Leaving a mark. Films reviewed: Charlotte, Marvellous and the Black Hole, The Bad Guys

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Action, Animals, Animation, Art, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, France, Heist, Magic, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary film festival, right around the corner. 

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, one live and two animated, about people trying to leave a mark on society. There’s a gang of criminal animals offered a chance to go straight; an angry 13-year-old girl who looks for solace in magic tricks; and a young artist who decides to chronicle her life in Nazi Germany in the form of hundreds of paintings. 

Charlotte 

Dir: Tahir Rana, Éric Warin

It’s the 1930s in Nazi Berlin. Charlotte Salomon , known as Lotte, is a young woman living with her father and stepmother. On a trip to Rome with her grandparents she meets a a kindly American heiress named Ottlie. She liked Lotte’s drawings and invites her to stay in her expansive villa in Cote D’zur in southern France. But Lotte is accepted at the prestigious art academy, despite the fact she is Jewish, so doesn’t want to leave Berlin. But under the harsh rules,  only symmetry and precision are acceptable in art, while “deviant artistic expression”, like Charlotte’s, was considered degenerate. She is eventually expelled, and when her father is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo she decides it’s time to leave her home. She joins her grandparents at Ottlie’s mansion. And she’s delighted to learn there is a studio set up for her so she can create her paintings.  She also finds love, in the form of Alexander, a refugee from Austria who works as a groundskeeper on the estate. But she has to put up with her deeply disapproving and domineering grandfather, who has become bitter in his old age. But as the Nazi’s encircle southern France, she knows her time is limited. So she starts to document her life in a series of hundreds of gouache paintings on paper. Will Lotte and her lover survive the war? And what about her art?

Charlotte is an exquisitely made animated historical drama, based primarily on the stories told in the actual paintings of Charlotte Salomon, titled Life or Theatre, that included both memories she witnessed and things she thought about. Some describe her art as the first graphic novel, since her paintings (there were over a thousand) often include words and ideas. The movie is quite troubling in parts, as people are forced to do terrible things under the stress of war. But it’s set in such beautiful locations — the Vatican in Rome, her home in Berlin, swimming in lakes, or nestled among the rolling hills of southern France — that its beauty mitigates its tension.  And the paintings themselves appear on the screen in blobs of coloured paint that gradually transform into her own art. Keira Knightly provides Charlotte’s voice, with Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent as her grandparents. I’ve seen it twice now, and still find it moving, tragic, and inspiring, and visually very pleasing. 

Marvellous and the Black Hole

Wri/Dir: Kate Tsang

Sammy (Miya Cech) is a moody and truculent 13 year old girl who lives with her domineering father and computer geek sister. Ever since her mother died she lashes out at anyone who comes near her. She smokes cigarettes, talks back, and uses a needle to secretly tattoo herself. But her busy father gets tired of her anger and attitude, and tells her if she doesn’t pass a class in entrepreneurship at the local community college he’ll send her off to summer camp (which Sammy considers a fate worse than death.) So she takes the course which she hates. One day, while sneaking a smoke in the college washroom, she meets Margot the Marvellous (Rhea Perlman), a professional magician with a hidden past. She press-gangs Sammy into serving as her assistant at a kids’ birthday party. She is secretly impressed by Margot’s ability to make flowers bloom on her sleeves, and somehow can grab a real, live white rabbit out of thin air. So they make a pact: Sammy will help Margot with her show in exchange for teaching her magic tricks and helping her pass the course. But will Sammy ever learn to control her anger and escape from the black hole she’s been stuck in since the death of her mother?

Marvellous and the Black Hole is an excellent coming-of-age story about a troubled girl taken under the wing of a sympathetic magician. Miya Cech is terrific as tough-girl Sammy, and Rhea Perlman (best known for playing Carla, the surly barmaid on Cheers) shows a softer side here. There’s a real beauty to this film — from the integration of classic silent film, to the jerky stop-motion animation used for special effects, to the nicely compact sets used in class, at home, and on a stage — that gives it an extra oomph you don’t find in your usual teen drama.  This is a good, indie YA movie.

The Bad Guys

Dir: Pierre Perifel

It’s a time like the present in a city like Los Angeles where a criminal gang (known as the “Bad Guys”) runs rampant, robbing banks, wreaking havoc and scaring the hell out of locals. The group consists of five members: Wolf, their charismatic leader; Snake, his second in command; Shark, a master of disguises; Piranha, a crazed tough guy; and Tarantula, a computer geek who can break into anything. Together they’re unbeatable. But they’re finally caught when a difficult heist at a gala event goes wrong. The police want to send them to prison, but a local pundit and inventor — a guinea pig named Prof Marmalade — says he can turn them from bad guys into good guys using his powers of persuasion. But can a leopard change its spots?

The Bad Guys is a very cute and enjoyable animated crowd-pleaser, aimed primarily at kids, but interesting enough that grown-ups can enjoy it, too. It’s also a feel-good movie about the value of friendship and the pleasure we can get from doing good things for others. And there are cool subplots involving a meteorite, lab tests, computer-operated zombies, and much more. But mainly, it’s an action-packed comedy thriller, with lots of chase scenes, twists and turns, and a fair amount of suspense. 

One quibble: all the main characters (except the chief of police) are animals — including fish and insects — and have all the best lines. Most of the humans rarely speak. But there are also pets — like cats and guinea pigs — that don’t talk either. Which makes the logic a bit confusing, but enjoyable nonetheless. It stars the voices of Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Alex Borstein,  and the inimitable Richard Ayoade as Prof Marmalade.

The Bad Guys is a very cute, fun movie that’ll leave you smiling.

The Bad Guys and Charlotte both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Marvellous and the Black Hole is opening in select cities; look out for it. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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