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April 20, 2015

The Secret of Change...

Photo of three Duncan sisters: Susie (Don Sexton), Sarah (Charles McBride), Shirley (Guy Jagger)


"Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing."  ~ Abraham Lincoln






And so the story goes:  as a toddler, I left the party in the living room as I stumbled past all of the clinking cocktail glasses, above my determined gaze, and placed my tiny hands over my huge ears to drown out the raucous laughter and incessant chatter and followed my instincts.  I crawled up eight uncarpeted oak steps, turned right upon the landing and ascended four more to the hallway, monitoring the distressing sound of an infant engaged in sobbing and who was yearning to be acknowledged.  I stood on tiptoe and reached into the bassinet and extricated my nephew Jimmy…clutched him under his teensy armpits and lugged him back toward the steeply descending staircase.  There we stood at the "top of the world, Ma" -- him in swaddling clothes and me in my Mary Janes and with the sash of my hand-made party dress now untied and dragging behind us both.



Like that once-upon-a-time television commercial, "When E.F. Hutton talks…people listen"?  Why? A gasping hush fell over the crowded room downstairs, as my big sister Shirley, the new mom,  bounded up the staircase two steps at a time and cradled her baby in her arms while glaring at little ole me.  I felt heroic for bringing the baby back to the bathwater…I knew just how he felt.  I empathized.



Shirley Duncan Jagger died on April 7th, 2015 as did I -- quite a bit.  I am the only family member remaining of our original, adequate tribe of five…a mama and a papa and -- three daughters all seven years apart.  At my sister's visitation I sat on a long couch with other sisters…Shirley's very cordial sisters-in-law, that is: Ellen (Henney), Marge (Mowrey), Ruby(Sherman) and Ardith (Cormany).  Joanne Prater, the next to the youngest Jagger child, died several years back; her son brought a smile to my face -- at long last -- when he spoke of how much I resemble my father.  "Your dad's nose, eyes and cheekbones…," he exclaimed!



My final smile of that evening occurred when Jimmy's consistently sweet wife Jayne asked if I needed any assistance as I stood alone sort of right smack dab in the middle of the imposingly funereal  room, which was arrayed and bedecked inch by inch with old photographs, memorabilia and flower arrangements. I seldom dress up, and the couch-sitting had rearranged possibly my underwear in some bizarre way.  I behaved like a deer caught in the headlights -- hesitantto make the slightest move…"Deja vu all over again", exceptthat Jim (and Jayne) and Susie are now all in their sixties.  Shirley could not save the day this time, but Jayne did -- very satisfactorily.  I felt totally loved…and the room stopped swirling as Jayne and I chatted about the past and the present and the future and life and et cetera.




I am impacted quite intensely by the fact that those who formerly played crucial roles, within my life story, seem to be vanishing every couple of months. My dad's baby brother, who might have been able to commiserate with me (re:  the oddity of becoming the "last gladiator standing" with no one left to share that emptying-arena-feeling of having weathered storms and "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"), died in the autumn of 2014 -- my Uncle Mac.  Mac and I kept accidentally by-passing each other in the years since I last visited with him at my dad's funeral over 30 years ago, at which time my uncle noticed my little Roy (named after my dad who was my son's best friend) forlornly and lackadaisically pacing around the front yard fencepost.  Uncle Mac ambled over and gave him a ten dollar bill and a hug.



My simpatico cousin, precariously close to my own age, died in March; he and I shared such a genuine and all-encompassing passion/compassion for species other than ourselves. His grave illness had forced him to find a home for his cherished Boston Bull Terrier named Bonnie.  He sent photos of her to me via countless cellphone texting exchanges which we enjoyed engaging in until the very month he passed away in a nursing home. Linder Duncan and I were textbook kindred spirits gadding about (even after the summer sun set) similarly to Harper Lee's fictionally inventive playmates Jem and Scout -- whenever our family visited my dad's home state and returned to that red clay terrain of South Carolina as our family packed into our non-air-conditioned Ford when the world seemed so young.  The years passed too quickly with me visiting him only once again while in college.  We re-established our bond via two reunions only a half-dozen years ago…but had sadly remained 800 miles apart from each other for decades.



Very very recently, a lady named Edna Leedy (who excelled at portraying Mrs. Claus at Albion holiday festivities and all around Indiana) met us at the Northside Grille downtown to celebrate beautiful Tari Joyce's Valentine-time birthday.  Tari hails from Fargo, North Dakota, and we met on Facebook through a mutual New York hairdresser who bouffanted Jackie O.'s hair frequently and who hosted a radio show in which I participated a hilarious 23 times.  Colin and Tari and I are "family"…that can happen you know.  We added Edna who died of leukemia at the close of April.  I met Edna only once…and she became "family", too!



In June, a memorial service -- which is the latest trend in the funeral world -- will be held for one of the most shining lights of my existence thus far.  Reed Bertolette, a business associate of my father, also died this past fall.  A Yale graduate, though I never realized he was so blue-blooded due to his absolute humility and down-to-earthiness, this gentleman stole my heart when I was a mere eight years of age. I vowed to marry him. I shared that info with his namesake and son Reed, Jr. when talking with  him in … Hawaii--while asking for directions to the Connecticut Church in case we attend the service.  His dad used to laugh at my lame knock-knock jokes, square danced with me during Old Settler's Days, wrote silly verses in my autograph book, sent me commemorative replica buttons fashioned by his Scovill Company (which had converted to building airplanes during World War II as had Blue Bell changed from manufacturing denim jeans, overalls, and coveralls to military uniforms) which had once dotted the jackets of famous Revolutionary War heroes.  Reed, Sr., also sent us THE most fabulous book ever in our extensive collection -- the dimensions are so unbelievable.  We have never owned a bookshelf mammoth enough since that day when the mailman delivered the intriguing history of the Scovill Corporation -- in 1956!  (As well as a related, famous,popular novel entitled "The Mill on Mad River")  Whoever still may own Wrangler jeans from the late 40s and early 50s can rest assured that those rivets and snaps were manufactured  by…SCOVILL!  



Just a few closing words about me and those doves of peace that often get released during interment. Our parents raised us well…we three sisters have been around the block socially.  We understood always (well, usually) how to comport ourselves with decorum and aplomb (which sounds like a comedy team?), but I confess that I lost it when a quaking, TREMBLING bird seemed about to be released to symbolically vacate this "jail cell called earth"?  Seated on the front row beside my nephew-in-law Tim Cook, I recall muttering, "Even the Pope Himself has given that practice up due to preying (not praying), errant, ravenous attack-hawks "making lazy circles in the sky…"  Then as the anxious white dove approached me, while the funeral director held the creature tightly for each of us to pet, I fled away to the back of the tent anticipating that otherwise I would spontaneously, unceremoniously intervene and halt the proceedings by kidnapping the poor feathered soul. Anita Fry scrambled after me and demanded that I account for my abrupt exit, and then with impressive finesse compared that glorious dove to a legendary homing pigeon and contended that he would soar right back to his headquarters at the house of Loren and Amy Fry just over the hill -- as quickly as I could shout "Jack Robinson"?



So, these inevitable life events, which I have catalogued here, simultaneously stunned, saddened and yet enlightened me. Shirley's unique personality seemed larger than life itself…as had my dad's.  Her peaceful countenance in death left an impression that I shall remember always…the quiet strength and the beauty evident in her tranquil face reminded me that I am proud to have "called her…Shirley"…my big (though much more petite than I!) sis.  I observed a changed, transformed demeanor and an easy acceptance deep within her dignified yet delicate features that establish a path to what I previously feared but instead now understand.  "Surely…goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives."  Thank you, Shirley Ann.



"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new."  ~ Socrates (by way of my dear Facebook fellow blogger Beth Kennedy of Ann Arbor, Michigan)

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April 01, 2015

It’s the end of the world as we know it … Chappie and Insurgent reviews

(Talk of the Town photos provided)

By Roy Sexton

Oh, Indiana, my Indiana … home of my upbringing and constant source of horrified bemusement and righteous indignation in my adulthood.

The latest and greatest affront to all creatures great and small in Indiana is the so-called “Religious Freedoms Restoration Act,” which, no matter how you want to spin the rhetoric, is intended to make the narrowly-defined, faith-based, mid-century  (you pick the century) morality (?) of a bunch of Bible-thumping, pitchfork-wielding Hawthorne caricatures the law of that land wherever and whenever you try to go buy … baked goods?

And, yes, I’ve heard the rationalization that, “Well, all these other states had it, and Bill Clinton, the big ol’ dirty heathen, put this in place over 20 years ago at the Federal level, so why are Audra McDonald and Miley Cyrus and Angie’s List being so mean to us. We are just good Christian folks here.” Riiiight. And if Jimmy jumped down a well, would you all go, too? Please? There’s nothing nice about this legislation (or its timing); it is quite simply petty, spiteful, vindictive and mean.

I had a Facebook “debate” with a former Fort Wayne newscaster on another former Fort Wayne newscaster’s wall, and I ended my remarks thus,  “If Indiana doesn’t want to LOOK bad, stop passing legislation like this that really only serves the purpose of MAKING INDIANA LOOK BAD. (Not to mention pandering to the blood lust of a certain fringe demographic to secure their future votes – the same people who claim to want ‘small government’.) And, yes, all those other places that have this legislation look bad too, but this is the freshest one. Congrats.”

To be clear, losing one’s cultural hegemony does not qualify as “persecution.”

(And don’t even get me started on the fun, wholesome family pastime of “pig wrestling” in Indiana and other states. Yes, that is a thing. Sadly. I can’t imagine this is what Jesus had in mind. Just sayin’. Oh, I do digress. This is a blog about movies, right?)

It is with this mindset last night that I set forth on a double feature of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and Robert Schwentke’s Insurgent. While neither film is Tolstoy, it is interesting how both traffic in themes of persecution, isolation, pogrom-like social mandate, and government and big business collusion run amuck.

Chappie, the more ambitious of the two, is directed by Blomkamp, who specializes in such Bradbury-esque allegory and class-warfare dystopia as District 9 (segregation) and Elysium (healthcare). With Chappie, he pilfers his narrative from a hodge podge of references: Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Robocop, Short Circuit, 2001 to varying degrees of success.

The plot is rather simple: a military-industrial complex (headed up by Sigourney Weaver at her most teutonic) is supplying Johannesburg (which must be the “new” Beirut in film) with a fresh supply of robot cops, who, in their emotionless, unrelenting style can put a steely hard thumb in the heart of crime. Her star employee (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire) has invented the “robo-cops” but wants to introduce free-thinking sentience to the strange rabbit-eared creatures.

His rival at the company is Hugh Jackman being all “bad Hugh Jackman” … which basically means him glowering while saddled with a awful mullet haircut and Steve Irwin/Croc Hunter wardrobe choices. Crikey those shorts are short! Jackman’s character has created the Dick-Cheney-special of all robot law enforcement: something called the “moose,” a tank-like device that, in Jackman’s words, isn’t a “godless creature” (vis a vis the autonomous robo-cops) but is rather a machine that will be, um, super efficient at killing people … a lot of people. (I didn’t say the metaphor was subtle here, just appreciated.)

Patel ends up creating one robot with a winning personality – “Chappie” – a baby Energizer bunny who likes He-Man cartoons but gets in with the wrong crowd (a set of “gangsters” who make the acting work of Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel seem subtle by comparison). Chappie causes all kinds of ruckus when Jackman realizes he can leverage Chappie’s very existence (and the uncontrollable nature of his robot brethren) to unleash discord and create the kind of violent societal conflict that makes people want to sign over any and all civil liberties. (See a pattern here?)

Chappie (the film) is interesting if a bit recycled/derivative, and it runs out of steam at the 2/3 mark. I grew very tired of Chappie’s family of thugs and would have enjoyed more development of the Patel/Jackman rivalry. Simplistic as it is, their characters’ implied debate of creator rights vs. created rights, independent thought vs. jack-booted control, authentic innovation vs. corporate profiteering is timely, frightening, and essential.

I would be remiss if I didn’t crow about Sharlto Copley’s stellar motion capture work as Chappie. His is the most fully-realized characterization in the film as our heart aches for this innocent, animal-esque creature desperately trying to survive and thrive and feel and love in a muddled world that he didn’t (nor wouldn’t) create. That performance is a keeper and likely deserves a more substantive film.

Insurgent continues in this near-future-there-but-for-the-grace-of-someone-goes-our-society vein. It is the second part of the young adult series Divergent, based on the books by Veronica Roth and starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James along with Kate Winslet, Miles Teller, Ashley Judd, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Maggie Q, Zoe Kravitz, and Octavia Spencer. Naomi Watts joins the fun this time as yet another mysteriously motivated, first-name only “faction leader” … actually make that “factionless” leader – the nomadic “Evelyn.”

I noted in my review of Divergent (here) that, as young adult fantasy series go, this one is closest to something I can stand. It’s obviously not as popular as Hunger Games or Twilight, but, for me, it offers a more humane and humanistic look at our collective foibles.

Again, this ain’t deep stuff and it’s just as violent (if not more so) as those other series. However, the little socialist in my heart finds the central conceit of the Divergent books/movies very appealing: a culture that has decided to solve its problems by segregating its people along personality lines being rocked to its core when a young woman emerges who demonstrates exceptional abilities across the continuum of all those very traits (heaven forbid!). It’s not deep, but it’s feminist (lite), it’s inclusive, and it’s a wonderfully educational metaphor for  young people to understand that a society is strengthened not weakened by diversity. Again, not subtle, but obviously much-needed right now.

Insurgent as a film feels like a bit of a placeholder as the series kicks into high gear with the upcoming final two installments, and that’s ok. Woodley has done stronger character work elsewhere, but those key moments where she needs to telegraph her utter frustration with her role as society’s new messiah are delivered with aplomb. That’s pretty much all she needs to do here.

James, still Anthony-Perkins-on-steroids, does a better job this time establishing that he isn’t just all smoldering petulance but that he has a heart and a brain. Winslet continues to be an icily bureaucratic delight as the calculating Jeanine, whose nefarious actions at every turn belie her hollow rhetoric for “peace and unity.” (Sound familiar?) Finally, Miles Teller mounts a much-needed charm offensive in this installment, no doubt realizing that this isn’t Ibsen and the dour delivery from everyone in the first film was a bit of a buzz kill. He is a charmingly oily sparkplug as the dubiously motivated Peter.

When one’s soul is at sea because the world and its leaders seem hellbent on plain meanness, it helps to see a couple of movies (even if they aren’t that terribly great) that reflect a point of view that some of us do see through this insidious crap in real time. The fact that hundreds of people might be like-minded enough to put together a film (or two) for the masses that might sow some seeds of popular dissent? Well, that’s the kind of balm I go to the movies to receive. It’s the end of the world as we know it … and I feel fine


Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

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