Reviews: Land Ho! and Calvary

Moving right along through my recent theater-going: today you get an indie two-fer! I could try to find a thematic or dare I say spiritual link between these two films, but it would be laborious. Let’s just accept that I don’t feel like making these two separate posts and move on.

Land Ho!

A convincing friendship can be even trickier to film than a good romance: friendship is so often based, not necessarily on common interest or natural chemistry or even long-term compatibility, but shared experience. It’s a tricky thing to convey, in an hour and a half, many years of backstory and interaction; the greatest strength of “Land Ho!,” a quiet, agreeable road-trip flick, is how effortlessly its two leads slide into the tail end of a lifetime of companionship.

As former brothers-in-law Mitch and Colin, Earl Lynn Nelson and Paul Eenhoorn have the ease of amateurs; neither has an extensive history in acting, but they both appear incredibly comfortable in front of the camera and playing off each other. In fact, whether Nelson, the rambling, outgoing and stubborn half of the pair, is even acting at all may be a bit of a question. Mitch is the sort of older gentleman who can no longer be bothered with disagreement or decorum – when he informs Colin, who has just been dumped by his second wife (back in the day, the two men married sisters, both of whom have by this point passed), that the two are going to go on a trip to Iceland, it’s not really a suggestion but a statement, and there will be no dithering niceties about footing the bill, either. Colin, far more introverted and gentle, has no choice but to be swept along for the ride.

Mitch and Colin make for an amusing and endearing odd couple, swapping meals at five-star restaurants, idly chatting about younger women and getting lost in the Icelandic wilderness. Co-writers and directors Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”) and Martha Stephens avoid the obvious geezer jokes of old men out-of-place at a nightclub or ingratiating themselves with the Young Folk, letting humor arise naturally out of Nelson and Eenhoorn’s strong character work rather than taking old age itself as the joke. The film has no grand ambitions, no terrific insights into aging, loss or fraternity; Mitch and Colin are not metaphors for imminent mortality nor faded distinction. They’re just a couple of guys on a particularly nice vacation.

This modest, humane little portrait is complemented by the film’s vibrant scenery, bouncing soundtrack and leisurely pace. The structure is more or less episodic, as Mitch and Colin toodle from one hotel to another, stopping at spas, waterfalls, geysers, bars, beaches; it’s a fluid, appealing, aimless experience. Katz and Stephens seem to be inviting their audience to just relax and soak in life as their protagonists do – and it’s tough to want to argue with them.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars



“I think there’s too much talk about sins, to be honest. Not enough about virtues.”

I find it impossible to talk about John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” without getting a little into my personal life. I don’t think these details are critical to appreciating McDonagh’s superb, acerbic moral drama, but they might help to explain why this film in particular knocked me sideways.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the American-based branch of Anglicanism. I am what’s known in the biz as a PK – Priest’s Kid. My father’s churches in Massachusetts, Chicago and Cleveland were loving, supportive communities and I do not mention this to make any sort of complaint. I merely want to mention that I feel I have witnessed, in a very firsthand way, the casual and ever-increasing disillusionment and wariness of the modern world towards “the church” (and rest assured, in the eyes of many, the distinction of which church exactly you’re talking about isn’t particularly crucial). Again, I don’t wish to paint this as an account of any kind of distress suffered by myself or my family – just some observations I’ve made, quietly, over the years. The slight beat after a new acquaintance asks what your parents do, and perhaps a quick shift in conversation. Unprompted declarations of atheism. A noticeable discomfort in the room when you invite your friends to the Youth Group’s spring musical.

If you take what’s at the heart of these reactions, drag them out into the open and strike the very real, very raw pain endured by the victims of church abuse, you are approaching the ground that “Calvary” dares to address with acid wit. Though the rock at its center is the sympathetic, hounded Father James (Brendan Gleeson) – a good man even by the standards of the film’s veiled “antagonist-” “Calvary” makes no attempt to cover up the horrors of the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals, nor excuse them as an anomaly. What Father James (and, by extension, McDonagh) seems to be searching for is a purpose in the wake of devastation: what, in essence, is the point? What role do the church and faith serve in a jaded, damaged world that, for unsettlingly good reasons, has turned against it? Why should Father James continue to serve a community that not only doesn’t like him, but is an active threat?

These are the questions on the film’s mind, despite an initial setup that feels more like a ticking-clock suspense thriller. “Calvary” opens in a cramped confession booth, as Father James listens to a man informing him that, in retribution for the sexual abuse suffered by this man as a child, he is going to murder Father James in a week’s time. The man’s intention is to cause a stir – killing a bad priest might be justice, but it would be a part of the natural order of things, the cycle of crime and punishment. This mysterious figure wants to upset that order, to cause real change.

Father James knows who the man is, but we do not: a reversal of dramatic irony that gives “Calvary” a riveting tension. What will the priest do – accept this man’s judgment? Fight back? Abandon the small, coastal Irish village that he calls home? We certainly wouldn’t blame him if he picked the latter. As Father James goes about his business for the week, calling on various members of his flock, we are treated to a gaggle of low-lifes and cynics: a self-righteous wife-beater (Chris O’Dowd), a nihilistic member of the nouveau riche (Dylan Moran), an imposing immigrant mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé), a scathingly atheistic doctor (Aidan Gillen), and others. They are almost universally, cartoonishly horrible to Father James, dismissive of him and his calling. McDonagh skirts the edge of caricature, reigning in the film’s more outlandish characters with flashes of brutality and harsh truth. There is a point at which black humor becomes so dark it’s difficult to say whether it’s even comedy anymore – those are the shadows in which “Calvary” lives.

Father James’ respite, such as it is, comes from his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). Retreating to the village after a failed attempt at suicide, Fiona (born when Father James was still married, before his wife passed and he joined the priesthood) is similarly floundering; but it’s in their conversations, as well as Father James’ encounter with a grieving widow (Marie-Josée Croze) that we see something refreshing, and possibly redemptive: intimacy. Cynicism may be earned, but at what point does it become self-perpetuating?

The cast is uniformly excellent, but even so Gleeson looms large. It is no easy thing to be so weary and yet so stubborn – if patience is a virtue, Father James has long since booked his ticket to heaven. But still he forces himself on, and Gleeson’s measured performance reveals the weight every word costs Father James. And, while much of the success of “Calvary” relies on the acting ensemble and McDonagh’s precisely crafted screenplay, the writer-director shows a sophisticated eye for composition here that was almost entirely absent from his entertaining but generally superfluous debut feature, “The Guard.” The opening confessional scene, for instance, is a small masterpiece of lighting: as Father James, at the height of his disgust with the unspeakable abuse heaped on his would-be killer, leans ever so slightly back into the dark, one wonders if he’ll ever be able to make his way back.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars