March 9, 2011

Exam (2009)

"Eight talented candidates have reached the final stage of selection to join the ranks of a mysterious and powerful corporation. Entering a windowless room, an Invigilator gives them eighty minutes to answer one simple question."

It's funny what Netflix suggests for you based on "your taste preferences", isn't it? Since I've been watching a lot of streaming "Dark, Suspenseful, Psychological Thrillers" recently, I was presented with "Exam" as one of my options. I'd never even heard of it and didn't really have much interest in watching it but, since I had another snow day with nothing else to do except see how honey cheese flavoured cheesy poofs I could get into my mouth in one go, I fired up my laptop and clicked "Play".

Starring nobody you've ever heard of outside of the UK (including a lot of TV actors from things like "Eastenders", "Holby City" and "Doctor Who"), "Exam" is an obviously low-budget, almost "Twilight Zone" sci-fi drama with a "Ten Little Indians" feel to it. I was immediately reminded of "Lifeboat", "Lifepod" and the "Cube" films and, due to the presence of Colin Salmon, "Resident Evil" too. As soon as I saw him, I remembered a "Doctor Who" episode that I'd seen him in recently and I knew that I was in for something good. It's funny how one actor can make that much of a difference even if, in this case, he isn't actually on screen for very long.

I was also quite impressed with how the various characters were shown getting dressed during the opening credits sequence. It's intimate, emotive and it very effectively added more exposition than any dialogue could ever do. I remembered just how it felt to get ready for examinations I have taken myself, the nerves involved, the anxiety, and how I wouldn't even be able to sleep properly the night before. I think this all added a lot to how I was willingly able to suspend my disbelief about the extremes these characters would go to later on.

One thing I don't like about watching movies on my laptop is that when they are filmed with so many extreme "warts and all" close-ups, I start to judge people by their skin pores, teeth, and any blemishes I see before they even begin to act. There are four absolutely beautiful girls in this, but because of the camerawork, I found myself completely unattracted to any of them. The same thing happened to me during the kissing scene in "Jennifer's Body" as pimply faced Megan Fox made me feel a little bit queasy. I'd be interested to know if anyone else notices things like this.

Anyway, to cut a not so long story even shorter, the whole thing is about a group of very different people all stuck together in one room trying to work out how to pass an exam to get a top job. If you imagine the worst people possible from "Big Brother" doing one of their weekly tasks then you get the idea. There are clever ones, nasty ones, natural leaders and followers, but all of them want to win at any cost. Keep that in mind when you pick your favourites at the beginning and be prepared for a few surprises should you choose to watch "Exam" yourself.

Another film that this reminded me of was "The Breakfast Club". It's probably the setting more than anything else but I'd even go so far as saying that the way the backgrounds of each character came out were quite similar. Admittedly, there's no hint of romance and not a lot of comedy in "Exam", but I did feel that it could have gone that way a few times if the script and direction hadn't been as controlled as it was. I wanted something to happen between Luke Mably and Nathalie Cox, and there certainly seemed to be some subtext there. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out to be what I thought it was at all.

Luke Mably may be known to American TV viewers for his role in "The Gates". I still haven't watched a single episode of it so I couldn't tell you who he is in it or whether the show is any good or not. In "Exam" he's absolutely excellent though, and you'll love and hate him at the same time. He pretty much eclipses all the others apart from former "Eastender" Jimi Mistry, but this is one of those stories where the characters you don't really notice turn out to be the most important.

You'll never guess the ending which is de rigueur for this genre unless you are one of those annoying people who can work out who the villain is in "Scooby Doo" cartoons or something. I'm sure there are a lot of reviewers who would lie and say that they worked out how it was going to end right from the start, but I'll happily admit that I didn't have a clue myself. I was too wrapped up in watching everyone solve the puzzle to even think about what it would lead to, and that is both the film's major strength and its weakness.

The slightly futuristic setting and the revelations about what is going on in the world outside which has lead the eight people to be taking this particular exam was a very inspired idea. The downside to this was that, ultimately, I didn't really care and found it to be a little bit far-fetched. The final scenes are somewhat of a cop-out, but at least they don't end up dead and living on an island or anything ridiculous like that. I had a horrible feeling that they would be when Jimi Mistry almost turned into Sayid at one point.

If you noticed how I've highlighted a lot of similarities between "Exam" and other films and TV shows then you'll probably realise that "Exam" isn't all that original. It really does borrow its best points from things we've all seen before. Having said that, all these elements have been so skilfully put together that most people wouldn't even notice. I suppose that's the curse of watching as many things as I do inside and outside of the horror genre. After a while, there really is nothing that original any more, just how it is presented with a slightly different spin on it.

Before I end this review, I have to mention that Adar Beck who plays "Dark" (they are all named after their hair colour or racial type) has some absolutely stunning photos of herself on her IMDb profile. I don't know anything about her since "Exam" was her first real film appearance other than a short which I've never seen, but I hope that she's in more good things in the future. Yes, I do now have a little crush on her, but it won't effect my rating of "Exam" in any way.

I'm happy to give "Exam" a pass mark of 7 out of 10. It has some great performances, looks good, and it held my interest all the way through. For someone like me who has the attention span of a gnat with ADHD, this is a great achievement. It only loses marks because the emotional payoff at the end didn't do anything for me as a hardened horror fan without much compassion for the human race in the first place. I'd obviously rate it even higher if Luke Mably's character, White, had been even more like me.

I recommend that you all take a small break from watching horror movies and give "Exam" a try. It's probably not something you'd want to buy or watch more than once, but it's certainly worth renting or adding to your Netflix queue.

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