2009 CIFF: Looking for Eric (2009)/The Castle (1997)

Directors: Ken Loach/Rob Sitch

2009 Chicago International Film Festival /
Double Bill Blogathon 2

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Gautam Valluri’s Double Bill Blogathon 2 is going on this week at The Broken Projector. So is my coverage of the 2009 CIFF. I promised Gautam that if I could find a good double bill among the festival offerings, I’d participate in his blogathon, which I enjoyed so much the first time around that I did two different double bills for it. Well, Gautam and festival goers, I’ve got one. Ken Loach’s brand-new dramedy about the midlife crisis of a Manchester postman and a sweetly riotous Australian comedy about a happy guy about to lose his home to an airport expansion will leave your hearts touched and your funny bones thoroughly aching from a good workout. Both films, the former part of the festival’s main competition, the latter the selection for Roger Ebert Presents…, are very good viewing bets.

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a twice-divorced postman whose teenage sons Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs) are surly, lazy TV addicts who won’t go to school, whose grown daughter Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is trying to get a college degree while raising a baby singlehandedly, and whose one great pleasure in life is his idol-worship of Manchester United’s retired power forward from France, Eric Cantona. The film opens on a rather dazed-looking Bishop driving his car the wrong way on a roundabout. Handheld close-ups of Bishop leaning on his steering wheel and medium shots of cars swerving to avoid hitting him intercut. Finally, the screen goes black at the sound of crashing metal and glass.

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Bishop’s oddly nicknamed boss Meatballs (John Henshaw) takes his bruised, but largely unhurt mate home. The reason for Bishop’s catatonia was coming face to face with his first wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop), Sam’s mother, for the first time in a very long time as they trade off taking care of baby Daisy while Sam speeds to finish her dissertation. Even though he walked out on her, Bishop has never gotten over Lily. Throughout the course of the film, we peek in on Bishop’s memories of meeting Lily at a swing-dance competition in 1979 and the painful humiliation he suffered when his overbearing father (Max Beesley) belittled him for ruining his life by having to marry his pregnant girlfriend.

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Meatballs enlists several of Bishop’s friends to try to cheer him up. One by one, they try to get his endorphins going with jokes. Then Meatballs gathers them together and reads visualization exercises from a self-help book. One of the exercises has each man name someone whose personal qualities he would like to have and imagine that he can see the world through his idol’s eyes. Sammy Davis, Jr. comes up (“see yourself through his eyes; well, one eye”), as does Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Naturally, Bishop chooses “King” Eric Cantona. This choice will have amusing and empowering consequences, as Cantona starts appearing to Bishop and giving him pointers on how to change his life for the better.

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The real Eric Cantona cooperated on the writing of the script and appears in the movie in both archival footage of his greatest moments on the soccer pitch and as a figment of Bishop’s imagination. As he offers Bishop advice in the loopy aphorisms for which he is known (“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”), Bishop learns the value of teamwork, discipline, commitment, and love. For example, Bishop asks Cantona what it was like when he was on suspension, looking to understand how to handle crushing frustration. “It was hard,” Cantona admits. “I had nothing to do. So, I learned the trumpet.” “The trumpet?” Bishop says in astonishment. Cantona produces a trumpet and starts playing a very offkey version of La Marseillaise in an act of unself-conscious image busting.

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The film turns dark when Ryan falls prey to a psycho hoodlum and can’t get out from under. Bishop asks Cantona about his greatest moment on the field, ticking off several crucial goals, illustrated by archival footage. “No,” says Cantona to each suggestion. “It was a pass.” The moment is shown, and Bishop wonders how Eric would have felt had his teammate failed to make the goal. “You must trust your teammates.” Bishop calls Meatballs and his mates to a brainstorming session about Ryan’s predicament in the local football pub, setting up the spectacular centerpiece of the film.

Looking for Eric isn’t an advancement in film making, though some younger filmmakers could take a lesson from Loach on the proper use of handheld cameras. Instead, it is an affectionate look at the positive and sometimes silly aspects of sports fandom, a celebration of love and forgiveness, and a powerhouse of endorphin production, with likeable, convincing performances all around.

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Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton), the head of a very happy household in The Castle, is almost the exact opposite of Eric Bishop. Kerrigan, we are told by his slightly doltish son Dale (Stephen Curry), who narrates the story, has the world by the tail. Darryl negotiated a steal on his house, whose large backyard (landfill laced with lead) adjoins a runway of the Melbourne Airport. This turns out to be a great convenience when daughter Tracy (Sophie Lee) and new son-in-law Con (Eric Bana) are able to wheel their luggage home on a trolley after their honeymoon in Thailand.

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Darryl’s wife Sal (Anne Tenney) works wonders in the kitchen (“What do you call that?” “Chicken.” “What’s that on top?” “Seasoning.” “Why would you want to go out with meals like this coming up night after night!”) and handcrafts hideous lampshades, riveted sweatshirts, and misshapen coffee mugs. Darryl assures her she’d make a fortune if she just opened a shop. Indeed, everyone in the Kerrigan family is affirmed for who they are and what they do. Steve (Anthony Simcoe) is an “ideas man” who makes shrewd deals for jousting sticks and ergonomic chairs in the local Trading Post, incarcerated son Wayne (Wayne Hope) simply fell in with the wrong crowd, and Dale, um, digs nice holes.

This functional family and their friendly neighbors—Lebanese laborer Farouk (Costas Kilias), pensioner Jack (Monty Maisels), and Evonne (Lynda Gibson)—all receive notices that their happy homes are about to be eminent-domained out of existence at the behest of the mighty Barlow Group to make way for a freight terminal at the airport. Darryl protests. His first court date, at which he basically tells the government to get stuffed, is a disaster. He then hires Dennis Denuto (Tiriel Mora), the only attorney he knows, to represent him on appeal, pumping him full of Kerrigan confidence even though his representation of Wayne garnered the lad 8 years in prison (“You did your best.”). Dennis’ case, based on the Australian Constitution, boils down to naming a couple of decisions Dennis heard about in law school, asking the judge (Robyn Nevin, as the very embodiment of sober jurisprudence) in a sidebar if she can give him a couple of hints, and repeating again and again that “it’s the vibe.” As Darryl packs up his castle, his whole world crushed, a knock on the door may prove to be his salvation.

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The cast is perfect in every detail, from the strangely parted hair of Dale and Steve to the frosted pink lipstick Sal wears, and all the more funny for the absolute conviction with which they play their parts. Contrasting this working-class family with the constitutional law QC Lawrence Hammill, played by the late, great Charles “Bud” Tingwell, and showing that pride of family and pride of place are common human qualities, no matter where on the socioeconomic spectrum a person falls, was a great stroke of genius. Darryl Kerrigan’s optimism is a bit cockeyed, but not even a little bit misplaced, as he can put a positive spin on nearly anything and holds himself and his fellow human beings in high esteem, charming Hammill in the process. His enthusiasm could wear thin on some, but we’d all be better off with a few more Darryls in the world.

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Perhaps needless to say, the film has a happy ending to go with its many gentle and outrageous comic moments. You can buy a house, but you can’t buy a home. That’s the ultimate lesson of the funny and touching The Castle. l

  • Greg F spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 3:42 pm

    I never saw The Castle on the big screen with an audience, just on cable by my lonesome. I’d love to see it with a crowd. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance at the AFI here. For now the best I can do is see it again, this time with my wife.
    And thanks for the link. By the way, I never watched Blast because frankly, I didn’t trust that site. Its copy had odd grammar mistakes and didn’t quite look on the up and up and I wasn’t about to give them my money so I’ll just have to keep looking around for a way to watch it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/10/2009 to 8:34 pm

    Greg, I saw this at Ebertfest. It became an instant classic among the audience members. Roger, given the task of choosing a film he has shown at Ebertfest for CIFF, chose The Castle. It was a great pick, IMO.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/10/2009 to 9:25 am

    I seem to be the only person around who found The Castle barely competent and almost completely forgettable.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/10/2009 to 9:39 am

    Yes, Rod, you are. I think it is a charming movie. It has a lot of sentiment for sure, which may not be your cuppa, but it is cleverly feel-good, in my opinion. I liked that the actors played these characters with such conviction, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked at all. They weren’t being made fun of, which is what I find troublesome about a lot of modern comedies. I like the Kerrigans even though I’d be appalled under normal circumstances by the tackiness of their home.

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    8th/10/2009 to 11:49 am

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    9th/10/2009 to 12:52 pm

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  • Gautam spoke:
    10th/10/2009 to 12:12 am

    Marilyn- thanks so much for taking time out to contribute to the blogathon. I’ve been eagerly awaiting “Looking for Eric” for several months now, ever since “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” and the fact that I missed “It’s a free world…”. I’ve noticed how “Eric” could point to either Eric Bishop or Eric Cantona, and how the whole Manchester United element can be traced back to the school football match sequence from Loach’s “Kes”, made almost 40 years ago. I’m curious, if you were to try out the exercise, which ‘idol’ would you choose?

    The Castle sounds interesting too, seems like a part of the string of the great films to have come out of Australia in the 1990s.

    Thanks again for writing this for the blogathon, although this year the entries have been far too less. But I don’t know, times just change so much, I never seem to find time for the things that matter the most. I was hoping the blogathon would catapult me back into the blogosphere but I realize now it’s my own initiative to write on a regular basis that will get me back to that phase when I first started my blog and how excited I was to write something.
    It’s always inspiring to see you write on a regular basis. I will be following your festival coverage actively!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/10/2009 to 7:30 am

    Gautam – It was my pleasure. I always enjoy hooking up with you in some way, though the opportunities have been fewer in recent times. I haven’t seen Kes (I know, a terrible gap), so I can’t answer your question. But I really liked Cantona and thought he was a worthy choice for idol worship.
    I hope you enjoy the rest of the coverage.

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