Snowden

Snowden is the latest from classic film director Oliver Stone. Yes, it is kind of a biographical character study of Mr. Snowden. But it is also a thriller of sorts, and a romance, and … a film that poses the questions about whether or not Snowden is a heroic whistle-blower or a traitor.

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Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden and Shaileen Woodley as his g/f Lindsay Mills, the film opens in a room in the Mira Hotel on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Present are documentary film maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), the Scottish journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), and the American Journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), along with Mr. Snowden. He’s about to turn over the files he had in his possession which detailed how the US Government was using sophisticated technology to keep an eye on its own citizens.

In short, this hardware and the programs written for it enabled the US to monitor every cell phone in the world.

But it is at that point that film give us a flashback to a far younger Edward Snowden.

This time he’s a member of a squadron of Special Forces trainees in boot camp. A slightly built man, we learn that the stress of carrying 80 pounds of gear was a bit too much for Snowden’s legs.

The doctor shows him the x-rays and tells him, it appears that you have been going through the drills with stress fractures in both legs for at least a couple of weeks.

The doctor is going to discharge Snowden from the active military. He tells him, you will have to find another way to serve your country.

Which leads Snowden to apply for a job at the CIA. This is where he meets Corbin O’Brian who will become his mentor. O’Brian is played by Rhys Ifans, who comes close to stealing the film away from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley.

I hadn’t seen much of Ifans. I think the only two films I saw him in were Notting Hill in 1999 and The Replacements in 2000. In both of those, Ifans came off as a somewhat, if not downright, goofy character. Here, he’s altogether different. This time out he plays like a younger Max Von Sydow. And he’s very good.

So much for our introduction. Snowden’s career in the intelligence industry has just begun. We are going to follow Snowden as he meets Lindsay Mills, then takes on posts as an intelligence contractor to locations like Geneva, Tokyo, and Oahu in Hawaii.

The film follows Snowden’s career from posting to posting. As a contractor he’s doing very well financially. He has a relationship with a fine woman, and yet – he’s not happy. His job involves long hours as well as travel and he can’t tell Lindsay anything of what he’s done, doing, or working on. It eats away at him.

And this is Oliver Stone’s main point.  His set up is that Snowden did not just blow the whistle for the sake of blowing the whistle. Yes, there came a point when he could no long reconcile to himself, that his specific work had nothing to do with events that happened, not only within the US but across the world as well.

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Designated Survivor

 

The Capitol has been attacked. Eagle is gone. Sir you are now the President of the United States

ABC unveiled the premier of Designated Survivor last night. Within the context of the series, it was just another night, albeit the night of the President’s State of the Union Address, and Tom Kirkman, a member of President Richmond’s cabinet, drew the short straw, or maybe it goes by ranking, or some other formula to be the designated survivor for the night.

That means that when all the ranking members of the government are in one place, a designated survivor is named, then taken, by the Secret Service to a secret location, just in case the worst thing imaginable happens.

On this particular night, the United States Capitol Building was blown up, with the President, the Vice President, and all the members of Congress losing their lives. Yes, the worst thing imaginable, and this all before the opening credits.

Before the dust has settled, but the opening credits have been shown, we learn that just 15 hours ago, Tom Kirkman, was relieved or fired from his cabinet post and given a foreign posting, as in an ambassadorship which would be based in Montreal. Mind you, this was not the same as being named as the American Ambassador to Canada.

One could only see this as a step-down, a demotion, a kick in the ass, as well as a good riddance and goodbye. And while you absorb that, Kirkman has to give a speech to the American people (it’s just a few hours later) as well as take a tough meeting in the Emergency Situation Room.

The news coming out of the Middle East is that Iran wants to flex its muscles and make a run at the American Navy. Not likely an act of war, but certainly an act of both bravado and defiance. The thinking being that while in a state of disarray, let’s push the Americans buttons and see what the new guy is made of.

Now Kirkman has to deal with people who don’t think he’s Presidential material, as well as a hawkish Joint Chiefs General who wants to immediately unleash the dogs of war. But Kirkman is not quite ready to start WWIII, at least not on that night.

He says that despite the misgivings of the remaining Presidential staff, and that gung-ho General, he’s going to do things his way, and see how or if that works. If my way doesn’t work, then we can try yours.

So the Iranian Ambassador is summoned to the White House. He of course denies that the Iranian Navy is anywhere near the Straits of Hormuz , a strategic choke point between the Persian Gulf and open ocean.

Kirkman tells the Ambassador that he can go back to his embassy, and get in contact with his government, and if the American Navy does not report an Iranian naval retreat within three hours, tomorrow, the headlines on the front page of every newspaper in the world, will not only be the destruction of the American leadership and Capitol Building, but the full destruction of the Iranian Capital as well.

KAL PENN, KIEFER SUTHERLAND, NATASCHA MCELHONE

That’s about it for an intro to the series. Kiefer Sutherland has been cast as the emerging President, and just like what we saw in Madam Secretary, he’s got a family.

His wife is played by Natascha McElhone. I kept expecting her to speak with that lovely Irish lilt as she did playing opposite Robert De Niro and Jean Reno in the thriller called Ronin, but it never happened.

The hawk of this tale, General Cochrane is played by Kevin McNally who might remind you of Brian Dennehy as Sheriff Will Teasle from the first Rambo film.

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One Mississippi

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In my younger days, when things like a Thanksgiving morning touch football game became an obligatory neighborhood event, the terms One Mississippi, Two Mississippi were words that actually may have been spoken by me or my teammates. In this particular version of backyard football, the team defending had to give the quarterback five seconds to figure out what to do before we could come streaming across the line of scrimmage to achieve either a sack via a two-hand touch, or hurry the QB into throwing an errant pass. Hence, the stating of one Mississippi was the equivalent of one second passing, and we had to voice the count out loud.

That was then.

Today, meaning this month, Amazon rolled out a new series on September 9th called One Mississippi. Lest you get the wrong idea, this brand new mini-series (only six episodes of a half hour each), has nothing whatsoever to do with football.

The series stars Tig Notaro who is nothing  if not multi-talented. She’s managed bands, booked bands, played music and talked as a radio DJ. She’s also done notable work as a stand-up comic. She is penning a memoir for a Harper Collins imprint. She been a subject of a documentary called Tig which screened at Sundance. And she’s come to the attention of Louis CK who is an Executive Producer for this TV series.

Those are items which re usually found on a resumé.

What you normally don’t see on a resumé is the fact that Tig had breast cancer resulting in a double mastectomy with no follow-up reconstructive surgery. She’s also had a serious intestinal disorder which might have killed her.

As the series begins, Tig has flown in from L.A. The family was gathering because Tig and her brother, plus their step-father, have agreed and decided to pull the plug on her mother who is hooked-up to life-support mechanisms. She had sustained a severe head-injury in a fall and was now in a full vegetative state.

So Tig has flown into New Orleans and was in a car driving to her home town. She’s actually from Pass Christian, Mississippi, but in the show, the setting is the fictional Bay Saint Lucille. Either way, they are  about 70 miles east of New Orleans and are considered small Gulf towns on the Mississippi coast.

Now Amazon has described One Mississippi as a dark comedy. Here is the blurb for Episode One (the pilot):

Tig Notaro, an LA-based radio host, returns to her hometown of Bay St. Lucille, Mississippi, to be at the bedside of her ailing mother, Caroline. Suffering from her own recent health problems, Tig attempts to reconnect with her brother, Remy, and stepfather, Bill, both of whom lack the emotional tools to deal with family trauma.

And the blurb from the 2nd Episode called Effects:

Struggling to accept her mother’s death, Tig can’t let go of Caroline’s possessions.  Unable to leave home, Tig tries to maintain control of her radio show from Mississippi. Seeing that Tig is unable to accept the fragility of life, most pressingly her own, Bill pushes Tig to investigate a disturbing, yet oddly hilarious medical procedure.

A flashback to when the Mom was at Tig's bedside prior to her mastectomy.

A flashback to when the Mom was at Tig’s bedside prior to her mastectomy.

Notice that the series is called a dark comedy and oddly hilarious. Here’s my take – I’d call the series a drama with often unexpected diverting comedy scenes, but there’s not nearly enough of these to merit calling the series a comedy, dark or otherwise. Second, I didn’t find the show even remotely hilarious.

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Fleabag

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You wouldn’t think that an actress, who not only wrote a play, then adapted it into a TV series, all while starring as the lead character, would not only title the play/series Fleabag, but would also give the lead character that name too. You wouldn’t think it would happen.

Only if your name is Phoebe Waller-Bridge, that’s exactly what you did. This six part series called [ta-daa] Fleabag (a half-hour  a pop for each of the episodes) opened (began streaming) on Friday the 16th as an Amazon Original Series. Well, you’ll have to forgive Amazon for their marketing strategies as this series has already aired in the UK on BBC 3. But if you are an Amazon Prime member you can watch all six episodes at no additional cost.

So what’s it all about Alfie is probably not the question forming on your lips, but that was no accident. One of the keys to this funny series is that Fleabag has a decided penchant for breaking the 4th wall and talking directly to we viewers about the imminent and ongoing situation she’s in. Michael Caine did this in 1966 in the hit film Alfie.

Then we enjoyed it in the 1990 British TV series House of Cards with Ian Richardson playing the ambitious and corrupt Francis Urquhart.

In 2004 Alfie was remade with Jude Law playing Alfie. The story was re-positioned to be a New York story instead of London.

The British H of C was remade into a US TV series called House of Cards. Netflix began streaming the series in February of 2013. The fifth season will be available on February 24th, 2017. Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a poor guy from the back woods of South Carolina who was as corrupt as Mr. Urquhart, who eventually became the British PM. Underwood’s reach would eventually take him into the US Congress, and then ultimately, straight into the White House as President.

While Fleabag may be as morally corrupt as any of the gentlemen we just named, she was far less ambitious. When we first meet her she’s prepping for a 2:00 AM Tuesday Night pop-in.

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Narcos: Season Two Arrives on Netflix

Netflix rolled out the second season of Narcos just last Friday, September 2nd. I took my time, meaning I stretched out the watching of the series over five days, concluding the 10th and final Episode by late afternoon on he 6th. I think the best way to get you interested is to show you the trailer right now.

If you had watched Season One of Narcos you know that the season ended with the drug-lord Pablo Escobar making a deal with the government of Colombia. He would construct a prison for them, paying for it himself, and he agreed to this self-styled version of being incarcerated. They called the place La Catedral.

Well it seemed that rather than being in jail, living under the commands of jailers, and doing what is called living-without, the reality was that this was nearly a four or five-star hotel.

Escobar lacked nothing either in foods, comforts, tv’s, or even communicating with the outside world which meant continuing to do business. Both the Colombian government and Escobar’s competitors began to question this incarceration. Despite checkpoints and blockades heading into this ‘prison’, Escobar’s truck deliveries managed to avoid the interdiction and so, the goods made their into the prison, and Escobar was able to ‘enjoy’ life there.

As Season 2 begins, the government planned a huge assault on the prison and it began well. But the slippery Escobar virtually walked out of the prison unscathed. In an encounter in the surrounding forest, Escobar virtually dared the squad leader to take action, otherwise he would continue on his way home.

Fearing repercussions later, the sea of soldiers, parted, and Escobar and his associates just walked on through.

And that was the just beginning of the second season of Narcos. If we can state that season one was the rise of Escobar, season two was certainly all about his fall. That’s not a spoiler as Escobar was an all too real drug lord and murderer. In fact, on his instructions, a shopping area in downtown Bogotá was car-bombed.

Planning the Bogota bombing

Planning the Bogotá bombing

This is in addition to out-and-out assassinations of cops, politicians, and rival cartels in the drug business.

So you knew there was going to be payback. With the Colombian government avid to get him to surrender, the DEA poking around and calling it ‘advising’, as well as the CIA doing what they could clandestinely. Escobar really didn’t have a chance.

His fate was all but sealed when one of the DEA agents assigned to capture him started to work covertly with the Cali Cartel via Judy Moncada (below).

The opposition cartel set up a death squad or hit team to systemically eliminate anyone who either worked for Escobar or helped his efforts. They were known as Los Pepes. If you described them as brutal you’d be describing them in a kindly way.

Their stock in trade was not just to take out Escobar’s associates and allies, but to make the killings as public as possible. Bodies were left in the most conspicuous of places all bearing signs that stated : This is what will happen to you if you help Pablo Escobar.

But the government had their own Death Squad too. This was called the Search Bloc. To get information on Escobar’s whereabouts they would put the squeeze on all of Escobar’s carefully planned network of scouts, spotters, and watchers. Their job was to radio ahead when the Search Bloc trucks and jeeps loaded with uniformed men with weapons would leave HQ.

Some of the watchers and radio men were really just teenagers and some even younger. Escobar had a reputation (when things were flush) of giving out money. All for the purpose of enhancing his reputation as a Robin Hood-esque kind of drug dealer.

But the Search Bloc was desperate to capture or kill Escobar, so they didn’t even think twice about executing the ones who wouldn’t talk.

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The Tunnel – Season One

Did you see the Danish/Swedish TV Series called The Bridge? The series had three seasons that aired in 2011, 2013, and 2015. Depending on where you live and what language you speak, the series is also known as Bron or Broen. The stars were Kim Bodnia as the Copenhagen, Denmark homicide detective Martin Rohde, and Sofia Helin as the Malmo, Sweden homicide detective Saga Noren.

Here’s the short and concise description of the series from Hulu:

A woman is found murdered in the middle of the Øresund Bridge – right on the border between Sweden and Denmark. The Swedish and Danish police are called to the scene. What at first looks like one murder, turns out to be two. The bodies have been brutally cut in half at the waist and put together to form a single corpse. This spectacular double murder is just the beginning of a wave of violence the like of which no one has ever seen before. The Swedish and Danish police find themselves in a race against the clock in a deadly showdown with a superior enemy, where no one will be the same when it’s over.

The series prove to be very popular and was deemed a success. So much so, that in the US, in 2013, a similar series, also called The Bridge was launched. This series ran for two seasons on the FX Channel.

The American series starred Demian Bicher as the Mexican cop Marco Ruiz from Juarez, and Diane Kruger as Sonya Cross who is based in El Paso, Texas.

Here’s the description of the US version of The Bridge from Wikipedia:

The Bridge follows two police detectives – one Mexican, one from the U.S. – and their joint effort to capture a serial killer who is operating in both countries when an American judge known for anti-immigration views is found dead on the bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, with Juárez, Mexico, menacing both nations along the Texas–Chihuahua border .

In both of these series, the hook, or the element that immediately captures the attention of the viewers was this – in each case there were two victims – the top half of the body was a victim from one side of the bridge, and the lower half of the victim was from the other country. Hence the joint jurisdiction.

Then, in a joint venture between the UK’s Skybridge Productions and the French production outfit called Canal +, we have the series called The Tunnel. This series has the same premise, only rather than discovering the body on a bridge, the two body sections are found at the midpoint of a service tunnel connecting Folkestone in the UK with Calais in France.

This channel crossing, under the sea (Straits of Dover) is for cars who drive on and then drive off the train. It is a mere 35 minute trip, so our detectives make this crossing routinely and easily. Speaking of the detectives, let’s check them out.

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Hands of Stone

While I’m not a huge fan of boxing, I have seen and liked more than a few boxing movies. Starting with Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, to Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, to Will Smith as Ali, and to Robert De Niro‘s great performance as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull – I’ve been there.

The newest film (or bio) about a boxer is called Hands of Stone. The film stars Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran and co-stars Robert De Niro as the legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel. Usher Raymond plays Sugar Ray Leonard. Ruben Blades plays Duran’s manager Carlos Eleta.

Ellen Barkin plays Stephanie Arcel, Jon Turturro plays the mobster Frankie Carbo. And to round out the major players, Ana de Armas plays Duran’s wife Felicidad Iglesias Duran.

Also present are Howard Cosell, Don King played by Reg E. Cathey, and Ray Charles. Not in person but via actors representing them. Other figures from the world of boxing represented included Angelo Dundee, Gil Clancey, Ken Buchanan, Davey Moore, John Condon, and Bob Arum.

That’s quite a lengthy list of roles for this film. And therein lies the problem with Hands Of Stone. I think that by choosing the all-encompassing story of Duran who grew up in the rough and tumble slums of El Chorillo, a neighborhood of Panama City, we have too much to digest, there’s too many characters, and the story suffers for this approach. Not from bloat, mind you, the film runs only 111 minutes, but from its lack of focus.

Simply and additionally, Duran doesn’t come off as heroic, or for that matter even charismatic. When you talk about Ali, you always start with charismatic. And Rocky was the underdog hero, as was Graziano. De Niro who wowed us as the brooding and dramatic Jake LaMotta – was a guy that you could care about, as well as root for.

But we don’t get there with the fierce Edgar Ramirez as Duran. He got to a point where he was able to enjoy the fruits of boxing career. In effect, after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard by a unanimous decision in Montreal on June 20th, 1980 – he was on the top of the boxing world. Going into the fight, Duran’s record was 48-1 with 41 knockouts. The fight would be sold, hyped, and remembered as The Brawl in Montreal.

The film then moves to a quickly arranged, by Carlos Eleta, rematch with Leonard. It would be an 8 million dollar purse for Duran. But Roberto had partied and played too much. To fight Leonard again, Duran would have to lose about 35 pounds in just 3 months.

Arcel said it couldn’t be done, plus if the weight did come off, Duran would be seriously weakened. Arcel urged Eleta to cancel the fight. But Eleta had not only put Duran into a sweat box to make the weight, he had put himself in a different kind of box. Don King would sue for breach of contract if the fight didn’t go off.

So the fight went on, and if you were around at that time you know the outcome. Duran hadn’t the endurance to chase Leonard around the ring, nor had he the punching power to take Leonard off his feet and out. So in mid-fight – Duran quit.

No Mas was what was reported at the time, meaning No more, but the film takes great pains to report that Duran never uttered those words in the ring. Basically that’s the film.

I found other things that I didn’t care for as well, that’s being besides the overfilled story, and the lack of charisma by the actor playing Duran. While Ramirez was fine, Duran was an uneducated street kid from El Chorillo. He couldn’t read, and he was crude in many ways. He really couldn’t be labeled either heroic or charismatic. So to expect more from the actor was more wishful thinking than anything else.

The boxing action in the film was badly edited. We’d see arms in motion and then hear the thuds of the punches, but the camera was always panning out of the ring to pick up Arcel’s reactions and instructions. Or we left the venue to watch people watching the fight on TV screens. Or we would get a glimpse of the boxer’s wives reacting. In short the fight sequences lacked impact.

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HBO’s The Night Of – Episode 8: The Call of the Wild

HBO’s Limited Series The Night Of has passed before my eyes and I’m sure of good number of your eyes. I hated to see it end, and as we have heard for thousand of years, no matter what happens to each and every one of us – the wheels will keep turning.

SPOILER ALERT – If you’ve not watched the finale yet, come back after you’ve seen it. And for those of you who have seen this very fine show – all 8 episodes – let’s get into it.

Here are the predictions, as in possible outcomes, I made in my previous post about the show:

Naz did it, and was found guilty on all counts by the jury.
Naz didn’t do it, and was still found guilty.
Naz did it but was found innocent.
The jury cannot decide – a hung jury occurs.
Naz is killed in prison before the verdict.
Naz is found innocent and released but is killed by an anti-Muslim nut job in the streets of Queens.

Obviously, within that list, is the outcome that we did get, and to be honest, I believe that it is the least likeable resolution.

We are left with the murderer still walking the streets of New York. Zaillian and Price have not pushed us in a specific direction. Rather they have pushed us in many directions meaning that it is necessary to have to STILL consider that Andrea’s murderer may have been:

Don Taylor – the stepfather
Duane Reade – the convict with a lengthy sheet of agg assaults, in which he used a knife found in the victim’s home
Mr. Day – The Limo driver who may have followed Naz and Andrea from the Upper West Side gas station.

And we still aren’t sure if Naz did it or not.

Then there’s the new suspect – the financial advisor, Now there’s no indication that he can actually be tied to the murder itself. He may have been a thief and a cheat, but at this time, we have nothing other than his phone records and the financial records that connect him to Andrea. He is the listed financial advisor on the statements. And the phone logs showed that there were multiple calls between his number and Andrea;s  many times. Plus the phone tracking shows that he was NOT where he said he was. He said he was home at the time of the murder – but the cell phone tower logs show something else. And the CCTV of his neighbor hood showed that his car arrived on the block of his residence well past the time of the murder.

But are those facts any more conclusive than  those that Mrs. Weiss brought to Naz’s trial in the first place?

We are left with some unavoidable conclusions:

That kiss between Chandra Kapoor and Naz would come back to haunt her. Is her career in law over? Will she be disbarred or merely reprimanded? At minimum she’s lost her job.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Today I received an indirect request to review the new Stephen Frears directed film, Florence Foster Jenkins, a bio-film (sort of) starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg (of The Big Bang Theory fame).

The request came in a post called Writer’s Block Ruminations. Marty is the author of the post and his blog is called Snakes in the Grass. He’s not talking about folks you can’t trust, rather his blog title is an all too true reference to the fact that in Florida you literally have to watch where you walk, because, for certain, you are going to run into actual snakes, who as we all know appreciate the hot weather in Florida and they don’t mind slithering along, or crossing the sidewalks that we humans use on their way somewhere.

Anyway – ask ye shall receive. I fired up my car and hit the highway which would be I-95 (Exit 109 – Port Wentworth, GA). I was headed to Hilton Head Island where I would see Streep and friends in an 11:30 AM screening at the Park Plaza Cinema, a small movie house but one that is equipped with the latest in equipment to play the new digital age movies and with deluxe leather reclining chairs.  It was an uneventful 50 minute drive, and there was no line for tickets.

I had seen the trailer for Florence Foster Jenkins and so I knew the bare bones of the story. A well-off society woman  was a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. And that blurb was even kinder than the one we got on the actual movie poster – The Inspiring Story of the World’s Worst Singer.

I’m not sure why, but my expectations were that FFJ would fall somewhere between  the classic anarchism of The Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera) and  the social relevance of one or more of Preston Sturges‘s snappy and smart films like Meet John Doe or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But Frears and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin took the high ground and the safe ground. The laughs did not come often because Grant and Streep played their characters realistically rather than in a stylized manner. The laughter would come from just two sources.

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Helberg played Cosmé McMoon, an up and coming pianist who, for the stately sum of $150 dollars a week – almost a princely sum in 1944 – was hired on as Jenkins’ piano accompanist.

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When he first sat down and worked the black and white piano keys, as Florence sang – a look of horror crossed his face which was then overtaken by a look of disbelief. Thinking he had signed on with a professional and accomplished singer, the thought that occurred to him right then was this – am I sabotaging my future as a musician by working with FFJ?  This would persist throughout the film.

The other was FFJ’s voice coach – one Carlo Edwards played by a terrific David Haig. He would be so effusive and positive when commenting on Florence’s vocalizations. That was the best yet, or you’ve never been better were decidedly non-complimentary compliments. But he was lying through his teeth. Which everyone in the room could see, and ditto for those of us seated in theater. Only Florence took his words as being sincere.

As a vocal coach for the Metropolitan Opera, Edwards definitely knew his business. But as he too had been hired by Jenkins’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield played by Hugh Grant, all Edwards could do was to follow Bayfield’s lead.  Bayfield never ever was anything but loving and supportive of his wife’s dreams and desires.

As she said, Music was and is my life. And after her gala one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall, FFJ would say – People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.

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