Folks, although by the time you read this review the full retail copy of Exam will probably be on sale, I have only Sony's uncompleted check disc to assess. Now I am hoping that the multiple errors that I encountered with this transfer are a result of this unfinished condition or, as could also be the case, this is merely a faulty disc. However, whilst I will detail the problems in full, I will also endeavour to discuss the many merits that the picture has, as at the end of the day, the one you pick up from the shelves or from an online supplier is more than likely to be free of such defects.
Sony dish out this exam paper with a crisp and detailed 2.35:1 image that has been encoded via AVC MPEG-4.
Now, given the tight visual structure of the film and the concerted lack of variety in terms of sets and locations, you could be forgiven for assuming that the transfer would be somewhat lacking in pizazz, or that elusive “pop” that writers are so fond of referring to, but this is not the case at all. Exam looks colourful, and is often strikingly rendered and highly detailed. There is an undeniable gloss to the picture, any visual austerity that being confined to a single office room might have suggested quite nicely shunted aside in favour of bold primaries, surrealistic shadings and intricately delineated close-ups. This is a film that thrives on faces, on eyes, on intimate set-ups of expressions and reactions - so there is no point waiting to assess how the disc copes with backgrounds, city streets, crowds or the sky. This is a claustrophobic format that deliberately feels contained, yet never once comes across as anything other than cinematic at the same time.
Colours are great and various deep hues are utilised when the candidates effect some lighting tactics to try to glean whether or not the elusive and all-important question has been planted on the paper in invisible ink of ultraviolet etc. The screen, thus, becomes suffused with a couple of deep primaries when the emergency lighting is activated, and the disc copes well with this. Blood, when we see it, is rich and realistic, and skin-tones accurate and authentically varied from ethnic colouring to tanned, from pallid, pasty white to the expertly made-up from those eager to impress. The various shades that White goes through - yes, thankfully, he does suffer a little bit - are effectively depicted, as well.
Edge enhancement and DNR are not a problem at all and the transfer does look nicely textured and suitably film-like. Fast action - yes, there is some - occurs without any mishap, and there is no aliasing or smearing. The image is mainly very up-front and vivid and the weird lighting that goes on does not hamper the detail in the near-zone at all. Contrast is fine and black levels can, at times, be very strong indeed.
Sadly, there were a few glitches with this disc which, as I said earlier, I presume are limited to just my check disc. There was a high and very distracting degree of banding taking place throughout, some portions of the frame became blurred during one particular sequence, with the character of Black eerily melting into the background on the far left of the image, and I experienced several incidents of juddering and some inexplicable clouds of pixelation. Of course, I scrutinised the disc, itself, looking for clumsy fingerprints or any other obvious suspects, but found nothing. However, I would suspect that the full retail copy delivers a much better overall visual performance than this.
I will award Exam a mark that I believe will be respective of the finished product. So, going on the good things that I saw here, Exam gets a 7 out of 10.
Although the disc has often been listed as carrying a DTS-HD MA track, there is actually nothing of the sort on this check disc. We have two audio options, Dolby Digital tracks in both 5.1 or 2.0 flavours. Now, the 5.1 track comes across very well indeed. The ambient score from Barton and Cracknell is deftly handled and produces a thick and smothering wall of atmospheric sound that issues out from the front and makes some considerable progress across the soundstage to envelop you. Various effects - a ticking clock, door clickings and sensor activations, as well as stiletto heels on a polished floor - come across well, but this is not a film of dynamic activity stretched around the speakers. Exam is, predominantly, a dialogue driven experience.
So, although there are some instances of discrete surround usage, don't go expecting fireworks. Bass levels may be apparent with a couple of impacts and tumbles, but this won't be taxing your sub. Dialogue, though, is acutely delivered with every syllable clearly rendered and the stereo spread of exchanges reasonably wide, meaning that the spatial depiction of the exam room is actually quite realistic sounding. Some degree of steerage is produced with some of the more heated and mobile exchanges, but this is a disc that is, comparatively speaking, low-key and understated.
Although decked out with a commentary from Hazeldine and his editor, a Behind the Scenes featurette, a series of interviews with cast and crew, a photo gallery and a trailer, this check disc's either unfinished or faulty nature meant that I could not gain access to any of them.
Therefore you can take this score with a pinch of salt - I am merely awarding a mark for each of things offered.
Exam is well worth a look, folks. With the popularity of TV's The Apprentice, it was a cinch that the concept would be pushed to such a dramatic and compelling extreme. But the great thing about Stuart Hazeldine's diabolical corporate competition is the Twilight Zone/Outer Limits aura that gradually begins to unfurl around it. This is The Office, as written by Richard Matheson. As each new development unfolds, clues skewing our understanding and our various allegiances this way and that, the over-arcing mood changes and we enter a realm of almost Prisoner-like surrealism. The film has been likened to Cube and there are even a few dissenters who claim that it rips off Spain's The Method - though to a much lesser degree than Christopher Smith did with Triangle, which just had to have been lifted from Time Crimes - but Exam still feels fresh and intriguing enough in its own right.
Yet it is the performances that make it such a gripping drama. Mably is fantastic, as are Mistry and Iwuji and really it is only Nathalie Cox who lets the side down by being seemingly contrived and all too “obvious”.
This check disc from Sony had a fair few issues, but I feel that I can safely say the audio track, despite only being Dolby Digital, was a good one, and the image robust and detailed. It is a shame that I couldn't access the special features as I would love to learn a little more of what went into making the film and how Hazeldine made such a claustrophobic setting so infernal, and how he turned so mundane a device as an 80-minute test into something of a moral blitzkrieg.
Exam comes heartily recommended but, take it from me, no amount of swatting-up will prepare you for the psychological damage it may wreak.
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