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Daily Reads: Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan’s Budding Alliance, Hollywood’s Mutual Fascination With True Crime, and More

Daily Reads: Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan's Budding Alliance, Hollywood's Mutual Fascination With True Crime, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical releases to you.

1. Their Next Round: A Profile of Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler.
In 2006, “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth film in the “Rocky” franchise, was released to general critical acclaim and high box office receipts, but the series itself was slowly losing relevance to a younger generation. But Ryan Coogler’s “Creed” brought the series back to the Millennials, and now Hollywood wants to know what Coogler and his star Michael B. Jordan, who fronted his previous film “Fruitvale Station,” will do next. New York Magazine’s writer-at-large Rembert Browne profiles Coogler and Jordan at the precipice of stardom.

“In our community, the African-American community, for the folks paying attention — he was the next lead dude. He was a known thing,” says Coogler, who cast Jordan in his debut movie, the 2013 Sundance hit “Fruitvale Station,” about Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old Oakland man killed by a police officer in 2009. Jordan, sitting next to him on a couch, nods with a slight smile. When they first met, Coogler mistakenly assumed Jordan had already played starring roles. “I talked to him, and I just knew there was a movie that he had made — that he carried — that I hadn’t heard of,” says Coogler. “And he was like, Nah.” Jordan buckles over laughing and hits the director on the shoulder. “His was the first one!” says Jordan. Coogler, 29, grew up in Oakland and Richmond, California. His mother was a community organizer and his father a juvenile-hall probation counselor. He was an athlete and would eventually attend Saint Mary’s College of California on a football scholarship, but he always knew there was another side to him. “The other day, I asked my fiancée, who’s known me since I was 13, ‘Were we jocks?'” says Coogler. “And she was like, ‘I was, but I’m not sure what you were.’ Because I also had friends that were full-fledged thugging and had kicked sports to the curb, but then I also liked comic books and movies.” An English professor at Saint Mary’s encouraged him to try screenwriting, and he went on to USC film school, where he made a series of award-winning short films. While Coogler was finishing up at USC and starting work on “Fruitvale,” his father was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular condition. “He was battling health issues my whole life, but this one was crazy — his muscles were atrophying,” says Coogler. “I knew my dad when he was young and strong and tough. He was a big ‘Rocky’ fan, so growing up I would watch the movies on TV with him, and he would always cry.” He’s told some version of this same story a number of times over the past few weeks, but from the way he crouched over to explain, I got the sense that it still isn’t easy. “When my dad was 9, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. They would watch TV together, and at the time, ‘Rocky II’ was always on. So watching ‘Rocky’ movies with me, he would be reacting to the movies, but also to memories of his mom. Our relationship had changed so much, and now I got to take care of him. So I came up with this idea of something similar happening to his hero, and that’s how I came up with the idea for ‘Creed.'” (In “Creed,” Stallone’s Rocky is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.) Thankfully, Coogler’s father has recovered. “This Thanksgiving was weird, bro,” Coogler says, smiling. “It was great, but also different, know what I’m saying? My family lives in the Bay Area, and everybody wanted to go see the movie. After dinner we all hopped in the whips and went to the theater right there in Richmond, bought hella tickets. And my dad — I told you, a big ‘Rocky’ fan — had made ‘Creed’ shirts. So everybody wore the ‘Creed’ shirts that he’d designed.”

2. Sean Penn, El Chapo, and Hollywood’s Mutual Fascination With True Crime.
You may have heard that actor Sean Penn scored an interview with drug lord El Chapo, which our own Eric Kohn has called Penn’s “best work in years,” right before Chapo’s capture. Hollywood has a long, fascinating history with organized crime, and there has developed a mutual respect between movies and criminals. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday explores Hollywood’s mutual fascination with true crime stories and those who perpetrate them.

Perhaps the most valuable things organized crime and Hollywood have given each other, of course, are stories. From Jesse James and Capone — whose underlings reportedly consulted with “Scarface” screenwriter Ben Hecht — to “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Goodfellas,” the exploits of criminals and outlaws have been Hollywood’s most reliable fodder, with the miscreants themselves being the movies’ most ardent audience. As “Godfather” author Mario Puzo told Vanity Fair’s Nick Tosches in 1997, “The word ‘godfather’ had never been used in a Mafia sense.” But after the book and the movie were released, he said, “they even started calling themselves godfathers. It’s a fairy tale.” In the case of Penn and Guzmán, that fairy tale has taken a pointedly surreal turn, the result not just of Hollywood’s congenital fascination with tough guys, but also a media culture in which heroes and villains are now empowered to be their own Brothers Grimm. Whereas 1931’s “The Public Enemy” was adapted from an (unpublished) novel by two former colleagues of Capone’s, and both “Goodfellas” and the book that inspired it were written by journalist Nicholas Pileggi, such formalities are laughably obsolete in the era of Twitter, citizen journalism and PR-savvy self-branding. When Guzmán reached out to actress Kate del Castillo, who had previously tweeted supportive words for the drug kingpin, he was simply following the new rules of Controlling Your Narrative, whereby the subject neatly bypasses pesky institutions such as law enforcement and journalism and tells his story directly to the people or by way of an admiring interlocutor. In seeking to burnish his public image through a great-man biopic, Guzmán was following in the footsteps of Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, who enlisted director D.W. Griffith to act as his cinematic Boswell (in “The Life of General Villa,” which Griffith didn’t direct, the subject played himself). Or maybe Guzmán wanted to commission a big-screen version of a narcocorrido, the lilting Mexican folk song wherein notorious drug dealers and murderers are romanticized as populist heroes. Whatever Guzmán had in mind in terms of genre, he was confident in the knowledge that Hollywood loves a colorful antihero, especially one who has built an empire beyond the reach of the law. It’s safe to assume that he was hoping to establish a persona on a par with “Scarface” — the 1983 remake starring Al Pacino that has been elevated to pop culture myth — rather than “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” which opened last year to near-universal indifference.

3. Still Believing in “The X-Files.”
 Our own Sam Adams recently reported on how the first episode of the new “X-Files” revival was quite terrible, but for die-hard fans, it’s still not going to be enough to keep them away. Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson attempts to give fans hope not to give up hope that the truth is always out there.

If you watched “The X-Files” all the way through for the first time in the ’90s, you may not have paid special attention to who wrote which episodes. But, inspired partially by comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s re-watch podcast, “The X-Files Files,” I only started watching the show in 2014, and everyone I knew was full of opinions as to which episodes out of the 202 that originally aired were most worth my time. With the exception of some ambitious, mythology-heavy two-parters, the clear winners were Wong and the Morgan brothers. Wong and Glen Morgan were integral in creating the first two seasons of the show but left during Season 3 thanks to a lucrative offer to create their own show. The pair returned for Season 4 to co-write, among other things, one of the best and creepiest episodes in “X-Files” history: “Home.” Morgan and Wong are responsible for many, many classic “X-Files” tories that set the tone for the entire series, including “Squeeze,” “Ice,” “Beyond the Sea,” and Wong’s directorial debut “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.” When Wong and Morgan’s writing credit crops up in an “X-Files” opening, you know you’re in for a solid hour of television. But when Darin Morgan’s name crops up, you know you’re in for something otherworldly. The younger Morgan only wrote four episodes of “The X-Files” and they’re all absolute gems: “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “War of the Coprophages,” and “Jose Chung’s from Outer Space.” Both “Bruckman” and “Jose Chung” were the No. 1 answers I got when I asked “X-Files” fans to name their favorite episode, and the former earned Morgan the only writing Emmy “The X-Files” received in nine seasons. Morgan’s ability to pair the absurd with deeply poignant storytelling is what makes his episodes unforgettable. His upcoming episode for the reboot is titled “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Man” and promises to be just as bonkers as anything he’s written.

4. Going Beyond the Verdict: “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson.”
FX’s new drama “American Crime Story” will premiere this February, and its first season will focus exclusively on the highly publicized O.J. Simpson trial. The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff sits down with the principals behind the series to discuss the series and the trial itself.

Do you think there’s a potential for controversy because this series doesn’t take a position on Mr. Simpson’s guilt or innocence? Is there a risk in tying him to the civil-rights movement of the present day?

 All that we can hope to do is to get people talking about it. Revisit it, to look at it. “Where were you when — ?” And what do you feel, in the context of what’s going on now? What do we do about it? That’s all I think we can hope to accomplish by revisiting this.

 “_____ tha Police,” remember that song? And remember how upset people were? They were like, “You’re going to have people go vigilante on cops.” I thought “Straight Outta Compton” was really a powerful tale, because it finally put into a movie why that song was so important. What that song did is it give an outlet to the frustrations we feel at police brutality. So instead of us going out and shooting cops in the street, you got to listen to that song, chant with that song. And then you were over it and you moved on with your day. That’s what we all want to do as actors and filmmakers. Give people something that happened, and let them dissect it.

5. Techno-Idiocy on Network Television: A Takedown of “CSI: Cyber.”
There are plenty of leaps of logic that people accept for the purposes of drama, but when it comes to technology, there are leaps and then there are complete separations from reality. At Ars Technica, Sean Gallagher examines the myriad technical flaws in “CSI: Cyber.”

There are lots of cringeworthy technology moments on television, especially when the words “hacking” and “cyber” are introduced into the plot. But of all the broadcast and cable networks, CBS is the biggest purveyor of techno-idiocy, proving again and again that none of the producers behind its stable of pseudo-procedural dramas has a clue about how anything on that crazy thing called the Internet works. “NCIS” set the benchmark with its two-people-on-one-keyboard-to-out-hack-a-hacker scene, but then the network doubled down and launched “CSI:Cyber,” which returned last night. The future of “Cyber” is currently in doubt. CBS has pulled its timeslot to make room for a midseason replacement, so there may well be only a few more opportunities for the latest “CSI” franchise to cyber-scare network viewers with plots loosely based on something producers read about on Yahoo Answers. OK, to be fair, “Cyber’s” writers are at least occasionally inspired by actual vulnerabilities that have been ripped from the headlines. It’s just often these headlines are several years old. Throughout its run thus far, the show has offered hat-tips to real security researchers. An episode late last year involved a “jackpotting” hack of ATMs at “Barnaby Bank,” named for a security researcher who demonstrated that vulnerability — Barnaby Jack. Jack would afterward serve as director of embedded device security research at IOActive until his death in 2013. But the road to entertainment hell is paved with good intentions. With the realization we might only have a few more months around Orbital HQ watercoolers with “CSI: Cyber,” we decided it would be a good idea for me to check in on the show formally. We considered doing so live, but from the very moment last night’s episode started, it was clear there was going to be no way to keep up with the technological errors in real-time — almost everything was wrong (and I’m not even counting the hoverboard product placement and throwaway Emmitt Smith cameo). Frankly, it just got worse and worse as the show rolled toward its howler of a conclusion.

6. Why “Interstellar” Won the Visual Effects Oscar and Not “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
So, visual effects artist Todd Vaziri along with his wife created a formula to predict the winner of the visual effects Oscar, which has effectively predicted the winner from 1989 to 2013, but come 2014, the formula came up short. On his blog, Vaziri examines why his formula failed to predict “Guardians of the Galaxy” as the winner instead of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.

We built the formula to demystify the core values of the Academy voter. We realized a predominant and consistent value is what we define as the “prestige” factor. Academy members tend to vote for films directed by experienced filmmakers; inventive, beautiful movies that are regarded as “important.” Academy voters want to feel smart and forward-thinking, not just simply rewarding popular, popcorn films. Critics saw “Interstellar” as flawed but beautiful. It featured the much-loved Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (both Oscar winners) and a respected director, Christopher Nolan. The visual effects were (arguably) not necessarily groundbreaking, but the gorgeous imagery visual effects created by the effects team was one of the reasons the film was highly regarded. In the abstract, the visual effects in Nolan’s film also had a heavy ‘practical’ emphasis, pushed by the film’s marketing, which ingratiates itself to the Academy’s largely older voter base. The film was certainly considered the most prestigious movie nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar in 2014. We represent this “prestige” factor in a few ways in The Predictinator: the Rotten Tomatoes score which measures critical acclaim, total number of Academy Award nominations, and Actor Prestige (if the lead actor has previously won an Oscar). By our numbers, “Interstellar” had a lot going for it, but didn’t earn it enough points to beat “Guardians’s” final score. Its Tomatometer value, while a respectable 72%, was the lowest in the category with crowd-pleasing superhits scoring higher. The film earned five Oscar nominations, which are hugely important to the Predictinator score. Even its star, McConaughey, had an Oscar under his belt (Actor Prestige). The Academy has also historically favored movies with creatures — especially creatures that talk — in the visual effects category. The Predictinator accounts for that, and in this area Nolan’s film suffered. On the other hand, the Academy rarely looks kindly on any sort of sequel; a sequel is almost directly at odds with “prestige,” since they are routinely looked upon as derivative, unoriginal, and cash-grabby. In this case, “Interstellar” benefited.

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