Editor’s note: The following is a conversation on “Land Ho” between two of our Boston film critics, Sean Burns and Jake Mulligan. Please enjoy this not-so-standard form of criticism.
Jake Mulligan: We’re here to talk about Land Ho! today, which should be fairly easy to do in this format, because there isn’t a whole lot of plot to prep readers on. The film sees two men deep into life – Earl Lynn Nelson as Mitch, and Martin Bonner’s Paul Eenhoorn as his ex-brother-in-law Colin – go off to Iceland to find themselves, get their groove back, and maybe get laid. Assorted low-stakes hi-jinks ensue.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, Burns, but you’re as much a fan of co-director Aaron Katz as I am. I think this is right in his wheelhouse. It’s got the same curious, cockeyed sense of humor his other films had. This man has a very careful eye for compositions, too (we’re going to have to get into the use of landscapes here.) What do you think – how do you feel about this one in relation to his other films? What do you think his co-director Martha Stephens brought to it? I see she’s made other films, including one starring Earl Lynn Nelson, but I haven’t seen them.
Most importantly, what do you think of this movie? Because I think there’s an odd sort of beauty captured in it.
Sean Burns: Yeah, I’ve been following Katz for a long time now. I saw his second movie, Quiet City, at the Independent Film Festival Boston in 2007, and was so taken with it I immediately went home and tracked down his first feature, Dance Party, USA — which just completely floored me. (It was later released on DVD by the great folks at Benten Films, but at the time he was selling home-burned copies out of his apartment. If I remember correctly, we had a brief conversation on MySpace after I ordered it. How’s that for putting a great big old date stamp on this particular interaction?)
At the time this whole “mumblecore” business was just getting a foothold in the media, and it rankled me that Katz was being lumped in with the Swanbergs and Duplasses because, unlike that point-and-shoot crew, he takes tremendous care with his visuals. There’s a mysterious, lyrical quality to Katz’s pictures, and his use of music is often wonderfully counterintuitive. So with all that in mind, Land Ho! was one of the movies I was looking forward to most at Sundance this year, and I guess it was… fine.
It’s a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, but I found myself somewhat disappointed. Isn’t it, in the end, just a more rarefied take on the “Old Folks Say The Darndedst Things” genre? I mean, how far is Land Ho! really from Last Vegas?
Mulligan: I’d say it’s at least a continent away, not just literally but formally and thematically. There’s a sequence where Mitch and Colin, along with two women they’ve met up with, are eating at a fancy restaurant. Katz cuts, at least two or three times, to the employees preparing their food. The same goes for some sheep strolling across the landscape later on in the film. There’s no payoff to these shots in any traditional sense – they’re just part of the space, and thus worthy of the two directors’ attention. Where are we seeing decisions like that, at any level of American cinema?
Let’s cut to the chase, though. Clearly you’re not buying these characters and that humanist tone the way I bought these characters and that humanist tone. You’re comparing this to Last Vegas. I thought about a lot of things while I was watching Land Ho! I recall only one thought during Last Vegas: “Fuck this.” So when were you thinking “Fuck this” during Land Ho!?
Burns: Oh, I was never saying “Fuck this.” I liked the movie, but it left me wanting more. Paul Eenhoorn in particular is such a lovely screen presence (I really do need to get off my ass and watch This Is Martin Bonner, don’t I?) with those great, sad eyes and defeated body language. I adored the bit where he complained about seeing his ex-wife on Facebook — a guy from that generation dealing with what we’d all up until recently considered teenage problems is a pretty sharp gag given the greying of Zuckerberg’s current demographic.
Earl Lynn Nelson is a lot of fun, but obviously not an actor and is just kind of “that guy” (he’s a relative of co-director Stephens) plunked down in an exotic locale. There’s a fair amount of dead air during what feel like improvisations, and perhaps that’s what’s been keeping me from fully embracing the movie the way you and so many others have – it feels a bit like a first draft. They dropped this dude in Iceland and captured a few funny interactions, but when you said low-stakes in the opening paragraph, you weren’t kidding. There’s not really even any conflict to speak of. Maybe it’s my fault for wanting the movie to be something more than it wants to be, but I’m wondering what are these other things you mentioned thinking about during the film?
Mulligan: Stop. You, and every single person reading this, should go watch This is Martin Bonner right now. Eenhoorn’s sad eyes give that movie an old soul. The way he looks at his co-star (Richmond Arquette, as a criminal making sincere attempts to reform) in that film will stick with you. It’s this elusive mixture of pity, recognition, and disappointment – it’s like he’s seeing elements of himself in Arquette and doesn’t like it. I’m telling you, that movie gets at nothing less than the way we look at each other as people.
I think Land Ho! has a similar quality – not in terms of what it’s trying to “get at,” but just in that the whole film revolves around a soul created collectively by two actors. I don’t think Earl Lynn Nelson is “that guy,” I think he’s “the guy.” His good-ol-boy gusto gives this movie the kind of “cockeyed rhythm” I mentioned earlier – this is a type of humor a couple time zones removed from the New Yorker’s irony that characterizes most indie features we see. Maybe I’m just too easily pleased to see people who talk like my Alabama relatives up on screen, but his dime=store philosophy and goofy turns-of-phrase (what was a wedgie? “goats in your garden?”) felt strikingly authentic to me, whatever that means. As for Eenhoorn, I think we can agree: he’s just a beautiful straight man. His features are always just elated enough that we never wonder why his doesn’t just ditch this old boar of a man he’s traveling with.
What was I thinking about while watching the movie? Mainly, it was about the way Katz and Stephens foreground these men’s tiny little micro-aggressions and life anxieties against these cosmic, picturesque backgrounds. Let me sound highfalutin for a minute and try to pin it down: I think Katz and Stephens have made a film that’s trying to truly engage with the concept of travel and vacation. It’s dealing with the way we (or at least, people rich enough to do so) jet off to these postcard locations so we can craft these narratives we think will fix our lives. I think the film pays attention to every element of that, from the skyscapes and the sheep below them to the waiters and chefs at the hotel restaurant. Most of all I think this movie sees through all the bullshit of these life-changing-trip narratives without ever taking the piss out of the people indulging in them – a humanist comedy about a very silly human tradition.
I’m even willing to forgive the apparent improv, because I think it ties in interestingly with those themes and ideas – these two men fumbling and bumbling their way through conversations all while being caught in the middle of these painterly frames. So we’ve probably reached a bit of an impasse arguing about the text here, unless you really need to tell me I’m out of my mind for reading this deeply into two retirement-age men making fart jokes. Let’s talk about this for a minute then: why’d you fall for Katz’s work in the first place? What is this losing for you – or at least, what promise is it not fulfilling?
Burns: I guess this time around I missed the mystery. One of the things I dug so much about Katz’s 2010 film Cold Weather was the way his Sherlock Holmes stand-in could solve everything except his relationship with his sister, and by contrast Land Ho! has no such puzzlements and exactly one dramatic revelation that we can all see coming from the first or second scene. There’s not much meat on these bones.
It’s a real crowd-pleaser, and since it sounds like I’m pissing all over the movie here today, let’s reiterate that I had a good time while watching it, and my projectionist pal and I quoted that “goats in your garden” line more than once when we got drunk after the festival was over. But this is still the slightest, least peculiar, most audience-friendly Aaron Katz picture I’ve seen, so I guess all of my quibbles probably sound like some fucking hipster whinging when his favorite indie band signs to a major label.
Land Ho! is going to be massive at the blue-haired art-house I frequent where I’m always at least three decades younger than everybody else in attendance. And deservedly so: the sucker plays. (It will probably still be showing there at Christmas.) It’s so very Sony Pictures Classics, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
I just wish there was a little more to it, that’s all.
Mulligan: Yeah, the script doesn’t have as much on its mind as the images. There’s another third-act-incident-you-can-see-from-a-mile-away – the one with Eenhoorn and the Canadian traveler they run into – that’s modulated for peak-crowd-please-ification. You’re not wrong on that point.
I do think there’s a mystery in this film, though. I think the moment with them wandering lost through the darkness, waving glow sticks, lighting up only these tiny fractions of their surroundings, has a great weight to it. I thought the little idiosyncrasies like that were worth the trip through the same-old-same-old narrative beats that served as their skeleton.
Burns: I think we should hash this out further during our upcoming trip to Iceland.