Idiot Box Review
Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) is on the dole, and very angry. He sits at home drinking beer with best mate Mick (Jeremy Sims) and watching TV, seething in a stew of unspent testosterone. Then one day Kev has had enough. Instead of subsisting on a dole cheque he and Mick will earn money a much quicker way. At first they mug a charity collector in a koala outfit. From there it’s only a short step towards planning a bank robbery.
Idiot Box was writer-director David Caesar’s second feature. (The first was Greenkeeping, which isn’t on DVD and which I haven’t seen.) In retrospect this is a dry run for the far superior (and more coherent) Dirty Deeds, both entries in the post-Lock Stock, post-Tarantino crime-thriller-with-laughs genre. No doubt there are unemployed people who are victims of an uncaring society, which is what Kev and Steve would like to think they are. I’m not entirely sure that Caesar means us to take this at face value; certainly there’s no detectable irony to undercut their self pity. What irony there is, is laboured: the bank heist is strictly amateur hour and the cops (led by Graeme Blundell) are well aware of what’s going on. And when the heist spirals out of control, it’s nothing like what you see on the Idiot Box.
There’s considerable misapplied noise and energy in this film. To his credit Caesar doesn’t linger on inessentials, bringing Idiot Box in at well under an hour and a half. It’s fair to say that he’s advanced as a filmmaker since this. On the plus side, his ear for (frequently profane) dialogue is sharp, though unfortunately the characters who mouth it are basically unlikeable. As a director he clearly has a lot of technical resource, but at this stage of his career hasn’t quite worked out what to do with it. Some talented actors are left stranded: Ben Mendelsohn, for example, is much better utilised in Caesar’s next (and best) film, Mullet. Susie Porter (with longer hair than usual) turns up as Kev’s girlfriend, who gives back as good as she gets. Graeme Blundell was best known in the early 70s as the star of the sex comedy Alvin Purple, but he was and still is a solid character actor. As a comedy, Idiot Box is not very funny; as a drama of disaffected youth, it’s hollow.
Idiot Box gets a standard basic all-regions DVD release from Siren. The transfer is full-frame, open-matte. I haven’t seen this film in the cinema, and reference sources conflict as to the film’s original aspect ratio. Some say 1.85:1, though judging by the trailer and the extracts in the featurette it could be 2.35:1 (Super 35). As Caesar’s two subsequent films were shot in Super 35 and shown in Scope, the latter is not unlikely. The film has a somewhat drab look, no doubt down to the low budget. There’s several examples of aliasing, which might have been overcome by an anamorphic transfer.
The soundtrack is one of the loudest Dolby Surround mixes I’ve heard in a long time. I dread to think what a 5.1 remix would do to your hearing, or to your relations with your neighbours. There’s quite a bit of left and right, and left/surround and right/surround directional effects. As there isn’t an LFE channel, the bottom end isn’t as heavy as it could be. This may be just as well.
There are sixteen chapter stops, which is fine for a short film like this. No subtitles anywhere, which is much less fine.
Siren have provided a standard set of extras, plainly lifted from an electronic presskit. The trailer is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1. Now why couldn’t the feature have been shown that way, though anamorphic would have been preferable. It runs 1:28 and has a lot of spoilers.
Next up is a featurette, which is a standard promotional item, mixing clips from the film (again in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic – watch out for spoilers) mixed with brief behind-the-scenes shots and interviews with David Caesar, producer (not “director” as the menu claims) Glenys Rowe, Ben Mendelsohn, Jeremy Sims. Granted the interviewees are most likely under contract not to be disparaging about the film they’ve made, but the gulf between their claims for Idiot Box and the final film is yawningly wide. The most accurate comment is Rowe’s “It’s certainly not sensitive or New Age.” You’re not kidding. This featurette is full-frame and runs 5:44.
There are interviews, each divided into sections, with the four principals listed above, extended versions of the snippets found in the featurette. Each participant gets a sub-menu index. Caesar’s interview runs 2:22 and has four chapters; Rowe, 1:24 and four chapters; Jeremy Sims, 1:13 and two chapters; Mendelsohn, only 0:52 and a single chapter. Then finally there’s location footage, again full-frame and lasting all of 48 seconds.
Idiot Box is an early film from a director who has certainly progressed. It’s not a terrible film but it’s a noisy, confused and tiresome one, released on a DVD which is certainly nothing special.