Friday, July 11, 2014


In Land Ho! co-directors Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz (who also wrote the screenplay together) take a familiar framework— friends, opposites, traveling together—and infuse it with a kind of offhanded magic. The spark of what might rather too deliberately be described as the film’s plot is the reunion of two brothers-in-law previously separated by divorce and death, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), an unassuming gent who seems just on the cusp of letting life’s sometimes turbulent weather wear him down, and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), an ebullient fellow bent on making the most of what he might only hesitantly acknowledge as his twilight years.

Without Colin’s consent, Mitch buys first-class tickets for the two of them to visit Iceland, promising good food, relaxing hot springs, spectacular scenery, even more spectacular women, and the freedom to move around and enjoy it all as they please. Colin somewhat reluctantly agrees, and the movie’s come-what-may voyage gets under way, each of them taking turns poking through the travel guide for ideas on what to do, all while dancing subtly around the notion that they not be the most well-matched of traveling companions.

Rather than milk the situation for manufactured laughs, however, Stephens and Katz instead allow it to unfold and breathe with something like the rhythms of accrued experience and unexpected harmonies. They thankfully approach the material as if they’d never heard the words "planes," "trains" or "automobiles" in that order. Instead, the laughs, and the insights into recognizable human behavior come as natural byproducts of the movie’s free-floating sense of discovery, its willingness to let these two interact on screen with a minimum of melodrama, letting the natural push-pull between their disparate personalities-- droll versus dynamic-- create the momentum necessary to propel them, and us, along the journey. As it turns out, neither perspective ends up overwhelming the movie. Nelson’s natural and occasionally profane enthusiasm turns out to coexist marvelously with Eenhoorn’s more subdued and economical personality (which probably has a lot to do with the actors’ natural generosity toward each other), so the surprises that occasionally register on their faces, especially in some of the more clearly improvised sequences, seem even more genuine.

But as much as it is a joy to see the screen given over to two such likable and rather seasoned performers, it would be a mistake to characterize Land Ho! as simply being about two old geezers and how they tentatively make their way toward a renewed friendship. At the risk of making the movie sound disagreeably universal and lacking in distinction, while it is quite specifically about the experience of these older gents it also accesses insights about the way people interact and bristle and embrace each other that ought not to be hemmed in by false generational boundaries. One of the movies I thought of fondly while watching Land Ho! was Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, which exists somewhere way down the line from this one on the dispositional scale. It shares with Katz and Stephens’ work a potent emotional current regarding the ease and tension within an old friendship, even though Reichardt’s protagonists are considerably younger men.

Tension is an issue that seems to have been marvelously resolved among the filmmakers themselves as well. Stephens, who previously directed the indie delight Pilgrim Song (2012), which featured Nelson—her cousin-- is an excellent temperamental match with Katz, who came of age as a filmmaker amidst the advent of the mumblecore movement but quickly separated himself from the drab D.I.Y. aesthetic of those films with sharply observed works like Dance Party USA, Quiet City and Cold Weather, all of which offered keen and unsentimental character observation without sacrificing increasingly strong visual cohesiveness. Together, they manage to guide Land Ho! with a casual confidence that many more seasoned directors should rightly envy. The two are seemingly unafraid of their movie being misperceived as slight or airy or whatever other adjective reviewers might use to connote a lack of depth, which is, of course, a brilliant strategy if your goal is to delight your audience and prepare them up for the hooks to be set as the characters, at their own pace, deepen.

There are illuminating diversions created by the appearance of Mitch’s young relative Ellen (Karrie Crouse), traveling through Iceland with her friend Janet (Elizabeth McKee), and later Nadine (Alice Clarke), a bank clerk on holiday who sparks an unexpected connection with Colin. None of these diversions are exploited for their possible melodramatic plot functions, though in other hands they could have been, and that’s to the credit not only of Stephens and Katz but also to the actors who briefly visit Colin and Mitch’s playground, all of which—especially Clarke—have very appealing, natural and unforced screen presences.

Land Ho! is a very perceptive movie in terms of the way its characters interact amongst themselves and with others, but it’s also very sensitive to the way landscapes can be used to reflect and illuminate and set in relief the way the personal angles they have on their own lives, which makes it far more than just a hit-the-highlights travelogue with good company and, courtesy of Mitch, the occasional dick joke. In its ability to not just observe but in some sense understand why Iceland and its many natural marvels was the perfect stage on which to play out this very small-scale story, it really did remind me of what a director like Bill Forsyth could do at his peak. Land Ho! isn’t quite the miracle that Forsyth conjured with Local Hero, but it’s on the scent, and it shares some of that movie’s delicious comic timing—an episode with Colin and a flooded road will quickly put Forsyth-heads in mind of the earlier movie’s way with a speeding motorcycle.

And speaking of miracles, the fact that a movie such as Land Ho! exists at all, especially plopped down in the middle of a mid-year movie marketplace glutted with superheroes and transforming robots and endless duping of shrieking horror franchises, should count as some sort of providence. (And it arrives the same day as Richard Linklater’s highly touted Boyhood. Can I get an "amen"?) On its own, but even more so in this context, Land Ho! has transformative powers even Hasbro couldn’t imagine-- it can take a sullen and cynical moviegoer and turn her/him, 95 minutes later, into someone who might once again believe that the possibility for real summer movie magic still exists.


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