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Tom Of Finland

Opens 12/08 at the Chez Artiste Theater

Tom of Finland’s illustrations are doubtless polarizing: some think they’re dated and corny with idealized round butts, cinched waists exploding into broad shoulders, overstuffed pecs with exaggerated nipples, and c***s like tailpipes. Are they kitsch? Definitely. Are they artwork? To many they’re sacred, beautiful, and era-defining. Both attitudes are delivered in the movie Tom of Finland: corny, sexy, cool — and at their inception, criminal.

Finland’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming 90th Academy Awards is a strong film, but doesn’t quite make the climb to great. The story of Touko Laaksonen, who came to be known as Tom of Finland, is followed from soldier to celebrated illustrator, with stops along the way to reminisce Finland’s criminalization of homosexuality and the oppressive fear that overshadowed many lives. The sex and paranoia are woven beautifully into period filmmaking.

Touko (Pekka Strang) is a reasonable person who is aware of perils, but he’s driven by vivid fantasies. Along the way he meets Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen), but the two are brutally separated.

When Touko and Nipa are reunited, it’s not warm or golden. Nipa is traumatized and skittish, constantly looking over his shoulder. When Nipa talks about his dream for their future, it reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors when Audrey sings “Somewhere That’s Green.”

According to the film, Touko’s better known pen name “Tom of Finland” came about through California publishers who ushered in his fame on these shores.

There are no surprises in the ending of this film, as it truncates the 80s and 90s. As an historic document for the gay community, this is well done and explains the place where Touko/Tom fits in. It also shows how vilification and criminalization of gays was global. Art and brash expression helped drive emancipation.

National attitudes in Finland toward Tom’s artwork have changed dramatically. In 2014, the Finnish Posti issued commemorative stamps that went on to become the organization’s largest-selling postage issue with demand from around the globe. Submission of this film for the Academy Awards underscores public acceptance.

Call Me By Your Name

Opens 12/22 tentatively at The Mayan Theater

One gay-themed film has broken through the crush of festival fare to join the ranks of Oscar-caliber projects, such as Carol and Moonlight. Call Me By Your Name has received effusive praise from critics.

Though a screener wasn’t available in time for this article, here is what I’ve learned from reviews, festival panels, and interviews:

The arc of the story involves a 17-year-old American teen on working vacation with his parents. His father is a professor and brings aboard a 24-year-old student to assist. The setting is a village in rural Italy in the early 1980s.

Oliver, the student assistant is played by Armie Hammer, a go-to Hollywood icon of ideal good looks with a sophisticated angle. Hammer was keen to be part of this film and when he was approached there was no hesitation.

A couple of interviewers subtly baited him about sex scenes in the film, and his replies ranged from sober: “For our characters it felt natural and important;” to slightly bothered: “If you want me to say it was difficult or weird, it wasn’t.”

Several reviewers underscored that the relationship that grows between Oliver and Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is allowed time, and isn’t constrained by the usual gay-love-story contraptions of one partner being homophobic and suddenly having a breakthrough, or oppression from within (self-loathing) or without (religion or… religion).

Musician Sufjan Stevens, one of the new millenial crop of poetic lads with guitars (Gregory Alan Isakov, Bon Iver, The Antlers, Death Cab…) is hailed by nearly every reviewer for the narration his songs lend to the intensifying relationship and inevitability of “summer’s end.”

At the helm are top-drawer talents: director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash). The screenplay is by James Ivory (Merchant-Ivory) and based on the novel by André Aciman.

To confirm theaters and showtimes visit www.LandmarkTheateres.com/Denver.