Malcolm (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Oct 14, 2021
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Malcolm (Blu-ray Review)


Nadia Tass

Release Date(s)

1986 (August 13, 2021)


Hoyts/Vestron Pictures (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #6)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: B+


[Editor’s Note: This Blu-ray release is REGION-FREE.]

Malcolm was the charming debut from the Australian filmmaking team of Nadia Tass and David Parker. Tass directed, Parker wrote the screenplay, and both produced. Parker also served as cinematographer, and was responsible for creating most of the wild gadgetry on display. Malcolm (Colin Friels) is a shy and withdrawn person living alone after the death of his mother. He’s a mechanical genius who loves inventing quirky gadgets, and when he’s fired from his job at the Metropolitan Transit Authority after building his own private tram on company time, he’s forced to take in a lodger to pay the bills. Frank (John Hargreaves) is a petty thief who has just been released from prison, and along with Frank’s girlfriend Judith (Lindy Davies), the trio form an unlikely friendship when Malcolm's mechanical skills prove useful for creating inventive ways to stage a heist.

The main character was inspired by Tass’ brother John Tassopoulos, who had died three years earlier after being struck by a car while suffering an epileptic seizure. While it’s never stated in the film, it’s clear that Malcolm has a form of autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. He lacks basic social skills, struggles to make eye contact, has a peculiar shuffling walk with his head kept down, and has a compulsive focus on the Australian rail system, with a savant-like memory for detail. He’s an innocent in his own way, and even as he joins Frank and Lindy in a life of crime, he does so without any malicious intent. He’s always expressed himself through his inventions, and it’s just that he’s finally found a way for that expression to have a practical purpose.

The film’s centerpiece is a heist featuring a hilariously creative use of Malcolm's gift for radio-controlled devices, which end up seeming to dance to the strains of a classic composition from the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Telephone & Rubber Band. (If that piece of music sounds familiar to film fans, it’s because Oliver Stone later used it as the outro for Talk Radio.) There’s also a memorable scene where Malcolm creates his own version of what he thinks a getaway car should be, much to Frank’s delight—though Judith ends up being a bit less impressed.

Malcolm swept the Australian Film Institute Awards for 1986, winning Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, and Best Sound. While it may seem like a fairly lightweight film to modern audiences, it was a landmark for the Australian film industry, and it captures a time and a place for the nation in its own unique way. If Malcolm is somewhat inconsequential, it’s also deeply heartfelt, and that’s always valuable.

David Parker shot Malcolm on 35 mm using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Umbrella describes the transfer as an “exclusive 4K restoration,” which was performed by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. There’s no information regarding the elements that they used, but it may have been a secondary element like an interpositive rather than the original negative. There’s the usual slight softness during the opening title sequence due to the optical printing, but the rest of the film shows more detail, even if it’s still not quite perfectly sharp. (On the other hand, it’s sharp enough to be able to clearly see a stunt driver with a very inappropriate handlebar mustache driving one half of the getaway car.) Grain is generally even, though there’s a bit of noise as well in some of the darkest scenes. The color balance is good if somewhat muted, but Malcolm has never been a particularly colorful film, so it’s an accurate representation of the overcast look that was intended by Parker. There are a few moments where the colors really do stand out against the subdued backgrounds, such as the yellows and greens on the trams, or the deep blues on Malcolm’s overalls, but it’s always in a naturalistic fashion. The contrast is solid, but there’s crush in the blacks, with not much detail in the shadows. It’s not a perfect transfer, but it’s unquestionably the best that Malcolm has ever looked on home video.

Audio is available in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s clean with clear dialogue, and the varied musical tracks are supported well. (Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s title track Music for a Found Harmonium is a bit of an earworm, so consider yourself forewarned.)

Umbrella’s Blu-ray release for Malcolm is #6 in their Sunburnt Screens line. It’s labeled on the back as Region B, but like most of their discs, it’s actually Region-Free. The insert is reversible, with one side omitting the mandatory Australian “M” classification on the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. The extras are a combination of new and archival features from the previous Umbrella DVD release:

  • “A Quieter Time” (HD – 10:30)
  • Audio Commentary with Nadia Tass and David Parker
  • Malcolm at the AFI Awards (Upscaled HD – 3:19)
  • “Where Was It Filmed” (HD – 15:16)
  • NSFA Malcolm Car (HD – 2:15)
  • Popcorn Taxi Q&A with Nadia Tass and David Parker (Upscaled HD – 6:52)
  • Interview with Colin Friels (Upscaled HD – 7:04)
  • SBS Movie Show Interview with Lindy Davies (Upscaled HD – 1:36)
  • David Parker and Nadia Tass Archival NSFA Interview (HD – 0:54)
  • More Malcolm Gizmos (Upscaled HD – 1:26)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:18)

The commentary track was originally recorded for Umbrella’s 2001 DVD. Generally, Tass talks about the themes and the characters, while Parker covers the technical details such as identifying locations and explaining the gadgets, though there’s some overlap. Not in terms of speaking, however—the two are amusingly polite, and never interrupt each other even a single time. They clearly have a very comfortable relationship together, though the laid-back nature of it means that there are some gaps here and there. They give plenty of interesting details, such as how they had used the music by Penguin Cafe Orchestra as temp tracks while editing, but when the score they commissioned didn’t work very well, they had to go back and secure the rights to use the temp music instead. They discuss how they saw the characters as a functional family, playing the roles of father, mother, and child. They also describe the research that Friels did into Malcolm's condition before playing the part, though it’s worth noting that they use some terminology which was outdated in 2001, let alone 2021.

In “A Quieter Time”, David Parker discusses casting the film, admitting that he wanted Colin Friels to play Frank, but Tass always had the title role in mind. He notes how it was important to him that viewers always be laughing with the characters rather than at them. He also explains the difficulty getting distribution for the film, and it was actually the successful American release by Vestron Pictures which helped them gain an Australian distributor. Malcolm at the AFI Awards is a quick interview with Tass, Parker, and Friels, where they discuss their wins after the ceremony. “Where Was It Filmed” features YouTuber Paul Hagl in 2018 visiting the locations where Malcolm was shot, and showing how they’ve changed over the span of three decades—interestingly, a few of them haven’t really changed at all. NSFA Malcolm Car is a short video from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, showing them adding Malcolm's getaway car to their collection and putting it on exhibit. Popcorn Taxi Q&A is an excerpt from the question-and-answer session which followed a showing of Malcolm at the Popcorn Taxi Film Festival in Australia. Tass and Parker reflect on their feelings about the film, explaining how their limited budget forced them to be more creative, and wondering if they would have difficulty making the picture today. Tass admits that she loves Malcolm more than any of their other films together. The interview with Colin Friels includes him talking about the script; the experience of watching the film with an audience for the first time; the characters; how Malcolm's criminality actually provides liberation for the audience as well as for Malcolm; how Malcolm saw utility in things like discarded cardboard; the essential humanity of the film; and what Malcolm represents to him personally. The SBS Movie Show interview is also an interview at the AFI awards, this time with Lindy Davies discussing her own win. The Archival NSFA Interview is a very brief clip of Tass and Parker talking about the film; it appears to have been from an event celebrating the getaway car being put on exhibit. More Malcolm Gizmos is a strange news clip of the getaway car and Malcolm’s tram being operated during a parade in Melbourne, as well as extra footage of the getaway car running through the streets afterward.

For all of the elaborately constructed gadgets on display in Malcolm, it’s a disarmingly artless film. Just as Malcolm maintains his innocence no matter what occurs, the film stays simple and direct, without unnecessary embellishment. There’s not a trace of ironic detachment that contemporary filmmakers would likely bring to the story. Malcolm is indeed an artifact of its time and its place, in more ways than one, but it’s a lovely example of a kind of storytelling that’s less common today.

- Stephen Bjork

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