Ammonite Should Have Been Better



Directed by Francis Lee

Lionsgate, 120 minutes, R (graphic nudity)

★★ ½



These days you might anticipate that a hot lesbian love story would do well at the box office and among streaming audiences. After all, it's a topic most mainstream filmmakers are only comfortable discussing, not showing. If only Ammonite had been made a year earlier, it might have fared better. Good vibes were not forthcoming in part because in 2019, the French movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire, whose subject was two 18th century female lovers, was the best film of the year – in any language.  A lot of Ammonite viewers found it boring, not offensive. You might agree, if you like a lot of dialogue.


Ammonite has its moments, but it’s certainly no Portrait of a Lady on Fire. For those who don't know, an ammonite is the fossil of a prehistoric mollusk. When you start with that, you’d better have something better to hold your audience. How about two star actresses? Kate Winslet is Mary Anning, a a stellar paleontologist, who found the first nearly complete ichthyosaur skeleton. Yet in 19th century England, she was not even allowed to present to her own work. To stave off hunger and pay the rent, she sold the skeleton to a man who put his name to it.


We come in upon Mary and her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) dressed in shabby clothing and washing white animal figurines whose significance is later explained. That's good, because a lot of things are not explained in this film. We also watch Mary scraping dirt from daily finds fossicked from the beach cliffs of Lyme Regis. Recently she has specialized in small ammonites, as the tourist trade is her steadiest form of income.


Mary’s life takes a turn when Roderick Murchison pops into her shop to ask her to teach him what she knows about fossil hunting. Mary is a woman of few words – grunts, gestures, and glares work – and likes to keep her own company, but she needs the money. Roddy is enthusiastic, but his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is bored and, we are told, sickly. Perhaps Lyme Regis salt bathing will help. (Good grief, those waters could make you sick!)


Later, Roderick offers to pay Mary to take Charlotte on daily walks while he is away for six weeks and once again, Mary needs the shillings and swallows her disinterest. She hadn't planned on being a nurse any more than Charlotte planned to fall for her nurturer. By the time Mary commits oral sex upon her, she's head over heels­– her own; Mary wears sturdy boots. If a woman can't get credit for her labors, you can imagine how badly an open sexual relationship would play in the day. That's just not an option and Charlotte toddles off back to London when Roddy comes to collect her.


It might have been better to have ended the film there. Just cue some melancholy music, zoom in on contorted faces stifling tears, and roll the credits. Instead, a contrivance sends Mary to London and we were treated to a rather preposterous final act.


There are contrivances and absences shot throughout the film and that's before I tell you that the Mary/Charlotte love affair was invented. The Murchisons already knew Mary; all three were known in the small world of paleontology. Elizabeth Philpott (Fiona Shaw) was also a fossil hunter. We are not told why she is in the film. It's intimated that maybe Mary and she had a May-October romance. Nope, though she did invent a healing salve.  


Let's talk about sex, shall we? Because we cannot explicitly see tongues upon body parts, this film escaped with an R rating. It's pretty steamy stuff though, and when you see a naked Ronan crawl upon a naked Winslet's face, I'm good enough at anatomy to figure out what's happening in the shadows of the cleft. It raises a question: Why not just make a celebrity lesbian film? Here’s another: When you consider that the director is a man, is the male gaze at play?


I will give Francis Lee a pass. It's only his second feature and so far, I'd say he's not the next coming of Fellini. But I won't completely smash the fossil case. There are reasons to give Ammonite a try.  First, the countryside around Lyme Regis is glorious in its greyness and mist. Credit goes to choreographer Stéphane Fontaine. Second, Winslet and Ronan get boldness points. At this point of their respective careers, they can choose their projects. As two straight women, they took risks to frolic graphically in lesbian guise. Finally, the film did make me seek factual information about the real principals. Education is never wasted!


But not much credit goes to Lee. His is another example of the bad judgment that comes from thinking you can invent a better story than the already fascinating one at your fingertips.


Rob Weir


Subdivision: An Enigma or a Mess?



By J. Robert Lennon

Gray Wolf Press, 230 pages.



It’s not that often that I sputter when someone asks me what a book is about, but Subdivision is such a work. All I can say for certain is that it’s either one of the most creative novels of the year or an absolute mess.


An unnamed woman finds herself in the “Subdivision” of “The City,” which looms in the distance but can’t be accessed because of recurrent wind storms and floods. When it is accessible, one goes there via Bus Negative One, which suggests that our main character is either in something akin to a matrix or is recently dead. I might go with the latter, as there are references to the Buddhist concept of bardo, a liminal state between death and rebirth. For me, the novel it most evoked is Kevin Brockmeier’s 2006 The Brief History of the Dead, which toyed with the ideas of sasha (limbo) and zamani (the afterlife) that are aspects of some traditional African religions.


I hasten to add, though, that I’m speculating. Others have labeled it a book about trauma-induced amnesia, a Kafkaesque dream, life as a video game, the immediate aftermath of a suicide, damaged memory, or pure science fiction. It might be one, all, or none of those. I could add a slow trip down the River Styx as another possibility. Depending upon your tastes, this will make J. Robert Lennon’s work either an ambiguous pleasure or a journey into WTF frustration.


The woman at the novel’s center is also our narrator. She finds herself at guest house hosted by two women, The Judge and Clara, though both women have the first name Clara and both were once judges. The rooms therein are labeled Virtue, Justice, Mercy, Duty, and Glory. In the parlor is a perplexing gadzillion-piece puzzle that the guest is encouraged to assemble. She can’t make heads or tails of it, yet it changes every day and she is commended for her progress. She is also given a hand-drawn map to find her way around the Subdivision and to say that it takes her unusual places doesn’t begin to get it. She meets a woman of indeterminate age who gardens a lot, enters several strange houses, and has encounters with a shapeshifting bakemono, a shapeshifting creature from Japanese folklore whose level of existence is up for grabs but who nonetheless stirs her libido.  


And the bakemono isn’t even the oddest character in the book. There is a child that may or may not belong to the narrator; a nearly wordless truck driver who buys bunches of roses for his wife, who never appears; and Forby, a man engaged in quantum tunneling by hurling tennis balls at a wall all day to test the probability that one of them will pass through. The weirdest of all isn’t a living thing, or is it? The narrator purchases Cylvia, a digital assistant whose form also changes. Cylvia offers warnings and advice that’s so weird it might make you want to get rid of your Alexa!


Massive wind storms occur from time to time and the narrator secures a job as a “phenomenon analyst,” whatever that might mean. Both Cylvia and her hosts advise her to make sure she works in the Dead Tower rather than the Living Tower, the latter of which is allegedly too dangerous. About all we know for certain about the Subdivision is that its principal products include cheese, bookcases, ice, hymnals, and narratives. A muffin plays a role in the novel, as do unusual sounds, bizarre stories, a blackbird, and reports that that are straight out of 1984.


Does any of this make sense? Probably not, but maybe I nailed it. It is true, though, that you are unlikely to read anything else like Subdivision. It’s short. Give it a whirl. If it seems too surreal and confusing, it won’t get any better or worse. In Lennon’s defense I will say that I haven’t stopped thinking about Subdivision since I finished it. It is chocked full of ideas; now all I have to do is figure out what they are!


Rob Weir












A Holiday Album That's Not Same Old





On This Christmas Day


I am the Grinch of Christmas Music. I usually decline offers to review holiday albums of any sort, a habit reinforced when I heard Bob Dylan’s 2009 abomination Christmas in the Heart, which might be the single-worst record through which I’ve ever suffered. I’ve even avoided going to live shows in December for fear that some well-intentioned performer might think it fun to have the audience sing “Jingle Bells” or “White Christmas.” In other words, if you want me to listen to a holiday album, you’d better offer something I’ve not heard 925 times before.


A project from Joe Newberry and April Verch mostly falls into that category. On This Christmas Day is a thoughtful collaboration between veteran Ozarks singer/songwriter Newberry and Verch, a self-described country girl from Canada’s Ottawa Valley. I call it “thoughtful” because it aims for the less familiar which, if you think about it, is what Christmas is supposed to be about: renewal. For most listeners, the only one of the 11 songs that might be familiar is a cover of John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches.” If you don’t know it, give it a listen as the event it details­–a Christmas Day truce and mutual celebration between German and Allied troops during World War I–actually happened. At this time of the year especially, a reminder of the insanity of war seems appropriate. In a spirit akin to the reset-your-values of “Christmas in the Trenches,” Newbery and Verch offer “Della and Jim,” a musical retelling of O. Henry’s famed short story “The Gift of the Magi,” which tells of how a poor couple sacrificed to buy each other Christmas gifts that can’t be used. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with it, take in the story, a reminder that it truly is the thought that matters most.


The title track will put you into a warm Frank Capra-like mood. Much of the rest is a bluegrass-influenced collection and reinterpretation of originals and lesser known compositions. Who can resist “A Yodel for Christmas?” “Round the Christmas Tree” is a lively song that invites a sashay around the fragrant pine (or ye olde plastic tree in my household). The banjo/fiddle combo of “Christmas Eve” is done as an old-time tune that’s decidedly more down home than down at the mall. The same features, plus Newberry’s unpretentious vocals, help us celebrate the coming of 2022 on “First Day of the Year.” Overall, this record works because it dispense with tinsel and gets us back to basics. To nitpick just a little, I’d prefer to hear Verch play the fiddle more and sing less; she’s world-class on her instrument, but her nasal high voice takes some getting used to. That said, I won’t be lining up at the exchange aisle to return this one. Okay, it was sent to me free for review purposes, but you get the point!


Rob Weir    


Guest List, Foregone, Lost Apothecary, The Magician: Book Reviews




By Lucy Foley; Russell Banks; Sarah Penner; Colm Tóibín

All four published in 2021.


It’s time to clean out some book review backlog. Maybe one of the these will land on someone’s holiday wish list.


The Guest List
(William Morrow Publishing, 314 pages) is about a celebrity wedding gone terribly wrong. Jules runs an online women’s magazine and her intended, Will, is a handsome dude who won fame on a TV survival show that made him into a “hot” actor. The two make the proverbial “golden” couple. Like many with more money than common sense, they decide upon destination nuptials on an island off of Connemara (Ireland) at a folly and estate owned by wedding planners Aoife and Freddy.


Will is essentially a frat boy who hasn’t grown up and the same goes for his buddies. Best man Jonathan is a sloppy loser, but other attendants–Duncan, Pete, Angus, Femi, and Charlie–have at least made a stab at adult life. Everyone, except the island proprietors, Jules’ half-sister Olivia, and their womanizing father from whom Jules is estranged, are in their early 30s. Assorted spouses have varying opinions about Jules, Will, and all the dosh they had to spend for an event they had little interest in attending. Plus, old friends have a lot of history from their university days, including who slept with whom. What could go wrong?


The Guest List is constructed from chapters with alternating points-of-view, which intrigues because everyone is essentially an unreliable narrator. I’m not a fan of wedding novels (or movies)–they are often unimaginative and trite–but Foley’s novel has its moments.  ★★★


Russell Banks specializes in damaged people and his works sparkle in a literary sense. Foregone (Ecco, 305 pages) is the antithesis of Foley’s in that its central character, Leonard “Fifi” Fife, is a dying Baby Boomer. Fife won renown as a lefty documentary filmmaker whose terminal cancer is probably traceable to a film he did on Agent Orange, the infamous chemical sprayed during the Vietnam War. He once taught at Vermont’s Goddard College–a progressive and experimental school during the 1960s/70s–and one of his students, Malcolm MacLeod, has journeyed to Canada–Fifi’s longtime home–to spotlight his mentor in a documentary film of his own. Good luck with that plan.


Most of Fifi’s films exposed “hypocrisy, greed, and political corruption,” and he literally has no time for hero adulation. The project makes him feel like he’s Pinocchio with carrion-eating scavengers pulling his strings. Is it jealousy, anger over of his impending demise, the realization that he’s no hero, or all three? Try as he will, Malcolm cannot deter Fifi from ignoring questions about his films and launching into a rambling confessional. Fifi imagines he is setting the record straight, acknowledging his sins, and telling the truth “to himself–and to the one person who still loves him,” his wife Emma.

Sounds reasonable, except this is a Banks novel and he doesn’t do cheap sentimentality. Does Fifi even know “truth” anymore? Did he ever? What parts of his memory have been recovered, what makes no sense outside of its context, and is the whole thing confabulation, false or idealized memories associated with dementia?  Foregone is a smart novel that manages to be provocative though there’s not much action in any conventional sense. You might even find yourself sympathetic to Fifi, though he is and was a cantankerous figure. ★★★★


When does one realize that a relationship isn’t working? Once you know that, can it be salvaged? Does it take a bit of mudlarking to make to make things clear? This is the essence of The Lost Apothecary (Park Row Books, 269 pages), the debut novel from Sarah Penner.


Mudlarking is a phenomenon still very much associated with Greater London and the River Thames. The flow and silty banks of the river tends to preserve relics old and new. Thames artifact hunters are analogous to those who don rubber boots and dig for clams at low tide. Caroline (“Caro”) Parcewell is in London, where she and hubby James are supposed to be celebrating her 10th anniversary and perhaps reopening her desire to have a child. James, a workaholic, doesn’t want kids, is still in the States, and plans to join her later. Happy anniversary!


Caro is depressed, angry, and not at all enjoying herself. On a whim, she is talked into a bit of mudlarking and unearths a mysterious bottle. This is Penner’s setup to toggle between the present, the 1790s, and a tale of an herbalist, Nella, with a secrect sideline in abortifacients and a few other things as well.


How can Caro reassemble any story based on a single bottle? She has no names or records to guide her, but what the heck else can you do when you’re partnerless in London except revive past dreams of getting an MA in English literature and mucking about with tools used by professional historians? She unearths (puns intended) a past that involves a 12-year-old servant girl, her rich mistress, lawbreakers past and present, a splash of the supernatural, an old bookstore, James’ attempt to save his marriage, and Caro’s investigation of finishing her MA at Cambridge.


If you suspect there are too many coincidences and illogical plotlines, you’re right. (I mean, seriously, just any Yank wanting to restart an abandoned thesis can enter Cambridge University, right?) Penner has wonderful material, but it’s not a good thing when a reader pokes holes in a fabric made of cheesecloth. ★★ ½


I bailed on it a third of the way through The Magician (Scribner’s, 512 pages). Colm Tóibín intends a fictionalized biography of German writer Thomas Mann. It is the sort of book that thrills literary scholars, as its ultimate goal is to give insight into the title. (The Magician is Mann’s unfinished novel.) I suspect Tóibín was also trying his hand at writing in the style of German novelists such as Herman Hesse. I so wish he hadn’t. I’ve read exactly one of Mann’s novels, Death in Venice, and it made a better movie than book.


Mann led a life of adventure and misadventure, but Tóibín takes too long to unspool salient highlights. There is the added problem that Mann was a despicable human being who married and had children, though he was gay. I’ve no problems with that, but I draw the line at pedophilia and I really draw it when an object of Mann’s desire was one of his own sons. I suppose one can wax rhapsodic about Mann’s literary merits, but blast if I have any desire to read a wordy retelling of a debauched personal life, especially when Mann’s Wikipedia entry is more interesting than Tóibín’s account.



  Rob Weir