“Mud Slide”– A Spa Experience

During President’s Weekend I decided to take my daughter, Maya, to Calistoga for a spa decompression treat–a Girls Getaway–that actually was a promotion at the Solage Spa and Resort in Calistoga.  Part of the package included a mudslide and complimentary cocktails the day of arrival.

After a beautiful drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the lower part of wine country, we were greeted at the beautiful Solage with gracious hospitality and the “Mud Slide” treatment.  What fun!  We were ushered into a stone slab shower and spa bathhouse designed exclusively for administering a clay concoction infused with fragrances including mint, lemongrass, and lavender, which we slathered on each other.  The clay/mud concoction hardened and cracked while we lay on the slate slabs on warm towels with cucumber slices over our eyes.  What’s not to like?  After showering, we went outside for another rinse off before going into a bathtub room with humongous tubs that made me slide around (due to their length) so I thought I might drown.  Maya clued me in as to how to stay above water by arching my back and pointing my toes. Our giggles and laughter prompted the Solage spa assistant to keep knocking on the door to see if we were alright.

Still another step in the process of the “Mud Slide” was walking in our fluffy robes (au naturel, of course) to the women’s secluded outdoor pool, warmed to the perfect temperature.  There were probably about ten other young women (20’s and 30’s) in the pool as we lowered ourselves down into the soothing, steaming, and aromatic water.  As each woman rose from the water, one by one, to move on to the sauna for the final stage of the “mud slide”, I couldn’t help but notice the array of “pubic haircuts” displayed.  I tried not to stare or gape–but didn’t do a very good job of it. I couldn’t help myself–there was the “Brazil” (no hair) I had read about,  other half-and-half trims which were just lower than the crease below the navel, or zigzagged, and what I call the “double moustache”, just a brief hairline on each side of the “two-lips”.  How was I supposed to know such a variety existed among young women?  And, who would do that to herself?  Wouldn’t it be excruciatingly painful? This is another experience like “laminated list”–women my age just have no clue.

So, that is my “mud slide” experience–a slide into another zone I thought I knew only too well.  My awareness of a  “girls getaway” experience was just that:  a “getaway” from even what I assumed was every “girl’s” anatomy.


“Safe House”–A Safe Bet

It seems only fair to see a dick-flick after having recommended rom-coms for Valentine’s Day.  And did I pick a winner–my husband gave it a 10, which is very rare for him.  The movie is “Safe House” and it stars and is produced by the exceptional Denzel Washington.

No ordinary action-pic–although it has ample car chases, staccato bursts of exploding bombs, violent fights with guns and knives, and impossible jumps from one rooftop to another–there are still enough surprising plot twists to keep you surprised throughout.

The story is fairly routine–I think Bruce Willis starred in a similar plot in “16 Blocks”  –an ex-CIA operative gone rogue (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) and a clueless “nube” as the novice CIA agent, Matt Weston   (Ryan Reynolds) who has to guard Frost in a safe house and bring him to headquarters (to report to bureaucrats played by Sam Shephard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson).  An extremely difficult task for Matt since Tobin is captured in South Africa, and Matt has only been assigned there for little more than one year.

Denzel Washington superbly underplays his character, allowing his face to communicate what his life as a CIA agent must have been like.  Matt doesn’t know whom to believe, but has respect for authority and for the CIA’s integrity.  This film is part “Bourne Identity” and part Frontline’s “Dark Side” fictionalized.  As the viewer you will be reminded of quite a few spy thrillers especially Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy-based film blockbusters. The cinematography is several magnitudes better than the usual special effects.  One helicopter shot of their SUV speeding down a desolate road is a work of art, a beautiful abstract print in still motion.

What did I like best about this movie?  I wouldn’t give it a 10, but a much-better-than-average 8-to-8.5. It comes down to character development–and though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us.  What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about? Furthermore, when does that well-intentioned agent say “enough is enough” in a heroic exculpatory act in the name of his or her own integrity and personal life?  (Think “Fair Game” reviewed November 28, 2010). This film tries to deal with these questions–and it is superior to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as well as others in this genre.  A superb cast actualizes the promise of the tale. The ending sets up the audience to expect a sequel and with this first narrative, I hope there is one.

Valentine’s Day–Rom-Coms (aka Chick Flicks) Anyone?

It’s that time of year again, when guys dread having to let their female partner/friend/spouse choose the movie while they fight back tears having to pass up another testosterone-charged action film (like “Drive” or “300”).  Well, guess what?  There are a few I thought are just right for snuggling together on the couch with a chilled glass of wine.  They have witty, lightweight scripts, without the cringe-inducing mawkish, saccharine dialect of films like “The Ugly Truth (2009).  To me comedy is the most difficult to write, since humor is a very delicate but essential part of our wiring!  These recommendations listed below have some juicy lines!

These are six you can rent (besides the classic old nuggets you all know) without feeling like it was a complete waste of time.  (Unfortunately, none of these are available on Netflix Instant Queue.)  If you’ve seen them already, then watch them again or hunker down and watch one of the classics like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “Annie Hall”.

Here are my favorites from 2008-1011:

1) “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)–What woman does not like Javier Bardem? Woody Allen’s script is one of his best, with a stunning cast including Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz (in an Oscar-winning role) as Bardem’s erotic, creative and bizarre wife.

2) “I Love You, Man” (2009)– Just as much a “man-child” buddy flick along with “40-Year Old Virgin” or “Crazy, Stupid Love”, this rom-com features the ever-reliable Paul Rudd playing a recently engaged guy who has no one for his best man. Jason Segel plays the stranger (with his usual perfect comedic timing) who agrees to stand in at the wedding party. I don’t know any male over the age of 21 who doesn’t absolutely adore this film. So, it is not a chick-flick, in the narrow sense of the term.

3) “500 Days of Summer” (2009)–Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hopeless but clueless romantic who has been unceremoniously dumped by the love of his life, Summer (the zany Zooey Deschanel).  So, he starts to explore the days of their romance, determined to win her back.  This one is quirky with two of the finest quirky young actors in indie films.

4) “No Strings Attached” (2011)– Has the term “friends with benefits” been bounced around enough?  Well, here it is again   with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in an arrangement that begins with both players satisfied and enjoying each other’s company.   Surprise–surprise– the relationship becomes more one-sided in comfort zone.  Most of the dialogue seems natural yet slyly humorous.  An entertaining little sleeper!

5) “How Do You Know” (2010) –To me Reese Witherspoon can work miracles with even the flattest of scripts, but fortunately this one has some worthy bits of dialogue.  In this sports-themed rom-com, she plays an older (30!) softball player without a game.  To underscore the loss she feels not being a part of softball/baseball, she soon falls hot and heavy for a professional baseball player (Owen Wilson) whose wealth he uses to impress, and a businessman (Paul Rudd)  whose career is marginal at best.  Great cast and some original dialogue by the at-times genius comic writer-director James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets) makes this rom-com stand out from the pack.

6) “Horrible Bosses” (2011) – This film could be considered more of a “man-child” buddy flick than a romantic comedy.  Three of the best “stunted-development” comics–Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day– play miserable wretches whose bosses are a living hell for them.  Their maniacal supervisors (Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey) spice up this over-the-top comedy. A lot of fun to watch!

So, Happy Valentine’s Day everyone–and let me know which comedies you liked in the past two or three years!


Netflix Instant Queue–BBC’s Your Best Bet

For those of you who like to curl up with a DVD at night mailed to you directly from Netflix, only to be disappointed after watching it for ten or fifteen minutes,  or finding that the DVD is defective and unwatchable, let me suggest some of the winners we have seen on Instant Queue in the last several months. Watching a movie via Netflix streaming isn’t much different from renting a DVD, but for TV fans it offers a unique way to view one episode after another of addictive series such as “Mad Men”, “Damages”, or “Breaking Bad”.  Viewers can now watch two or three one-hour episodes (or more, like us) in one sitting. A Netflix user can easily watch the whole series, even years after the series has ended.  Trying to catch up on a popular TV program that is a cumulative narrative is almost impossible, without Instant Queue, even with online services like Hulu. You don’t have to bother trying to remember what happened in last week’s episode, or worse–not understanding the three-minute recap!

Netflix has now become one of the entertainment industry’s largest buyers of television reruns, committing billions of dollars to multi-year deals. (Netflix owns a house in Park City specifically for the purpose of scouting independent films for distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival.) Consequently, some of the choices on Instant Queue have expiration dates.  So, you may find that you postponed seeing a selection on your queue to discover that it is no longer available.  The nearly 10,000 films and television series available via Netflix streaming are independently financed pictures, movies that are not first-run, or television series, including BBC.

Reed Hastings (the Netflix founder and current CEO) may be taking only one dollar in salary but he needs to move on acquiring more content for Instant Queue.  That may be why two original TV series, financed by Netflix and intended to compete with HBO and other cable channels, are premiering this week.  Netflix committed to 26 episodes of “House of Cards,” at a cost of about $4 million per episode, based on the concept and talent involved (namely, Kevin Spacey).  A crime comedy called “Lilyhammer,” starring  Steven van Zandt of “The Sopranos,” premieres Monday, February 6.  The fourth season of “Arrested Development” will be financed and produced by Netflix as well.

Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer, said Netflix is “dabbling in original programming” in case it becomes “necessary to produce more ourselves.” Sarandos claims that the company’s algorithm derived from the massive database of Netflix customers’ viewing patterns and quality ratings can predict what will prove most popular and bid accordingly for distribution rights. (Are you kidding me?  Has anyone seen how many 3-out-of-5 star ratings there are–the equivalent of a “C” grade, which is not very informative.)

But, no need to wait for the new original series to fill up your list on Instant Queue.  There is a wide range of less well-known movies and television programs than on the DVD listings but we haven’t been disappointed in these series and mini-series produced by BBC (and usually first shown on public television via Masterpiece Theater).

1) Bramwell (1995): In 1895 London a woman doctor, facing extreme discrimination by all the elite hospitals, decides to open a free clinic for the poorest patients in the East End, supported by her physician father.  Starring Jemma Redgrave, Bramwell prevails under the most heinous circumstances with the best of intentions if not the most successful outcomes. (31 episodes)

2) A Politician’s Wife (1995):  The politics of Great Britain, that will trigger associations with “The Ides of March” as well as “The Iron Lady”, this mini-series is about a political wife’s saga to outsmart her unethical husband for his day of reckoning, starring the sublime Juliet Stevenson. (3 episodes)

3) The State Within (2006): Mark Brydon, a British ambassador to the United States, is caught in the middle of the political intrigue and coverup between the US government and Great Britain over war in Afghanistan. Jason Isaacs stars in this Golden Globe-nominated political thriller. (7 episodes)

And a few that are not from BBC:

4) The Tunnel (2001): Loosely based on true events during 1960s Berlin, an Olympic swimmer plots to dig a 145-yard underground tunnel to help his sister and others escape from the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.  Absolutely riveting.

5) Casino Jack  (2010):  Political lobbyist Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), who stole tens of millions of dollars from Native American reservations, sells his influence to Washington’s “finest” and most corrupt. As justice slowly works its way into Abramoff’s office and closes off his escape route and that of his associates, the viewer realizes that not much has changed in DC.   A useful companion  to watch with this drama–“Casino Jack and the United States of Money”, a documentary.

Try some of these five from my list, let me know what you would recommend, and continue to discover the more obscure but worthwhile cinematic treasures we have to choose from–more than ever before!