Friday, July 29, 2011

2 of 10: Korea Garden

They say quality counts more than quantity. Tonight, Yang and I got both at Korea Garden. The second restaurant to be crossed off our binge bucket list, this establishment along Jupiter Street isn't much to look at from the outside, but the food served inside is a lot to be happy about-- in terms of portions and palatability.

We availed of the Deal Grocer coupon for a set dinner for two, comprised of Korea Garden's best-selling dishes. The coupon said up to 3 people could partake of the food, so Yang and I dragged Angelo with us to help consume everything. The spread included rice, soup, kalbi chim (Korean beef stew), beef bulgogi, chap chae (stir-fried glass noodles), nakchi bokum (spicy octopus), and mandu (Korean dumplings). Being the ravenous carnivores we are, we also got an additional order of barb
equed beef ribs, which our effusive waiter declared as very good. When he put all our food on the table, starting with the traditional array of side dishes (ranging from kimchi to bean sprouts to dilis), and ending with the beef ribs, there was barely enough surface area left for the extra bowl of rice Angelo ordered (see photographic proof here).

And he needed that rice because everything was just SO good. My favorite was the kalbi chim. The sauce was that perfect balance of sweet and savory, the beef was fork-tender, and I would have been happy with just that and rice. The other 2 beef dishes were also great-- the ribs had a wonderful smoky flavor, and the bulgogi, which I initially found dry, was improved vastly when I remembered to spoon some sauce over it. The mandu was panfried to perfection, and stuffed with generous meat filling. I prefer my chap chae a bit sweeter, but the smooth, chewy noodles contrasted well with the crunchy veggies mixed in. I passed on the nakchi bokum, but based on Yang's ecstatic eye-rolling (yes, Yang, you roll your eyes when you're enjoying your food :p) as she and Angelo polished off the octopus, it was as good as everything else on our loaded table.

I don't know if it was because we had been starving, but Korea Garden really hit the spot. The interior is very plain, and strangely the ambiance has no Korean touches, but the food is authentic, and undeniably delicious. We were stuffed silly, and certainly satisfied with the second restaurant crossed off our binge bucket list.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Parting with Pulse

I received a text message from Pulse Yoga yesterday morning informing me that their Greenhills studio will be closing at the end of July. Although I'd been forewarned about the impending closure, I still felt a twinge of sadness reading the official announcement. I've come to love Pulse in the year and a half I've been practicing yoga; it's become a peaceful haven for me away from the mad world that is my life, a place where I can still my mind and heart, and from where I always emerge feeling more relaxed and centered. I admit though that Pulse has never been the same since they moved from their lovely Florida Street studio with the high ceilings and ample parking to the noisy Intrawest Building on parking-problematic Annapolis Street. Regardless of that, I will really miss it.

I will especially miss my new favorite instructor Marc, who only started teaching a couple of months ago. Ever since I started attending his Hatha 2 class (I didn't even know it was Hatha 2 until I was several sessions in), I've progressed very quickly, thanks to his cheerful encouragement and guidance. I still consider myself a yoga newbie, but Marc has helped me improve my flexibility, balance and alignment. My downward-facing dog is deeper, my shoulder stand is straighter, my warriors are stronger, and I've learned advanced asanas (postures) like the crane, the reclining angle pose (supta konasana), and even the dreaded headstand.

And now I only have 2 sessions left with Marc before Pulse Greenhills closes its doors. I have a bad feeling whatever progress I've made in the past few months will be undone once I part ways with Marc, and I wish I could follow him to whatever studio he'll move to. Unfortunately, because I leave the office past 6:30 every evening, I can only transfer to a studio that offers evening classes within the Greenhills area.

The good news is, Bliss Yoga, the yoga studio my friend Yang goes to in Makati, will be opening a branch in Greenhills, RIGHT BEHIND OUR HOUSE (read: no need for parking!!!). But that won't be 'til September, so I shall be a shala-less yogi for at least a month, and I need to keep limber in the meantime. I am actually considering the lame (according to my sister) yoga classes at Fitness First just to tide me over. I'm also going to try practicing at home, assuming I can find a quiet, uninterrupted hour to do so. I just don't want to be all stiff (and fat) by the time Bliss opens.

I'm hoping the instructors at Bliss will be as good or even better than Marc (or maybe I should just tell him to apply to teach at Bliss). Yoga's become an important and beloved part of my life, my main source of physical exercise and mental relaxation
, and as I say goodbye to the place where I discovered it, I look forward to developing and deepening my practice in a new haven.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Harry's last hurrah

The final Harry Potter movie's out and making millions in Muggle currencies, and a generation who grew up with Harry and his friends is waxing sentimental over bidding goodbye to J.K. Rowling's well-loved characters. Indeed, the pervading HP separation anxiety seems even more overwhelming than the response 4 years ago to the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the latter half of which is the basis for the 8th HP film. I find it puzzling, really, since I was a hundred times more affected by the book, but I guess I have to take into account some people only watched the movies and never read the series. Also, whereas I regarded Book 7 to be the end of everything, there are Potterheads who consider the film adaptations an extended lease on life for Harry and company, so Movie 8 is the official end-of-everything for them.

Personally, Movie 8 was a wee bit of a letdown for me. Now, I'm treading carefully here, as I believe by virtue of its pop cultural significance Deathly Hallows Part 2 deserves to be reviewed with respect. But I was expecting more emotional impact from the conclusion
to the story of the world's most recognizable boy wizard. After all, this movie features the epic battle at Hogwarts, so vividly narrated in Rowling's book it left this reader breathless and in tears. And it is the ultimate showdown between Harry and the Dark Lord Voldemort, which should be right up there with Luke versus Palpatine, or Frodo versus Sauron. However, DH2 just lacks that oomph. While I admit I got misty-eyed during certain scenes, there were no full waterworks. I think it was because the film doesn't linger enough on the more powerful moments, for the simple reason it couldn't afford to-- there is way too much material to cram into 2 hours and 10 minutes. That has always been the problem with the HP franchise, as I pointed out in my review of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince: the books do not translate well into film, as their scope and detail are too vast.

That said, DH2 is actually a relatively adequate film adaptation, particularly as the last of a series, as it wraps things up rather neatly. No loose ends are left, even if many elements from the source material had to be sacrificed. All the key characters, even the baddies, are lovingly-- though some far too fleetingly-- portrayed, giving me the sense that I was being allowed to say a proper goodbye to each. And the actors, particularly the supporting cast, have never been better. With regard to the main trio, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson have obviously grown into and with their roles over the past decade (Hermione even shows some cleavage in this one). Radcliffe, perhaps benefiting from his stint on Broadway, shows marked improvement conveying Harry's heavier emotions like pain and fear. Grint's Ron does have one over-the-top hammy moment, but I can forgive him that because he pulls off the best ugly-cry in the whole movie. Watson as Hermione is wonderfully reliable (if a tad boring) as always, but unfortunately her most memorable scene is the one where she's taken on the form of the mad witch Bellatrix LeStrange, and it's actually Helena Bonham-Carter playing Hermione playing Bellatrix.

Which highlights all the more that as in the previous 7 movies, the really remarkable acting in DH2 is delivered by the veterans, a veritable who's who list of British thespians. And it's precisely these polished performances that have kept the film franchise credible on top of commercially viable. Ralph Fiennes is nothing but magnificent as Voldemort: evil oozed from every miniscule movement, every sibilant syllable, every lethal look. Forget the facial prosthetics and makeup, it's Fiennes' talent that makes He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named truly terrifying.
As mentioned, Bonham-Carter is a fabulous scene-stealer as Bellatrix, while Michael Gambon is effortlessly flawless as the deceased Albus Dumbledore. Most reviewers tend to overlook Jason Isaacs, but I found him outstanding in his portrayal of Lucius Malfoy as diminished but still haughtily dignified, and scared shitless but too proud to show it. The regal Maggie Smith has an utterly adorable moment of levity as they usually stern Professor McGonagall ("I've always wanted to use that spell!"), and Julie Walters shines in one brief but badass scene as Mrs. Weasley.

But if I were handing out a Harry Potter Oscar, it would definitely go to Alan Rickman. Oh, Alan Rickman. I will forever adore this man, this sleazy/sexy man who has made Severus Snape the most Shakespearean of all of Rowling's characters, imbuing him with depth and soul. Rickman is so bloody perfect as Snape, I can't even say he was born for this role-- it seems as though the character was written with him in mind. Snape's most triumphant scenes in DH2 come in a sequence of flashbacks, and Rickman runs through several levels of anger and anguish in a matter of mere minutes. It is beautifully heart-breaking to watch, at once touching and tragic, and validates Snape as the most intriguing, and most achingly human figure in not only DH2, but the whole HP series.

DH2 will get positive reviews from pretty much everyone, not so much because it's a stellar movie, but because it achieves its primary purpose of providing closure. It's like a big warm farewell hug, and who doesn't like hugs? More critically though, DH2 will be appreciated as a final reminder of everything we loved about the Harry Potter universe from the beginning. For those of us who discovered the HP series as adults, we loved it so much because it made us kids all over again. Harry brought magic into our lives, and we regained that sense of wonder and enchantment we thought we'd already lost. Now, with this final film, everything has come to a close, and with Harry and his friends all grown up, we go back to being grown-ups. And maybe that's why there's so much sentimental reaction to Deathly Hallows Part 2. It's not that we can't let go-- we're just going to miss the magic.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Unelaborate, unenchanting

Atlantis' staging of Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida was not the spectacle I was hoping it would be. Maybe it's because anything with Sir Elton's name attached to it evokes images of rhinestones and sequins and neon, but I expected more visual impact than what was rather starkly laid out on the Carlos P. Romulo auditorium stage. The sets failed to evoke the golden grandeur of ancient Egypt, the costumes were oddly too modern, and even the performances were lackluster.

The only bright light in an otherwise dim production was Rachel Alejandro, cast in the role of Amneris, the Egyptian princess whose betrothed, the dashing captain Rademes, falls in love with the Nubian princess-turned-slave and eponymous heroine Aida. Ima Castro played the latter, and while her impressive vocal prowess was more than capable of taking on all the big songs with the big notes (particularly in the rousing pre-intermission number "The Gods Love Nubia"), she was just not convincing as the strong-willed, fiery Aida. Perhaps she lacked the regal bearing of a Nubian princess, or was a tad too... chunky to portray one, but all throughout I saw nothing that would make me believe a handsome Egyptian officer would choose her over a beautiful Egyptian princess. Indeed, in spite of her ditziness, Amneris came off as the more interesting of the two women: what she lacked in brains she made up for in charm, as well as an innate goodness and surprisingly, character. That was largely thanks to Ms. Alejandro's verve and strong stage presence. Just as she shone in Avenue Q, she was a joy to watch in Aida.

As for Myke Salomon, who lent his pipes and pecs to Rademes, he had only one facial expression (see above photo) throughout the entire show. Whether he was conveying joy, shock, anger, or regret, it was all the same unblinking, constipated look. I know he was trying to go for smoldering or intense, but he only ended up appearing petrified and pinched. Dude can sing, but couldn't act his way out of his army jacket.
This was most apparent in the more upbeat song "Fortune Favors the Brave", which he sang well, but could have elevated with more energy.

The supporting cast was not much better. I had been looking forward to seeing Rachel share the stage with her dad Hajji Alejandro, but Mr. Alejandro did not have his daughter's commanding presence, nor her powerful vocal ability. Playing Rademes' ambitious, scheming father, Hajji should have been forceful and intimidating. Sadly, he was rather mild, and almost mechanical. Also, his weak voice got swallowed up by the soaring music of his numbers ("Another Pyramid", "Like Father, Like Son"). On the other hand, Josh Santana gave a very raw, almost juvenile performance as
Mereb, one of Rademes' Nubian servants. Mereb came off as an eager beaver rather than the street-smart go-to guy he's supposed to be. I spotted talented Atlantis regular Felix Rivera (whom I really liked in both Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) in the chorus (WTH was he doing in the CHORUS?) and wistfully wished he had been cast as Mereb instead.

All the disappointing performances, coupled with the poor art direction, led me to wondering what the original Broadway production must have been like. And that's very telling, because whenever I watch an excellent local production of a Broadway play, I don't feel compelled to compare with an "imported" version. Aida left me wanting.

What I did enjoy about Aida was the music. The whole sound and feel of the musical was very much Elton John; I could practically hear him singing and banging away on his piano in most of the songs, especially in "Elaborate Lives", "Written in the Stars" and "I Know the Truth" (the latter reminded me of Elton John's pop classic "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word"). "The Gods Love Nubia" had both a gospel and African feel to it, reminiscent of The Lion King (music and lyrics also by Elton John and Tim Rice), and come to think of it, the jaunty "Another Pyramid" sounded suspiciously similar to "Hakuna Matata".

Aida's posters tout it as a "timeless love story", and it is very much that, with all the requisite elements (i.e. star-crossed lovers, a love triangle, difficult choices and tragic sacrifices). I guess it's nice that in an age of cynicism, there are still stories about passion that defies sociopolitical constructs, heroes man enough to fight for the women they love, and heroines strong enough to risk liberty (and life) to stay true to their hearts. Aida is just that kind of story-- if only Atlantis had done a better job of telling it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

1 of 10: 2nd's

Last weekend, Yang and I got to try one of the 10 restaurants on our binge bucket list, 2nd's. We were in the High Street area (having come from the I'm Shoe in Love bazaar at the NBC Tent, & TGIFriday's where we watched the Ateneo-Adamson game), so we chose to stay in the neighborhood and have dinner at the restaurant that replaced Mag:net (beside Agave and across Cav).

The foyer on the ground floor is nondescript, almost shabby, as are the stairs and elevator leading up to the establishment. However, once one reaches the 2nd floor and pulls open the heavy wooden door to 2nd's, there's no mistaking it for anything but a "nice" restaurant, with an ambiance suitable for dates or intimate gatherings with friends. The interiors are streamlined and chic, but inviting and comfy at the same time. And the acoustics are fantastic, the usual cacophony of silverware, glassware, and dozens of conversations found in most restaurants is filtered and muted here.

2nd's servers give off an air of quiet competence (even in the way one waiter handled my camera as he took a group photo of us). You get the feeling these are servers who give reliable recommendations, so I asked ours if I should get the Truffled Mac N' Cheese or the Red Horse Fish and Chips, and he suggested I go with the latter. No regrets there, I thoroughly enjoyed my entree. I could distinctly taste the beer in the batter, but it didn't overpower the flavor of the tender barramundi fillet. The spiced fries were dangerously good, I could polish off a mountain of those things. I had to place the oversized cup in the center of the table to fight the temptation to finish the lot by myself.

Yang had the Three Little Pigs Kawali, a whimsical name for a sinful entree of crispy pork belly and foie gras nuggets. She was very happy with her food, but also happy enough to share with the rest of us, which was just as well since the pork belly and goose liver combination was so rich (and oozing with cholesterol!). We all also stole bites off her husband Angelo's plate of Mushroom Risotto, a delectable dish made with 3 kinds of mushrooms, truffle oil and balsamic vinegar. The generous serving portion was impressive too.

Our newly betrothed friends Ria and Carlo shared the Seabass Sinigang and Beef Rib Adobo. Ria declared both satisfactory,
and she remarked on the novelty of using seabass in a sinigang, but she did say the vegetables used weren't well-suited for the sour soup. The adobo struck me as rather ordinary, if only because it was the most ignored dish on the table. Then again, Ria and Carlo's plates were clean at the end of the meal.

The desserts were a hit for everyone, particularly the Pinkerton ice cream Yangelo and I ordered. We got a scoop each of the available flavors: Red Velvet, S'mores, and Apple Pie. They were all yummy beyond belief. I didn't get to sample Ria and Carlo's Leche Flan Turon a la Mode, but the plate looked pretty as a picture. Speaking of which, for more photos of our dinner at 2nds, head on over here.

Overall, 2nd's was a delightful dining experience, and a great start to our binge bucket list. Everything from the atmosphere to the food to the service felt polished, and though the place touts itself as serving "comfort food", it's a refined kind of comfort, and I can't think of another restaurant that successfully pulls that off. In spite of its name, 2nd's is definitely first class.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Making light of Dark of the Moon

The first thing you need to know about Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that it's long, and needlessly so. At 2 hours and 34 minutes (and given that I caught a 10PM screening), the third Transformers movie feels interminable, especially considering there's not much of a plot. The Decepticons attempt to take over Earth, the Autobots try to stop them. Almost 2 hours into the movie, I turned to my viewing companion and muttered, "For an intelligent, technologically advanced alien race, it sure is taking them a long time to destroy Earth."

However, the upside is that DOTM does not suck as much as its predecessor, ROTF (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). With big, loud action blockbusters like the Transformers movies, lack of a substantial plot is not only expected, but is sometimes preferable over TOO much plot, which ROTF suffered from.
At times, DOTM plays out like a haphazard sequence of events, disjointed much like Green Lantern was. But to its credit, DOTM is more of a crowd-pleaser than GL (although maybe it's because it requires less IQ points to appreciate). Moreover, mercifully, compared to ROTF, Sam Witwicky's lameass loopy parents get far less screentime (really, they shouldn't even have been in this one).

I must give credit to Shia LeBeouf, whose third turn as Sam Witwicky is more animated and engaging than ever. The guy is definitely a character-- take note, I don't mean he HAS character, I'm saying he IS one. But I'm not knocking him for it; in fact, I admire how his expressiveness and natural comic talent are strong enough to anchor such a large-scale production as Transformers (he's like a white Will Smith). Also, LeBeouf's onscreen chemistry with new leading lady/substitute sexpot Rosie Huntington-Whitely is an improvement over his strained rapport with Megan Fox in ROTF, although at the start it's a bit hard to swallow that someone who looks like Huntington-Whitely would ever go for an unemployed loser like Sam.

Huntington-Whitely reminds me of a poutier Cameron Diaz, with an English accent. Playing Sam's girlfriend Carly, the Victoria's Secret supermodel is not as awful as critics have panned, and is marginally less annoying than Megan Fox, but is definitely not winning any Oscars in her lifetime. However, she fulfills the primary purpose of looking smokin' in skin-tight, cleavage-baring outfits. And I have
mad respect for a girl who can run through armageddon in stilettos. As always, Michael Bay doesn't bother to tone down his sexist treatment of women; he's so unapologetic and in-your-face about it that it's almost too ridiculous to be offensive. In one scene, Carly, clad in a very short, very tight dress, unfolds her mile-long legs and climbs out of a car, and there is a tabloid-worthy upskirt shot that is so brazen, for a split-second I forgot to be scandalized.

I think I was more scandalized by the colossal waste of John Malkovich's talent. Playing Sam's eventual employer, Malkovich gets some cheap laughs treading that fine line between crazy and creepy. But it's sad how someone as awesome as Malkovich seems to be content being relegated to the role of lovable loon, just like the last role I saw him take on in the spy caper RED.

The other members of the supporting cast play their parts adequately, with few standouts. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, reprising their roles as military men Lennox and Epps bring more testosterone to an already overly macho movie.
Patrick Dempsey is serviceable but pretty bland as Carly's dashing, wealthy boss. Frances McDormand gives an effortless performance as the shrewish (Michael Bay's a sexist AND a misogynist) "National Intelligence Director". And John Turturro easily slips back into the character of kooky Agent Simmons (I don't even recall what happened to Simmons in ROTF so I was puzzled as to why he is depicted as ridiculously rich in DOTM). Oddly enough, the most engaging of the secondary characters is Simmons' right-hand man Dutch, brought to life by an enthusiastic Alan Tudyk. Dutch earned the most titters from the audience, and I enjoyed his comic presence more than any of the other supporting players'. But the most special human participation comes from a cameo by Buzz Aldrin (yes, the real astronaut Buzz Aldrin). It's a pleasantly surprising, classy touch in a movie that harbors no pretensions of having any class.

But as in the first 2 Transformers movies, the Autobots are the real stars, and rightfully so. The best action sequences of the movie are those involving Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Ironhide, et al. There's also a goosebump-inducing moment where the Autobots, in vehicle form, dramatically roll down a road, single-file, and it's the one instance that evoked fond childhood memories of the cartoon series.
Sadly though, poor Megatron (not as menacing with half his face falling off) doesn't get sufficient screentime, in my opinion. You'd think the chief baddie who's masterminding the diabolical plan to take over the planet would get more exposure (and Hugo Weaving would get more lines). Thankfully, it's made up for with the introduction of Autobot Sentinel Prime, voiced by none other than Leonard Nimoy. As soon as I recognized the distinct voice, I decided there was no way I'd hate this movie no matter how flawed it is. The Nimoy factor will surely send Trekkers (like yours truly) into paroxysms of geek delight, and there's even the cheeky use of a famous Star Trek line that true Trekkers would catch at once, plus a quick glimpse of a Star Trek episode "where Spock goes nuts".

Aside from banking heavily on star power, special effects and (literally) explosive scenes, DOTM relies on obvious, occasionally cheap comedy to move things along (Ken Jeong of The Hangover fame contributes to this). But if you were to scrutinize the screenplay, the writing is what's truly laughable. I couldn't help but be amused by the unintentional hilarity of the implausible plot points and wannabe-witty one-liners. My favorite bit in the entire movie is when Lennox (Duhamel) commands his men to set their sights on the "cupola" housing the enemy's key weapon. The word "cupola" just seems absurdly incongruous in a film with more shrapnel than sense; I half-expected Lennox's troops to give him blank looks and ask what the hell a cupola is.

All things considered, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is entertaining in spite of the lengthy running time, and if you go in maintaining a sense of humor and willing suspension of disbelief (seriously, suspend it), AND bearing in mind this is a Michael Bay film, it can be a fun, brainless wild ride. With a really hot chick.

P.S. Was it just me, or is DOTM's o
pening sequence either an homage to or a rip-off of the climactic scene in the Battle of Yavin from Star Wars?