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Pekka Strong as Tom of Finland

“TOM OF FINLAND” My rating: B (Opening Dec. 7 at the Tivoli)

115 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Tom of Finland” is a film biography of Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), the Finnish artist whose beefcake drawings of leather-clad macho men are among the most recognizable icons of gay culture.

But as much as it is an artist’s biography, Dome Karukoski’s film is a thumbnail history of the rise of homosexual self-awareness and self-assertion over several decades.

We meet Toko Laaksonen (Pekka Strong) as a soldier in World War II, part of a Finnish anti-aircraft unit charged with shooting down Russian planes.  In fact Laaksonen would be haunted throughout his life by the memory of knifing to death a young Soviet parachutist.

After the war Laaksonen lives with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who helps him land  a job with an advertising agency. In his off hours, though, Laaksonen indulges in a secret (and, given the draconian aspect of Finnish law, wildly illegal) project.

A first-rate craftsman and draftsman, Laaksonen produces drawings of impossibly handsome, heavily-muscled and  fantastically hung hunks. These preening Adonis’s are often clad in leather jackets and ass-less chaps evoking a Marlon Brando/”Wild One” look (although Laaksonen also had a fascination with Nazi regalia, once saying that the Germans “had the best uniforms.”)

Initially these masturbatory fantasies are shown only to close friends, particularly participants in a weekly “poker game” who begin showing up in elaborate cycle regalia inspired by the artwork.

Showing these costumed gents dancing is about the extent of “Tom of Finland’s” sexual adventurousness. The film has no sex scenes, barely a man-on-man kiss. The emphasis is less on personal romance — though Laaksonen has a decades-long relationship with the supportive Veli (Lauri Tilkanen) — than on the slow advance of gay consciousness despite steady persecution.

Strong’s Laaksonen is nothing at all like the men in his drawings. He is tall and thin, with a receding chin, sunken chest, flabby stomach and an indifferent mustache.  He looks more like underground cartoonist R. Crumb (who was surely influenced by Laaksonen’s work) than a Kenneth Anger fantasy.

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James Franco as Tommy Wiseau

“THE DISASTER ARTIST”  My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 7)

103 minutes | MPAA rating: R

2003’s “The Room” has been widely heralded as one of the worst films ever made, a screen-splattered mess of bad writing, clumsy direction, incompetent acting and grandiose (and totally unfulfilled) ambitions.

All true. But here’s the thing: “The Room” is also wildly entertaining, an  extravaganza of unintentional comedy. Which is why over the last decade it has become a cult favorite, beloved by midnight audiences who know every inane line by heart.

“The Disaster Artist” is director/star James Franco’s retelling of how “The Room” came to be made, and unlike its source material, this film is intentionally hilarious.

Wha we’ve got here is a comic masterpiece inspired by a dramatic monstrosity.

“The Disaster Artist” is based on actor Greg Sistero’s memoir of making the film with friend and all-around bizarre human being Tommy Wiseau.

The two meet in a San Francisco acting class where Wiseau (James Franco) — a droopy eyed, long-haired wraith with an elusive slavic accent, a malapropism-heavy grasp of English and a borderline creepy personality — stuns his fellow students with a rendition of Marlon Brando’s “Stella!” scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that ends with him doing a passable imitation of a grand mal seizure.

Sistero (James Franco), whose desire to be an actor is undercut by his unassertive personality, is fascinated by Wiseau, a guy who marches to his own out-of-sync drumbeat — for example, doing high-volume scene readings over breakfast in a crowded restaurant. A sort of sensei/grasshopper relationship develops, and Wiseau invited Sistero to move with him to L.A. where he has an apartment he rarely uses.

(In fact, Wiseau has apartments in several cities and a seemingly inexhaustible checking account. The source of his wealth remains a mystery, as does his age, nationality and personal history. Did he strike a Faustian deal with the devil? Did he materialize on Earth fully formed?)

Neither man has any discernible acting talent, and after weeks of futile auditioning Wiseau decides to go pro-active. He’ll write a script for a movie that he will direct and finance. He and Sistero will star in it.

They hire real professionals (Seth Rogen, Paul Scher) for their crew and desperate actors (Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutchinson) for their cast and get to work.

 

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“THE BREADWINNER” My rating: C+ (Opens Dec. 1 at the Tivoli)

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The animation resume of Nora Twomey (“Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells”) is heavy on splendid  visuals and meandering stories.

That pattern holds true in “The Breadwinner,” an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ young adult novel about an Afghan girl who survives the Taliban’s reign of terror by posing as a boy.

The film is heavy on social relevance but quickly loses its narrative way. Even moments that should be devastating come off as tepid.

Each day eleven-year-old Parvana (Saara Chaudry) accompanies her father, a former teacher who lost a leg fighting the Russians, to the central market of Kabul where they attempt to sell a few family possessions, including a beautiful red dress which Parvana will now never get to wear. There they run afoul of Taliban bullies who maintain that no woman — not even a prepubescent girl — should be seen in public.

When Parvana’s father stands up for her, he is dragged away to prison.  This leaves the remaining family members — including Parvana’s mother, older sister and baby brother   — in a desperate situation.  Without a man to support them they face starvation.  Parvana risks arrests or beating just venturing outside to get water from a nearby well.

Sneaking around the bazaar one day our heroine meets an old school mate, a girl named Shauzia who has cut her hair and adopted a man’s name.  Parvana follows suit, and soon the two are working odd jobs; she’s proud to be her family’s breadwinner.

But discovery and punishment are never far from her mind, which may be why she concentrates more on simple survival than exploiting the privileges afforded by her new maleness.

“The Breadwinner” features a story within a story. Parvana is a born storyteller, and she amuses herself and family members by spinning out a fantasy about a young man whose village is beset by monsters and his efforts to reclaim the seeds vital to the community’s survival. Clearly, this is a metaphor for the situation facing Afghan women.

In contrast to the gray and brown palette of the “real world” sequences, these fantasy moments are bursting with color. Too bad, then, that the story Parvana relates lacks any immediacy. It feels like a time killer, and that feeling of inconsequence seeps over to the rest of the film as well.

It’s a case of a great message delivered in lackadaisical style.

| Robert W. Butler

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Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+ (Opens Dec. 1 at the Glenwood Arts)

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.

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Claes Bang

“THE SQUARE” My rating: B 

145 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“The Square” is the equivalent of one of those modern art installations where you wonder if the “artist” isn’t pulling everybody’s chain.

The winner of the  Palm d’Or at Cannes, this comedy from writer/director Ruben Ostend is so dry and droll that it’s often hard to know if we’re actually meant to laugh.

Our “hero” is Christian (Claes Bang), the director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm that features shows with titles like “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel.” Prominent in the fiftyish Christian’s skill set is an ability to explain far-out conceptual art to the old rich folk who keep the museum afloat. He’s pretty good at schmoozing and coming up with deep intellectual underpinnings for the goofy displays his institution embraces.

The film follows Christian over several days during which he’s dealing with a new installation. “The Square” is just that…an illuminated square set in the cobblestones of the plaza in front of the museum. A plaque embedded in the courtyard describes the square as “a sanctuary of trust and caring”; it’s meant to be a place where the city’s homeless (and Stockholm apparently has an unlimited supply) can take shelter and interact with their more privileged brethren.

This project is more idealistic than realistic…most of the homeless people we encounter are surly and demanding and in their own way as entitled as Christian’s wealthy patrons.

There’s no real plot here, just a series of abusrdism-soaked vignettes depicting Christian’s professional and private life.

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“SWEET VIRGINIA” My rating: C+

93 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Jon Berthal

Slickly made but essentially hollow, “Sweet Virginia” is a good-looking piece of neo noir that fritters away a good cast on a so-so story.

In the first moments of this moody effort from director James M. Dagg and scenarists Benjamin and Paul China, three men engaged in an after-hours poker game in a small-town Rockies restaurant are gunned down. The boyish killer (Christopher Abbott) makes it look like a robbery, but we soon learn that he was hired by local gal Lila (Imogen Poots) to murder her no-good cheating’ hubby.

Lila isn’t thrilled that two innocent lives were taken in the operation; she’s even more upset when she learns that her late spouse was insolvent. There’s no way she can pay the hit man, whose name is Elwood, the $50,000 she owes him.

Meanwhile Sam (Jon Bernthal), a beat-up former rodeo champ, runs his motel (the Sweet Virginia of the title) and tries to ignore the fact that all those times he was dumped on his head will probably leave him with a case of early onset dementia.

Ironically, Sam has been having an affair with Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt), the wife of one of the shooting victims.  He’s decent enough to feel bad about continuing their liaison…but he gives in to Bernadette’s entreaties.

It all comes to a head when Lila, desperate to get the nasty Elwood off her case, sics him on a likely home robbery target. The ensuing mayhem will involve most of the film’s main characters.

“Sweet Virginia”  takes a long time to go nowhere.  Especially irritating is the dialogue,  which often dips into pretentiousness by giving the characters cryptic mumbles when all we really want is a straight declarative sentence.

That said, the perfs are fine with Abbott’s moody, unpredictable and unprofessional killer talking most of the honors.

| Robert W. Butler

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Margaret Qually

“NOVITIATE” My rating: B 

123 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The movies rarely treat religion with anything like respect or even intelligent understanding.  Which makes “Novitiate” a welcome anomaly.

Writer/director Margaret Betts’ film — made with a predominantly female cast and crew — is a serious attempt to examine a religious vocation through the eyes of one young woman.

Cathleen (Margaret Qually…she played the daughter in HBO’s “The Leftovers”) is raised by her hard-case mother in the American South during the 1950s.  Mom Nora (Juliette Nicholson) is a drinkin’, smoking’ modern woman with a tart tongue and a disdain for much of Eisenhower-era society.

But she’s devoted to her daughter and one Sunday takes Cathleen to the local Catholic church. Though irreligious herself, Nora wants her child to be able to make up her own mind. Almost against her better judgment, she accepts a free scholarship for Cathleen at the local parochial school.

The girl takes to Catholicism like other teens glom onto Rod McKuen’s poetry.  As graduation nears she announces that she wants to become a nun. Mom is horrified, but what are you gonna do?

And so Cathleen becomes a postulant at a cloistered community run by the hard-ass Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who hasn’t left the premises in 40 years.

Revered Mother — the spiritual version of a Marine drill instructor — makes no bones about her intentions to weed out the unworthy.  Her methods are often brusque and borderline cruel, and part of the wonder of Leo’s performance is that the character’s ogre-isa behavior is, if not likable, then at least understandable. It’s a long-tested system to which she adheres. (more…)

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