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)
Who hasn’t seen Blue Velvet? Even though David Lynch was already established by the time it came out, it’s the film that introduced me to him. I saw it once or twice in late high school or early college, definitely on VHS. The River’s Edge was the only comparison I had, and that was a weird film but…not on the same level. I found Blue Velvet totally watchable because it’s very dark, very sexual, very fucking weird, and very voyeuristic.
That was then, this is now: Blue Velvet is still all of those things, but I don’t remember it having the sense of humor it does. It’s curiously funny. It marks the start of Lynch’s style as we know it: not just surreal (he had already done Eraserhead), but macabre and perverted underneath the innocuous and mundane premise. Lynch sets up his narrative in pieces that refer back and forth, like a moving puzzle. It’s brilliant, and it’s a formula that’s served him well.
Blue Velvet starts with a severed ear on the ground, bugs crawling all over it. A local college kid turned stalker (Kyle MacLachlan) proves a bit too curious when his minor obsession with a night club singer (Isabella Rossellini) leads him into a sadomasochistic nightmare that neither he nor we viewers can turn away from. The whole bizarre and sordid story goes full circle back to where it started: that ear.
Dennis Hopper as Frank, the gas-huffing sociopath who ends every sentence with the F-word, colors the mood here. None of it would work, though, without Rossellini’s vulnerability, which is crucial.
Lynch considered Molly Ringwald instead of Laura Dern and Val Kilmer instead of MacLachlan. Thank goodness it happened how it did; what a different film Blue Velvet would have been. For a movie that relies so heavily on nuance, that could’ve ruined Lynch’s career. It didn’t.
With Hope Lange, Dean Stockwell, George Dickerson, Priscilla Pointer, Frances Bay, Jack Harvey, Ken Stovitz, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance, J. Michael Hunter, Dick Green, Fred Pickler, Philip Markert, Leonard Watkins, Moses Gibson, Selden Smith, Peter Carew, Jon Jon Snipes, Angelo Badalamenti, Jean Pierre Viale, Donald Moore, A. Michelle Depland, Michelle Sasse, Katie Reid, Sparky
Production: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Distribution: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 20th Century Fox (UK), Transmundo Films (Argentina), AMLF (France), Concorde Film (Netherlands), Concorde Filmverleih (West Germany), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan)
I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.
An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.
Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.
OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.
As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.
Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.
What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.
Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.
With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee
Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films
Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)