his stone-cold best to kill Lara, and she has to do about eight types of damage just to slow SIMON down.
And watching the way the film was cut, I started to smile. Because it wasn't cut the way I expected at all. In fact, there's not a hint of that fast-cutting, ADD-friendly spastic style I was so worried about. Instead, TOMB RAIDER has an almost classic action-movie rhythm to it, and by the end of that first scene, we know quite a bit about this hard-bodied, hard-boiled beauty with the twin automatics. We know she does this because she wants to, not because she has to. We know that she is inventive in a tight spot and doesn't just rely on firepower to solve something. On the other hand, we learn that she's comfortable letting firepower solve as much as necessary. We learn that Bryce (Taylor) is the other half of Lara's Kato, her tech guy, the brain behind the various high-tech gadgetry she employs. We also meet Hilary (Barrie), her butler and conscience, the only one who pushes Lara in any way.
All of this is done quickly, with wit and flair, and her near-nudity during some of the sequence made me flash on BARBARELLA's memorable opening. It's done with a wink, and then we're off and running. This film doesn't waste any time. Wilson presents Lara with a number of options for her next job, but she's in a funk. It's almost May 15th, the anniversary of the day her father died. Even worse, it's a week before a major astronomical event that's directly related to the work Lord Croft was doing, meaning Lara's missing him more than ever.
This is one of the most important sequences in the film, because if we're going to give a shit about Lara Croft on any level, it's going to have to be through her relationship with her father. One of the things I like about the script is that there are no Indiana Joneses in this film. Everyone's a Belloq, even Lara. This is a film populated by people living in shades of grey. Because she's not a traditional hero, our sympathy has to be engaged by Lara on some other level. Rachel Appleton plays Young Lara in the flashbacks we see to her childhood, to that moment when Lord Croft was still alive. That moment is so important to Lara because it was after the loss of her mother, but there was still order to the world. She still had a father explaining the mysteries of things to her, and Voight's just right in the footage I saw, part teacher, part father, warm but not cloying. Lara's even erected the tent from that moment on her estate, over a plaque in memory of her father.
Then, finally, we meet the film's primary antagonists. Even here, though, we're not given someone who is overtly evil. Instead, the Illuminati are faceless old white men, anonymous and ashen as they address Powell (Ian Glenn) and his assistant Pimms (Julian Rhind-Tutt), asking if they will be ready for a special event that we quickly learn is that same astronomical event Lord Croft was working on. In the script, this scene has to cover a lot of ground expositionally, but it's been shot and cut in such a way that it does it all deftly, quickly, far more visual than verbal.
Then we're back to Lara and the one sequence out of what I saw that just didn't work. Lara's dreaming of her father, dreaming of the upcoming event, and suddenly wakes up and goes prowling in her house, somehow drawn to the ticking of a clock hidden in a secret room several floors away. Right now, this moment is awkward, a leap of faith on the part of any viewer, and it comes at what is a pretty crucial moment. This is Lara's call to adventure, if we're following the Joseph Campbell model. This is where she's set off on her quest to find an ancient artifact that has the power, if used at the right place and the right time, to give her control over time and possibly even life and death itself.
Little does she know, this is the same artifact that Powell has promised to deliver within the week. And the reason it's started ticking is because it wants someone... anyone... to use it.
Just as I was really getting into it, just as the film was really getting started, reel one ended, and Lloyd and I headed back down, back to the Henry Mancini stages, to watch the work being done on reel 4. As we were entering the lobby, we walked right into Stuart Baird, taller than me by at least a head, sporting an oversized cowboy hat, and I had my first real geek attack of the day. Baird's a great action editor, and his style was imitated by everyone in the wake of films like SUPERMAN and LETHAL WEAPON. There's a real wit to the way he cuts a sequence, an old-school elegance, and as soon as I saw him, I knew why the SIMON sequence had been so much fun, why it felt so much different than the typical Avid-crazy stuff we see time and time again.
Lloyd introduced me, and we immediately fell into a conversation about the recent SUPERMAN - THE MOVIE DVD and the documentaries that are included, in which Baird and director Richard Donner emerge as the two most entertaining speakers of the bunch. As Stuart elaborated on some of the stories from the DVD, we were joined by producer Colin Wilson, who worked on SUPERMAN right on the cusp on turning 20, right as he was getting started in the business. A few wicked Salkind stories later, we headed into the stage to get a look at one of the film's biggest action sequences.
By now, you may have seen the Pepsi commercials featuring the Stone Monkeys trying to stop Lara on her motorcycle. If you are looking at that ad and trying to gaugue the quality of the FX in the film, let me save you a little trouble: can't be done. The commercial is clever in terms of the way it's staged, but it isn't anywhere near what you'll actually see in the theater. The Mill, the English FX house started by Ridley and Tony Scott, already a major player thanks to GLADIATOR, has done some remarkable character work here. There were several shots that I was sure had to be actual practical FX, but in each case I was wrong. The Stone Monkeys are a credible threat, and they're just the first level of menace in the scene. More impressive are the huge stone gryphons, lions with massive eagle wings, who rip into the entire group of adventurers unlucky enough to be there as the temple comes to life. Here again, there was a noticeable charm to the FX that gave the sequence a great sense of build. It wasn't just gag, gag, gag, gag, gag, gag. Instead, the geography of the action was clear, sharp, and the gags seemed to build with some actual subtlety, even in the midst of chaos and noise. I got my first glimpse of Daniel Craig as Alex, a sometimes-associate of Lara's who is even more morally slippery than she is, and as Lloyd spoke of Craig, his genuine admiration for Craig's work was evident, calling him "an amazing actor."
And there in the center of it all is Angelina Jolie. Lara Croft herself. And how is she? She's totally believable. She is the video game heroine come to life. In the opening SIMON sequence and again here, she's never just portrayed as a dumb action hero or a girl with a gun. Instead, she's genuinely tough, and you can see her giving it everything she's got. Every move, every run, every flip, every volley of gunfire, Angelina believes in this stuff. When the gryphons charge, you can't help but flash back to her training with SIMON thanks to the size and shape of the things, and we see those early training sequences pay off.
Before we got too far into the sequence, though, the time came for me to leave. I was sorry to leave, too. Both of the segments of film I saw left me hungry for more. Does that mean the film's going to work? Well... no, actually. Not automatically. We won't know if it all comes together until the first week of June, when they start screening this for junketeers. Until then, Lloyd and Larry and Stuart Baird and the rest of the talented team working to get this ready in time will be hard at work in their war room on the Paramount lot, or in the mixing stages at Universal.
What it does mean is that the stuff I saw is working, and it's indicative of the approach they're taking to the material, finally making a film based on a video game that remembers to create flesh and blood characters to inhabit this hyperreal world. I haven't even gotten into the contributions of cinematographer or the production design team or anything, all of which go a long way towards selling this world of Lara's, a world that seems sleek and sexy and stylish.
As I drove away from the studio, I realized I wasn't tired anymore, not at all. Instead, I felt that old familiar summer feeling, happy and excited, and I realized that it was TOMB RAIDER that left me feeling that way, full of hope, optimistic that it's going to work and work well.
And if this is what 20 minutes does to me without being finished, then I can't wait for the finished product. Until then...