DVD Review: No

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DVD Review: ‘No’

Gael Garcia Bernal gives the performance of his career in No, as an exiled Chilean working for the “No” Campaign in 1988. Basically, the plebiscite is coming up and Chileans will vote either “Yes” to retain dictator Augustus Pinochet or “No” and open the floor up for fresh candidates.

Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, whose father was exiled under Pinochet. Now his son is back in town and wants to turn Chile around. He helps run the campaign and its marketing efforts. Not unlike the Equal Time laws in the US, both the Yes Campaign and No Campaign are given 15 minutes each nightly to espouse their side.

The Yes Campaign utilizes nationalistic images and sweepingly patriotic music. On the other hand, the No Campaign starts off with heavy facts that serve as a scathing indictment of Pinochet’s regime. After marginal success, the No Campaign rethinks their strategy, and then the fun really begins.

This film is perfect for fans of the early 90’s documentary War Room, about the backroom goings-on of the Clinton campaign. Fans of Network will also enjoy the largely political dialogue.

As far as the way the film looks, do not be led astray by the DVD’s technicolor dreamcover. The film’s color has been muted and drained so that it actually looks like footage from 1988. In fact, since real footage is seamlessly interspersed with the dramatized footage, the viewer may not be able to tell which is which. Ubiquitous lens flares and unfiltered light add to the minimalism and uber-realism of No. While the color is too bled out to whisk the viewer into 1980s Chile, one may think that real found footage is being delivered to their eyes.

This is an important film culturally and historically, so I hope you will give it a chance.  Sometimes our battles aren’t won in fields or in trenches but in the streets and in strategy rooms. ‘No’ teaches us to choose the ballot, not the bullet.

Here is the actual video of the finished product of the No campaign. It’s catchy; I was singing it all afternoon.

Just say Yes to No. Recommended.

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Review: Movie 43

Review: Movie 43

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You might be wondering why I even decided to give anthology Movie 43 a whirl, considering it has a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes. 4%. The reviews have been wholly unkind, yet this film was still appealing to me. Why? I think it was the cast and the trailer that was cut to maximize hilarity. And Chris Pratt. Love Chris Pratt.

Movie 43 boasts what can only be described as a powerhouse ensemble. Kate Winslet (shown above), Emma Stone, Greg Kinnear, Dennis Quaid, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Justin Long, Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Naomi Watts, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb, Uma Thurman, Stephen Merchant, and Halle Berry are just some of the cast members.

The movie is told in vignettes, with an over-arching framework story that we cut to and away from every couple of sketches. The quality of these vignettes is uneven, but none are particularly good. Each vignette has an entirely different cast (I don’t think there was one bit of crossover) and directed by a different director (Elizabeth Banks, Peter Farrelly, James Gunn, and Brett Ratner are some of the directors).

Honestly, these vignettes are no worse (and possibly better!) than a lot of SNL’s current skits in the post-Fey, post-Wiig universe. Just like SNL, the stories go on too long, way past the point of the setup being funny any longer. Each skit is basically only its setup; once the gimmick erodes, they keep harping on the same elements to produce laughs. Or not produce laughs in most cases.

Take the vignette starring real-life couple Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts. The schtick is that they bully their home-schooled child so that he will have an authentic high school experience. The first several clips in the montage are funny or funnyish, but the longer takes seem stale (and we are only 3 minutes in!). Halfway through the skit, your mind wanders away from you and you start thinking about your grocery list.

I think the strongest segments are the “Blind Date” vignette starring Merchant and Berry and the “Picnic” vignette starring another real-life married couple, Chris Pratt and Anna Faris. However, the comic talents of these four fine actors cannot save these segments from weak structural underpinnings and an over-reliance on ‘gross out’ humor.

I feel like the Farrellys are living in an Apatow world. Although Apatow has had limited success writing complex female characters, that seems to be changing (thanks in part to Girls cohort Lena Dunham and Apatow’s own comic genius wife, Leslie Mann). I think the Farrellys’ situation is most comparable to George A. Romero. Romero is the undisputed godfather of the zombie sub-genre, but the contemporary maestro is Danny Boyle (or some would say Zack Snyder). The Farrellys found fame in the gross out comedy genre, but Apatow really revolutionized it and gave it back its humanity.

Anthologies are usually produced in the horror genre. Horror is known for not having an over-abundance of plot or character development, so you can get into the setup and started getting scared immediately. While many horror anthologies ultimately fail, this is probably the best atmosphere for a filmmaker looking to direct a segment of an anthology.

The romantic comedy genre has had very dubious success with the anthology. New Years’s Eve (which may be more of an ensemble piece than a true anthology, admittedly) has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I really enjoyed Paris, je t’aime, which I felt mainly consisted of solid work, but felt really let down the unevenness of New York, I Love You. More city love story anthologies are planned: Shanghai, I Love You, in 2013Jerusalem, I Love You in 2014, and Rio eu te amo in 2015/2016.

Not Recommended (except maybe for ardent fans of SNL or for a particular actor in the ensemble)

Review: Future Weather

Review: Future Weather

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Future Weather was a film that intrigued me ab initio. It seemed like a perfect counterpiece to Take Shelter, the Michael Shannon breakout explosion. While Future Weather is more of a family dynamic piece and less cerebral (and definitely less supernatural) than Take Shelter, they share commonalities.

I always love supporting women filmmakers, and Jenny Deller does a fair job in her first feature. Her other main credit, a short entitled “Save the Future,” serves as both a prologue and trailer to the feature.

Lili Taylor, as a mentoring teacher, is completely and overwhelmingly spot-on in each scene. I can be very lukewarm on Amy Madigan (e.g. I love her as Hannah’s mom on HBO’s Girls, but did not care for her in That’s What I Am), but she was the perfect blend of no nonsense and nurturing in her role as Greta. Any film centered on an adolescent actor can be unnerving, but newcomer Perla Haney-Jardine’s no-holds-barred acting sets up her for primo roles in any future YA dystopian novel movie adaptation that she chooses.

One of the best elements of the film is Haney-Jardine’s Lauderee, who is the film’s protagonist. An aspiring ecological scientist and environmental activist, Lauderee wants to change the world around her, but she is often ill-equipped with the tools to do so. Being a middle schooler, she doesn’t know how to filter her passion as not to alienate those around her. Her lack of tact and diplomacy is not without consequence, and she gradually learns to tamper her tongue without diluting her zeal.

Any film that promotes Marie Curie types over the Kim Kardashian trope is worth a look, even if the film is not without its faults.  A little unnecessarily slow in parts, the film has wonderfully understated pacing issues. Aside from a few pacing problems, I found this gem to be quite palatable.

 

Recommended for fans of Another Earth, Tumbleweeds, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Recommended.

Note: The short film “Save the Future” is available on DVD.

 

Jessica Chastain is incredulous as you are that she got roped into this mess.

Jessica Chastain is incredulous as you are that she got roped into this mess.

Review: Mama

Mama is a new film that was presented/produced by Guillermo del Toro after he saw the very short film on which this feature is based; he did not direct it. I feel like a lot of audiences are confused by that title. You can’t imagine how many people I’ve come across that just swear that The Orphanage (El Orfanato) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (which at least del Toro did write) were both directed by del Toro. I’m not sure I like this tactic by production companies because I feel it is somewhat dishonest and misleading and I can’t really blame anyone for being confused.

Anyway, the film is engaging enough but certainly nothing special. I was incredibly distracted by Jessica Chastain with dark, cropped hair acting very punk. It seemed a bridge too far from her, and if you’ve even seen the trailer, you will see what I mean about this being a big stretch.

The film is vaguely reminiscent of a 2003 horror film about the tooth fairy called Darkness Falls. This is not a complimentary comparison. Hate horror films or mysteries that fall apart in the third act? You’ll want to take  pass on this one.

The cinematography and lighting was absolutely terrible. I think it was so purposefully dark so you could put yourself in the protag’s shoes and feel scared in a dark room. However,  it was so darkly shot in several scenes that you couldn’t tell what was going on. On at least four occasions, I had to rewind the scene a bit to see what scary event happened because it was just too dark (think Alien v. Predator 2, if someone made you watch that at knifepoint). At times I felt I was only listening to certain scenes and it really took the “oomph” out of what were supposed to be some of the stronger and scariest sequences.

A cool bonus on the DVD was the entire short film on which this feature was based. del Toro introduces the short and there is also optional commentary available.

The DVD cover is a good indication of the darkness levels in the movie actually. Until I actually had the DVD in hand, I thought the little girl on the cover is holding onto a wooden door (spoiler alert: she’s not).

While I’ve seen worse, this is not a cogent enough film for me to recommend.

Non-spoilery thoughts on World War Z.

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Something hit a nerve with me tonight at my increasing dissatisfaction with Hollywood. I’m going to use my experience tonight as a springboard into this rallying cry. Usually it’s James with calls to action, but I figure I’m overdue.

Tonight James, Ross and I saw World War Z. I’d been following the reviews on my RSS feed for weeks now, and was pleasantly surprised they were overwhelmingly positive. 

It’s proof Hollywood can make a decent Blockbuster film. It reads more like Contagion than Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, which should hearten you. The pacing is excellent, the characters (those that are developed) are interesting, the music is good (can’t have zombie films without Muse, for more info, see my facebook note from 2008 or so stating such), and the cinematography is surprisingly astute. 

The film is not gorier than it needs to be and doesn’t play for cheap scares. One of my pet peeves with the horror genre is how laughs or funny moments will undercut the tension in some of the scariest scenes. This does not happen here, yet the film never takes itself too seriously as evidenced in the few moments of levity. I’d expect no less from Brad Pitt’s Plan B Production Company, but I think it’s difficult to reconcile in one’s mind that WWZ isn’t just a solid film for the zombie sub-genre, it’s solid overall.

While certainly not for everyone, if you even remotely think you will like or enjoy it, you probably will. I’m not trying to express that WWZ is the Citizen Kane of Z-flicks, because it isn’t and it’s not without its flaws.

That said, we need to ensure Hollywood keeps making more high-caliber action/thriller films for us to enjoy during Blockbuster season. Tell these movie moguls to take their prequels/sequels/threequels/midquels/shriekquels/remakes/screamakes/reboots/gorenography and to shove it.

If people deserve the government they elect, then audiences deserve the media we’re given. We have to stop settling for sludge or Hollywood will keep doling it out to us like farmyard critters to slurp from our industrial-sized troughs. 

I still believe in the power of the pocketbook. Vote with your dollars. Go out there and see the films that deserve to be seen. Tell Hollywood that we’re “mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore.

 

If you’ve seen the film, listen to the analysis over at Slate’s Spoiler Special podcast.

‘Road’ Films

What is it with films that have ‘Road’ in the title? Something about that word alerts the viewer that something about that movie will be utterly heartbreaking.

  • Arlington Road
  • Munger Road
  • Revolutionary Road
  • Reservation Road
  • Road to Perdition
  • The Road (Viggo Mortensen in the adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title)
  • On the Road (upcoming adaptation of the Kerouacian classic)

Can you think of others? Road Trip doesn’t count.

Review: Looper

Review: Looper

Looper, a post-neo-Noir time traveling enigma of a film began its theatrical run last week. I largely enjoyed the film as evidently so did many critics; the film’s current Rotten Tomatoes score is a robust 94%.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character lives in Kansas in 2044; Bruce Willis’s older version of the same guy resides in 2074 China. We see very little of 2074, which is good because you don’t feel like we are jumping timelines/locations, which would just add to the confusion in a time-travel movie.

The manipulation of JGL’s face to believably play a hitman who ages to look like Bruce Willis was done exquisitely. Admittedly, it is distracting for Gordon-Levitt’s first 5 minutes of screen time as he does not look as pretty and snuggly as in (500) Days of Summer or as sly and shrewd as in Inception. Swiftly, though, the viewer is able to suspend belief despite the trickery and can easily merge into the ebb and flow of the film’s fatiloquence.

Essentially, JGL plays Joe, an employee of one of the 6 major crime syndicates creeping around the US in 2044. As you have probably seen in the trailer, he waits in a cornfield with a shotgun (called a Blunderbuss for its potent power but rotten aim) and blows away any victims the future crime syndicate overlords send back for him to kill.

A friend of mine expressed reservations about the film’s body disposal method; he wanted to be assured that there was a reason to send executees back in time to be dispatched. Fortunately, the film cleanly explains the reason for the process within the first 5 minutes. Inconspicuously disposing of corpses in 2074 is nearly impossible because of biotechnology and other identifiers; it’s still somewhat easy in 2044 .

Structurally speaking, the pacing of the film is spot on. The second act does not grind us to a stop, but allows character exposition and important dialogue to be spoken emotively by the principals.

Seeing indie royalty JGL act against indie royalty Paul Dano is too good to be true. Besides both of them being in previous indies with Zooey Deschanel as their love interests ((500) Days of Summer and Gigantic, respectively), both of these young men have indie film oeuvres that would impress any Indie Spirit Awards attendee. This mutual background in independent film serves them well in the more dialogue- and suspense-heavy scenes.

Bruce Willis shows no signs of slowing. Truly, he refuses to apologize for his age. He isn’t trying too hard (like you see some aging actors attempt), he just knows that he is as bad-ass at 57 as he was at 27 and will still be awesome when he’s 80. Despite aging muscles, Willis is in top-form. He’s wonderfully svelte and agile in this film; he really moves like a cat. Honestly, he is aging with dignity and grace along with the ability to thwart villainy with acute alacrity. His boisterous yet strangely slinky performance in Looper has somehow made me excited to see him in the next Die Hard installment (see the trailer for A Good Day to Die Hard if you haven’t already).

Director Rian Johnson has also helmed Brick, a JGL showcase, as well as the incredibly beloved The Brothers Bloom (starring the equally affable Adrien Brody). Looper may seem like a frenetic choice for the director of the aforementioned cerebral offerings, but the first act is truly more like Bladerunner, Ridley Scott’s Cyberpunk classic.

The somewhat optimistic prognostication of the US in 30 years was my favorite element of the film. 2044 may be 32 years in the future, but it doesn’t always feel like it. In fact, some of the in-city sequences have more of a Boardwalk Empire feel than a futuristic one. Scenes outside the city do markedly feel more lifted from the first half of the 20th century rather than 30 years in the future. Advances in energy technology seem to be the reason for the split.

If society and technology (and nano-technology) kept advancing at the current rate, we’d probably end up with a Mad Max situation without some big energy solutions. Energy independence is not a partisan issue; everyone from Al Gore to George W. Bush have condemned our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. According to many sources, including the International Energy Agency, conventional oil production peaked around 5 years ago; our current Peak Oil society has not however peaked in its consumption of (and desire for) black gold.

Looper’s future is full of solar panels and photo-voltaics that power everything from automobiles to homes. But don’t think that the movie’s inclusion of renewable energy is heavy-handed or preachy; on the contrary, if energy issues weren’t a pet interest of mine, I am not sure I would have even noticed.

Because renewables have a lower power capacity than their fossil-derived brethren (the high-quality ‘conventional’ stuff anyway), the filmmaker has not pulled any punches when showing that solar panels and photo-voltaics are not an invisible solution (like the mechanisms/receptors of their fossil fuel counterparts). This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that the cars in Looper are small and completely cloaked in solar receptors. The source of the energy used by 2044’s denizens is never out of mind because they constantly see what powers their machines, which is starkly different to today where our fuels are put into tanks of the machines and virtually invisible (sans any smog they might emit).

Perhaps due to the future’s lack of high-return/energy dense fossil fuels, you will notice a limited amount of handheld technology in the future. Innovators have focused their ingenuity on solving the energy crisis instead of creating new gadgets, so you do not see many shiny toys; evidently we have had to reduce our overall consumption of energy in the future in order to survive and thrive. Life goes on as before in 2044, but energy is earmarked for more “important” uses, such as travelling, work, food preparation, and other practical activities.

While it is undeniable that renewables cannot presently provide for current levels of energy consumption (driven by a dominantly fossil-fueled society), do remember that 30 years have elapsed in Looper’s construct, so science has perhaps made renewables even more potent and efficient. This honing and improving of renewable hardware is believable, especially when new developments on the technical horizon are currently imperative to thwart the encroachment of a Mad Max-style dystopian future in real life.

Hopefully, this will be realistic oracularity and we can solve our energy demands peacefully and efficiently.

Overall, my advice for the film? Try to shut your brain off about the schematics of time travel and associated plotholes/inconsistencies associated therein. Just enjoy the ride.

Recommendation Level: Recommended

Why the Criterion Collection is Worthy of Jazz Hands

If I had three wishes from a genie, one would be for the entire, unabridged Criterion Collection on DVD.

It seems like every cinephile I know has been talking about how excited they are to see Quadrophenia (1979) on Criterion. It came out a few weeks ago and since its release I’ve been marinating on why I love Criterion DVDs to the extent that I do.

Composition:

Criterion is composed of mainly art house films, including foreign films, in both the DVD and Blu-ray format (and Laserdiscs back in the 90s). Many French New Wave, Fellini, Kurosawa, and John Ford titles are available on Criterion, but also brand new selections, such as Life During Wartime and Certified Copy.

There are many Criterion databases, but my favorite one is on IMDb. If you have an inkling that a film might be a part of the Collection, you are probably right.

The special features on each Criterion disc are without a doubt worth exploring. For instance, on the Grey Gardens disc, additional hilarious interviews of the Beales (the doc’s eccentric subjects) are done by the Maysles brothers. Then however, Little Edie and Big Edie interview the Maysles in a brilliantly-executed switcharoo. When special features on regular discs are so often throwaway padding, it truly is a breath of fresh air to see interesting supplemental material on the films we cherish.

Roger Agrees It’s Awesome:

Roger Ebert, in his memoir Life Itself, (which is going to be given the doc treatment by Uncle Marty), mentioned that during his convalescence from throat surgery, he found therapy in watching Ingrid Bergman films on Criterion. He opined that even though he was very familiar with Bergman films (even meeting the master himself several times), viewing the newly crisp contrast between lights and darks in Persona and Through a Glass Darkly was a life-changing experience.

Where to Watch:

You can find dozens of Criterion Collection films on Hulu+, which is Hulu’s premium service. It charges $7.99/month for this upgrade.

Many public libraries offer Criterion Collection DVDs (as well as regular DVDs and sometimes Blu-Ray) for their patrons to borrow. Check your local library’s online card catalog for Criterion DVDs or ask the friendly librarians for assistance.

Despite the $30-$40 price tag, there are probably several items you will want to purchase for easy repeat home viewing. For Criterion collectors watching their budgets, try the Eclipse series. It is a simpler, more streamlined collection, but still veritably awesome.

Stay Updated:

There’s a great Criterion e-newsletter that allows you to stay abreast of Criterion news. I like knowing which films have been selected for the Criterion treatment each quarter, and this is a good way to stay informed.  Criterion has its own blog, Current, which I find authoritative and entertaining.

Another excellent option for Criterion news is to follow its facebook page, which updates regularly but not so much that it becomes irrelevant. There’s also a Twitter page.

Review: Nobody Walks

Review: Nobody Walks

Yet another film I saw this year at the Sarasota Film Festival, Nobody Walks  follows the the blossoming relationship between Martine, a young film director (Olivia Thirlby) and her audio tech mentor, Peter (John Krasinski). Peter is a guru at sound mixing and has agreed to help Martine add sound to her film project, which follows insects on their day-to-day journeys, much like the David Attenborough feature Life in the Undergrowth. Martine comes to live at Peter’s luxe house during the project, and enjoys privacy in the pool house.

As the duo delve deeper into the mission, Peter begins to find Martine irresistible, even as she denies that she is cloyingly trying to entice him. The two bond over their artful success over mixing her film, which only further cranks up the sexual tension. Peter’s intern, much closer to Martine’s age than his, flirts with Martine and this drives Peter into a crazed frenzy of jealousy, even though he cannot articulate to himself why.

There’s only one problem with this burgeoning love story. Peter is married. With kids. And they all live in the big house in front of Martine’s pool house. Melodrama ensues.

If you are expecting John Krasinski’s character to be anything like Jim on The Office, you will be shocked and amazed. Krasinski has stifled the funnyman shtick in other films – most notable in his directorial/screenwriter debut, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (which I do not recommend).

Olivia Thirlby is one of those faces that seems to make people say “Aaah, where do I know her from?” You may have seen her as Jason Schwartzman’s ex on HBO’s Bored to Death or more recently in the unforgettable Moscow disaster blunder The Darkest Hour. She has some indie cred from films such as Juno, Being Flynn, Breaking Upwards, and The Wackness, but some career missteps as well: No Strings Attached, Dredd 3D (I’m assuming) and did I mention The Darkest Hour?

The effervescent Lena Dunham scribed the screenplay, which I didn’t know until the film’s credits. From an objective viewer standpoint, this was probably a plus as I am such a big Lena fan — her awkwardfest debut Tiny Furniture is over-the-top quirky and squirmy, but easily watchable and endearing.

Much like Peter’s inability to articulate his jealousy, I cannot closely articulate my reasons for not loving the film. It dragged in a few places, even though the runtime is a mere 83 minutes. Several pivotal scenes feel like the “oomph” has been diluted; much more a critique of how the film is shot rather than Dunham’s screenplay. However, the story and dialogue is lackluster, leaving us with a wholly mediocre adventure in suburban infidelity, where nothing new is ventured and nothing new is gained.

Watch the trailer, and catch the film on iTunes on September 6th or in cinemas on October 12th.

Recommendation Level: Barely Recommended (and only as a rental). Sorry, Lena.

Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Documentary Watch: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Ever see a film that invokes such a level of passion and craving that your mouth begins to water? Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of those films.

Jiro owns a sushi house in Tokyo’s business district. The sushi bar sells only sushi, no alcoholic beverages, appetizers or side dishes. The sushi rolls and nigiri are grandiose in their simplicity; Jiro uses the finest quality ingredients and old-school methods to bring out the natural flavors of the fish on a diner’s palate. The lack of frou-frou elements or unnecessary garnishes bring the attention back to flavor and technicality;  one patron described the fish as butter melting on her tongue.

Several apprentices discuss Jiro’s mentoring process, including a discussion of the shortest tenure of an apprentice (one day). Both sons marinate over what Jiro was like as a father; one anecdote includes one of the boys not recognizing his father and asking their mother what this stranger was doing in their house (Jiro frequently rose before the boys were up and came home long after their bedtimes). Despite Jiro’s familial shortcomings, his real marriage is to his art in sushi-making, and his family has come to respect this.

The sushi master has two sons, one of whom is being groomed to take over the restaurant after Jiro’s retirement (in line with Japanese custom). His younger son owns another sushi restaurant, using the same style and meticulous clean method as his father, but in a more relaxed atmosphere.

The documentary has a sleepy, dreamlike quality, which is buffeted by whimsical Philip Glass-type soundtrack. At times, you will feel that you are at the bottom of a pool looking up at Jiro & Sons.

A big reveal near the documentary’s end is heart-warming as much as it is startling.  This one plot twist made the rating jump a 1/2 star – you leave the film feeling buoyed (and hungry for sushi).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix instant and DVD.

Recommendation Level: Strongly Recommended (even if you don’t like sushi).

EXTRA CREDIT — Dining with your eyes.

Famously foodie films  include Babette’s Feast, 9 1/2 Weeks, Julie & Julia, The Cook The Thief His Wife & His Lover, and my personal favorite, Big Night. Big Night is an Italian restaurant that serves one last meal to its faithful few before its possible and likely closing. During the highlight course, one diner sobs at the beauty and divine taste of the food.

If you want to nurture your sweet tooth, re-watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Chocolat, Waitress (oh, those pies!).  For foreign films, try Tampopo, Tortilla Soup, Like Water for Chocolate, Mostly Martha, or Eat Drink Man Woman.