Review: ‘Cut Throat City,’ starring Shameik Moore, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza Gonzalez and Ethan Hawke

September 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City”

Directed by The RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans in 2005 and 2006, the crime drama “Cut Throat City” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A group of young men turn to a life of crime when they have problems finding jobs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Culture Audience: “Cut Throat City” will appeal mostly to people who like typical “gangster” movies that have a lot of violence and a mediocre plot.

T.I. in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

How’s this for an unoriginal and tired idea for a movie? Poor people (who are usually people of color) become criminals because they’re desperate for money. And there’s a crime lord that they have to answer to who might or might not turn against them. “Cut Throat City,” despite its talented cast and an effort to be a somewhat stylish-looking film, still serves up this recycled and uninspired concept in a movie that doesn’t really do anything for the genre of gangster films. In fact, “Cut Throat City” (at 132 minutes long) gets a little too bloated and the plot a little too ridiculous for it to be considered a movie that will reach cult status as an undiscovered gem.

“Cut Throat City” (directed by The RZA, who’s best known as a founding member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan) could have used better editing to cut out the parts of the movie that drag before the movie’s big climactic scene. However, the screenplay by Paul “P.G.” Cuschieri is largely to blame for the most cringeworthy aspects of “Cut Throat City,” including the dumb dialogue and some of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie’s depiction of police investigations in a big American city.

New Orleans is the city where the movie takes place, in 2005 and 2006, with Hurricane Katrina as the catalyst for a lot of the angst and criminal activity in the story. “Cut Throat City” begins before Hurricane Katrina happened, when four working-class friends in their early 20s are getting ready for the wedding of one of the guys in the group. All four of them live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which is considered one of the most financially deprived and roughest parts of the city.

The groom is James (played by Shameik Moore), who prefers to go by the nickname Blink, who is an aspiring writer/illustrator of graphic novels. Blink’s three closest friends are Miracle (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.), who’s an impulsive hothead; Junior (played by Keean Johnson), who often gets teased because he’s a white guy who tries to be more like his African American friends; and mild-mannered and quiet Andre (played by Denzel Whitaker), who’s Blink’s best man and an aspiring jazz musician. (He plays the trumpet.)

Blink is getting married to his girlfriend Demyra (played by Kat Graham), who is the mother of their son, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. At the wedding, Demyra’s mother (played by Stacie Davis) gives Demyra some marriage advice: “It’s not about happiness. It’s about meaning. Find the meaning and happiness will come later.” That’s this movie’s idea of a “pep talk,” which is supposed to indicate to viewers that many of the people in this movie have a pessimistic view on life.

Demyra and Blink are actually happy together, and the wedding goes smoothly. The honeymoon is another story, because Hurricane Katrina hits within a few days after the wedding. Even before the hurricane, the main problem in Blink and Demyra’s relationship is that Blink is having a hard time finding work as a graphic novelist. And now that he’s a married man, he’s really expected to contribute income to help pay the bills. Even though Blink has an associate’s degree from college and he attended Tulane University, his college education won’t help him get his dream job as a graphic novelist.

Blink has been working on a concept for a graphic novel called “Cut Throat City.” He gets a meeting with a condescending publishing executive named Peter Felton (played by Joel David Moore), who starts off by looking at Blink’s work and calling it mostly “derivative.” Peter does see one illustration that he likes, so he asks Blink who his influences are. Blink replies by listing Charles Schulz, Gary Larson and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Peter then says in an exasperated tone that by “influences” he meant who are the influences in Blink’s life.

Peter also asks Blink what kind of audience he wants for “Cut Throat City.” Blink says he “never really thought about it.” Peter responds, “The first thing you think about is your audience.” Blink then says, “If we only focus on our markets, then a cartoon wouldn’t be anything more than a cheap, dim commodity that will never change.”

When Peter says he doesn’t know where Blink could’ve gotten that idea, Blink responds that it was Peter who actually said it at an anime expo in 1990. “I got a transcript from the library,” Blink adds. “Fair enough,” replies Peter, who’s obviously done with Blink at point. He then coldly dismisses Blink from his office and tells an assistant to bring in the next person.

It’s one of many rejections that Blink gets as an aspiring graphic novelist. Andre tries to make money as a street musician, but it’s barely enough to be considered pocket change. Miracle and Junior are also unemployed. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t show them looking for any jobs they can get. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, so the job market has dried up in many ways, but these four friends just seem like they’ve given up trying to find work.

To make matters worse, Blink is too proud to accept financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As several weeks go by and things get more financially desperate for Blink and Demyra, she’s had enough of Blink refusing money from FEMA, and she tells Blink that they have to apply for FEMA aid. When they get to the FEMA office, their application is denied since they don’t need housing, and they’re told that homeless people are getting priority for the financial aid. And to add insult to injury, Blink and Demyra also aren’t eligible because they live in the Ninth Ward.

This FEMA rejection is a reason for Blink to feel angry at “the system,” which is why he eventually goes along with Miracle’s idea to start working for Blink’s relative Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris), who’s a local gangster. (T.I., who’s also known as a hitmaking rapper in real life, is wearing makeup in the movie that makes Cousin look like he has a skin condition like vitiligo.) Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre start dealing drugs for Cousin. But since they’re new to drug dealing, they mess things up and end up owing money to Cousin.

To show how vicious and unforgiving he is, Cousin makes the four guys watch as an unlucky man who has angered Cousin is tortured by having a wild raccoon attack the guy’s genitals. It’s not explicitly shown in the film, but it’s implied that this happened. The man is shown in the aftermath almost doubled over in pain with blood on the crotch area of his pants when he’s thrown out by Cousin and his henchmen.

Cousin and his group of thugs also force wild raccoons to fight each other in cages. And one of the main characters has a beloved dog, which predictably gets shot and killed by a vengeful Cousin during a fight scene. For anyone who hates seeing animal cruelty depicted on screen, it might be best to avoid this movie or close your eyes during these scenes.

Knowing that Cousin could also make their lives hell if they don’t come up with the money they owe him, the four friends decide to rob a local casino. And then one casino robbery turns into more, as they blow their money on strip clubs and gambling. All of these robbery scenes are completely ludicrous because the guys walk into the casino together wearing matching dark hoodies (automatically calling attention themselves) and they make little effort to disguise their faces, unless you consider wearing see-through nylon stockings on your face a “disguise.”

The casinos are also very crowded and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. And yet, the movie wants viewers to believe that these wannabe gangsters are clever enough not to get caught. After one robbery, which resulted in a big shootout with police and the theives’ getaway van being riddled with bullet holes, the four guys just trade in the van for a Dodge car in good condition. What used car dealer in their right mind would trade a car that’s in good shape for a bullet-damaged piece of junk?

“Cut Throat City” also makes the same stupid mistake that’s in a lot of badly written crime movies that take place in a big city: Only one cop is investigating the case. For a series of casino robberies in a city as big as New Orleans, it’s completely unrealistic to have only one investigator. And this cop also happens to look like a model/actress. Her name is Lucinda Valencia (played by Eiza Gonzalez), who has the thankless job of going into dangerous and sketchy areas by herself numerous times during the investigation, with no sign of a cop partner or backup anywhere.

There are also some other supporting players in this muddled and messy saga: Recently elected city councilman Jackson Sims (played by Ethan Hawke), who’s a former police officer and a very corrupt politician; Courtney (played by Rob Morgan), a sleazy barber who’s a confidential informant; and The Saint (played by Terrence Howard), a smooth-talking, bow-tie-wearing gangster who has criminal authority over Cousin.

Also part of the story, in a small role, is Rev. Sinclair Stewart (played by Isaiah Washington), who takes bribes to conduct funeral services for people who died under suspicious circumstances and don’t have a medical exam or death certificate. The bribes he takes include payment for forged death certificates. And somewhere in this jumbled story, Blink reunites with his estranged father Lawrence (played by Wesley Snipes), who abandoned Blink when Blink was a child.

“Cut Throat City” also has some bizarre references to “The Wizard of Oz.” When Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre first go to meet with Cousin about working for him, Cousin says that his headquarters is like Oz. He compares Junior to the Tin Man, Andre to the Cowardly Lion, Miracle to the Scarecrow and Blink to Dorothy. Later in the movie, The Saint covers the young robbers’ heads in ski masks and tells them, “There’s no place like home.”

Speaking of the lines in this movie, people will be rolling their eyes at how corny some of the dialogue is. In one scene, Courtney tells Lucinda that local thugs “will shoot you in a crack cocaine heartbeat.” In another scene, Cousin says about the man who is left sobbing after the raccoon torture: “Two things I can’t stand: a lying-ass woman and a crying-ass man.” If this is Gangster Poetry 101, no thank you.

And in another scene, Cousin and The Saint have a meeting, where Cousin says to him in a semi-monologue that sounds like it was written by someone who thinks this is how black gangsters are supposed to talk: “We’re too much alike: greedy-ass motherfuckers. That’s why they can take all the opportunity away from us. They can flood us, jail us, try to kill us, but they can never kill our greed. That’s why we’ll pimp, rap, sling dope, cheat or steal, even it’s from each other.”

“Cut Throat City” has a twist at the end that’s meant to make the movie look like more artistic than it really is. There’s an end-credits scene that doesn’t really add much to the conclusion of this very predictable and substandard story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of how the movie was filmed, and the movie is well-cast with good actors, but the director needed to make better choices in editing. Ultimately, it’s the weak and trite screenplay that makes “Cut Throat City” a movie a disappointment that doesn’t offer anything exciting or innovative.

Well Go USA released “Cut Throat City” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ team untangle secrets of their groundbreaking movie

October 6, 2018

by Carla Hay

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Jake Johnson, Lauren Velez, Shameik Moore, Brian Tyree Henry Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

The animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was one of the most talked-about revelations at the 2018 edition of New York Comic Con in New York City. Not only were fans given a huge surprise treat by seeing the first 35 minutes of the film before the panel discussion took place, but those in the audience who saw the sneak preview were also raving about it. Simply put: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (which opens in theaters on December 14, 2018) has the makings of being an award-winning hit.

The movie also represents the first time on the big screen that Spider-Man will be played by characters other than Peter Parker. The main Spider-Man in “Into the Spider-Verse” is Miles Morales, a half-Puerto Rican, half-African American high schooler from Brooklyn, who almost reluctantly becomes the masked webslinger under the mentorship of Parker. The trailers for the movie indicate that Morales’ love interest Gwen Stacy will also take on the persona of Spider-Gwen, plus there are other variations of Spider-Man in this movie’s alternate universe. (No spoilers here.)

After getting rapturous applause following the sneak preview, several members of the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” team took to the stage for a discussion panel. They included Shameik Moore (voice of Miles Morales); Jake Johnson (voice of Peter Parker); Lauren Velez (voice of Rio Morales, Miles’ mother); Brian Tyree Henry (voice of Jefferson Davis, Miles’ father); producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; and directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey. Here is what they said:

Christopher Miller, Phil Lord, Jake Johnson, Shameik Moore, Lauren Velez, Brian Tyree Henry, Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Phil and Chris, how did you get involved in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”?

Lord: When Sony came to us and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do Spider-Man as an animated movie?” And the first thing we thought was, “Yeah, that would be awesome to see a comic book come to life, but wouldn’t it be the seventh Spider-Man movie? It would have to feel like something super-fresh.” So we said we wouldn’t want to do it unless it was Miles Morales’ story.

Miller: It seemed like they really wanted us to do this, so we could make some demands. And so, we used the fact that this story had been told a lot of times to our advantage, because the expectation now is, “How can we do it differently?”

The visuals are stunning. Peter and Bob, can you talk about the visual approach and how the story is set in Brooklyn?

Ramsey: As Phil said, this was a chance for us to really lean into a medium that was made for Spider-Man … How can we take advantage of a medium that has been visually expressive for so many years and tie it into the original source material? And so, we started to lean into flash frames and visuals that are really reminiscent of drawings, but we had to figure out a way to do it with a computer, which is its own giant task.

And then separately, we’ve seen the Peter Parker story. We know. We haven’t seen the Miles Morales story. Brooklyn is such a character. There are so many things that were born out of New York: hip-hop, graffiti, Miles. How do we view the movie with a character that is the city? Each borough has its own flavor.

Persichetti: The great thing for us, as filmmakers, is that the stars all kind of lined up, and we were in a situation where we had producers/creators—Phil [Lord]  and Chris [Miller]—who had a vision, and a studio that said, “You can do that,” even though they didn’t know what we were going to do.

Every step along of the way, everyone on the team pushed as far as they could into his idea of using animation to be more expressive, be like a comic book, honor the original source, and to try to bring New York 2018 to life in a way that everybody in the audience can understand, so everyone can go through this experience in Miles’ shoes. Hopefully, we got it right.

Ramsey: And I think the secret was we didn’t tell them how bold of a visual approach we were going to take until it was too late to change it.

Jake Johnson and Shameik Moore at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Shameik, what was it like to inhabit the Miles Morales character?

Moore: I can relate to the upbringing we’re looking at. I’m not actually Latino, but I feel the spirit. I’m very excited. When I was younger and I first saw Miles Morales, I was like, “Dude, there’s a black Spider-Man out there.”

I wrote it down in a journal filming this movie called “Dope.” I said, “I am Miles Morales. I am Spider-Man.” And two years later, I got the opportunity, with these guys. We made an amazing movie. It really is a crazy thing.

Jake, what can you say about the Peter Parker character in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”?

Johnson: It’s Peter Parker at 40. Peter Parker who’s a little chubby. Peter Parker who’s a little depressed. I just saw [the movie] this morning. It’s just so exciting, and I’m fired up to be in it.

Jake, how would you describe the relationship between Peter Parker and Miles Morales?

Johnson: They become partners in crime. They become unlikely friends. There’s a little bit of “The Karate Kid.” They end up needing each other to get out of a situation, and they become friends along the way.

Bryan Tyree Henry at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Brian, how would you describe your Jefferson Davis character as Miles’ father?

Henry: It reminded me of my father. I was raised by my father for … most of my formative years—junior high through high school—puberty, mostly. My father was a Vietnam vet, and there was this kid he was trying to raise. Looking at the [the movie], I was like, “Oh, that’s what he was going through!” I didn’t think I was that bad, but I was off the chain!

There is nothing more important to me than to see a black boy and his father. We’ve seen the single mom trying to bring up a teenage boy to be a man, but it’s really nice to see … Miles Morales has both of his parents. He’s bilingual and raised in Brooklyn. His mom works in a hospital, and [his father] is a cop.

He had a damn good upbringing. We made a good man! It’s important for everyone to see that Miles is part of that. It was very important for me to be part of that, to be someone trying to raise [Miles] right and make him a decent man … And to play the husband of Lauren Velez? I jumped at the chance. Our son is the bomb! It’s an honor to be on this panel with all these creators. And Miles is “dope.” See what I did there?

Shameik Moore and Lauren Velez at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Lauren, can you talk about your Rio character, who’s Miles’ mother?

Velez: This is my first animation [project] ever. I had no idea what to expect at all. I’m floored by everything. I’m floored by the storytelling, the visual style. Is that animation? Look at the depth of that. So much if it is beyond what I expected. I really have the most amazing family.

My son [Miles] is so dope and my husband is amazing. I’m the daughter of a cop [in real life], and seeing this [movie] made me think so much of my own family and growing … [Miles] doesn’t come from a broken home. He comes from a real stable, professional parenting environment and parents who want the best for him, and want him to achieve his highest potential. That’s why they’ve sent him away to a school that is better for him but is still diverse; he’s not completely away from his world. All of that I thought was so important.

And the bilingual aspect of it. I’m Nuyorican, and I think Miles is such loving, wonderful son on the cusp of manhood. I feel like [Rio] supports him in moving toward being the man she wants him to but still wants to nurture him and hold on to him and take care of him. I think, secretly, she thinks his art is so dope, and she supports that.