Malcolm (Colin Friels) is not too bright, but he has a genius for mechanical devices. When he loses his job at Melbourne's tram station, he has to take in lodgers. These are ex-con Frank (John Hargreaves) and Jenny (Lindy Davies), who find that they could put Malcolm's skills to good use...
Malcolm was the debut film of the husband-and-wife team of Nadia Tass and David Parker. Prior to this, she was an actress and he was a stills photographer; he wrote the script during breaks in the production of Burke and Wills. Malcolm was very much a labour of love, and that shines through, despite the film's considerable rough edges. Tass's own brother inspired the character of Malcolm. She directed, he wrote, photographed and helped to build the various devices; they both produced. Shot on a very low budget, Malcolm is a film of considerable charm – imagine an Aussie take on an Ealing comedy – that is fast-paced, has considerable charm and is often funny. The "convertible" car you'll have to see for yourself (though it does feature on the back cover of the DVD). The leading performances are all delightful, and Simon Jeffes and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's score adds to the film's quirky feel. (The score is probably a little overfamiliar now, as tracks like "Telephone and Rubber Band" have been featured in several commercials.) The film is very rough and ready in places – Tass and Parker have become much slicker filmmakers since, and have been graced with higher budgets – but the essential thing with any comedy is whether it's funny or not, and at its best Malcolm is very funny indeed. It was nominated for eight Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, including Best Film, and won in every category.
Malcolm has an Australian PG rating. The BBFC gave the film a 15 on its cinema release and have maintained that certificate on video releases as recently as 1998. This may be due to some moderate language, which would really deserve a 12 at worst. Or maybe the BBFC considered that Malcolm might give the message that crime is harmless fun, and rated the film higher as a result. In any case, parents be advised. Chapter titles like "It's a job, dickhead" and "Hands up you arsehole!" should give anyone easily offended fair warning.
The first thing you notice about this DVD is its imaginative menu design, on a tram theme, scored to "Telephone and Rubber Band". As for the DVD transfer itself, it's 16:9 non-anamorphic: 1.75:1 was the original cinema ratio, but this is hardly the most visually distinguished of films. The transfer does a good job of capturing the film's natural-light look, though there is some aliasing and some of the interiors (especially the pub scenes) are too dark and contrasty. This DVD seems to have been sourced from a cinema print: there's a very noticeable reel-change mark about twenty minutes in. I doubt that an anamorphic transfer would make a lot of difference, as the original film is hardly a visual feast.
The sound is the original mono, and perfectly serviceable it is too for the most part. There's the occasional over-loud background noise, such as in the tram station at the beginning. The score sounds fine. There are fifteen chapter stops but unfortunately no subtitles.
If you go to the menu and highlight the top tramline ("play feature") and click left on your remote, you'll highlight the kiosk at the end of the line. This Easter Egg isn't all that exciting, as it consists of DVD credits. But it does tell you that the disc was authored by Madman, who have to be one of the most enterprising DVD labels in Australia at the moment, and who invariably produce well-thought-out DVD packages. (It's a pity they don't go for anamorphic transfers or subtitle tracks, but maybe some day.) The extras package for Malcolm is well up to their standards. It's divided into four sections: "Commentary", "Press Kit", "Parker and Tass" and "Cast". If you highlight the blue "Extras" box, you'll get another Easter Egg: 21 seconds of behind-the-scenes video footage of that car.
The audio commentary is a joint effort by Tass and Parker, recorded together. It's an interesting listen, with several anecdotes, though Tass tends unnecesarily to interpret the film for us.
"Press Kit" contains the nothing special trailer (2:09). It's letterboxed at 1.85:1 but doesn't look too badly cropped. There's a self-navigating stills gallery (1:43) and 3:01 of footage from the 1986 AFI Awards, where Tass and Parker are interviewed by leading Australian film critic David Stratton. "Reviews and press" is five pages of text: critical quote, mostly from the original film release but some dated 2001.
"Parker and Tass" features biographies and filmographies of both. Popcorn Taxi is a series of film screenings in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by questions from the audience. On this DVD there is 7:14 of a recent Q&A session that the duo gave after a screening of Malcolm. This was presumably a retrospective showing, as the two look quite a bit older than they did in 1986.
"Cast" comprises biofilmographies of Friels, Davies and Hargreaves. There are also interviews with the first two. (Hargreaves died of AIDS in 1996; there's a poignant moment in the commentary when Parker tells us that Hargreaves made Malcolm directly after learning he was HIV Positive.) Friels's interview (6:45) is preceded by a warning about picture quality: it's full-frame video, shot against the light, but it's not really any worse than the video of the AFI Awards. Davies's interview is shorter (1:30) and took place at the Awards ceremony. On the menu, if you highlight the slanted yellow box above Davies's name, you'll get a further Easter egg: another six seconds of AFI Awards footage.
To see the final Easter Egg, you have to play the final credits of the film to the end. You then get "Umbrella Propaganda", two trailers for other Umbrella DVDs. These are the Dustin Hoffman/John Malkovich film of Death of a Salesman and Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily?. Neither trailer is in very good condition.
Malcolm has a special place amongst Australian films of the 80s. The lack of subtitles earns it a demerit, but on the whole this DVD package does the film proud.