Indie Focus: Lynn Shelton, master of the blurted and unspoken

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The independent film community suffered a shocking blow this week as filmmaker Lynn Shelton died suddenly at age 54. From her breakthrough with 2009’s “Humpday” to last year’s “Sword of Trust,” Shelton’s films were warm, funny, compassionate and emotional. She also staked out a noteworthy career as a TV director, working on shows such as “Mad Men,” “GLOW” and the recent “Little Fires Everywhere.”

Josh Rottenberg wrote her obituary for The Times, which included this quote from her from a 2014 interview: “I self-generated my work, and I never went around asking permission to make it. The main reason women make inroads in independent film is that no one has to say, ‘I pick you.’ I’m not pounding on anybody’s door. I’m just making my own way. You can buy a camera for $1,500. It’s insane how easy it is to make a movie. You can make mistakes and throw it under the rug and keep going. You’re not dependent on other people allowing you to do it.”


Justin Chang wrote an appreciation of Shelton’s work as well, calling her “a master of the tetchy and the loquacious, a deft orchestrator of blurted revelations and frayed nerve endings, which is all the more remarkable considering how often she encouraged her actors to improvise. Her less obvious talent was for teasing out the unexpressed feeling behind all those words: Again and again she found the resonance in what her characters weren’t saying, in what they were trying to hide.”

Shelton was partners for the last year or so with actor, comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. On a heart-wrenching episode of his “WTF” podcast released this week, Maron recounted Shelton’s sudden death before playing the 2015 interview in which they first met and had an immediate, apparent connection.

Shelton was genuinely among the early inspirations for me to begin writing under the umbrella of “Indie Focus”; the energy and freshness of her filmmaking, at once unvarnished and carefully crafted, pointed the way. A bright light, skilled filmmaker and uplifting personality, Shelton will be missed.

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‘The Painter and the Thief’

Directed by Benjamin Ree, “The Painter and the Thief” is a documentary that chronicles a most unusual relationship. After two paintings by artist Barbora Kysilkova are stolen from an Oslo art gallery, Norwegian authorities arrest two men. Kysilkova asks to paint a portrait of one of them, Karl-Bertil Nordland, setting up a fascination collision of personalities and perspectives. Released by Neon, the movie is available on Hulu, VOD and virtual cinemas and at participating drive-ins.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “The result is a movie that feels both truthful and evasive, deeply moving and a little perplexing. Which may, of course, be entirely by design. Ree clearly means for us to think about what we’re watching and to remind us of the wonders and the limitations of any medium — a painting, a documentary film — that purports to represent some version of the truth. But his tricky methods don’t always serve his admirable purposes. As this movie’s cathartic final unveiling confirms, Kysilkova and Nordland’s bond is a thing of irreducible and finally undeniable beauty. It might have been even plainer to see within a less fussy frame.”

For the New York Times, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim wrote, “You might question how much the subjects are performing in the presence of a camera. … The friendship may initially seem preposterous, but the more time you spend with the pair, the clearer their mutual attraction becomes.”

For the Tribune News Service, Katie Walsh wrote, “It is an almost startlingly intimate film. … A frisson of mystery wafts throughout, the whereabouts of her paintings always on Kysilkova’s mind. Ultimately though, it was never really about the paintings, but the grace that came out of their theft, because she chose to look further, to look beyond the crime and see the person behind it.”

Karl-Bertil Nordland and Barbora Kysilkova in the documentary "The Painter and the Thief."

‘The Trip to Greece’

Directed by Michael Winterbottom, “The Trip to Greece” has been announced as the final installment of the ongoing food and travelogue series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. In the film the pair play heightened, fictionalized versions of themselves going on a vacation to Greece. The pair see the sights, eat in amazing restaurants, try to one-up each other with jokes and impressions, and grapple with their own sense of impending doom and mortality. Released by IFC Films, the movie is available via VOD and at participating drive-ins.

For The Times, Kevin Crust wrote, “What began as a fairly lighthearted series of vignettes has developed some gravitas in the end. The final movie builds toward a serious turn that puts the entire series’ meta qualities and more philosophical themes in stark relief. Even for a pair of clowns, life gets very real.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that this film “just isn’t as funny as the others. The larger problem, though, is that by trying to give ‘The Trip to Greece’ some heft, Winterbottom only draws attention to the series’ lack of interest in history, other people, the politics of global tourism and, well, the world. Coogan and Brydon have racked up a lot of miles but to watch them indifferently eat yet another generic haute cuisine meal in yet another interchangeable restaurant is to realize they never really left home, which might be the point but is also a bummer.”


For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “As Winterbottom softly pushes his movie into despair with one hand, with the other he offers a moment of warmth and reunion. That juxtaposition is so often how life presents itself, tragedy complemented by grace, a loss revealing an abundance elsewhere. You can’t taste all the miraculous food the sorry men of ‘The Trip to Greece’ are served. But you can, at least, relate to the feeling the film evokes. It’s the wonder of new experience giving even further gravity to all that’s come along and happened before — and will, on some dusty day in some impossible future, hopefully happen again.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “Coogan and Brydon manage to keep their ongoing battle of the barbs from going stale. … It’s all so silly. But it’s also kind of great, like a single glass of sparkling wine after a really bad day. And the light dancing off the brilliant blue sea isn’t so bad, either.”

Steve Coogan, left, and Rob Brydon in the movie "The Trip to Greece."
Steve Coogan, left, and Rob Bryden in the movie “The Trip to Greece.”
(Andy Hall / IFC Films)

‘The Lovebirds’

Directed by Michael Showalter, “The Lovebirds” is a rom-com action comedy hybrid about a couple on the verge of breaking up who find themselves thrown into a murder, blackmail and conspiracy plot. The film stars Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, who bring a great chemistry and charm to their parts. “The Lovebirds” is streaming on Netflix.


I reviewed the film for The Times, writing, “What’s disappointing about ‘The Lovebirds’ is that a group of talents this dynamic would produce a movie that is this much just kind of OK. With the collective cultural savvy of Rae, Nanjiani and Showalter behind it, ‘The Lovebirds’ should have more bite and insight, taking a stand rather than just being swept along for the ride.”

Sonaiya Kelley spoke to Nanjiani and Rae about the film, and Nanjiani talked about what sets it apart. “There are all these movies that end when the couple gets together, but there aren’t as many movies about the couple living together and continuing to stay together,” he said. “You know how couples fight about the same things they’ve been fighting about since they first met? I feel like couples have like five fights and just have them over and over. I thought that was interesting to explore in the context of a wacky comedy setup.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott reviewed the film, writing, “Rae and Nanjiani do their best, but neither the dialogue nor the direction serves their talents adequately. The flatness of the jokes and gags in ‘The Lovebirds’ might suggest a made-for-streaming rush job, but this movie was originally going to be released in theaters by Paramount. Current circumstances make it easier to skip, but perhaps not as satisfying.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July called the movie “that rare smart-dumb comedy that not only expects the audience to get why a black woman and a bearded Muslim American guy would assume the worst about the police, but also knows how to leverage that truth for laughs. The film offers further proof that sometimes the best kind of political commentary is no commentary at all. Offering interesting, flawed, well-rounded characters meant to read as black and brown in a comedy that’s mainstream, accessible and broadly appealing — as opposed to ‘niche’ — is frankly all the commentary we need.”

Issa Rae as Leilani and Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran in "The Lovebirds."
(Skip Bolen / Netflix)