Thursday 10 June 2010

Exam (2009) [Blu-ray]

Thursday 10 June 2010
DIRECTOR: Stuart Hazeldine
WRITERS: Stuart Hazeldine & Simon Garrity
CAST: Jimi Mistry, Colin Salmon, Luke Mably, Gemma Chan, Adar Beck, John Lloyd Fillingham, Chukwudi Iwuji, Polyanna McIntosh, Nathalie Cox & Chris Carey
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins.
A fine example of low-budget filmmaking in the Cube and Saw tradition of placing a group of disparate characters into one room to grapple with a mystery, Exam works well as a "calling card" for writer-director Stuart Hazeldine, although it's undermined by signposted developments and an underwhelming resolution. Here we find eight candidates sitting the titular exam for their "dream job", given three simple rules by the stern Invigilator (Colin Salmon), who starts the clock for an 80-minute test and leaves the room, letting the candidates realize their exam papers are all blank. So what's the question? What's the answer? And can the group work together to solve the test before time runs out?

First they assign themselves nicknames based on their appearance, disposition or ethnicity: loudmouth "White" (Luke Mably), intellectual "Dark" (Adar Beck), shy Frenchman "Deaf" (John Lloyd Fillingham), practical "Black" (Chukwudi Iwuji), quiet "Blonde" (Nathalie Cox), gambler "Brown" (Jimi Mistry), sexy "Brunette" (Polyanna McIntosh) and "Chinese" (Gemma Chan). All strangers to each other but determined to win this job at any cost, the candidates work together to crack the examination, while grabbing opportunities to eliminate each other by forcing rule-breaks. Obviously, a great deal of effort is exerted trying to find a hidden question on their papers using light and fluid, but as the clock ticks down to zero tensions become fraught and cracks appear in the already tenuous group dynamic.

Exam is certainly a stylish film that works better the less you know going in, but suffice to say this is an intelligent piece of work that develops its premise in a plausible and smart way over 101 minutes. The actors do a good job with characters initially as blank as their papers, growing only in relation to their interactions, and Halzeldine avoids the possibility of his concept becoming increasingly dull. A few details about the world these people inhabit offers an unexpected sci-fi tinge halfway through, too, although that's perhaps all taken a step too far by the end.

If you enjoy movies that emphasize character interactions and offer a mystery to solve in a claustrophobic environment -- such as Reservoir Dogs (paid homage to with the colour-heavy nicknaming?) and Spanish movie Fermat's Room -- Exam is a good, suspenseful offering to that sub-genre. It's unlikely you'll ever watch it again once you learn "the answer", but it's the kind of small movie you'll enjoy passing around to friends who value tight, character-based mysteries, and I suspect the talented Hazeldine will go onto bigger and better things.

Blu-ray Review

Picture (2.35:1, 1080i) It's disappointing the HD isn't progressive scan, but it's not very noticeable and the film content doesn't miss the added smoothness 1080p may have brought to the table. It's hardly testing your HD TV's capabilities, but the image itself is sharp and clean.

Sound (English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, English Stereo) Obviously this isn't going to test your surround sound setup or wow you to any extent, but it does a decent job handling the ambient noise, Matthew Cracknell's score, and crystal clear dialogue.

Special Features

Commentary. Audio commentary from Stuart Hazeldine that's disappointing considering my hope for great insight for aspiring filmmakers. It's not awful, but I didn't find it particularly engaging.

Trailer (SD, 2 mins.) Exam's trailer is decent, but the film's in something of a Catch-22 because even watching this gives away too much for my liking.

Photo Gallery (3 mins.) A nice selection of behind-the-scenes snaps, shown as an automated slideshow.

Behind The Scenes (SD, 6 mins.) This Making Of is very unsubstantial, but I always find it fascinating to see B-roll of low-budget films being made, as everything looks so terribly cheap and uninspiring on-set. The disparity between seeing a few scenes being run through here versus the high-def movie itself is stark. Shame it only runs a measly 6 minutes. Was there really no more interesting footage?

Interviews (SD) A collection of interviews with the cast and crew, each playable separately. Director Stuart Hazeldine (6 mins.) provides background to his "Saw without the gore" project, producer Gareth Unwin (1 min.) and D.O.P Tim Wooster (1 mins.) briefly offer a few sound-bites, and the cast chip in with an array of comments (13 mins.)