“For a monthly price of $6.99 or an annual rate of $69.99 in the U.S. (pricing varies outside U.S.), Disney+ offers viewers of all ages a compelling price-to-value proposition”, Disney’s press release announced this week. The streaming service, which promises “commercial-free viewing, up to four concurrent streams, and unlimited downloads with no upcharges,” debuts on November 12. The app claims to feature:
Unlimited downloads of shows and movies on the Disney+ app to watch offline later on up to 10 mobile or tablet devices; subscribers can watch on the go and without an internet connection
Multiple profiles: subscribers can set up to seven different profiles and choose an avatar tailored to a favorite Disney, Pixar, Marvel or Star Warscharacter, from over 200 available avatars
Concurrent streaming on up to four registered devices with no up-charges in multiple languages for movies and shows from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and Disney’s newly acquired studio library from 20th Century Fox, which includes Fox’s National Geographic brand
But proceed with caution. For example, beware of Disney’s original programming, which includes several Avengers-related series, which cumulatively sound as enticing as another season of The Simpsons. The legendary studio’s also touting something that sounds designed for diversity and inclusion, which is a euphemism for sameness and exclusion of anything that diverges from the status quo, called Diary of a Female President. And coming soon is a slew of new Star Wars series, including 12 new episodes of an ongoing series from Kathleen Kennedy, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated, Emmy® award-winning series which I’ve never seen (a movie of the same name was middling), streaming on Disney+ in February 2020.
In fact, Kennedy introduced a Disney fan expo audience to what’s being advertised as “the second Lucasfilm live-action series for Disney+, now in development,” based on the mediocre Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Besides this less-than-thrilling announcement, there’s a new Disney Lucasfilm series dubbed The Mandalorian, “set after the fall of the Empire”, supposedly tracing the trail of “a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy”. I could be wrong but the Star Wars content, which gets worse with each new release, looks flat and dull.
Now that the Burbank studio’s bought 20th Century Fox, and with its distinguished history, Disney ought to tout its vast backlog because the newest offerings, such as Dumbo and Aladdin, are either awful or mediocre. Is currently unlimited access to Disney’s and Fox’s archives worth paying $6.99 per month as an early price? The answer may depend on how many, if any, of the classics you already own and the quality of the studio’s original programming, which has a spotty recent track record at best. For the streaming service with the unfortunate name, which evokes Google’s failed attempt at social media, it’s buyer beware.
Joyfulness is all but gone from Pixar’s Toy Story series. The third sequel to the original 1995 Toy Story with voices of Tim Allen and Tom Hanks minimizes humans this time, trivializing previous themes and ditching, downsizing or upsizing characters to suit politically correct dogma.
I wanted to like Toy Story 4. I enjoyed the 1995 movie and its sequel. I also enjoyed 2010’s animated summer action comedy, Toy Story 3. This is not a bad movie. It contains many elements of the previous pictures’ success, from clever, concise lines to brisk comedy, action and integration. Plot lines make sense, move along and entertain.
For example, toy talking cowboy Woody (Hanks) braves venturing into nature again for the sake of his owner, the child Bonnie. This leads to interesting, humorous and realistic situations in which he’s able to help Bonnie be her best on her first day of kindergarten. The girl gets to make her own new toy out of trash thanks to Woody, leading to a new character, Forky, perfectly voiced by Tony Hale. Cute and irreverent subplots about throwing yourself away ensue.
Then comes the repurposing of a recurring character named Bo Peep, nicely voiced by Annie Potts. Predictably, amid Hollywood’s Me, Too directive(s), the set-piece toy and her sheep, which accompany a piece of furniture intended for a child’s room, transform into superheroes. Toy Story 4 turns the piece of porcelain into a butt-kicking action figurine worthy of the same studio’s Captain Marvel. Only she’s more efficient. By the third time she saves Woody, you may be falling asleep from boredom. The newly butch Bo Peep gussies the franchise with feminism while new toys voiced by Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Keanu Reeves (Speed) serve as other tokens.
Old toys are relegated to cameos. All of this might be fine if Toy Story 4 had a better point. But its theme, which is hard to explore without disclosing key details, runs counter to the series premise. Suffice it to say that commercialism, Toy Story‘s best aspect, is purged. Woody doesn’t get “woke” exactly, so much as toys qua toys get neutered.
Toy Story 4 is as cute and jaunty as the previous movies. At an hour and forty minutes, it’s mercifully shorter than most Pixar fare (Up, Inside/Out, Ratatouille). But it’s driven by messaging, not by imagination. By jettisoning its main cast of characters and their connection to the individual child, the fourth Toy Story loses its capacity to indulge in play.
On a product page, Apple promises that its AirPods, a product the company introduced in 2016, are: “Wireless. Effortless. Magical.” After deciding to buy AirPods a couple of weeks ago, I can attest that there’s truth in Apple’s advertising.
I ordered the AirPods through Apple for $159. When they arrived (a day early), I opened the box with two AirPods, which were ready to use, inside their glossy, white magnetized charging case. Pulling one at a time out of the case, I put the two AirPods in my ears. As I prepared for my morning walk, they instantly sounded a chime indicating they were ready to pair. I went to my iPhone’s Bluetooth setting and selected ‘AirPods’. That was all the pairing took. They also automatically connect with my other Apple devices, such as the tablet and laptop.
Using AirPods is easy. They fit into my ears and stay anchored without any problems during my low-key fitness routine, though I wouldn’t advise using them during high-intensity, heavy perspiration workouts. AirPods sense when they’re in my ears. The devices pause audio whenever I remove one, take a call or perform another task.
AirPods are amazing in multiple ways. I summon Siri, Apple’s digital voice assistant, when I want to skip a song in my playlist or execute a command. I just double-tap either of the AirPods to activate voice commands, without needing to take my iPhone out of my pocket. I am also impressed by AirPods’ range, which is wider than I anticipated, thanks to Apple’s W1 microchip, which the Cupertino, California-based company claims produces “extremely efficient wireless for better connection and improved sound”.
By my account, this is true. I’ve had no problem with AirPods’ battery, either, though I haven’t used it beyond Apple’s asserted five hours on a single battery charge. AirPods need just 15 minutes in the recharging case for three hours of listening time. And, because AirPods simultaneously connect to Apple devices, and I am admittedly a 100 percent Apple customer, I can shuttle between listening to an audiobook, album or podcast episode on my iPhone and an Apple Watch or iPad Pro; sound switches between devices. The same goes for listening on my laptop or iMac. I simply choose AirPods on each machine.
AirPods contain what Apple calls accelerometers and other sensors to gauge when the devices, which fit snugly but not too tightly, are inserted or removed from my ears. Apple says this saves time and energy. For instance, when I was listening to a song during my walk and had to remove an AirPod to talk with someone or pause for some reason, the music automatically paused upon device removal. When I re-inserted the AirPod, music or podcast automatically resumed, picking up where the sound left off. Sound stops when both AirPods are removed, saving battery life.
By employing simple, easy to use technology, AirPods significantly enhance my life. I look forward to using them. The sound is clear, the fit is superior compared to EarBuds and the convenience is marvelous. I still use headphones for certain contexts. But AirPods are a valued new addition and another reason why Apple is a favorite brand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.