Christmas is just around the corner. At this time of year many of us are reaching for the dustiest DVDs on our shelves, having found the perfect opportunity to re-watch our yuletide favorite films.
Adults like toys too, so if you’re on the lookout for a memorable gift for your spouse, or just treating yourself to an early Christmas present, a cool gadget is always a great option. Of course, prices run the gamut in this arena, so you’ll need to be careful, but whether you’re shopping for the latest smartphones or something to please the audiophile in your life, you can find something that fits almost any budget.
Click the links within the write-ups to purchase each product online, and for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.
HTC One A9
There’s been a lot of discussion surrounding HTC’s newest addition to their award-winning One family that it looks suspiciously like the iPhone 6, and although the similarities are undeniable, if you’re a diehard Android fan that’s always been jealous of Apple’s sleek design, the HTC One A9 is the perfect compromise. It’s also a pretty solid mid-range smartphone, sporting a five-inch, 1080 x 1920 full HD display, 2TB of expandable microSD card memory, BoomSound with Dolby Audio and a 13-megapixel camera with Optical Image Stabilization. The camera includes some really cool features that photography nerds will love, like the ability to make moving time-lapse videos (called HyperLapse) and capture photos in RAW format for greater editing control; the added fingerprint sensor/home button is one of the best on the market; and the new Android 6.0 Marshmallow OS delivers improved performance across the board. The HTC One A9 doesn’t quite have what it takes to compete with the big boys, and because of that, it’s $499 price tag may seem a bit high, but for those who want an iPhone lookalike that runs Android, this is about as close as you’re going to get.
Polaroid Z2300 Instant Digital Camera & ZIP Instant Photo Printer
For as much as digital cameras have changed our lives, there’s just something about the instant gratification of a Polaroid picture that’s difficult to replace. The company aims to recapture that feeling by blending the old with the new in their latest line of products, like the Polaroid Z2300, a 10-megapixel camera that contains all the usual features – 6x digital zoom, 32MB of built-in memory, an SD card slot for extra memory and the ability to capture 720p HD video – but with the addition of a built-in printer that prints 2×3” photos. Though the Z2300 is too bulky and heavy to carry around like a normal digital camera, it’s great for birthdays, weddings and other gatherings to be used by guests who want to snap their own photos to take home as a keepsake. Of course, if you’d rather use the camera on your mobile device, or already have a collection of digital photos that you want to print out in the same wallet-sized format, the ZIP Instant Photo Printer delivers a more mobile and personalized Polaroid experience. Using the free iOS and Android app, you can add filters, text, emojis and borders, or even create a collage, for a truly one-of-a-kind photo. Both products make fun gifts, but if you’re buying for someone under the age of 35, we’d recommend the ZIP printer solely due to its smaller footprint.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: December may normally be all about awards season, but this year, the real draw is “Star Wars.” Although there are several major contenders – from the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Alejandro González Iñárritu – scheduled for release at the end of the month, the highly anticipated seventh installment in the “Star Wars” film series is what everyone will be talking about during the holidays. For the few people that don’t care about “Star Wars,” there are plenty of great movies to discover this month, but for everyone else, it’s going to be awfully hard to concentrate until after December 18th.
Who: Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman and David Koechner
What: A boy who has a bad Christmas ends up accidentally summoning a Christmas demon to his family home.
When: December 4th
Why: Michael Dougherty’s 2007 horror anthology “Trick ‘r Treat” is one of the most underrated movies in the genre, but sadly, it doesn’t look as if “Krampus” will be following in its footsteps. While his directorial debut relied on a smart mix of humor and horror, Dougherty’s new film seems genuinely confused about what kind of movie it wants to be. The trailer doesn’t really establish a definitive tone, swinging from one extreme to the other, and that could ultimately prove problematic for its marketing campaign, which already has the unenviable task of selling a horror movie during the holiday season.
Who: Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson and Ben Whishaw
What: Based on the 1820 event that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days.
When: December 11th
Why: It’s not very often that you see a film’s release date moved to a more competitive time of year, but Warner Bros.’ decision to push “In the Heart of the Sea” from last March to December (one week before the release of “The Force Awakens”) speaks volumes of the studio’s confidence in the Ron Howard-directed historical epic. Though Chris Hemsworth has yet to prove himself as a viable leading man without the built-in audience of the Marvel movies, his latest collaboration with Howard promises to showcase what he’s really capable of as an actor, provided the CG-heavy thrills don’t get in the way.
Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.
WHAT: After retrieving Loki’s scepter from Hydra, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to use its power to produce an army of A.I. robots that can protect the world from any threat. But instead, they create Ultron (James Spader), a maniacal robot hell-bent on destroying the Avengers and remaking the world in his image with the help of a pair of super-powered twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) who have a personal grudge against Stark.
WHY: The first “Avengers” was so much fun that it didn’t seem possible that “Age of Ultron” could be a disappointment, and yet it’s hard not to feel somewhat unsatisfied by the final product. Though it’s a decidedly darker and grittier entry that gives its characters actual problems to deal with, some are more successful than others. It makes sense that the three Avengers who have yet to receive their own solo movies – Hawkeye, Black Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk – are treated the best in terms of development, but it comes at the cost of other characters, particularly Thor, who gets saddled with a pointless subplot involving the Infinity Stones. Newcomers Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are also given little time to make an impression, and though James Spader is perfectly cast as Ultron, the robot isn’t a very engaging villain. The buffet of characters can be a tad overwhelming, but director Joss Whedon juggles the large ensemble and overstuffed action scenes incredibly well, creating memorable moments within each sequence that are filled with classic Whedon banter. In fact, while it’s arguably one of the studio’s weaker entries to date, “Age of Ultron” is still a mostly enjoyable installment that sets the stage for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With that said, I don’t envy the task ahead for the Russo brothers, because if this film proves anything, it’s that the upcoming two-part finale is going to be an even more daunting proposition than it originally appeared.
EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director Joss Whedon, there are four featurettes – covering production, location shooting around the globe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Infinity Stones – as well as deleted scenes and a gag reel.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
WHAT: Freshly divorced and raring to get back to work, Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) agrees to star in Ari Gold’s (Jeremy Piven) first movie as studio head under one condition: he also wants to direct it. But when the film goes over budget and Vince asks for more money, the financier’s son (Haley Joel Osment) begins to interfere with the production, pushing Ari to the breaking point as he tries to protect Vince’s vision and his job.
WHY: “Entourage” has always operated as a larger-than-life helping of male wish fulfillment, but while creator Doug Ellin was no doubt seduced by the lure of going even bigger for the film version, it’s refreshing to see that, for the most part, the movie is just more of the same. It’s like a supersized episode of the HBO show, not to mention a welcome return to the lighter, more playful tone of the earlier years that made it so popular. Admittedly, the movie doesn’t hit as many high notes as the series delivered at its very best, but fans of the show will like it regardless, and it might even convince some non-fans to go back and watch it from the start. More than anything else, though, “Entourage” is a fitting farewell to a series that never really felt like it got the ending it deserved, and Ellin embraces that second chance with so much fan service that it occasionally gets in the way of the story. The movie tries too hard to please everyone, resulting in a messy narrative, but it’s also sensationalized, fizzy fun, and as fans of the TV series know only too well, that’s all that counts.
EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette, a roundtable discussion with writer/director Doug Ellin and the cast, a behind-the-scenes look at Vincent Chase’s movie-within-the-movie, some deleted scenes and a gag reel.
FINAL VERDICT: RENT
It’s probably not the focus of your weekend plans, but you might be interested to know that this Sunday is National Rum Day. I wound up getting a few pitches for rum-based cocktails for the day, but the makers of Shellback Silver Rum got to me first with a pretty interesting variation on possibly the most popular of all rum drinks (as well as the usual free bottle in the mail). It’s a pretty good way to show off their light rum, an intriguingly vanilla-forward entry in the very crowded silver rum arena.
The Brojito Mojito differs from the classic Mojito in two ways.First, there’s the addition of a-little-goes-a-long-way anise flavored liqueurs to the mix, and, second, it adds, well, more — more lime juice, more simple syrup, even more mint leaves. In fact, while there’s nothing overtly bro-ish about Shellback’s Mojito variant, it’s definitely a drink that goes big and refuses to go home. The emphasis on excess actually made me think of a key scene from the tough-guy movie classic “Key Largo,” in which bad-guy gangster Edward G. Robinson admits to basically just wanting “more.”
Still, there’s nothing at all nefarious about the Brojito Mojito and it’s probably not fair to compare it to the fascistic criminal from John Huston’s enjoyably overheated film noir. It’s a tasty and fun variation on a drink with a great many variations. If more isn’t always more, it’s often very nice indeed.
The Brojito Mojito
2 ounces Shellback Silver Rum
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce absinthe or Herbsaint
2 ounces soda water
10-15 mint leaves
Start with a highball/collins glass and add the mint leaves. I personally get impatient counting out ten to fifteen mint leaves and therefore prefer to think of it variously as either a “bunch” of mint leaves or perhaps a “buttload of mint leaves.” Muddle them very lightly — you don’t want to bring out of the bitterness that over-muddling can result in. A light tap or two will suffice.
Next, add all the liquid ingredients and stir. Then add plenty of ice and stir some more. Prepare for one big mojito.
I have to admit I’m not in love with the name but, beyond that, this is a pretty decent not-so-little beverage with a nice kick. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but it’s balanced by the addition of the very strong, somewhat bitter anise flavors of an absinthe, or the somewhat milder variation of Herbsaint (marketed as substitute absinthe, back when absinthe was illegal,). I leaned slightly towards the absinthe simply because, with an entire ounce of simple syrup and a relatively sweet base spirit, the Brojito Mojito is plenty sweet enough and needs as much counterpoint as it can get.
Finally, regular readers might notice that I didn’t include an option for using superfine sugar in place of simple syrup. That’s because — and I have no idea why this should be — the result simply didn’t taste very good. Don’t ask me why. The ways of cocktails, like the ways of men, are mysterious.