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Tom of Finland
Finland's entry for ‘Best Foreign Language Film' at the 2018 Academy Awards is director Dome Karukoski's bio-pic, Tom Of Finland, written by Aleksi Bardy. The story follows the life and times of Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) who bravely serves his country during the Second World War and returns home a decorated officer. Soon after his return, however, Touko finds his native Helsinki has become decidedly anti-gay. Not only are gay men persecuted but some of them are even being forced against their will to marry women and start families. Touka, on the other hand, gets involved with a young man named Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen). When Touka begins to suffer from depression, he winds up living with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky).
Frustrate by life in Helsinki as a gay man, Touko starts to draw and as he does, his illustrations become more and more homoerotic and more and more explicit. As the forties turns into the fifties and beyond, Touko, using the pen name ‘Tom Of Finland' for his work, Touko's artwork becomes a hit in the gay counterculture scene and eventually, in the early seventies, his work gets published in California where it finds a whole new audience in the midst of the sexual revolution. As time goes on, he befriends Doug (Seumas F. Sargent) and Jack (Jakob Oftebro) and he becomes an icon within the gay community of the time as his art first taps into gay culture and then more mainstream ideas.
Even if you don't know who Tom Of Finland was, there's a very good chance you've seen his artwork. It's instantly recognizable not just for its hyper-detailed style and exaggerated portraits of masculine ideals, but also for its fetishistic qualities and frequently explicit depictions of gay men doing what gay men do. It plays with what have since become clichés: men clad in leather biker gear, army uniforms, cop uniforms… often wearing mirrored shades and leather boots showing off their impossibly chiseled physiques and impossible endowments. Much of it was done in black and white, though color pieces were also done, just less frequently. His work was kind of the gay equivalent of a female pinup piece, just taken to some very different extremes, and you don't have to be gay to appreciate it. Laaksonen had a lot of talent.
This makes him an interesting choice for a bio-pic. Tom Of Finland isn't a perfect, but it is a very good one. It opens with Laaksonen in his twilight years, the old age makeup applied to Strang's face less than convincing. From there we see through flashbacks his experiences in WWII, how he had to hide his art from disapproving family members, Laaksonen's work at a commercial advertising house, and the relationships he had, romantic and otherwise, over the years. The movie shifts in tone quite dramatically once Laaksonen moves to America. Gay culture, even then, was much more ‘out' than it was in his more conservative homeland. His early days in California are a party, sometimes quite literally, and we see a very strong contrast to the lifestyles of gay men in American versus gay men in Finland and other more reserved locales. Tom, and by extension the film itself, celebrates this.
The film is very nicely shot. There's some impressive lighting and cinematography here, courtesy of Lasse Frank Johannessen, and some interesting compositions as well. The acting is also very strong across the board with Pekka Strang really doing an excellent job of creating an interesting character. The picture does have some pacing issues, however, with the second half not quite holding out interest as easily as the first. The film also deals in very broad strokes and at times fails to detail things as well as maybe it should have. To be fair, the movie crams in decades worth of material into its two-hour running time, there's only so much Karukoski could have included here but by the time it's over, you still don't feel like you know enough about the film's subject as you could have. Thankfully, the good still outweighs the bad by a big enough margin to make Tom Of Finland worth seeing for anyone with an interest in the subject matter or who can simply appreciate the fantastic subtleties of Strang's excellent performance as the lead.
Tom Of Finland arrives on Blu-ray disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. Shot digitally, the image is as clean as you could want it to be and it shows excellent detail. Color reproduction is very strong, often times quite impressive, while skin tones look nice and natural. Black levels are strong, contrast looks good and there is good depth to the image throughout. There are some very mild compression artifacts noticeable in one or two scenes but otherwise there's nothing to complain about here.Sound:
DTS-HD tracks are provided in 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo options, mostly spoken in Finnish, with optional English subtitles provided. The 5.1 track spreads out the score and some of the ambient effects a bit more than the 2.0 track does, and for that reason it's the better option, but both of them sound fine. Clarity is solid, balance is good, and as you'd except from such a recent film there are no noticeable issues with any hiss or distortion at all.Extras:
Extras start off with a thirteen minute featurette entitled Interviews With Durk Dehner, who was the co-founder of the Tom of Finland Company. He talks about Tom discovering his appreciation for black leather, how this worked its way into his art, making catalogues of his art in the early days of his self-publishing career, how various people saved letters from Touko Laaksonen over the years, how his art was so frequently stolen on such a large scale, exhibitions of his work and quite a bit more. It's an interesting interview with someone who knew Touko Laaksonen well and who worked with him quite extensively. Up next is a featurette called Discussion At Tom's House, a ten-minute piece with S.R. Sharp of the Tom Of Finland Foundation shot in Los Angeles, screenwriter Mark Alton Brown, board member Peter ‘Barber Pete' Karjalainen and a few others in which they talk about Tom's art, their appreciation for the film, how the foundation tries to further gain appreciation for his work and more. The I Am Tom of Finland Campaign is a two-minute spot that details the advertising campaign that helped promote the feature in its native Finland. After that, check out the Television special clip that runs three-minutes. This is basically a quick EPK style promotional feature that aired on Finnish television, again to bring awareness to the film.
Outside of that we get four deleted scenes (Ad Meeting, Campire, Lakside and War) and trailers for the feature and for Daddy And The Muscle Academy (a documentary made about Tom Of Finland in 1991. Menus and chapter selection are also included.Final Thoughts:
Tom Of Finland isn't perfect, but it's good enough to be worth watching thanks primarily to the excellent performance from Pekka Strang and the rest of the cast. The movie tackles an interesting story and provides some welcome insight into an interesting piece of gay counter-culture. The Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber offers the film in a very strong presentation and with some nice extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.