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Best Christmas Gifts 2017

Photo of LA’s The Grove at Christmastime by Scott Holleran

Making the most of Christmas commercialism means to me finding or letting in the joy of this marvelous season. I’ve decided to round up some of my favorite things to give or receive purely for the purpose of spreading the cheerfulness, happiness and goodwill that comes this time of year. I think benevolence is all around if you know why to look — for your sake — and never let life’s turmoil go down deep. Sometimes, things help. They remind you that you matter, that you’re capable of enjoying things. Things can become a person’s project and lead to an enterprise, discovery or way to living a renewed life. I hope these tips help you and those you value have a merry Christmas.


Coffee, Shaving and Elegant Correspondence

Two of the best made products for everyday basics are the Verismo coffee machine and Harry’s razor and blades. Both are simple, efficient and streamlined for functionality. When traveling, I like to use the Photocard application, which easily and masterfully makes and sends picture postcards to send with a note through mail and/or e-mail via my iPad or iPhone.

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Similarly, give boxed notecards as gifts, too, which encourage family and friends to correspond with short, handwritten notes, which may be more personal and meaningful than text or e-mail. I recommend Crane’s stationers and Papyrus for finding the highest quality blank and themed note and greeting cards. For gift cards, I know that getting and giving Amazon, Starbucks and Apple, such as iTunes, cards (and, of course, movie theater gift cards, too) brings happiness. You can also send an individual item, such as a favorite book (Atlas Shrugged), movie (La La Land) or song (“Hello”), in iTunes and other mobile apps.

Money is always welcome, of course, though I think cash or a money card is best presented with a thought expressed in writing or recording if you deliver via modern technology. PayPal, banks’ direct payment tools such as Zelle, ApplePay and others (Square, Western Union, Facebook) offer a range of options for gifting money directly to the individual.


Movies, Movies, Movies

If you want to give a movie, investigate the recipient’s preferred format, i.e., streaming such as Hulu, Apple TV or Netflix, DVD or Blu-Ray. I suggest giving a few films if possible as a batch in a selected variety — musical, comedy, drama, classic, action — centrally based on what you have reason to think the recipient enjoys and perhaps one of your own favorites (of course, with a line about why). If that’s not appropriate or possible, choose one favorite and explain in a blank Christmas card note or gift tag what you want the recipient to gain from watching the movie. Simply writing enjoy works, too.

So does bundling. For instance, if you know a dashing or romantic youngster who appreciates civilized man as a work in progress, consider sharing the charms of Cary Grant by gift wrapping North By Northwest, Gunga Din and Charade. Go for variety in your bundles, but look for common themes in the movies. Include gift receipts in case they already have that movie. Don’t forget other classic movie stars, such as Lizabeth Scott, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Look on Amazon.com or call used bookstores to find a credible biography or memoir of the movie star to add as a relational stocking stuffer.

Spielberg at his best

If you’re a true classic movie fan, these are some good themed movies for buying and watching together with one you love: naughty, light comedy in romance — So This is Love, Red-Headed Woman, One Hour With You; for epic, raging Westerns — Forty Guns, The Big Country, Stagecoach, Red River, The Virginian; warm, lush adventures from Steven Spielberg — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; really glorious, wonderful musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein — The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Oklahoma! or others such as Minnelli and De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York; movies about war — such as American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, 13 Hours; or give some of your favorites among Oscar’s Best Picture winners — Wings, On the Waterfront, Rocky, Schindler’s List, From Here to Eternity, Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, The Artist, The King’s Speech, Chicago, or The English Patient.

Reflections on suppression

Movies perfect for home video gifts include family fare such as Zootopia, A Dog’s Purpose and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, all of which embed benevolent ideals in bright, gorgeously colorful films with bold yet simple strokes and a delightful sense of humor. Other good classic films for general audiences are Ted Melfi‘s Hidden Figures, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Walt Disney’s Bambi, The Jungle Book and Dumbo or his very personal and thoroughly enjoyable So Dear to My Heart, a fabulous movie which depicts the antithesis of today’s cynicism. Other movies which might be welcome to those contemplating and facing serious obstacles include Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical which skillfully depicts life’s fairy tale moments with depth and insight; Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful film (2005’s best) about secret, lifelong romantic love; The World According to Garp for its biting wisdom and incisive cultural commentary, which was way ahead of its time; and, for an uplifting and thought-provoking examination of the most radical thinker of our times, buy Michael Paxton’s Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, now available on a new Blu-Ray edition. Mike Binder‘s Black or White, Jeff Nichols’ Loving and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are excellent movies about racial integration.

And these slavery-themed films make audiences think twice while moving them to searing emotions — leaving impressions which will last for years and prepare loved ones for forecasting, dodging and transcending what lies ahead: the artistic-themed The Lives of Others, the mythology-themed The Hunger Games, the historical epic 12 Years a Slave and the penetrating romantic tragedy We the Living.


Books

Every movie lover should own a copy of both Leonard Maltin‘s Classic Movie Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which are reliable and outstanding references to have on hand.

Learn from history

For new and recent accounts of why and how people come to believe in evil — and to understand why faith and force are the “destroyers of the modern world” as Ayn Rand wrote — read True Believer: Stalin’s Last American SpyThe Third Reich: The History of Nazi Germany and Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels. To grasp why conservatives advance both destroyers, read the new biography of one of America’s worst presidents, the conservative who made Obama possible, Bush by Jean Edward Smith.

For portraits, memories and stories of man at his better or best, read and/or give The Pit, Harry Reasoner’s Before the Colors Fade and Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. For the reader who wants to be moved, think, grow, make money and challenge the world, I recommend Ayn Rand’s novels: We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.


Music

Music is so personal that it’s hard to find the right gift. That said, I am fortunate that gifts of certain albums and songs to loved ones who’re facing certain problems add value and yield positive results. Some of my favorite gifts have been albums I never would have discovered on my own, such as favorite albums by Fleetwood Mac, Mark Knopfler and Johnny Cash. Cash’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, made a thoughtful, melodic and terrific road trip album, The River and the Thread, which I saw her perform up the Golden State freeway at the College of the Canyons Performing Arts Center in the Santa Clarita Valley. But, then, I like story-driven songwriters’ music, especially the British songwriters’ invasion.

ONJ and JT at play

To this end, I strongly recommend giving and listening to Divide by Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All (or Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, for that matter) Adele’s 25 and James Blunt’s Some Kind of Trouble and Moon Landing. Rock-n-roll and other songs by Pat Benatar, Neil Diamond, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Stevie Nicks, Alanis, the late Tom Petty and his hero, Elvis, are worth considering, depending on one’s situation, tastes and listening habits. Also, think about giving music by pop female vocalists such as Melissa Manchester, Susan Boyle and Olivia Newton-John.

Olivia’s battle with cancer returned this year, which reminds me that whenever someone I love is diagnosed with any form of cancer, I find value and draw strength from listening to and giving one of her extremely enlightening vocal albums, A Celebration In Song. Olivia’s playful Christmas album with her Grease co-star, John Travolta, This Christmas, is a perfect tonic for the holidays, too. One of my favorite Christmas albums is the one created by pop singer Christopher Cross. It’s really blissful, though it’s hard to find. Other fine musical gifts include vocal and instrumental music by Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz.


Television

As gifts, TV programming can be extremely life-affirming. For history buffs and non-fiction fans, I recommend The Marva Collins Story starring Morgan Freeman and Cicely Tyson, the fascinating and brilliantly conceived and produced American Ballet Theatre: A History and the eye-opening documentary series by Ken Burns on two of the most damaging figures in American history, The Roosevelts.

HBO’s Path to Paradise dramatizes the first attack on the Twin Towers, which provides a uniquely informative retrospective of pre-9/11 U.S. appeasement and incompetence. History Channel’s Rebuilding the World Trade Center tracks the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack through an absorbing account of what they call a rebuilding which is, in fact, not what it claims but is nevertheless worth watching. Though it’s a motion picture, not a TV program, if you haven’t seen it, The Walk by Robert Zemeckis is the most exhilarating movie I’ve seen in the theater. It’s an exciting capstone to the existence of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) and a proper remembrance of what were the tallest skyscrapers on earth.

Objective reporting

NBC’s This Is Us is the best new show on TV. CBS’ Escape from Sobibor, dramatizes the only mass concentration camp revolt by Jews against Nazis. Fox’s Glee and Empire and NBC’s Frasier entice and entertain in their premiere seasons if you’ve never watched. For good comedy, Eight is Enough, The Andy Griffith Show, The Carol Burnett Show, I Love Lucy, Hot in Cleveland, and most shows created by Norman Lear afford reality-based laughs that don’t incessantly snicker at values. Cold Blooded, SundanceTV’s amazing documentary miniseries about the Clutter family murders on a farm in Kansas, made infamous and wrongly glorified by Truman Capote in his true crime fictionalization, In Cold Blood, is simply one of the best TV programs I’ve seen in a long time.


Experiences

Though it can be more expensive, giving experiences in advance can be the most joyful and best Christmas gift of all. Whether a handmade certificate for a day at the park or tickets to Disneyland, the opera or a gift card for ArcLight Cinemas, this gift marks a commitment of quality time or a genuinely thoughtful recognition of the recipient’s values. If someone loves gardening, for instance, consider a pass or membership to the botanical gardens. Same goes for other hobbies, interests and favorite sports, such as season or some tickets to the ballpark to see the National League champion Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, or the arena to see the Kings.

Whatever you give or receive, I think the best gift is the one which fits what the person wants. If you think about a favorite or deserving colleague, client, friend, contractor, neighbor or loved one, you probably know, have seen or have some general sense of what lights him up and makes him smile. The best gift could be treating the kids to ice cream, so a Baskin-Robbins gift card might be a good idea. It could be a new tie, scarf, print, beverage or floral bouquet or plant or new album, tool or machine. Consider giving dinner for two at a swanky restaurant to grant someone reprieve. Think in terms of his or her favorite places, wide-eyed tales of want and treasured experiences. Then, go for it.

Have a good time shopping if you can and do and here’s hoping my readers get what they deserve…and wishing you a Merry Christmas and the best of everything in 2018.

Product Review: Harry’s Razor (2017)

Fed up with the high cost of shaving and sufficiently enticed by an advertising campaign, I tried Harry’s Razor for $15 a few years ago and wrote my first product review on the blog. It was also the first time I spent money in response to an ad on Twitter, proving on both counts that I’m neither an early adopter nor a big spender.

In any case, I found value in both the buying experience and the product and ordered from Harry’s again (read my original product review here and more of my product reviews here). I wrote that I would re-order Harry’s again and did. I’ve used Harry’s ever since. I did lodge one criticism of the product and made one related suggestion: I observed that the well-designed razor blade “does not conform to that area between the upper lip and lower nose.” I further reported that “there’s no backblade or single strip as on other razor blade models.”

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I concluded with the wish that Harry’s razor blade “had a means of getting that patch under the nose.” That 2014 blog post is, oddly enough, one of my most popular posts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone, even someone at Harry’s, read the post and noticed my suggestion. Who knows whether my post influenced the company’s recent decision to add precisely what I suggested in its latest razor blade, which I’m happy to be using with success. That Harry’s added the feature without diminishing its quality or increasing its cost, as of this writing, is part of why I remain a satisfied customer.

In fact, I’ve also used Harry’s simple online tools for gifts and trial packages of new products and everything’s worked great so far. The packaging is still solid and simple, which I value enormously since my Harry’s comes through mail order. I strongly prefer the shave cream to the foam, because it holds more closely to the facial hair, making the shaving strokes smoother and more efficient, though I’ve used the foam, too, and it’s alright. The post-shave balm is fine in a pinch, though I still prefer my regular moisturizer after a good shave. I upgraded razors to the chrome version pictured here. I bought the shaving stand, which is perfect for my bungalow bathroom. I gave the old razor away. Now, I see some Harry’s shaving products at my hometown Wal-Mart, so I’m glad they’re growing and expanding and I hope they’re making a profit.

I know that Harry’s doesn’t take my business for granted. They’re still competitive. Indeed, on this fiery, smoky LA Sunday morning, the company offered me an incentive for referrals. If you want to try Harry’s shaving products knowing that your Harry’s Shave Plan trial saves this writer a small amount on my next order, feel free to keep me bloodlessly clean-shaven (well, much of the time) and go here.


Order Harry’s here

Product Review: Verismo V by Starbucks

Competing with Mr. Coffee, Keurig and other home coffee machines, Starbucks launched its Verismo (pronounced vurr-izmo like ‘gizmo’ preceded by the ‘ver’ as ‘vurr’) a few years ago. Read my positive review here. This fall, the food, beverage and lifestyle company, whose innovative CEO Howard Schultz stepped down this week, introduced a new version of the machine.

Verismo V, as the new name goes, is improved.

VerismoV1

Starbucks’ Verismo V

Better yet from the consumer’s perspective, they keep a similar price range ($129-$179), though it’s currently on sale for $99, which comes with a variety pack or your choice of a box of a dozen coffee pods (a limited line compared to Keurig, which also carries Starbucks coffees, including milk-based, espresso and brewed beverages). It’s available with a milk frother, but I already own one of those.

First, the negatives, and there are a couple. The new detachable water tank, unlike the original machine’s tank, drips upon detachment, so, when you refill it with water, expect leakage on the way back to the machine (I haven’t figured out if it’s possible to stop that yet). I’m filling it without removing the container. Also, and it’s not that big of a problem, Verismo V is larger and takes up more space.

Product design enhancements outweigh the negatives, however, and make up for inconvenience. For example, the water tank, previously located in the back of the machine, goes on the side. It’s measurably larger, too, so a couple drinking a cup or two in the morning won’t have to refill the tank as often and can probably go a few days without refilling. It’s more accessible than before, too, with a simple lid, which easily fits into place. The other version’s water container was tucked into the back of the machine, which was a minor hassle.

The cup/drip tray is also removable, only it’s made of sturdier materials—especially the black metal cup holder, which is separable—and now it’s made to magnetically lock into one of two places to accommodate different cup sizes (and it’s easy to detach the parts completely to make room for a travel mug or tall glass). Rather than an indented spot for the cup as in the previous version, the new Verismo coffeemaker curves the opposite way (outwardly, not inwardly), which takes getting used to. The lever feels thicker, there are more buttons allowing more brewing choices—but not too many—on top and Verismo V is observably quieter when brewing coffee. Beverages (you can use the machine as a hot water dispenser for tea and hot chocolate, of course) are as hot as or hotter than before.

Other improvements include the ability to stop any brewing with the touch of any button and an ability—this is new—to program up to four custom dispensing settings, which Verismo V retains, so two people can have their own separate preferences pre-programmed like car seat positions. In the short time I’ve been using Verismo V, a used pod didn’t drop into the detachable container just once, so that’s still a factor, but at least the space for spent pods is larger. There’s still a small discharge of water after the rinse cycle but splatter has been reduced, so the protruding brew spout is more precise.

Verismo V by Starbucks

Verismo V by Starbucks

After set-up, here’s how Verismo works: fill the water container, power up the machine and place a cup on the tray. Wait for go signal (steady not blinking lights), pull the black metal lever down in one swift motion without a pod inserted, run a short rinse, empty the dispensed water and repeat with a cup after inserting a brewed, espresso and/or latte pod this time. Note that, unless you’re using the programmed settings, you’ll have to manually press any button to stop the brewing process or else the brewing does not stop and the cup will overfill. Verismo V still lasts a few minutes. Verismo V is a bit faster and commands are more responsive.

Starbucks offers fewer pod choices than Keurig’s line of K-cups, but limited edition blends, such as Christmas, Anniversary and others, are usually available in Verismo pods through Starbucks’ Target and in-grocery-store operations, online and Starbucks retail stores. Buying at Starbucks’ website in higher volume saves money, as pods come in boxes of 12 at about a dollar a pod (they’re not reusable).

Verismo V is for people who want to drink premium coffee at home without making a mess or spending more time, effort and energy than old-fashioned grinding, pressing and brewing. The coffeemaker comes with a good manual, which features set-up, programming, troubleshooting and cleaning and maintenance instructions, and the machine still automatically powers down after five minutes of idle time. For good, fast, convenient premium coffee at home, Verismo V remains an excellent option.


Go here to learn more about (or register your) Verismo V

Review: Starbucks App (2014)

Product Review: Verismo by Starbucks (2014)

Commentary: Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign

Starbucks Story for a Monday

Music Review: ’25’ by Adele (Target Exclusive)

Adele Album 25On Adele’s new album, 25, she howls, she bellows, she wails and I think this vocal approach is why Adele has become one of the bestselling recording artists of our time. I think Adele expresses what millions of Brits and Americans feel these days; an aching, yearning lament for lost innocence.

The songs are good, not exceptional, though some stand out. The 14 tunes on Target’s exclusive extended album version (with three bonus songs) are generally well-crafted melodies and expertly delivered, if overproduced, to accentuate Adele’s primary ability to belt out a tune. 25 is a listenable album.

It’s occasionally enjoyable as well. The songs, even as delivered, are unlikely to be remembered through the ages. Soulful Adele, like so many modern pop singers before her—from U2’s Bono and Sinead O’Connor to Alanis Morissette, Sam Smith and James Blunt, sings of longing and lament. She specializes on this album in conveying anxiety, doubt, fear, pain and guilt—which explains why this collection instantaneously broke records. She’s less tortured here than on previous efforts and, as I observed about the first single, “Hello”, there is resilience in her howling, haunting voice. Breaking voice, rising and falling with lush production from top producers, and evoking rhythm and blues, Bruce Hornsby and a range of styles, 25 has an easy, swaying quality to it. Adele co-writes with others, such as Greg Kurstin, recording the album mostly in London and also in New York, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Prague.

Though I would have preferred to have this album on streaming service through Apple Music, I do recommend Target’s special edition because the three bonus tracks include two of the album’s best songs, the plaintive and looping ballad “Can’t Let Go”—co-written with Linda Perry—and 25‘s most upbeat song, co-written by Adele with Rick Nowels, “Why Do You Love Me”, which has an undeniable, dance floor-friendly hook. This song is also the least melodramatic. Other tracks are a good balance by today’s standards, especially the solemn “Hello”. I suspect that the reason it’s selling four million copies in the first few weeks is that Adele, in voice, tune and mood, captures the tiredness and tension of balancing what one wants with what one wants to guard in the everyday onslaught of today’s darkening world.

In 25, Adele grieves for the loss of innocence while striving to hold on. As she sings in “Can’t Let Go”: “I never lied and I never faded…” Though she sings in past tense, she adds that she won’t let go. Beyond the melodrama of anguish, I think this ability to express perseverance may be what powers her phenomenal success.

Blu-Ray Review: Cinderella

cinderella_2015_blu-ray

Click to Buy

Coming to home video for the first time, the leading contender for the year’s best picture, Cinderella, debuts today on Blu-ray and other formats (read my review here). I reviewed the two-disc Blu-Ray version with digital HD/SD, Blu-ray combo pack & Disney Movies Anywhere (DMA).

The DVD features a short feature on the movie’s animals, such as horses, chickens and mice, and the animated short that preceded Cinderella during its theatrical release, Frozen Fever. The Blu-ray includes these and also the 20-minute A Fairy Tale Comes to Life with brief interviews with major cast members and director Kenneth Branagh, writer Chris Weitz and producers David Baron, Simon Kinberg and Allison Shearmur in addition to other designers and production crew. The feature is alright, though it does not sweep over the whole picture as it should. I do not think Disney appreciates this picture for its full value.

Mr. Branagh himself downplays the film, which caused some controversy among feminists when it was released, as a light and enjoyable indulgence. There is no mention here, too, of the wonderfully romantic score by Patrick Doyle (read my review of the soundtrack here) among the features. A costume bit involves classical music from The Nutcracker which isn’t used in the 105-minute Cinderella.

The best Blu-ray extra—the best of the whole package besides the movie—is the 11-minute Staging the Ball, which breaks down one of the most breathtaking scenes in Cinderella. The two leading actors, Lily James as Cinderella and Richard Madden as the Prince, comport themselves to the palace filmmaking and so does everyone else who comments on the ballroom scenes, with adoring angles, gestures and framing. Relishing details, Kenneth Branagh and company explain every aspect from lighting the candles and building the set on the James Bond lot to the gown’s 10,000 Swarovski crystals and dance rehearsals. James describes the aura as “lightness and elegance” and it is beautifully deconstructed here. An alternate opening, which forges a stronger bond between the farm animals and the girl’s family before the stepmother (Cate Blanchett) moves in, is very good. Disney restricts the rest of Mr. Branagh’s five deleted scenes to its Disney Movies Anywhere exclusive, the code for which is included on the box.

This is a movie to get lost—even become immersed—in, as Walt Disney might say, and those inclined should do so without reservation. Boys and girls alike should see it with the whole family. Cinderella is that good and that rare and unusual among today’s pictures. Its grand, romantic style is suited to its warm, intelligent script. Despite the denial and modesty with which it is presented, Cinderella is lovely, moving and magnificent all at once and its transfer to Blu-ray delights in high-definition.


Click to Buy Cinderella on Blu-Ray

Related links

Movie Review: Cinderella

Music Review: Cinderella soundtrack

Cinderella Coming this Fall to Home Entertainment