In Appreciation of Lynn Shelton

Celebrating the late writer/director’s unique take on intimacy.

News broke over the weekend that Lynn Shelton passed away suddenly, reportedly of complications from a blood disorder. At only 54, Shelton seemed to still have at least 25 or 30 years of filmmaking left in front of her.

Even so, her existing body of work stands up against that of any other filmmaker, especially since it’s been just over a decade since My Effortless Brilliance, her directorial debut. Since then, she directed six films, writing five of those as well.

As her filmmaking evolved over a dozen years, you can see the scope of her storytelling expand ever so slightly, from just three or four closely-connected people in an isolated setting to stories of more extended circles of family and friends. Throughout that, though, she never stopped being fascinated by the way individuals related to and connected with each other. Sometimes that was funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes uplifting, just as in real life.

So, to mark the passing of a talent that still had so much to give, here is a brief appreciation of Lynn Shelton’s work.

Humpday (2009)

A funny and often uncomfortable look at a bromance and what happens when making stupid, drunk bets and declarations meets two guys who are too proud to back down in the cold, sober light of day.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

The relationship between two sisters is tested when one sleeps with the guy the other is secretly in love with, leading to an uncomfortable situation when all three wind up spending time at a remote island house.

Touchy Feely (2013)

One of my favorites of Shelton’s work, her focus on relationships and connections this time is channeled through a massage therapist who suddenly develops a complete physical aversion to all forms of physical contact. Meanwhile, others around her are exploring other connections and newfound outlets for their issues.

Laggies (2014)

While there have been no end of movies and shows about adult men who refuse to grow up emotionally, this one allows a young woman to be the immature, commitment-averse central figure in the story, all while showing off Shelton’s most balanced mix of heart and humor.

The TV Years

While she’d dabbled in directing a few TV episodes between 2010 and 2012, the period between 2014 and 2017 saw her moving almost exclusively to television, handing some of the most acclaimed shows in the recent era. That list included “Shameless,” “New Girl,” “The Good Place” and more.

It’s something she continued to move to in-between features, going on to direct episodes of “Glow,” “Dickinson,” “Fresh Off The Boat” and others, right up to this year’s Hulu-original series “Little Fires Everywhere.”

That she went on to continue making her own movies is a testament to not only her talent but the pull she seemingly accumulated in Hollywood. For many female directors, an initial burst of cinematic brilliance is quickly pushed to the side by those in power, and so they are relegated to television for decades if they want to continue working. Shelton, though, seemed to use a few years in TV to keep her skills sharp and gain experience that she then took back to films.

She said as much in an interview where she also addressed reports she’d been approached to direct the Black Widow solo film and considered it in part because TV projects had shown her the value of collaborating on sets. Still, she went on to finish her career with two strong films of her own making.

Outside In (2017)

Shelton came back to feature directing with a dark and slightly disturbing look at a man recently released from prison whose troubles readjusting to life on the outside include a fixation on the woman – a former teacher of his – who led the effort to prove his innocence.

Sword of Trust (2019)

Her last feature was also sold as Shelton’s most broad, thematically, showing what happens when a sword that is believed to be evidence the Confederacy never surrendered seems to surface and become an item everyone wants to have, even as it’s protected by the women who own it and the pawn shop owner who wants to cash in on it.


Reginald Hudlin – Director Overiew

Last year when I was reviewing the campaign for Marshall I was a bit surprised to see it was directed by Reginald Hudlin. That was a name I realized I hadn’t really caught in a few years. Looking into what he’s been up to a bit yielded an even bigger surprise: That he hadn’t directed a feature film 15 years. He hasn’t been idle, directing a lot of TV in that time, but here was one of the brightest, most promising directors of the early 1990s and he can’t get a feature gig? It was an important reminder that while we are absolutely having a necessary conversation about the opportunities given to women we also need to be mindful that men and women of color are often shut out of “mainstream” entertainment opportunities as well.

Since I didn’t get to it at the time around Marshall’s release, I’m taking this opportunity to correct and oversight and look at the trailers for Hudlin’s feature directorial work. While the movies may not always be revered as classics, he certainly had a knack for quick-witted comedy, though he was too often asked to try to serve a trend or movement Hollywood was trying to make happen despite all logic. Thankfully he seems to be gaining a bit of theatrical momentum, with last year’s Marshall and the news he would be directing Shadowman, an adaptation of a Valiant Comics character. So using that as an excuse to take a look at the director’s history to date, let’s dive in.

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Kenneth Branagh – Director Overview

When you look back over the directorial career of Kenneth Branagh, the man behind the camera for this week’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, it provides an interesting picture of the last three decades of Hollywood.

Coming up in the late 1980s, Branagh leveraged his stature as a premiere interpreter of William Shakespeare’s works to steady work as both an actor and director. He came up when serious dramas were still a box-office draw, but just at the tail end of that system. While his strongest work has almost always been the projects he felt the most personally passionate about he also never really accumulate the reputation of auteur that was attached to those only slightly younger than him who made splashy entrances in the early 90s.

In the last 10 years or so, Hollywood has increasingly turned to franchises for box-office success and hired directors both old and new to helm them. That’s lead to some commentary on how directors are essentially disposable in a system that prioritizes the directional leadership of creative councils and producers who oversee vast swaths of intellectual property. Branagh has been swept up in that wave, with all four of his films since 2010, including Orient, being franchise entries or adaptations of existing IP. He’s currently in pre-production on an adaptation of Artemis Fowl.

His directorial filmography fits nicely into three (alright two and a half) categories that provide an overview of what kind of work he’s made for himself as well as what’s been offered to him over the years.

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Darren Aronofsky – Director Overview

No one has ever accused, at least not with any sort of evidence or other substantiation, director Darren Aronofsky of being an easily-accessible filmmaker. He’s built a career around difficult, challenging films that beg for repeated viewings, often defy interpretation and at times seem solely geared toward upsetting the audience. Aronofsky is Todd Solondz without the dark humor. Terry Gilliam without the whimsy.

With his latest film, mother!, hitting theaters this week and seeming to continue his tradition of challenging, inscrutable and divisive films, it’s a good opportunity to look back at the director’s previous six films and how they were sold.

Pi (1998)

Max (Sean Gullette) has developed a supercomputer that can unlock the key to life and existence, part of his belief that numbers can solve any problem. When he accidentally stumbles across a number that seems to have widespread spiritual and financial implications he becomes sought by mysterious agents from both worlds. The trailer for Aronofsky’s feature debut is a weird tonal mix. The visuals are cutting edge and off-kilter. The narration, though, makes it seem like a traditional thriller about a lone genius trying to evade capture in light of his discovery. It’s clear there wasn’t a good idea of how to sell Aronofsky’s films yet.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Obsession and mental capacity are again at the core of the story in this movie. With a cast that included Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayons and Jennifer Connelly, the film has each of them playing a character who can’t rise above their station because of one kind of addiction or another. Existing problems only become greater when supplies begin to dry up and the characters resort to desperate measures to maintain their highs. Some of that is on display in the trailer, which shows the fast-paced, drug-fueled and often frustrating lives the characters lead. Notable is the lack of narration this time around, as it just would have gotten in the way of the disturbing visuals being sold here.

The Fountain (2006)

Hard to believe it was six years before Aronofsky went back behind the camera. When he did it was with a Hugh Jackman along for the ride. Jackman played three roles (or, actually, one spread out over millennia) in this time-spanning story of the search for love, played by Rachel Weisz, with all three stories converging into something truly mind bending. We see all three in the trailer, though the emphasis is on the one set is present day. Still, the whole span of the story and incredibly visuals Aronofsky conjured up as he embraced special effects that go hand-in-hand with emotional turmoil.

The Wrestler (2008)

Possibly Aronofsky’s most mainstream movie (at least to that point), this one cast Mickey Rourke as an aging wrestler who’s having trouble coming to terms with how his life has turned out. A faded shadow of what he once was, he tries to reconnect with his family while also seeking out one last shot at the spotlight. The trailer opens with praise for Rourke’s performance, something that was the central focus of the marketing campaign on all fronts. We see the depths he’s fallen to and the way he’s trying to go out on his own terms while listening to a haunting original Bruce Springsteen tune as we’re sold a tale of redemption and that’s way more emotional than anything else Aronofsky has put out there.

Black Swan (2010)

That sentimentality didn’t last long as the director quickly got back into the world of twisted mental states and questions of identity and the lengths one will go to in order to succeed. Natalie Portman plans Nina, a top ballet dancer who’s selected as the lead in a prestigious staging of Swan Lake. She’s challenged by Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer who has all the sensuality and vulnerability Nina lacks. The two become friends, but the truth is much darker than it initially appears. We immediately get the idea that issues of identity and reality are at the heart as the trailer opens. As things progress and become more terrifying and mysterious the pace increases, showing a truly disturbing movie being sold. It’s easy to see why this is one of the two films from the director frequently name-checked throughout the mother! campaign.

Noah (2014)

An oddly mainstream entry in Aronofsky’s filmography, this one cast Russell Crowe as the Old Testament figure tasked by God with preserving humans and animals from the flood waters of judgment He was about to unleash. Noah’s assigned mission brings him into conflict with others nearby as we see in the trailer. It’s also clear here that the director is once more doing everything he can with the special effects he’s given to heighten the impact of the story and show God’s wrath being executed in as epic a manner as possible.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Steven Soderbergh – Director Overview

This week Logan Lucky hits theaters, marking director Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature films after a self-imposed five-year hiatus. That makes it a good opportunity to look back at how the previous films he’s directed have been sold via trailers.

Soderbergh, like the Coen Bros., is a tough nut to crack when trying to identify a grand unifying theory of his work. Instead of one overall theme that clearly stands out, it’s evident that he bounces from one genre and approach and story type to the next. That’s in part, it seems, to keep himself engaged and fresh and in part to satisfy all his various instincts and career desires. With that being said, there are a handful of genres his various films fall into that help bring Soderbergh’s approach to cinema into somewhat clear focus.

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Kathryn Bigelow – Director Overview

It’s kind of surprising, but this week’s Detroit is the first movie Kathryn Bigelow has directed in five years. In an era where random dudes are being pulled from single-camera TV comedies and lining up seven movies over five years out of the gate, that Bigelow has often gone three years or more between movies seems notable.

It’s even more surprising considering the consistent high quality of the movies she’s helmed. While not all of these have gone on to be considered cinematic classics, they almost uniformly are really good movies, largely due to her influence. So with Detroit in theaters now, it’s a good time to look back at her previous efforts to see how the trailers for each has sold the movie to audiences.

Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark would fit so well in today’s cinematic marketplace I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been a feature or TV remake. The story revolves around Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), who becomes part of a group of traveling vampires after meeting – and being bit by – the lovely Mae (Jenny Wright). Things get complicated due to the presence of the violent Severen (the late Bill Paxton) and the protective leader of the group Hooker (Lance Henriksen).

The trailer for this 1987 drama, Bigelow’s second movie, surprisingly doesn’t play up the vampire aspect of the story to much. There’s plenty of talk, either in the dialogue of the characters or in the narration, about how nighttime is the most dangerous and that daylight will be much safer, but vampirism isn’t mentioned explicitly. Instead the activities of the gang are presented mostly as just psychopathic, people who just enjoy violence and want to see if the new recruit will pull his weight.

Blue Steel (1990)

Let’s all fondly remember the 80s and early 90s, when Jamie Lee Curtis was a dependable and powerful leading lady, capable of being funny in ensembles or leading dramas on her own. Blue Steel falls into the latter category, with Curtis starring as a rookie cop who is suspended after the questionable shooting of someone holding up a grocery store. Through a series of circumstances, she becomes involved with a stock trader (Ron Silver) who winds up being at the heart of a mystery Curtis’ Megan Turner is investigating.

As the trailer starts we get the backstory that she’s being suspended after the shooting that no one can corroborate was justified. We see that incident and see Silver’s Hunt take her gun, which is part of the problem. It then goes on to show that he uses that gun to go on a killing spree of his own, with the complication being that he and Turner used to date. It’s selling a story of violent obsession and is tense and pulse-pounding.

Point Break (1991)

I think we all know the story of Point Break, which features Keanu Reeves as Johnny Utah, a cop who goes undercover to break up a gang of thieves led by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). This is no ordinary gang, though, as they’re all involved in extreme sports such as surfing, skydiving and more. So in order to fully become accepted by Bodhi and his crew, Utah has to become just as good as them. the two bond, making Utah’s betrayal that much more emotionally impactful.

Reeves is certainly the focal point of the trailer. We get the background of The Ex Presidents (the name the gang as adopted due to their habit of wearing masks of former presidents during their heists), and see how committed they are to not only crime but sports. Likewise, we watch as Utah is given his assignment and begins to become part of the surfing and sporting lifestyle. There’s not a whole lot here about the brotherhood that forms between the cop and the criminal, showing the main appeal in 1991 was deemed to be the presence and personalities of Reeves and Swayze.

Strange Days (1995)

Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days took advantage of the emerging presence of the web and increased interest in the cyberpunk works of William Gibson and others. Set just four years out in 1999, the story follows ex-cop Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), who now deals in black market discs of people’s personalities and emotions that others can plug into their own cybernetic implants and experience for themselves. He gets pulled even deeper into the underworld when he receives a disc containing the memories of a murderer and is motivated to investigate it for himself.


“Have you ever jacked in?” Nero asks as the trailer begins. It’s explained that experiencing someone else’s memories and emotions is better than TV, better than any kind of artificial high. We see the setting is the last day of 1999 and that Nero has started getting disks he’s not comfortable with from someone he doesn’t know. The violence increases as police, criminals and others all come after the tape for their own reasons, all set against the backdrop of the dark days when the world might end when the clock strikes midnight.

The Weight of Water (2000)

Jean (Catherine McCormack) is a newspaper photographer who travels with her husband Thomas (Sean Penn) and others to New Hampshire as part of her research into the murder of two women in 1873. Tensions arise as Thomas openly flirts with Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), one of their companions. Meanwhile Jean becomes increasingly convinced that the century-old murders were not committed by the man who was ultimately hanged for them but by a third woman exacting revenge for that man’s failure to requite her love.

As the trailer starts we see the two couples in present day setting out on a boat for some time at sea. There’s some setup that Jean has come to investigate the murders, accompanied by her husband, brother-in-law and his wife (Adaline). Scenes, and narration, about the simmering desires and tensions aboard the boat are intercut with scenes pulled from the past of the trial that followed the murders and it’s clear there are parallels between the two stories. Again, this is all about building up the tension to the point where the audience can’t wait to find out what happens next.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Bigelow started to expand the scope of the stories she told with K-19: The Widowmaker. In the movie, Harrison Ford plays the captain of a Russian nuclear submarine on its maiden voyage in 1961, the height of the Cold War. The nuclear plant that powers the sub experiences a catastrophic failure on that voyage, one that could not only destroy the ship and kill its crew but be interpreted as a sign of war that could have worldwide repercussions.

We meet Ford’s Captain Vostroikov as the trailer opens and see that he’s being given a mission to command a sub not just as a demonstration of Russia’s power but a response to perceived U.S. provocation. Various events, including contact with an American sub, create tensions between Vostroikov and a political officer played by Liam Neeson. The narration tells us it’s based on an “astonishing true story” as the reactor meltdown occurs, leading the captain to make impossible decisions to save his boat and his crew and prevent all-out war.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

If Bigelow wasn’t a household name before 2008, she was when she directed The Hurt Locker. We meet Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) as he arrives in Iraq to help disarm bombs. The story follows not just James but others in his crew as they all deal with the psychological impact of living in a war zone. James’ methods are a bit off-book, which brings him into conflict with others in the squad, including Sgt. Sanborn, played by Anthony Mackie.

The trailer starts just as James arrives in Iraq and begins to acquaint himself with his new deployment. We watch as he takes off his protective gear to deal with one particular bomb, a move the others question. It’s clear his unorthodox methods aren’t always appreciated by those who depend on him to save their lives. Still, they all bond as they all know they’re working toward the same end and devoted to the same mission. It ends with shots of James’ personal life and family, showing the emotional stake he has in surviving each and every task he’s sent out on.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Staying in the political and military realm, Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, for which she won a Best Director Academy Award, was Zero Dark Thirty. This time the focus was on Maya, a fictional CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain who’s been tasked with finding Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Beginning in 2003, the story follows Maya as she uses every method available to her to turn sources, decipher intercepted communications and more to bring justice to bin Laden.

There are lots of hijab and guns and more as the trailer opens, accompanied by comments from an interrogator about how he’s not a nice guy. We meet Maya and we see how dedicated she is to her job and how good she is at doing it, though it’s often frustrating. 10 years go by and she’s still at it, culminating with a mission to find bin Laden that not everyone in the agency is convinced will work. It ends with the SEAL team opening a remote house in the desert, presumably on the raid that would ultimately take down the terrorist leader.

While Bigelow has focused, particularly in the last 10 years, on political stories (including Detroit), the common theme throughout her work is tension. Sometimes that’s on a boat of people with evolving relationships, sometimes it’s in an RV full of vampires, sometimes it’s in a bomb disposal unit deployed to Iraq. The marketing of her movies has worked to highlight not just the action but the relationships between those involved, with all of creating pulse-pounding moments that the audience is asked to invest in.

Albert Brooks – Director Overview

This week Criterion is adding Albert Brooks’ great Lost In America to their collection. It’s a great choice to be memorialized by the company, with a story that captures the discontent of the middle class in the middle of the 1980s as they find the American Dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. With this new edition available now, it’s a great time to revisit the trailers for the other directorial efforts from one of my favorite filmmakers.

There are some consistent threads throughout Brooks’ filmography. In every film he plays one of the following: A slightly-fictional variation on himself, a writer of some sort or a frustrated corporate drone. That means audiences, over time, were able to more or less anticipate what could be expected when they knew a new Albert Brooks movie was coming. It was just the details that needed to be filled in.

Real Life (1981)

Brooks foresaw the rise of reality television decades before it actually occurred. The story follows a fictionalized version of Brooks himself, who plays a filmmaker who follows around a Phoenix family and films their everyday lives. That effort goes sideways, of course, as the very act of filming changes the behavior of the participants.

In keeping with its very self-referential nature, the trailer features no footage from movie itself. Instead it has Brooks (in character) promising audiences an experience unlike anything they’ve seen before, including a trailer that’s in 3D, except no one is going to have the needed glasses. He punches toward the camera and does some karate movies and more to emphasize that fact, ending with the appearance of a paddleball champion. Finally, we get the names of the cast and the promise that the actual movie won’t be in 3D.

Modern Romance (1981)

Robert Cole (Brooks) is a pretty successful film editor in Hollywood, making a good living doing what he enjoys. But he’s a mess with relationships, constantly breaking up and getting back together with his girlfriend Mary (Kathryn Harrold). The two alternately enable and can’t stand each other, providing a portrait of the anxieties that go into dating and romance.

Immediately as the trailer starts we see that Robert and Mary are breaking up once again. Back on the singles scene he’s trying to improve himself physically and emotionally, but is still feeling terrible about things. He keeps following her around, though, and they continue to circle each other from time to time. Narration explains that this is a story of the difficulties of…well…modern romance. It’s not as quick-witted as some of the other trailers for Brooks’ films but certainly shows the more neurotic side of his public persona.

Lost in America (1985)

When David Howard (Brooks) doesn’t get the promotion he feels he deserves at the ad firm he works for he throws a fit and is fired. That leads him to set out with his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) on an adventure to see America and drop out of society. The plans go awry when they stop in Vegas and wind up losing the “nest egg” they’ve been relying on to get them through this period, causing marital problems and forcing them to seek out other jobs.

The trailer shows much of that arc, highlighting the pivotal moments where major decisions are made. We certainly get a sense of Brooks’ dry, weary delivery and how Hagerty’s character kind of goes off the deep end a bit. It’s sold as a relationship comedy more than anything, though one with something to say about finding contentment and stability in the world.

Defending Your Life (1991)

As my favorite Brooks movie I revisited the campaign last year, finding it sold the dry charm of the story pretty well. There were certain elements of the story that were portrayed more accurately than others, but overall it made sure the audience knew it was a high-concept comedy from a writer/director they had already enjoyed previous movies from.

Mother (1996)

Science fiction writer John Henderson (Brooks) has just signed off on his second divorce and is reflecting on the problems he’s had with relationships. He decides his problems with women stem back to childhood and so, to address the issue head on, moves back in with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). He soon finds that as much as he wants to have a grown, adult relationship with her, she’ll always be his mother and treat him as a child. That’s not exactly the fix he was looking for.


We get the background on John’s status as the trailer opens with him in the middle of divorce proceedings. That gets him considering where his relationships have gone wrong and so concocts the plan to move back to his childhood home. His lifestyle doesn’t exactly mesh with his mom’s and he finds things are more difficult than he anticipated. While Brooks’ style was well established at this point in his career, the trailer really serves as a showcase for Reynolds, who brings all her talents and charms to her role and is clearly a capable verbal foil to Brooks.

The Muse (1999)

Here Brooks plays Steven Phillips, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s suffering from a rough patch in his career. So, on the advice of a friend, he hires a modern-day muse named Sarah Little (Sharon Stone) to break him out of his rut and provide some inspiration. Sarah’s free spirited ways, though, clash with Steven’s more buttoned-down personality. Not just that but Sarah winds up not only helping him get writing again but encourages his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) to open a business of her own, which causes tension in their marriage.

The trailer immediately establishes that Steven is a screenwriter. He notices a friend of his is hanging around with a strange woman who’s originally suspected to be a prostitute but who turns out to be a muse, a source of inspiration. Her services, though, turn out to be more expensive than he thought and the road isn’t as clear as he hoped. There’s lots of talk about freedom and magic and all that as we see how her presence impacts the lives of Steven and his family, all to an unclear ending.

Looking For Comedy In the Modern World (2005)

In 2005 Brooks decided to get a bit topical with a movie that again put him in a role that’s just a slightly different version of himself. He’s recruited to go to Muslim countries to go find out what makes the people there laugh, part of the government’s efforts to understand the people better. Of course, this isn’t a simple proposition as his idea of comedy isn’t exactly universal and despite the efforts of both his official handlers and some local help he’s stymied time and time again.

There’s a lot of that in the trailer. We see Brooks get pitched by a government agency on the mission, which he’s slightly confused at. Cut to him in-country getting used to the people and customs there. It features more than a few cultural stereotypes, including the scene of the call center, but it also shows how Brooks is trying to fit into that world. He’s confused by some of the requests of his handlers and frustrated at how his efforts to make people laugh often fall flat. Overall, though, we see how things are setup and play out.