Tom of Finland

(Finland / Sweden / Denmark / Germany / USA 2017)

Touko Valio Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland, was extraordinary and unconventional. Dome Karukoski’s rather vanilla biopic Tom of Finland is neither.

With Aleksi Bardy’s screenplay, Karukoski lays out a good historical background of the life of the artist, whom Pekka Strang plays convincingly enough, at least until Tom’s later years. The story takes us through WWII, where Tom serves as a closeted solder in the Finnish army and catches the eye of his sargeant (Taisto Oksanen), into his postwar life in conservative Helsinki, where he works as an advertising illustrator, cruises public parks at night (and evades arrest), and sketches “dirty” homoerotic fetish doodles in his spare time. He shares an apartment with his homophobic sister (Jessica Grabowsky), which provides much of the dramatic tension in this story, especially when a cute boarder, dancer Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), moves in. Ultimately, the story leads to 1980s Los Angeles.

For a subject who really pushed the envelope — okay, he rammed it somewhere else altogether — and left his mark, Tom of Finland is a disappointingly conventional, even sappy biopic. The focus is on Tom’s personal struggle to live his life ‘out,’ which is a fine angle. Aside from a scene involving a Russian paratrooper (Siim Maaten) that apparently had a profund effect on Tom, however, Karukoski doesn’t delve deep enough to offer much insight; he seems to want to give an intimate picture but somehow stays at arm’s length from his subject. Too bad. His references are good but his approach is more documentarian or downright clinical. He skips huge chunks of time, which makes for awkward transitions in the film’s latter half. More frustratingly, he starts to raise some interesting points about art, conformity, AIDS, community, and longevity, but opts not to go there. Tom of Finland could have been a much more interesting film.

With Martin Bahne, Þorsteinn Bachmann, Werner Daehn, Jan Böhme, Seumas F. Sargent, Jakob Oftebro, Meri Nenonen, Haymon Maria Buttinger, Martin Bergmann, Niklas Hogner

Production: Helsinki-filmi, Anagram Väst, Fridthjof Film, Neutrinos Pictures, Film Väst, Fresco Film Services

Distribution: Finnkino (Finland), Protagonist Pictures, Cinemien (Netherlands), Kino MFA+ Filmdistribution (Germany), Lorber (USA), Palace Films (Australia), Peccadillo Pictures (UK), Rézo Films (2017) (France) (theatrical)

115 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

http://www.tof.fi

http://www.protagonistpictures.com/films/tom-of-finland#.Wl0isyOZPgE

Angel Unchained [Hell’s Angels Unchained]

(USA 1970)

“Stay? What does ‘stay’ mean?”

— Angel

Lee Madden’s Angel Unchained is the type of ’70s movie that you would see on late night TV during the ’70s. A low budget grindhouse exploitation revenge flick, this one involves bikers and hippies and hicks, oh my. If the title isn’t obvious, Angel Unchained is a prime example of the kind of film that influenced none other than Quentin Tarantino.

After saving leader of the pack Pilot (Larry Bishop) during a bizarre rumble at a children’s amusement park, dumpy bodied restless spirit Angel (Don Stroud) decides to break from his gang of bikers and go his own way. While getting gas somewhere in the Arizona desert, he observes a group of redneck townies hassle a couple of hippies, one of whom is sweet Merilee (a young and soft Tyne Daly). Angel sticks up for the hippies.

He and Merilee are digging each other. She invites him to her farming commune, which is led by Southern buck Jonathan Tremaine (Luke Askew). They live off the land in a remote spot just outside some desert hicktown. The redneck townies don’t care for the hippies, which they make known by driving dune buggies through the hippies’ garden, messing with their livestock, and physically pummelling them. Angel stabs one, head honcho hillbilly Dave (Peter Lawrence), in the arm with a pitchfork as he speeds past him.

After that, Dave gives them all an ultimatum: leave by Saturday, or his posse of rednecks is going to wreak havoc on the commune. This frightens the hippies.

Angel calls on his old gang to save the farm, literally. He persuades Pilot, who grudgingly gets the guys on board. They head out to stay there for a week. Not surprisingly, the bikers clash with the hippies, starting with their diet of alphalpha. Things go south fast: the bikers drink, hit on the ladies, and generally make a mess. The last straw is stealing the batch of cookies — the vague implication is that they’re laced with drugs, probably pot or peyote — that an elderly medicine man (Pedro Regas) bakes in a hut.

Loaded with chases in “vee-hicles,” fistfights, and a good mix of dramatic tension and humor, Angel Unchained isn’t the worst thing. It’s got an odd charm to it, with the desert setting and the fringe dwellers of a long gone era battling the philistines of an even longer gone era. It has a few memorable scenes, such as a brilliantly kooky one in which Pilot has a nice, nothing chat with the sheriff (Aldo Ray) outside the jailhouse. As they talk, they nonchalantly watch the the bikers and the townies beat the crap out of each other in the parking lot in front of them. Another sad scene occurs right after a rape — again, it’s vaguely implied but you know what just happened.

Still, Angel Unchained is pretty silly; its earnestness makes it even moreso. If it has anything to say, it’s exactly what Rodney King would utter 20 years later: “Can we all just get along?” A nice sentiment for sure, but it doesn’t make up for the strained, amateur acting or the monotonous folky (and folksy) score by Randy Sparks.

With T. Max Graham, Jean Marie, Bill McKinney, Jordan Rhodes, Linda Smith, Nita Michaels, J. Cosgrove Butchie, T.C. Ryan, Alan Gibbs, Bud Ekins, Jerry Randall

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Anglo-EMI Film Distributors (UK), MGM-EMI (UK), Film AB Corona (Sweden)

86 minutes
Rated PG

(Impact) C-

Baby Driver

(USA 2017)

“You’re either hard as nails or scared as shit. Which is it?”

— Griff

“Streisand, now Queen? The fuck, what y’all gonna do, you gonna belt out show tunes on the way to the job?”

— Bats

“Don’t feed me anymore lines from Monsters Inc. It pisses me off.”

— Doc

A movie that starts with a bank robbery while the driver blares Jon Spencer on his headphones can’t be all that bad. And it’s not. Baby Driver calls to mind films like Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, and my favorite, True Romance, yet it has enough going for it that it stands apart as a contributor rather than a ripoff.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young buck constantly plugged into his iPod. He works as the getaway driver for a rotating crew of bank robbers headed by kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s paying off a debt, and he wants out as soon as it’s done — like, in one more job. Baby’s plan is to disappear with cutie waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for him, other plans get in the way — plans he didn’t make.

Frankly, all the hype over this movie led me to expect more. A lot more. Admittedly, my expectations were high — too high. That said, I liked Baby Driver. It’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be lying if I denied that my mind wandered at points, but seeing a millennial Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is worth its weight in gold, or at least its weight in Bitcoin. If nothing else, all those hours I spent making mix tapes are now validated.

With Hudson Meek, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Lanny Joon, C.J. Jones, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Big Boi, Paul Williams, Jon Spencer, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell

Production: TriStar Pictures, Media Rights Capital (MRC), Double Negative (Dneg), Big Talk Productions , Working Title Films

Distribution: Sony Pictures Releasing (International), TriStar Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (Netherlands), Big Picture 2 Films (Portugal), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Filmverleih, Sony Pictures Releasing

112 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C+

http://www.babydriver-movie.com/discanddigital/

Call Me by Your Name

(Italy / USA / France / Brazil 2017)

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

— Oliver

Very seldom does a film leaves me speechless, but that’s just what Call Me by Your Name did. For me, it’s one of this year’s most unexpected cinematic pleasures.

Set during the summer of 1983, precocious and solitary 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is spending another summer with his parents at their Italian villa. It looks like business as usual — reading, writing, and playing piano — until ruggedly handsome and tan American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) shows up. Oliver, with his penchant for being overly casual (particularly with his use of “later” to bid farewell) and his love of the Psychedelic Furs, will be staying in Elio’s room for the summer while working as an intern for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor who’s finishing up a book.

Wow. Director Luca Guadagnino hits the nail right on the head on so many things he gets at here: the perversity of male adolescence, the confusion of sexual awakening and lost innocence, the single-mindedness of desire, the thrill and frustration of seduction, and the agony of loss, all of it before a gorgeous and sunny Italian backdrop. He’s sensitive to the subject matter, which centers on sexuality, but he doesn’t cheapen the story or its characters. It’s a tricky feat.

The pace may be frustrating at times. However, being an act of seduction itself, Call Me by Your Name is nonetheless erotic, intimate, honest, and ultimately heartbreaking. That’s an awful lot to fit into one film, but Guadagnino does it, and he does it exceptionally well. It helps that he recruits excellent actors, particularly Chalamet, who brings a credible vulnerability to his character. The final scene is beautifully simple, effective, and hard to watch even while the credits roll.

I had a remarkably similar experience as Elio when I was barely 18 years old. Call Me by Your Name is more romantic, but seeing it play out reminded me of someone from my own past. I never go back and read a book after seeing its film adaptation, but I’m compelled to read André Aciman’s novel now.

With Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso, André Aciman, Peter Spears

Production: Frenesy Film Company, La Cinéfacture, RT Features, Water’s End Productions

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

132 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) A-

http://sonyclassics.com/callmebyyourname/mobile/

What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness)

(USA 1966)

Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.

It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.

Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed Castro Street (The Coming of Consciousness) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Canyon Cinema

Distribution:

11 minutes
Not rated

(Daily Motion) C-

 

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

The Last American Virgin

(USA 1982)

“Are you here to interview me or to fuck me?”

— Ruby

It was decades ago — probably the ‘80s — the last time I saw low budget ’80s cable classic The Last American Virgin. I recently noticed it in the “free movies” queue on…where else, cable. I had to know whether it was as good as I remembered.

An odd mix of other teen movies from its day — think of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Losin’ It and Valley Girl all rolled into one — it isn’t something I imagine being made today, not even as a remake. The Last American Virgin starts out all fun and games — centered on sex, of course — but abruptly takes a dark turn about halfway through. Subject matter aside, it ends on a brutally cynical note that leaves one pondering: what exactly is writer and director Boaz Davidson saying here?

None of this is a gripe; on the contrary, it’s an asset that puts The Last American Virgin in a class of its own. Kudos for that.

Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is a Los Angeles high school student. When he’s not delivering pizzas in a ridiculous pink Grand Prix (or similar late ‘70s car), he and his hornball friends Rick (Steve Antin), the cute one, and David (Joe Rubbo), the fat one, are constantly trying to get laid.

Their antics are pretty funny. They pick up three duds at a hamburger joint and snort Sweet ‘N’ Low with them when a party they promise doesn’t happen and the girls want drugs. They wind up together in the apartment of a horny Mexican woman of a certain age (Louisa Moritz) whose sailor boyfriend (Roberto Rodriquez) is away, and she wants all three of them. Later, they get crabs from a bossy Hollywood hooker (Nancy Brock). A dick measuring contest in the school locker room is, well, uncomfortably hot. Somehow, sex happens easily for Rick and David. Not Gary, though: he’s either too nice or too scared.

At school, Gary meets a new girl, Karen (Diane Franklin). He crushes on her, hard. Too bad she’s into Rick, which causes friction: a bizarre love triangle develops, and it doesn’t end well. In fact, it reaches a boiling point by winter break.

I never knew The Last American Virgin is a remake of Davidson’s 1978 Israeli film Eskimo Limon. He fucking nails it with his depiction of jealousy — better than most films do. It’s hard to watch Gary’s hatred for Rick grow stronger while they’re running around getting into trouble together. Monoson’s acting is good, and so is Franklin’s. Their scenes together are the best this movie has to offer. I would be remiss to mention that for such a minor role, Kimmy Robertson really shines as Karen’s wacky friend Rose, who seems like Katy Perry’s secret inspiration.

The Last American Virgin has its unimpressive moments, but it’s hardly a write-off. Overall, it’s held up well. Sure, it falls into nostalgia, but beyond its soundtrack it’s more memorable for its characters, its plot, and its unexpected turn. It certainly isn’t what it appears to be.

With Brian Peck, Tessa Richarde, Winifred Freedman, Gerri Idol, Sandy Sprung, Paul Keith, Harry Bugin, Phil Rubenstein, Julianna McCarthy, Mel Welles

Production: Golan-Globus Productions

Distribution: Cannon Film Distributors (USA), Citadel Films (Canada)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) B

Kedi

(Turkey / USA 2016)

Warm, lively, and thorough, Ceyda Torun’s oddly intriguing documentary Kedi is a sort of love letter to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and its thousands of roaming street cats that have shared space with people since the days of the Ottoman Empire. As one resident puts it early on, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”

Yes, the cats are cute. Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann follow a number of them as they move through their day: one gathers scraps to feed her kittens stashed safely in a retail building, another is pulled into a turf war with an orange tabby drifter, and yet another assumes the responsibility of taking care of vermin that dare to enter a popular seaside gathering spot for humans.

Each cat has a story, and each attracts — and impacts — different people: a shopkeeper, an artisan, a restaurant owner, a bona fide crazy cat lady. These cats are therapeutic, bringing happiness and purpose to residents. They serve as companions and wards. Most of them have a tough life — or nine of them. Torun does a nice job showing that the cats in Istanbul face the exact same threats that people do: overpopulation, urban development, and local politics.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than…well, Cats.

With Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz

Production: Termite Films

Distribution: Oscilloscope Laboratories

79 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center at Chicago Athletic Association) B-

https://www.kedifilm.com