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+

A Man Called Ove [En man som heter Ove]

(Sweden 2015)

A few years ago, I picked up Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove for my book club. Published in 2012, the story was familiar and the main character was one I’d seen many times before. What stood out was Backman’s writing—it was colorful. I must confess, I didn’t finish the book. I liked what I read, though.

Hannes Holm’s film adaptation is similarly colorful. Ove (Rolf Lassgård)—rigid, regimented, orderly, and blustery—is the archetypal curmudgeon. A victim of a recent reduction in force at the train yard that employed him for 40 years, his days now consist of essentially three activities: policing the neighborhood development where he lives to enforce antiquated rules no one pays attention to, correcting transgressors, and visiting the gave of his wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll). He promises to join Sonja and even makes a few attempts at suicide, but he’s constantly interrupted.

The interesting thing about Ove’s suicide attempts is that they trigger his memories, which fills us in on his backstory: his unconventional childhood, getting his job, meeting the woman who would become his wife, and some other stuff that brought him to where he is. He’s had a life filled with heartbreak, and he loved his wife. It’s no wonder then that he bristles when he unwillingly meets his new neighbors, a Persian woman named Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) and her klutz of a husband (Tobias Almborg), after they plow into his mailbox.

Dealing with love and loss, A Man Called Ove easily could have turned into a sentimental mess. The Swedish spin on it—a tongue in cheek earnest practicality, as illustrated by a stray cat and a battle between Saab and Volkswagen, for example—and Lassgård’s winsome performance both succeed at preventing that. Göran Hallberg’s cinematography is crisp and vivid, with the present comprised of natural blues and greens while the flashbacks have a warm, glowing sort of sepia pallette.

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) B-

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

(Sweden 2014)

It’s sad when the previews show the best part of a film. More a series of sketches strung together like clunky Christmas lights, Pigeon makes the not-so-grand point that life is long and dull and full of drudgery, and everyone goes through the same bullshit. The sentiment is promising, and I love the brand of dark, offbeat humor that pervades this film. The overall look works well: drab, empty long shots emphasize the mood.

It had its moments, but Pigeon never got off the ground for me: it was, well, long and dull and full of drudgery, repeating the same jokes ad infinitum. What a disappointment. Maybe I just don’t get Swedish humor—if such a thing exists.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D-