Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Last Station: Leo Tolstoy's Last Days

I can't claim to have impeccable taste in movies. I have paid to watch films like Karate Kid 2 (oh-my-gawd) and Going the Distance, after all. But once in a while, I stumble unto something intelligent AND watchable --- a feat increasingly rare in today's films.

You will not have learned of this movie. It didn't even show here in the country. Sige, aaminin ko, the only reason I even bought this film is because James McAvoy is in it. And maybe because Helen Mirren was nominated in this year's Oscar's for Best Actress. I'm thankful for this 2 very shallow reasons though because it led me to finding a movie that, in my opinion, competently portrayed the conflicted life of the famed Leo Tolstoy.

As a litgeek, of course I know who Leo Tolstoy is. I could name his novels and essays, and maybe, perhaps, infer on a couple of reasons why he was such a big man in Russia. But the truth is, I haven't read War and Peace. It makes for such an excellent doorstopper that I haven't had the heart to rid it of it's only purpose at home. This movie though lent me a new perspective on his writings. It wasn't all about telling a story. It was also about changing the world. Tolstoy suffered through a crisis of fate, and he emerged with an ideology that most of the Church's precepts are just plain verbiage and snook. Of course, he got excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his efforts (of course). But it didn't stop him from writing. His message was simple: All religions have one truth in them, and only one. The word for that truth is LOVE. Ambitious. And yet it earned him a congregation. The movie chronicles Leo Tolstoy's last days: his quarrels with his wife Countess Sofya, his inevitable signing over of the copyright of his works to the public, and his death at a train station. Hence, the title of the movie.

But aside from the politics of the Tolstoyan movement, it also tells the story of 2 love stories: One that has run its course for 48 years and suffering a breakdown, and another at the beggining, at the cusp of something beautiful just about to bloom. It re-awakened in me my long dormant fascination with the Russians --- something that started with my Romanov fever back in high school. It also helps that the film featured the best actors at the peak of their performances: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, c'mon! Not to mention, Paul Giammati, James McAvoy and his wife, Anne-Marie Duff. This is what I will hold as my standard from now on when I read or hear the words "Stellar Cast".

I hope someday, when you have the time enough to be truly engaged in a complex story line, you'll also sit down and pop this into the DVD. It doesn't have things blowing up in it, or people having torrid torrid sex (well, a few love scenes), but like a song, it is lyrical and soft and pure.

Helen Mirren and Anne-Marie Duff as the women in Tolstoy's life

Paul Giammati can play the anti-hero, now it proves.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Celebrating the Yummy @ Celsius Gastrolounge

The good thing about having foodie friends is that it isn't hard to invite them for gastronomical explorations. The bad thing is, well, if you're on a diet. Good thing I know my priorities. Kaya, kainan na!!!

Sem and Eman (an avid fan of Awesome Planet) have heard of Celsius Gastrolounge in Tomas Morato (walking distance from my workplace). I'm in the mood for an adventure, so I decided that I could sacrifice my scheduled cereals-and-milk dinner for a more filling one with them. Besides, who am I to say no to free food, eh? Celsius is named after the temperature gauge often used for cooking. The unique thing about this place is that they feature student chefs from the International School for Culinary Arts and Home Management (ICAHMS) in Katipunan. As it happens, they are also the group behind Aubergine which I keep hearing about but haven't had the chance to try due to budget reasons.

If there'se one thing Sem and I have in common, it's the awful habit of restraining everyone from touching the food BEFORE we've taken pictures of it. To honor our common bad habit, I am featuring her food photos in this particular entry. They are so much better than mine anyway. Thanks Sem for the pics. :D

I was late, so when I got to Celsius this interesting looking Chorizo Lettuce Wrap was already waiting for me. There was also a free appetizer with good garlic dip which was perfect because I was hungry. Nowadays, I'm always hungry.

I got to this dish quite cold already so the integrity of the flavour may have already been compromised. But my initial call --- underwhelming. Maybe I still have a holdover longing for peking duck lettuce wrap (one of my faves I could not indulge in often because it's dang expensive). But I suppose, it's a good jumpstarter for tastebuds that haven't tasted animal fat for 3 days.

It's a good thing that the Best parts were still to come. We were looking for something healthy (due to the fault of yours truly), so we decided to order the Grilled Seafod Platter which boasts of shrimps, scallops, tuna, mahimahi, and calamari served with steamed asparagus, fried spinach and shrimp essense rissotto. Oh joy!

I rarely wax poetic about vegetables, but the asparagus was beyond far-out in freshness. The risotto, which Eman jokingly referred to as champorado, was a little bland for my tastes but it somehow works to neautralize the seafood fare it came with. Sem raved about the calamari because it was by far the best she has tasted (I agree). But my personal favorite is the grilled tuna because it was grilled medium rare and you get the full flavor of fish without the icky "lansa" taste. It's like having the best of sashimi and grilled food in one. Love it.

Our other dish is the Grilled Porkchop on top of creamy slaw. The pork was a little tough to cut with a knife, but just the right consistency inside the mouth. It was also quite good.

Girls of a Certain Taste (Sem and I both loved the Tamarind Iced Tea)

Even if we only ordered 3 dishes and there were 3 of us, we still werent able to finish everything off because the servings are that BIG. We really missed having Ian around. Half of both our main courses were packed to go and lovingly given to Raffi Domingo so she could get a taste of Eman's libre. :D

It was a little on the expensive side, but I have to say... yeah, if they could maintain that kind of cooking, I could close my eyes and pay for it too (like Eman did this time around). Good food, and oh-so-temptingly close to my office. Boy, am I in some big trouble. If you plan to eat here again, you WILL need help. Don't hesitate to call me when you do. :D

Friday, October 08, 2010

On my 29th Birthday

4 months from now I'll be celebrating my last birthday in the 20s range. I know, I sound ancient.

10 years back, I thought 28 is like, an established age already. Obviously, it isn't. And going back to my Life Checklist, well, let's just say I underestimated Father Time and the many things that Life surprises you with.

But if there's one thing I want to do on my 29th birthday, it's this: Fit into a really pretty dress and rock it, like, totally.

If it means eating nothing but cereals for the next 3 months of my life, I will. I just want one photo of me where I am totally drop-dead gorgeous --- Just one photo that I can hold on to as I cross over to 30. Someday, when I have little David and Sophie rummaging through my stuff, I want them to find that picture and say, "Mommy, you're so beautiful!"

And then I'll go, "Ah, yes, I was young and pretty once."

And it'll all be worth it.

Eat Pray Love and Snooze

Oh dear, and to think I waited 3 whole months to watch this film.

These days, I get to watch a lot of movies. A lot of them are crap, but at least, they were enjoyable crap. I happen to like the book Eat Pray Love, even if it was bordering on becoming an annoying chronicle of an entitled woman and her soliluquys on self-induced pathos. The thing about the whole Liz Gilbert thing is that she has a few worthy words of wisdom to share. The problem with the movie is that it tried to stretch out those few nuggets and squeezed every tear and blood and life out of it. I'm sorry, I'll say it straight out: I got bored watching this flick.

Me, who adores Julia Roberts to her very last incisor teeth.

I could say it was because they tried to fit one whole year into a 2-hour film. But no. I couldn't say Julia Roberts is losing her touch because she was just luminous and believable as Liz, even if I know Liz really exists and I know how she really looks like. The book was a minefield of witty commentaries, but somehow that didn't make it into the film. The book, as always, had more heart than the film. Sayang.

I did have favorite moments though like when Liz argues with her soon to be ex-husband and she told him that it's okay to dream but to just choose one --- then Steve exclaims, "Okay, I choose one. I choose you!" It takes a lot of chutzpah to deliver a line like that. I almost felt like standing up and clapping my hands to give Billy Cruddup props because he delivered it flawlessly and believably. Bravo!

I felt the slightest pang of envy when they showed that scene where she was eating gelato in Italy, then pizza in Naples, then the scenes where she was trying to fit into her jeans (so relatable since it's an everyday debacle on my part) --- I want that someday! The movie, I have to admit is eye-candy for creatures of the wanderlust like me.

And then two words --- Javier Bardem. I don't know what's with this guy. He's not even that handsome, his hair is graying and he speaks weird --- but something about him makes me raise an eyebrow and murmur, "Yum!" Ooops, wait, sorry Ib. You're yummier, of course. Even if Javier Bardem professes his undying devotion to me right now, I will, ehrm --- to borrow the debatably cheesiest line in the whole film --- I choose you.

Anyways, back to the point --- there were 2 characters aside from Liz who took the limelight and ran away with it. Richard Jenkins was phenomenal. He is about the only real character for me in the whole film. He shares this distinction with Ketut (the Balinese healer). A man with no teeth is amusing enough. But whoever that actor is, he portrayed the child-like innocence and honesty necessary for Ketut to be believable. Sometimes, too believable--- he made me smile just looking at him. Smile with my liver, you could even say.

Hay, sayang talaga. Of course I won't dissuade you to NOT watch it. People who haven't read the book will probably not appreciate it more. Gosh, people who DID watch the book didn't appreciate it either. So, you know, watch it if you want to. Just don't say I didn't warn you. Bring tonnage of Coca-Cola (or Thums Up) and hope it's enough sugar to keep you awake during the most excruciatingly long scenes of sheer talkativeness.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World

When I was younger, I really, really, really wanted to be a journalist. They get to go to the most God-Awesome places in the world and look fabulous on TV. But my parents, who usually are the most supportive parents ever, had their doubts. They said I was TOO HAPPY to be a journalist (and of course, they said the field is too small and extremely competitive, but the other comment surprised me more). What does happiness have to do with journalism?

Back then, I suppose I did not fully grasp that as an annotator of real life, I would have to bear witness not only to royal weddings, peaceful elections and happy African children with their white, white teeth dazzling the cameras under the midday sun, but also war, famine, violence and human strife. It would just totally ruin my good vibes!

Case in point, much like how Eric Weiner’s life had been the past few years. Aside from having a last name that rhymes with whiner, he also has the task of working as a foreign correspondent for the National Public Radio. He had been to places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, which he claims to be unhappy places. He roamed the world telling the stories of people who are unhappy. We all know why, of course.

“The truth is that unhappy people, living in profoundly unhappy places, make for good stories. They tug at the heart strings and inspire pathos. They can also be a real bummer.”

Out of professional curiousity, he decided to travel the world for one year and search for the happiest places in the world. No, it’s not akin to a year-long vacation. He really wanted to understand why these places can be happy; he researched facts and figures which might support happiness in those particular countries.

“Places that possess, in spades, one or more of the ingredients that we consider essential to the hearty stew of happiness: money, pleasure, spirituality, family, and chocolate, among others. Around the world, dozens of what-ifs play themselves out every day. What if you lived in a country that was fabulously wealthy and no one paid taxes? What if you lived in a country where failure is an option? What if you lived in a country so democratic that you voted seven times a year? What if you lived in a country where excessive thinking is discouraged? Would you be happy then? (introduction, page 2)”

He went to the Netherlands where drugs and prostitution are legal and where the World Database of Happiness office is located, Switzerland where chocolates rule, Iceland where the more you fail the more you succeed, Qatar the land of Gold and More Gold and totally devoid of national culture, Bhutan where people speak with their hands as much as their lips, India where people are suffering but is the center of happiness for Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love character and countless others, then to sour places like Moldova, Thailand and Great Britain.

What I appreciated after reading this book is how it puts into perspective how we see and understand happiness. How, as a very objective word, it can preclude and include so many things, and all you have to do is decide which things matter. Everyone in the world wants to find even a little bit of happiness. The Philippines doesn’t really fare badly in the happiness meter. We are a relatively happier country than richer neighbours in Asia. Creating a happy culture is the sum total of history, discipline and motivation. Some of these factors you can’t change. Some depends on our choices today.

So yeah, maybe it’s the country where you live in. But in one way, maybe it’s also the country we make it to be.

I recommend reading this book if you want to ponder on the H world without falling into self-induced depression. The book is funny, insightful, without sounding privileged or haughty. It just details an average man's investigation on the world's most objective concept ever. Even a grump dreams of laughter, so it seems. And I'm willing to bet that Eric Weiner is a closet happy freak after all.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Mesa: Filipino Moderne

It’s a weekday -- it had been one heck of a day; almost original in its unoriginality. What do you do? Why, try something new of course!

Met up with my favourite boys from work (erm, ex-work?) and the fun thing about eating with boys is that absolutely nobody will tell you to watch your portions. And the only reason they will remind you that chicken skin is fattening is because they want it for themselves! It’s refreshing, I tell you.

Just like that, it was boy’s choice, and they decided on Mesa. I tend to doubt restaurants that claim they serve “modern” Filipino dishes, because to me that means, “something similar to what I ate the other day.” But I trust the boys’ instinct (especially if one of them is a self-disclaimed gourmand, yes that’s you Ian whether you admit to it or not). Oh, and must I say, their eating utensils rocks.

I let the boys choose what to order, which wasn’t very wise. We ended up with a slew of fried food and artery-blocking albeit incredibly delicious sisig rice. Now I know how it feels to be slain. Like a Christian losing consciousness during Sunday revival mass. Here are my fellow sinners:

And here’s the list of our sins:

For appetizers, I ordered baked tahong with cheese. It has become my favourite ever since I tasted Tita Eva’s (our former admin staff) homemade baked tahong. Nothing compares to her cooking, but this is a competent runner-up. The shells were on the smallish side, but I guess that’s fine, knowing red tide is up. I’d rather have them small and safe than humongous and fatal.

Service is quite fast for a non-fast food. We ordered sisig rice and that’s when I fell in love. With the rice. It’s good. A quiet came over me like a veil of grace. I haven’t eaten rice in 3 days and this --- this is a worthy transgression.

We also ordered Chicken in Honey Patis. And this time, Ian fell in love. With the Honey Patis. I thought they were gonna make out right there and then. He was even talking about introducing Honey Patis to his mom, a feat which none of his previous girlfriends have ever accomplished. And this Honey comes along, and he’s a goner. Begrudgingly, I sampled it and have to admit: Yummy. But the rice and the chicken didn’t really go well together, so it made me kind of bipolar during the meal. Ian and I are okay afterwards, although the word Honey Patis is thereby banned in any of our conversations in the near future. :))

J, on the other hand, did not wax poetic about any of the dishes, but J… doesn’t really wax poetic about anything except Manga. Such a quiet guy, but he looked happy communing with the boneless tilapia and the chicken as well. (Ok, that sounded too weird). The tilapia wasn’t as crunchy as we would have wanted it, but for the quantity and the 4 sauces that came with, it was good enough. Not incredible, but okay.

The stuffed squid (stuffed with pork and vegetables) was a good idea. It sounds like a good idea. My problem is, I am a purist when it comes to squid. I like them in their own ink, or I like them grilled with tomatoes. When I eat squid, I want to taste squid. Putting pork inside just kind of distracted me from what I was actually eating. It’s good, but not my kind of thing. Did you notice that all our viands look alike? Fried, all of 'em.

In under 45 minutes, the boys and I were swooning with high cholesterol. No one was complaining though and we were even pondering on desserts. We were saved from inducing ourselves into a stupor when the better part of angels told us to hold off from the sweets.

Looking back, I realized now I did have fun. Hear that, Ian? So, kelan ulit? And should we go to confession as a team? :D Because I certainly would need help explaining the indulgence.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Are there Girl Gundams? Or the Little Girl Lost Chronicles

I am a Nerd. Turn me around, upside down, and I'd have distinguishing marks of my true nerdhood. (i.e. callused writing fingers, wrists with early symptoms of carpal syndrome, not to mention the huuuuge butt that professes my sedentary lifestyle). I am also a Geek who likes trivia, mythology and magic. I adore Science although am wary about his brother Math. But both as a geek and a nerd, I never understood the mysterious pull of Robots.

When I was a kid, I NEVER watched Voltes V. I just never got the hook about five (were there five?) people inside machines that connect to make one giant robot. I never got the appeal of Masked Rider Black. And as I found out, there was even a show called Macros (tama ba?) which were the predecessors of the now famous Gundam Shirizu.

It's a serious dearth in my 80s and 90s education, I am aware. I just can't ride along when people wax nostalgic about Richard and Erika. Or the yellow panties of Annie in Shaider. So now that Gundam is unobtrusively but definitely inching into my life, I feel a little lost in the game. But the true character of the Geek is to never back down from an interesting challenge, so I find myself embracing the universe of Gundam Model Building, at least starting from the theoretical.

Have you ever tried buying a gundam model from toy or hobby stores? If you are uninitiated and raw as I was, believe me, just don't do it. Last Christmas, my head was within an inch from exploding trying to find the right Mobile Suit Gundam Wing Zero MG model. Yes, try reading that again. That mouthful actually mean something to Gundam enthusiasts. I went to five.... FIVE... stores trying to locate the right model. And it turned out there were a handful of Gundam Wing models and the slightest punctuation could spell the difference between right and wrong. It was stressful at first, but then I realized that I don't have to do it alone. I can ask for help from the shop attendants. The MALE shop attendants.

Women don't have a clue. Inside SM Fairview's Toy Kingdom, the saleslady actually said, "Mam, yan lang po ang mga robot-robot namin." Whereas the Men... Well, I suspect that there are men who have a secret trigger that activates upon hearing the "R" word and from polite, detached salespeople, they become Martin Luther Kings, Jr. One store owner in a secret (read: possibly illegal) shop along Taft Ave even took it to heart to explain to me the difference between the Wing and Wing Zero Models as well as showing me his Destiny series. I made a mental note that if the boy I'm buying it for fails to appreciate the effort, I can always thank him for pointing me towards the fact that Gundams make for an excellent pick-up line and conversation starter. Win-win!

But appreciate it he did, and I guess he somehow knew that his padawan is now ready to understand the art of hobby crafting. He couldn't have done it in a better time. I was ready. All he had to do was show me this picture :
and I was in awe.

I have no idea why I didn't see it before, but I now realize that much as I smirk at the thought of little boys playing with robots, I have to admit -- robot model crafting is ALSO an art. A painstaking one. I marveled at the reticulated fingers of the Perfect Grade models, the neat precise decals, and all the details which would just kill me --- it will kill me, i promise. He actually needs to use tweezers to put together some of the parts. I was surprised at how intricate and time-consuming the process was and also understood it takes a very, very, very patient person to commit to this kind of craft. Hearing him describe how he feels when he's building, made me see that it's exactly how I feel when I paint or write. I can't help but feel schooled and overclassed. Especially when I asked if there were Girl Gundams and got a patient answer with nary a smirk or haughtiness: "There are girl pilots... of gundams." Aaaah...

SO do I start making gundams? Ehrm... no. I'll give it to the person who won't go insane trying to put together parts smaller than mice teeth. What's important is I now understand why it will enthrall a person with the right kind of personality so much. And I welcome it to my life, like Resident Evil, molo soup and Gap shirts. It just makes life more interesting. But there is of course a caveat to this --- give me a heads up when you're going to hibernate with your robots, or else I'll go all evil drone on you.
Capish? Capish. :D