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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

TIFF ’11 Reviews: Last Roundup — Your Sister’s Sister, Chicken with Plums, Pink Ribbons, Inc. and Lucky

Your Sister’s Sister

With her latest film, Your Sister’s Sister, writer-director Lynn Shelton again teams up with Mark Duplass, who plays Jack, an affable slacker caught between two sisters, Iris (Emily Blunt) and Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) in this lightly drawn but well-executed tale. Shelton has a knack for putting average people into beyond-average situations, as she did with Duplass and Josh Leonard in her last film, Humpday, which had the hook of two long-time best friends who get caught up in a drunken bet to have guy-on-guy sex on film for the sake of making a porno to enter in The Stranger’s annual Humpday competition.

This time around, Shelton’s hook is that Jack is in love with Iris, whose ex-boyfriend was Jack’s now-deceased brother. Jack’s having trouble coping with the loss of his brother and needs some mental space, so Iris offers him — or rather insists that the accept — the use of her parents’ island getaway house. When he gets there, he finds the house already occupied by Iris’s lesbian half-sister, Hannah, who’s come to the house to nurse her own wounds over the recent breakup of a long-term relationship. And confusion, awkwardness and occasional hilarity ensue.

Shelton handles her triad of characters with a sure hand, smoothly guiding them, and us through Jack’s relationships with both Iris and Hannah, and theirs with each other, as they navigate the rocky road of where this island getaway vacation takes them. As with Humpday, Shelton’s made a film that’s warm, heartfelt and accessible, with characters who feel like the kind of people you might actually have in your own life.

Shelton’s films sometimes get mistakenly lumped in with the mumblecore films, which I think is both lazy and a disservice to the underlying structure her films tend to have. Yes, both Humpday (her best-known film) and Your Sister’s Sister have improvisational acting that lends a sense of realism to the execution, but the way in which she builds story and back-story is rather exacting, and has been since We Go Way Back in 2006. Stylistically, she seems to be reaching to emulate Mike Leigh-style realism more than mumblecore, and while she’s still figuring out in some ways how to evolve her unique vision indirecting a film her own, she also knows when to step back out of the way of her excellent cast and let them run with it.

Shelton has made a solid film to follow-up the critical success of Humpday, and her growing fanbase, I expect, will be eager to check out her latest effort. IFC apparently thinks so too — they bought the film the other day at Toronto and reportedly will release it in summer, 2012.

Chicken with Plums

One of the most imaginative artists working today, Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), reunited with co-director Vincent Paronnaud, is back with her another adaptation from her own graphic novel. As with Persepolis, Chicken with Plums is culled from family history and stories, although this time around the subject matter is less wrenching, more playful, and she’s working with (mostly) live action.

Nassar-Ali (Matheiu Almaric, just terrific here) is a violinist who loses first his one true love, and them the will to live after his beloved violin is irreparably broken. When his violin is broken, Nassar-Ali’s heart irreparably breaks as well, and he crawls into bed to die. This kicks off the beginning of the film, and then Satrapi takes us through the eight days until Nassar-Ali’s death, as he relives his past and dreams vivid, hallucinatory dreams about his children’s futures.

We watch as the much younger Nassar-Ali finds his love in Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), the strikingly beautiful daughter of a wealthy shopkeeper with whom he becomes deeply enamored from the time his eye first alights on her delicate shoe as she passes him on the street. And Irane falls in love with Nassar-Ali as well, finding in him a soul-mate; she alone, out of all the people in his life up to that point, appreciates all that he is and all that he can become. But alas, as such things go in fairy tales, their love is not to be. Irane’s father forbids her to marry a poor musician and she is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to break her father’s heart for love. And so she breaks her own, and Nassar-Ali’s, instead. And it’s not until Nassar-Ali finds and then loses this love that he is truly able to make music from his soul. He finds fame by pouring out all his love and the sorrow of loss into his music; and for all that his heart remains broken, he is able to feel connected to Irane’s love when he plays his violin.

Nassar-Ali travels the world and then marries at last, to Faranguisse (Maria de Medeiros), who has loved him since her girlhood and waited years for him to return. But alas again, he cannot return her love, and as rejected love is wont to do, it grows bitter within her, souring into resentment with the knowledge that no matter what she does, or how much she loves him, she will never see love looking back at her through Nassar-Ali’s eyes. As light-hearted as Satrapi and Paronnaud keep the tone here, it’s really a very tragic story underneath, of love lost, love unrequited, love as sacrifice.

As one might expect from graphic artists, Satrapi and Paronnaud pay close attention to the visual details, and you can see the structure of the graphic novel underlying each frame. Chicken with Plums is beautifully, fantastically rendered, soulful and imaginative, as it weaves Nassar-Ali’s past with his present through the idea of love, as rendered through loss.

There’s only one minor misstep near the end of the film, and if that minute or so was cut, Chicken with Plums would be practically perfect. If it feels a bit light in comparison to Persepolis, well, Satrapi’s dealing in the realm of love and fable here, not in politics and the loss of an entire society. I expect some critics might take this film less seriously because it’s tonally so different from Persepolis, but for me, the way Satrapi draws her stories and characters from her own family history feels very much like she’s working in the tradition of storytelling as it’s been done for generations, handing down deeper messages that bridge generations through her compelling tales.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

This weekend, my neighborhood was filled with a parade of women (and a few men), bedecked in pink, cheerily walking for hours and hours in support of breast cancer research. At rest stations along the way, husbands banged on pink tambourines while wearing coconut bras, while moms and preschoolers waved posters bearing motivational slogans (“Go, walkers! You are the BREAST!” and “Hakuna My Ta-tas!” and the like).

Even the police bikes accompanying the walkers were covered in pink streamers, and many of the walkers were dressed in cutesy “team” outfits — hot pink ballet tutus and bike shorts and leggings, socks, custom-printed t-shirts, fairy wings, butterfly wings, hats, wigs, alien antennae headbands. You name it, someone was probably wearing it. And every single one of them, I have no doubt, had nothing but the best of intentions, and was participating because they either have a friend or relative who’s dealt with breast cancer, or they’re a breast cancer survivor, or they’ve just decided to support this particular cause.

And up until last week, I would have seen these walkers and thought little of it other than, “Oh, this must be the weekend for the big breast cancer march,” and maybe I would have tooted my horn in support or something. If someone I’d known had asked, I probably would have agreed to pledge on their behalf. But then last week at TIFF, I saw a documentary called Pink Ribbons, Inc., that completely changed my perspective and opened my eyes to the way in which corporations have co-opted meaningful causes like breast cancer research and turned them into opportunities to engage in “cause marketing,” whereby they make money themselves by donating a fraction of a product’s cost to a cause that can be seen as important.

One of the points driven home in the film, for instance, is that if you participated in the Yoplait Yogurt “save the pink top and send it in” campaign, and you ate a participating yogurt every single day of their campaign and paid for the postage to sent it in, you’d be “donating” about $30 to the actual cause while putting significantly more than that into a corporate pocket. Or, you could just take all the money you’d spend on buying yogurt and paying postage, and make a donation directly to a non-profit that has a record of funneling most of their income directly into research grants, and make a greater net impact.

Director Léa Pool skewers this issue, taking a controversial stand that a lot of people are probably not going to want to hear, because it makes them feel unappreciated for supporting a cause they believe in, or because they think she and the breast cancer advocates on her side of the argument are uncaring for saying, hey, we really need to think about what this is really about, who’s promoting it, and what the actual benefit to this important cause is.

The thing is, it’s hard to argue against a cause that people feel such powerful emotions about, without sounding like you’re somehow against women with breast cancer. And of course, no one in the film is against women with cancer of any kind; what they are against is the idea of selling people on the idea that they’re making a difference without quantifying that they actually are. The breast cancer rate has skyrocketed in the past few decades; what research is being done, the movie asks, to explore why this is, to look for the cause of the increase in cancer to begin with, rather than a cure once it’s already happened? What progress has been made, through all these campaigns, toward increasing the actual survival rates of women with aggressive forms of breast cancer? In other words, what Pink Ribbons, Inc. questions is whether all these pink ribbons and marches and rallies are actually accomplishing anything at all, other than making people feel better because they think they’re marching for a cause.

More to the point, it raises the question of whether the effect of putting a pink, cheery face on the issue, and promoting the idea of “positive” fundraising walks as opposed to telling women yes, you should be getting angry and marching and protesting and demanding more support for research for a cancer whose primary risk factor is being born female, is more detrimental to actual progress than people think.

As I passed by the scores of breast cancer walkers this weekend after seeing this film, here’s what I thought: Pink wig? About $30 at Display and Costume. Pink tutu? Probably at least $25. Those hot pink leggings and bike shorts? Probably $20-40 a pop. A pink feather boa? Maybe $15-20. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. If every single person marching had taken the money they spent on cutesy costumes, donated that cash instead directly to a foundation supporting research into causes as well as cures, and then emailed everyone they knew asking them to do the same, how much more money could have gone into the actual cause for which they were marching, than into how they looked while doing it? Now multiply that times the tens of thousands of people who participate in these fundraising walks. It’s a tough question, but one that deserves the serious consideration.


As I wrap up the last bit of my TIFF coverage, I wanted to make sure to mention Lucky, a film out of South Africa by Avie Luthra that was one of the little gems of the fest for me. The film tells the story of Lucky (Sihle Dlamini), a 10-year-old Zulu orphan who’s forced to leave his remote village to live with his uncle in the city after his mother dies of AIDS. Lucky hopes to be able to attend school in the city, but he finds his uncle to be both unloving and untrustworthy.

Padma (Jayashree Basavaraj), an elderly Indian neighbor with a deep-seated fear of Blacks, takes pity on Lucky after hearing the audio tape that was his mother’s dying message of love to her son, and reluctantly tries to help him, agreeing to take him in and send him to school. But when his uncle finds out Padma is getting government money to care for his nephew, his threats force Padma to find another way to help her young charge. With the help of a Zulu taxi driver who helps bridge the gap of language between Padma and Lucky, they embark on a search for Lucky’s father, in the hopes of securing a better life for the boy.

The program notes say that Luthra based the script (which itself is an expansion of his earlier short of the same title) on his own experiences living in post-apartheid Durban, and in particular when he’s exploring the racial tensions between the city’s Black and Indian populations, the film has the unmistakable ring of truth. Particularly effective is the way in which Luthra has Lucky and Padma communicate through a barrier of different languages, and to come, over time, to a way of understanding each other in spite of their many differences.

Lucky is a smart, well-constructed film about a lost boy and the unlikely ally who help him find his way. In spite of its tragic beginnings and the many obstacles that stand between Lucky and happiness, the film ends on hopeful note.

This would be an excellent film for other fests to consider programming, especially in their family film or teen sections, and I hope to see it make its way around the fest circuit. It’s not a bad thing, maybe, for kids living in more privileged parts of the world to see this moving tale of this boy who struggles against all odds just to be able to receive the kind of education many of them take for granted.

One Response to “TIFF ’11 Reviews: Last Roundup — Your Sister’s Sister, Chicken with Plums, Pink Ribbons, Inc. and Lucky”

  1. Thanks so much for your review of Pink Ribbons, Inc. If everyone who sees it gets the message as well as you have, we can make a real dent in ending the breast cancer epidemic. Unforortunately, there aren’t many breast cancer organizations that will give you an honest answer about how much money goes to research, and what research is funded. People who are interested might want to check out Breast Cancer Action at and Komen Watch at

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas