‘Cut Throat City’ stumbles at the end

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 18, 2020
Photo by: Well Go USA These are the four boyhood friends who turn criminal in "Cut Throat City."

Owls Head — Cut Throat City (Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD or standard DVD, NR, 123 min.). Directed by musician-record producer RZA (“The Man with the Iron Fist”) and written by P.G. Cushieri (TV’s “The Undercovers”), the film center on four young friends from the 9th Ward of New Orleans during the weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck. While the disaster was bungled by the government, and particularly the mostly Black 9th Ward was denied FEMA assistance, corporations and real estate companies used it as a pretext to gentrify the city, driving out as many poor Black people as possible. As one character laments, casinos have replaced jazz as the city’s main theme.

Director RZA spends a lot of time building up secondary characters, which lends a lot of depth to the film, but he does not stop at a logical point. Instead, there are another 20 minutes that are, to my mind, just plain stupid, an extension just for an action ending that negates much of what went on before. The film does have a lot of decent acting, led by a very good turn by Terrence Howard as The Saint, the gang boss behind much of the city’s crime.

Of the four main characters, Shameik Moore (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) comes off best as his character, James aka “Blink,” has the most depth. Early in the film, James marries Demyra (Kat Graham of TV’s “The Vampire Diaries”), the mother of his young son. James is an artist, with the ambition of publishing his comic strip, “Cut Throat City,” illustrations from which are shown during the opening credits, as a striking animated prologue. When he tries to get it published, he is rudely shot down. James appears to be semi-estranged from his father (Wesley Snipes as Lawrence).

The other three boyhood friends are Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr. of TV’s “All American”), whose main contribution seems to be that he has a van; Junior (Keean Johnson of TV’s “Euphoria,” “Nashville”), the white one who loves his dog, which he teaches to attack people; and Andre (Denzel Whitaker of “Black Panther,” “Training Day”), who aspires to be a jazz musician.

Needing money and having little hope of getting it legally, the four turn to “Cousin” Bass (Tip “T.I.” Harris of the two “Ant-Man” films, given weird, distracting facial coloration), which proves to be a big mistake. He sets them up to rob a casino, which they do, but just as they are about to leave, Miracle starts shooting at policemen who pull up in two cars. However, it turns out they were not real cops, in one of the film’s many twists. One of the four does not survive the outing and the other three have to go into hiding at James’ father’s place.

While in hiding, the remaining trio decide to rob more casinos, apparently successfully. Meanwhile, Demyra goes to city councilman Jackson Symms (Ethan Hawke of “Training Day,” “Before Sunset”), asking for his help in saving their lives. Symms already had put pressure on Detective Lucinda Valencia (Eiza Gonzalez of “Bloodshot,” “Baby Driver”) to solve the casino heist as it happened in his ward. Toney Chapman Steele plays another New Orleans detective, or former detective – I was never clear on how he fit in.

Yet another character is the Rev. Sinclair Stewart, who runs a funeral home and, at first, is reluctant to handle a body without a death certificate. It is a good job in a small role by Isiah Washington (TV’s “The 100”).

The film is perhaps too leisurely, but it enables the large ensemble cast to thrive in their roles. The script, and particularly the dual ending, could have been sharper. Any why isn’t it “Cutthroat City”? The only extras are a behind-the-scenes look (8:58) and six deleted scenes (10:24). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

The Audition (Germany, Strand Releasing, DVD, NR, 90 min.). In German and French, this film is another character study, albeit with much less action, unless one considers playing the violin as action. The central character is violin teacher Anna Bronsky (Nina Hoss of “Phoenix,” “Yella”), who is married to Frenchman and luthier Philippe (Simon Abkarian of “Casino Royale”), but having an affair with her colleague Christian (Jens Albinus of “Everything Will Be Fine”), a cellist who also is pressuring her to join his string quintet. Anna has a 10-year-old son (Serafin Mishiev as Jonas), whom she has forced into learning the violin – with another instructor – even though he would much rather play hockey.

The film opens with tryouts for the school and its scholarships. Anna pushes for shy and a bit awkward Alexander (a wonderful Ilja Monti, who began playing violin at age 5 and has won numerous festival performance prizes), who squeaks in by a 3-2 vote. Their lessons become more and more intense as a school competition nears. At one point, Alexander shows up at Anna’s unannounced for an additional lesson and stays for dinner. Obvious resentment is building up in Jonas, whom I believe in seeing Alexander as a rival for his mother’s affection.

The film really is a psychological study of Anna, who is more and more pressured toward a breaking point. Once a gifted violinist herself – Philippe at one point plays an early recording of her performing – a tremor has affected her playing since. She nonetheless finally succumbs to Christian’s wishes, but when they perform in public things go badly. Anna has basic insecurities and her current circumstances are just making them worse.

The film is directed by Ina Weisse (“Der Achitekt”), who, as an actress, won prizes for her work in “Das Ende einer Nacht,” “Ich will dich” and “Ein grosser Aufbruch.” Weisse co-wrote the film with Daphne Charizani. The film’s sole misstep is when a jarring non-accident occurs. True to the character though, Anna does not even consider what really happened. There are no bonus features. Grade: 3 stars

Broil (Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 90 min.). Despite its strange title, this is a horror film, a weird and, at times, confusing horror film. Luckily, the character of Sydney “The Chef” Lawson is played by the likable Jonathan Lipnicki (“Jerry Maguire,” 2 “Stuart Little” films). Even if the character is a serial killer – with his victims chosen by friend Freddie Jones (Lochlyn Munro of TV’s “Riverside”) – you root for him, especially when pitted against the mysterious Sinclair family.

The film starts as if it is the story of high-school-aged Chance Sinclair (Avery Konrad of “Sacred Lives,” “Unspeakable”), as she narrates. However, once The Chef is introduced, Chance mostly falls to the sidelines. The film, directed by Edward Drake (“Breach,” the upcoming “Cosmic Sin”) and written by Drake and Piper Mars, tries to be mysterious about exactly who the Sinclair family is. Apparently, they are vampires, but more so, possibly even gods, and an ancient family who live long lives and whose task is “to cull the damned.” The oft-mentioned Harvest appears to be the annual culling.

The problem is June (Annette Reilly of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) and her husband November (Corey Large) – yes most of them are named after months for some reason – want out from the harvesting and agree to make Anna move in with Grandfather August (Timothy V. Murphy of TV’s “Snowpiercer”) if they only have to do one more Harvest. More than that, though, they plot to kill August by having The Chef cook the annual family meal and poison him. August, of course, is onto June, but The Chef proves clever.

Once could wish that the screenplay was more direct at times, but some of the scenes are effective. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2 stars

Flash Gordon (1980, Arrow Video, 4K UHD + Blu-ray, PG, 111 min., + 2018, Life After Flash, NR, 93 min.). Memories of this film are mostly Queen’s terrific, uplifting theme song and a lot of camp action. Returning to the film after decades away, it holds up as a pretty decent effort, even if the costumes overwhelm and the often less-than-decent special effects underwhelm.

In the opening, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde of “Burn, Witch, Burn”) offers Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow of “The Seventh Seal,” “Minority Report”) the Earth as his new plaything and Ming soon is playing with Earth’s weather and causes the moon to leave orbit, creating an unexpected eclipse. Only Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol of “Fiddler on the Roof,” “For Your Eyes Only”) realizes that the moon changing orbit is causing the problems and that an alien attack may be underway. Meanwhile, Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones, later of the two “Ted” films), who is the quarterback of the New York Jets (ha!), is sharing a plane ride with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson of “Firewalker”), a travel agent, when the plane is forced into a crashed landing, with Flash at the controls after the two pilots are sucked out of the cockpit.

Zarkov, ready to launch his rocket to investigate the moon, tricks Flash and Dale, who crashed into his home, into the rocket. They shortly arrive on Ming’s home planet of Mongo, where Ming’s men are sort of dressed fancy Oriental.

A series of trials follow, including Flash fighting Ming’s men as if it were a football game, Flash being executed, only to be revived by Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), and Dale being taken and forced to marry Ming. Klytus, who wears a metal mask, tries to remove Zarkov’s memories – some of which are properly backward, but then others are incorrectly forward – and reprogram him to serve Ming.

Flash’s adventures next take him to the forest kingdom of Arboria (think “Star Wars,” “Pandora”) and while Flash is later forced to fight Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton of “The Living Daylights,” “Licence to Kill”), Aura’s boyfriend, he eventually convinces Barin and Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed of “Tarzan,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) of the Hawk Men to join him in overthrowing Ming. Vultan, by the way, gets to do a Queen joke, saying, “Who wants to live forever.” Aura’s famous line is: “No. Not the bore worms.” Vultan’s famous line is: “Gordon’s alive.”

During the opening credits, the backdrop consists of some of the original “Flash Gordon” newspaper comic strips. The whole film is done in a similar fashion of love and imagination that allows its seams to show at times. There are no computer-generated effects here. The Hawk Men’s winged costumes recall the winged angels in “Barbarella,” another science fiction fantasy also produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

This new edition comes with lots of extras, with the new 4K restoration approved by director Mike Hodges. There are two archival audio commentaries one apiece by Hodges and Blessed. From 2007 comes Big Kev’s Geek Stuff radio show with Jones and Anderson talking to Bob Lindenmeyer and Kevin Schoebel. From 2015 is a reunion special with Hodges meeting the actors for the first time since the film (8:26), followed by 10 brief interviews. There also is archival behind-the-scenes footage (14:27); a 1982 episode of TV’s animated “Flash Gordon” (24:31; a look at “Flash Gordon” merchandise (4:20); storyboards and stills galleries; and a booklet with new writing on the film by five authors.

Most interesting is the new piece on director Nic Roeg’s (“The Man Who Fell to Earth”) efforts to make the film, prior to Hodges being hired (27:50). Among the information is that George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film, but De Laurentiis would not sell him the rights, so Lucas made “Star Wars” instead. Roeg’s versions, written by Michael Allen, who is interviewed, would have been more about a jealous god going after Adam and Eve; however, De Laurentiis wanted more humor. In the video, we see many of John Bloomfield’s original costume designs.

The bonus disc in the set is Lisa Down’s 2018 documentary on actor Jones, called “Life After Flash.” It shows Jones’ work at some of the many fan conventions and comic cons, as well as talking about Jones when he made “Flash Gordon” (he apparently got into several off-screen fights) and how Jones’ voice was dubbed completely in the final film due to a tiff he had with De Laurentiis. We also hear the devastating story of the death at 21 of Jones’ older brother. Jones admits to being a habitual adulterer, but also speaks lovingly of his marriage to Ramona, who is interviewed, along with three of his five children.

Others interviewed include filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, actor Jason Mewes, comic artist Alex Ross, Marvel founder Stan Lee and actor Christopher MacDonald. Queen guitarist Brian May talks about the theme song and rock underscore that he wrote for the film. Jones talks about how he, as an ex-Marine, turned to bodyguard and security work, traveling into Mexico, to make ends meet for his family, after the acting roles dried up and before Seth MacFarlane offered him a role in the film “Ted.”

Again, there are numerous bonus features, many of which would be considered deleted or extended scenes. These include an extended Comic Con sequence (13:07), a rap by Deep Roy, who played Princess Aura’s pet (1:24), a Chattanooga Film Festival script read (5:27), an interview with Downs (12:29) and looks at actor Topol’s Jordan River Camp in Israel (5:59), his portraits (2:17), his Israeli stamps that he drew (2:14) and his awards (2:03). There also are looks at Anderson’s paintings (3:20), Ross’ early Flash Gordon art (9:08) and the Kickstarter video (2:38). There are eight other short pieces. Grade: Flash Gordon 3 stars, extras 4 stars, Life After Flash 3 stars, extras 2.5 stars

Life After Flash (2018, MVD Visual, Blu-ray, NR, 93 min.). Lisa Downs’ documentary on actor Sam J. Jones is also available separately, with many of the same extras.

Warning from Space aka Spacemen Appear in Tokyo (Japan, 1956, Arrow Video, NR, 86 min.). Directed by Koji Shima (“Konjiki yasha”), this was the first Japanese science fiction film to be made in color. It very much is a film of its time, old-fashioned and not very sophisticated. The aliens who come to Earth to warn against the dangers of nuclear bomb proliferation and the development of an even deadlier new element called Urium look like large starfishes with a giant central eye and obviously are people walking in cloth suits. The suits were designed by avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto. The script is by Hideo Oguni, author of several Akira Kurosawa films, including “Seven Samurai.”

The film obviously plays on the Japanese audiences’ fear of nuclear weapons; after all, two of their cities were so destroyed by the United States near the end of World War II. However, the aliens, as they say in the newspaper business, bury the lede. It is not nuclear weapons that are the most direct threat, rather it is a rogue planet that will collide with the Earth in slightly more than a month’s time.

The film opens with everyday scenes of people getting off a train in the rain, with one, Dr. Kamura (Bontaro Miake) from the observatory, stopping at the Café Cosmos for a drink. Dr. Matsuda (Isao Yamagata of “Seven Samurai”) is the one developing the formula for the new element, hoping for a new energy source. Later in the film, in an unnecessary side plot, he gets kidnapped by some commercial interest that wants the formula.

After some of the main scientists and their families are introduced, the film suddenly cuts to a stage dance number, featuring Toyomi Karita as Hikari Aozora and The Blue Sky Orchestra. It seems a bizarre shift at the time, but later comes in to play when one of the aliens is transmuted into the form of Hikari so she can communicate directly with humans. Found floating in the river, the alien in human form, who is now called Ginko, is shown making superhuman leaps while playing tennis and then moving from one room to another without going through a door.

The film does have portions that do not make sense. When Ginko transforms, she already is wearing clothes, which she can change later. Why evacuate Tokyo before rogue planet hits the Earth and destroys everything no matter where you are? Of course, the aliens from planet Paila manage to save the Earth in the final two minutes, after human attempts to blow up the rogue planet fail.

Extras include an informative audio commentary by Stuart Galbraith IV on the first 64 minutes of the film and the 88-minute U.S. English dubbed version, which moves the aliens up into the very first scene. The film never got a U.S. theatrical debut; it went directly to TV in 1963. There also is an image gallery. Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2.5 stars

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