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1 review, 1 rating

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by Jay Seaver

"A tight, tense Québèçois thriller."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Columbarium" is not quite one jettisoned gimmick away from being a perfect little thriller, but it's tight and suspenseful enough to impress as it is, telling a good little story without much in the way of fat at all. It's a shame that even high-profile Québèçois films don't seem to make their way out of the province very often, because this one's a little gem.

Joe MacKenzie (Gilbert Comptois) was imperfect in life and remains so in death, as his will states that in order to inherit, his sons must spend a week at his lake house in rural Québèc building a columbarium for his remains (a sort of elaborate shrine). Both men have good reason to do so - older son Mathieu (David Boutin) is in dire financial straits from his work on Wall Street and the gambling he did in Vegas to make up the shortfall, while younger son Simon (Maxime Dumontier) could use the money to kickstart his current dream of heading to Los Angeles to become an actor. Of course, the MacKenzie boys have other issues, and the combination of alcohol, energy drinks, blackouts, and biblical quotes that mysteriously appear only serves to bring things closer to a boil despite the chill in the air.

Maybe Columbarium is a ghost story; maybe what happens is the endgame of the brothers' longtime issues; maybe executor Marcel (Pierre Collin) is playing them against each other. One thing is for sure: Writer/director Steve Kerr isn't going to tip his hand very much until absolutely necessary. This does not mean that he and the film are spinning their wheels, though; instead, he's built a situation where a great deal can be implied - the very fact that their father asks his sons to build him this shrine says as much about him and the inevitable relationships of the family as many flashbacks could - and where seemingly small things can crank the tension up a notch or two. Not bad for an indie filmmaker working with a small cast and mostly staying in one location, and he's got the skills to make small steps work.

Doing it that way means leaning heavily on the cast, but Boutin and Dumontier are up for it. It's easy to accept them as very different brothers from the start; they have the sort of familiarity and ability to push each others' buttons without disaster resulting that comes from knowing each other their whole lives. There's genuine affection between the pair, but also tension that puts just a little edge to their interactions, and when they start talking about their past, it immediately makes perfect sense. They've got nicely nuanced takes on what could be exaggerated types, and when things start to get freaky, they both have fine, and individual, takes on the requisite panic and suspicion. The biggest weakness is that they maybe look a little too close in age for how Mathieu refers to "your generation" when talking with Simon.

Kerr finds a nice location and shoots the heck out of it; not only does the cabin have an autumnal feel, but the gray is pervasive. The brief contrasts seen between Mathieu's home in New York and Simon's in Montreal help sell the characters early, and the road trip out to the countryside does have the feel of both getting out of their comfort zones. The photography is impressive from the start, although it's not too long before one starts noticing that Kerr and cinematographer Jean-Philippe Pariseau are actually changing the shape of the screen, pulling the sides in until the image has gone from "scope" to portrait. The filmmakers use this evocation of claustrophobia well, but it's a trick that the audience is very consciously noticing and focusing on by the end, whether or not they have been warned not to complain to the projectionist.

Even that gimmick is as much useful as it is distracting, though different viewers' mileage may vary on that. Even those who might perhaps want it toned down (and wonder how it works on video) will likely have a fair amount of praise for the story and the way the cast acts it out. It's a good, tense story well-told and well-acted.

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originally posted: 09/13/12 13:58:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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7/16/13 mike wire F... Good! 5 stars
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Directed by
  Steve Kerr

Written by
  Steve Kerr

  David Boutin
  Maxime Dumontier
  Pierre Collin
  Gilbert Comtois
  Mylène St-Sauveur

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