Friday, May 21, 2010

Everybody's a critic

Ok, I admit it: I'm one of those annoying people you see in restaurants who photograph their food. I don't do it ALL the time though, only when it's a special occasion or when I'm dining in a new place. My motivations are reasonable enough: 1) to document what my companions and I had on the special day; 2) to share with my online network what the food at the restaurant looks like; and 3) to have visual aids in case I decide to write a review of the restaurant.

Last Monday night, I was snapping photos of the lovely interiors of Cafe 1771, the reincarnation of Chateau 1771 in El Pueblo, and at one point a smiling waitress politely ducked out of my shot. It hit me then that servers at restaurants must now be all too accustomed to patrons photographing their premises, and at the same time they must be aware that the people taking pictures might be doing so for purposes of posting an online review. I guess it's a pretty effective way to keep them on their toes, and elevates the quality of both the service and food preparation. You never know who's going to find a fly in their soup and bitch about it on Facebook, or compose an irate blog entry about poor F&B management.

On the other hand though, standards and tastes are very subjective and relative, so I also feel sorry for dining establishments that have to deal with the added pressure. There are a lot of unreasonably demanding customers out there, and sometimes all it takes is one loudmouth with Internet access for the negative feedback to reach thousands. Hence, I'm wary of people who fancy themselves food critics just because they eat out a lot and own a camera. There's more to reviewing than ranting and raving-- even some of our most prolific and popular local food bloggers are in dire need of basic grammar lessons (yes, grammar counts for something-- I have an automatic distrust of anyone who thoughtlessly mangles the English language).

When I read an online restaurant review, I take into account the author's culinary knowledge/background; how thorough the review is in describing the food, the plating, the service, the ambiance, the prices, even the location; and the writer's personal preferences that might make him/her biased for or against something. For example, one very well-known blogger almost always brings his children along to places he reviews, so he tends to fussily fixate on how kid-friendly a restaurant is... in bad English.

Sure, if one pays for a meal, he/she has every right to critique and/or complain about it. But the way one does it reveals as much about the reviewer as it does about the restaurant. The best food writers can compose a classy but critical review of even the worst restaurant; mediocre or wannabe food critics can make even the most superb restaurant sound unappealing. The latter not only don't do justice to good eateries, they ruin my appetite altogether.

While I try to avoid the amateurs, I am also leery of reviews by so-called journalists: more often than not, these people's opinions can be "bought" with a free meal and good PR (have you ever read a negative restaurant review in a newspaper or magazine?). There are only a handful of food bloggers out there I trust implicitly, most notably Lori Baltazar of Her reviews are so delightfully detailed and captivatingly colorful that the stunning photographs that accompany them are just icing on the cake (and she writes in impeccable English too, not resorting to getting by with adjectives like "malinamnam"). My friend and fellow DCF fan Yang marvels at how one can almost taste the food Lori writes about, her descriptions are so vivid. As articulate as she is though, Lori never exaggerates, even when she gushes about something really yummy, so I when I go to a restaurant she liked, I'm rarely disappointed.

I don't fancy myself a food critic by a long shot; my food and restaurant reviews have been few and far in between over the 5 years I've been blogging. But as a lover of food and writing, I know a well-written food review when I read one. Sadly, there are more excellent restaurants than there are decent reviewers. I can only hope that the few credible food writers out there have tireless tastebuds and a commitment to the continuing quest for the ultimate dining experience. A toast to the real critics!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Why Noy

Back when I was still teaching, my faculty friends and I would occasionally get into discussions about what makes a good teacher. Everyone pretty much agreed that it takes a combination of competence and character: a good teacher should not only teach well, but also set a good example for her students. Everyone also agreed that if it comes to a choice between a competent but cruel teacher and an incompetent but kind teacher, we'd much rather take the latter. The inadequacy of an inferior instructor can be remedied; the damage inflicted by a malicious mentor may never be repaired. At the end of the day, even if the students learn less Math or English or Science, they'll learn more valuable life lessons from a teacher who sincerely cares about their welfare.

This same line of reasoning applies to why I'm choosing to vote for Noynoy Aquino for president in the coming national elections. His critics and detractors dismiss his ability to lead, belittle his political track record, and even question his mental health. But at this critical juncture, I believe our country needs, above all, someone who is not only competent, but also has character. Someone who can lead by example and is willing to serve. Someone decent and honest and true, more than someone forceful and shrewd and experienced. Most say poverty is the biggest problem plaguing the Filipino people; I say we are poor because we are morally bankrupt. There is no salvaging our economy, no improving our educational system, no building of infrastructure, no establishing peace and order when our government is rotten to the core. Only when we put upstanding, exemplary individuals in charge can we have any chance of curing our nation's ills and recovering, and among all the candidates running for president, Noynoy fits the bill.

I'm not saying Noynoy Aquino is a saint, the same way I stopped short of canonizing Barack Obama during his run for the US presidency. But I do think that like Obama, Noynoy inspires the same feelings of patriotism and solidarity and hope among a people already desensitized to a culture of corruption, feelings necessary to galvanize our nation toward change and progress. We glimpsed an upswelling of those very feelings when Tita Cory passed away last year. And those feelings have been reignited by her son, who has fast become the reluctant hero on whom many are pinning their hopes. That he is a reluctant leader is actually part of the reason I trust him. My brother summed it up nicely with a quote from the movie Gladiator:

Marcus Aurelius: Won’t you accept this great honor that I have offered you?
Maximus Meridius: With all my heart, no.
Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.

Moreover, it's only fitting that the son of a woman of undisputed integrity attempt to carry on and lead the fight for our country's future. I'm not one to advocate political dynasties, but there is something to be said about children of great leaders having more potential to become great leaders themselves, especially when they are raised with the same values their parents upheld. Noynoy would never betray the memory of his
parents, one who sacrificed his life for country, and one who devoted her life to it. And certainly we can expect the same love for country ingrained in him, woven into his very moral fiber. I have enough faith in Noynoy that he will stay true to the Aquino legacy, that he will be selfless, forthcoming and just, and that he will do everything in the best interests of his fellow Filipinos.

College degrees, financial success, political achievements... all these speak only so far as to what a person can do. Intangibles like scruples and principles speak to as what a person WILL do. There's more to a good leader than competence. Competence without conscience is useless. Aanhin ang galing at talino kung wala namang prinsipyo? Without a sound moral compass to guide his decision-making, even the most intelligent or efficient individual will steer off-course.

I go back to my teacher analogy. A well-managed classroom with a smart but morally questionable teacher may or may not produce successful students (and even then, success would be relative). But a not-so-well-run classroom with a well-meaning, loving teacher will always produce happy, well-adjusted students who will be far better off in the long run. Sometimes, meaning matters more than method. Sometimes, spirit is stronger than skill. And always, a good heart is worth more than a good head.

When it comes to such a vital position of power, where greed and ambition can easily corrupt the souls of lesser men, the best person for the job is the best person, not necessarily in terms of achievement or ability, but more importantly conviction and character. I believe Noynoy Aquino is that person. And that is why come May 10, 2010, I shall be voting for him to become our next president.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Of super sequels and Stark contrasts

Iron Man 2 has all the ingredients of a kick-ass superhero movie: charismatic actors, awesome special effects, high-octane action sequences, and enough witty wisecracks to keep things fun, but not too many as to diminish its credibility. Yes, credibility. After all, this film genre has been elevated to a level which even the snootiest movie critics have to take seriously, and in this critic's humble opinion, the Iron Man franchise has greatly contributed to this rise. 2008's Iron Man was one of the most impressive comic book-to-film adaptations I've ever seen, and as far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is no slouch. However, it's no The Dark Knight, which totally eclipsed the already excellent Batman Begins, but more on that later.

I still find the first Iron Man film the superior one, primarily because I hadn't been expecting to be so wowed by Robert Downey Jr.'s pitch-perfect portrayal of Tony Stark as an arrogant but adorable armored protagonist, so the surprise added a lot to my appreciation of the movie. Also, whereas Iron Man had the luxury of falling back on the obligatory origin narrative, Iron Man 2 bears the burden of building on that back story, and unfortunately, the build-up didn't blow me away. Blame it on the weak plot more than anything, because the acting was faultless: RDJ was still terrific, and his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow (Stark's secretary-turned-successor Pepper Potts) was still very good, AND I was gratified by the replacement of pipsqueak Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle to play Lt. Col. Rhodes/War Machine.
Moreover, I was prepared to detest Scarlett Johansson (who plays Stark's new assistant) as I've never been a fan of the overrated sexpot, but she was actually a good fit for this part. Ms. Johansson-- blessed with more looks than talent-- should really stick to roles where she's not required to do much beyond looking good in tight outfits. Playing the antagonists, Sam Rockwell (Stark's business rival Justin Hammer) and Mickey Rourke (murderous physicist Ivan Vanko/Whiplash) were both good, as expected, but their characters seemed a bit one-dimensional, mere foils for Stark/Iron Man, which brings me back to the weak plot.

There was just something a bit too predictable about the whole thing: unscrupulous business competitor (Hammer) enlists the aid of vengeful villain (Whiplash) to take down the hero (Stark/Iron Man), who is secretly struggling with something which leads to reckless behavior, endangering everything he's worked for, but thankfully his trusty sidekicks (Rhodes/War Machine and Pepper) come through for him. Been there, seen that. What kept things interesting for me though were the bits involving S.H.I.E.L.D. (and Nick Fury, played to the hilt by Samuel L. Jackson) and dropping hints of the future Avengers movie. I get the feeling Tony Stark/Iron Man will be an even more engaging personality when we see how an egomaniac like him operates within a group.

As I mentioned earlier, as a superhero sequel, Iron Man 2 is not of the same caliber as The Dark Knight. But it may also be unfair to compare them if only because the franchises are so different. To the uninitiated (*coughRachandTarincough*), Tony Stark may seem like a more flighty, flamboyant version of Bruce Wayne, and Iron Man a more colorful, chromey Batman. But as one of my viewing companions (comic book expert extraordinaire Gerard Poa) pointed out, while Batman is all about revenge, Iron Man is all about redemption. In addition, while billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is the facade and the brooding Batman is the character's true persona, Tony Stark is Tony Stark, narcissistic smart-ass showboat that he is, and Iron Man serves as an extension and an expression of his "Starkness", as Gerry put it. Drawing from that contrast, I can say that the differences are quite evident in the movies: while Chris Nolan's Batman films are dark and cerebral, Jon Favreau's Iron Man movies are slick and explosive. And the latter is not necessarily bad, especially where the realm of superheros is concerned. Hell, it's bad-ass is what it is.

So bottom line is, although Iron Man 2 could have been better, it still rocked. And it still made me want and look forward to an Iron Man 3. But before that-- bring on Thor and Captain America!