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by Eric Kohn
January 19, 2014 5:36 PM
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Sundance Review: How the Road Trip Dramedy 'Land Ho,' From Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, Transcends Clichés

Indie road trip comedies are perhaps the worst cliché of low budget American filmmaking, but "Land Ho!," the story of two aging men on a meandering vacation in Iceland, provides a notable exception. This unassuming, elegantly shot collaboration by directors Aaron Katz ("Cold Weather," "Quiet City") and Martha Stephens ("Pilgrim Song," "Passenger Pigeons") actively avoids any melodramatic confrontations or cheesy subplots. A gentle meditation on growing old and bored, "Land Ho!" never rises to the level of narrative engagement found in the filmmakers' previous efforts, but it doesn't take much to make it sufficiently insightful, carried along by a pair of actors so inherently likable from the outset that "Land Ho!" hardly requires a lot of story to set their adventure in motion.

Essentially a two-hander from start to finish, "Land Ho!" opens with the soft spoken Colin (Paul Eenhoorn, star of last year's sleeper hit "This Is Martin Bonner") paying a visit to his foul-mouthed pal Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), who promptly announces that he has bought the two of them tickets to Iceland. Ex-brother-in-laws previously married to a pair of sisters, the men have nothing better to do with their time — their age is never revealed, but both appear to be well into their seventies and have retired, affording them the luxury of throwing caution to the wind. From their initial scene together, their off-beat chemistry is made amusingly obvious, as Mitch compares the food he's cooked to "angels pissing on your tongue" and Colin mostly looks back with a good-natured smirk. That natural rhythm, with Mitch running his mouth and Colin mostly trying to reign it in, continues over the course of their journey through Iceland's expansive natural scenery.

Yet rather than casting the duo as an odd couple on the verge of getting into trouble, Katz and Stephens merely observe the pair as they veer through the country's popular spots, hiding their fears in one carefree activity after another. "We're getting our groove back," Mitch says with a smile, but neither of them express any comprehension of what that means. In Reykjavik, they spend time with two of Mitch's younger women relatives, grad students passing through town, whom Mitch offers anachronistic advice about female style over an increasingly awkward dinner in which one of the visitors compares the genial Colin to her dad. "I'm not uncomfortable with my age," he says, but the next scene, in which the two men huddle in the corner of a blaring nightclub, suggests otherwise.

"Land Ho!" maintains this tendency toward allowing its two leads to internalize their insecurities, while gradually exploring them through terse exchanges. The wizened Mitch's constant attempts to liven things up — mainly by brandishing a joint — strike a noticeable contrast to the more recently divorced Colin: While Mitch grasps to be forever, Mitch shows a constant fear of growing old. The landscape takes on a therapeutic dimension once they leave the city and drive through the country's vacant regions, exploring transcendently beautiful cliffsides and black sand beaches, while Keegan Dewitt's peaceful score underscores the cathartic nature of their journey. While Katz and Stephenson indulge in the hackneyed montage all-too-familiar from countless other road trip movies, in this case the trope has a psychological complexity that elaborates on their emotional state. Cinematographer Andrew Reed's images do justice to Iceland's otherworldly scenery, but rarely stray from focusing on capturing the two men within it, which allows their surroundings to become an apt reflection of their collective mindset.

Eenhorn, not far off from the alienated struggler he played in "Martin Bonner," makes for an adorably good-intentioned protagonist, while Nelson persistent goofiness is an incredible feat considering his age. As funny as any young comedic actor today, he's also far more assertive, giving Mitch a confidence that drives his over-the-top exclamations and makes them entirely credible. During one scene at an isolated inn, he meets a young married couple and unleashes a string of ridiculous one-liners ("How often have you been hitting the mattress?") with an upfront affability that allows him to get away it. Similarly, the movie gets away with trading plot for texture. The narrative progresses as a series of snapshots -- one scene, involving a potential romantic attraction, could function as a standalone short film. The movie's construction is an apt reflection of its characters' fragmentary existence.

Still, "Land Ho!" drifts from one scene to the next with such a light touch that it runs the risk of turning the men's trip into a trivial affair. But even without a major climactic moment, the filmmakers arrive at a thoughtfully triumphant conclusion. Treasuring small victories and mood above all else, "Land Ho!" makes it possible to engage with its subjects' pathos and experience their sense of renewal along with them, and concludes with the lingering sense that their adventure has only just begun.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A low key crowdpleaser in Sundance's NEXT section, the film is unlikely to attract a large deal given the small nature of its story and lack of name cast members. But decent reviews and word of mouth could attract a smaller distributor to take a gamble on the film's warm appeal, and in the right hands it could find an audience on VOD.

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