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In Search of Recordable DVD

Andy Reviews One of the Season's Top Tech Gifts
Plus: Connery, PIRATES, and GIGLI Bow on DVD

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

If you're looking for a Christmas present this year for the digitally-obsessed on your list (or perhaps something for yourself), this is the most opportune time yet to invest in a DVD recorder.

Yup, I'm talking about making your own DVDs -- transferring some of those classic VHS tapes or family home movies over to the digital medium. Just a few months ago a quality recorder could run you upwards of a grand, but about a month ago I opted to try out one of Panasonic's new DVD Recorders, complete with an 80 GB Hard Drive that works as its own TiVo/Replay TV.

Rest assured that the Aisle Seat isn't on the Panasonic perk list, so believe me when I tell you that if you've been wanting to check out a DVD recorder, the prices have become much more affordable than ever before and the quality of these units far superior to previous models.

The machine I picked up (the DMR-E80H) offers not only DVD-R and DVD-RAM (rewritable) capability for authoring and playback, but also a Hard Drive that works as its own built-in recorder. The HD can store 34 hours of high-quality video (up to 106 hours on the inferior video settings), and enables you to do some editing before burning to a DVD. This is invaluable if you want to trim commercials off a TV broadcast, burn multiple copies, or cut down your vacation home video to a manageable length! The quality on the top two video settings are identical to standard broadcast TV, and the machine also has its own built-in signal corrector, which cleans up TV transmissions and playback from standard composite "RCA jacks" (so, colors are actually better balanced AFTER you've run the signal through the recorder -- great for VHS and laserdisc transfers). The other great element is that you can use the Hard Drive like a TiVo or Replay TV, and record shows to the HD for playback, then erase them before ever burning to a disc.

The quality of the unit, and the DVD it authors, is terrific. A couple of VHS recordings I made eons ago were enhanced after transferring to DVD, while color noise on a couple of laserdiscs I experimented with were also appreciably improved. You can implement chapter stops, though the menus are pretty sparse (as I'm not a big aficionado of DVD menus in the first place, this didn't matter much to me). As you'll find if you have an older DVD player in your home theater, not every brand of disc the Panasonic burns will be compatible with other machines (a lot of older DVD players were never configured to play DVD-R to begin with), though every DVD-R I've made so far has played back on my newer Toshiba DVD player and many have played just fine on my old Panasonic. (If you're wondering, you can fit roughly 130 mins. in "SP" mode on a DVD-R).

Sure, the price is still a bit on the high side, but if you do some smart shopping, you can find this particular unit online for a little over $500 (less if you want a recorder minus the Hard Drive), while most major chains price the DMR-E80H around $700. Media is also a better value online as well -- if you opt to jump into the recording arena, do some research and you can save a bundle on quality DVD's that will cost half on average than what they retail for at your local Best Buy, etc.

Whether you're shopping for yourself or not, the world of the DVD Recorder has finally dropped down to the level many consumers can afford, and surely will continue to drop in future seasons -- if you can hold off that long, of course!

As for me, if anyone has that 3-hour version of THE DEEP out there, I've got some trades to work with. Drop me an email! :)


Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. 140 mins., 2003, PG-13, Disney. ANDY'S RATING: ***1/2. CAST: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Pryce. COMPOSER: Klaus Badelt. SCRIPT: Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio. DIRECTOR: Gore Verbinski. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Three audio commentaries; deleted/extended scenes; Making Of; production diaries; visual effects segments; vintage Disney TV special; DVD-ROM extras; and more. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

From the "The Island" to "The Pirate Movie," to Roman Polanski's disastrous "Pirates" and the waterlogged Geena Davis effort "Cutthroat Island," it's been a long while since we've had a pirate movie that delivered the bounty of entertainment that its genre promised. (I will say, though, that I plead guilty to sharing Scott Bettencourt's fondness for "The Island," even if we're still waiting for a letterboxed home video copy). But, ahoy there movie-lubbers, here comes PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, a robust, grandly entertaining swashbuckler that single-handedly rights the wrongs of those previous, ersatz pirate adventures, and comes up aces with the year's most entertaining night at the movies.

In a deft comic performance that fits comfortably alongside his work on "Sleepy Hollow" in particular, Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow, a pirate who washes into the colony of Port Royal in a memorable opening scene. Sparrow is a sauced old salt who seems like he's constantly on the verge of blacking out, yet his instincts serve him well once the cursed sailors of the Black Pearl drop in uninvited on the townsfolk -- including Governor Jonathan Pryce and lovely daughter Keira Knightley. She holds a prized possession of the pirates -- a gold coin belonging to Cortez himself -- that she picked up as a child from blacksmith Orlando Bloom, who harbors a crush on the young lady of nobility. When Knightley is kidnapped by the pirates, she meets with Captain Geoffrey Rush and learns of the Black Pearl sailors' curse -- that when the moon shines full and bright, the men turn into skeletons (shiver me timbers!) who can't be killed, at least not until all the Cortez coins are reassembled and the blood of their late crewman Bootstrap Jack's son (Bloom) is spilled. To the rescue go Depp and Bloom, who assemble the former's motley crew in an attempt at saving Knightley and stopping Rush and Co.'s collection of dead (sea)men.

At just over 140 minutes, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is an epic action- adventure in the old-fashioned Errol Flynn tradition. Based on the famous Disney ride (with a few "scenes" from the attraction itself amusingly worked into the story), it manages to do what few live-action Disney films have in the past: come up with a story that truly attracts viewers of all ages, while paying proper respect to its roots in an unpretentious and unsentimental manner. For that, one has to credit producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has made a marvelous fantasy film for Disney with the slick sheen and visceral presentation of his typical action efforts. PIRATES begins with a creepy, classic opening sequence -- with a young girl singing the o'l pirate tune in a dense oceanic fog -- and never lets up in its entertainment value. The action scenes are stunning, the special effects marvelous, and the performances all right on the mark. Pryce is gently amusing in a parental role that avoids the typical stereotype, while Rush pushes the right buttons as the heavy, and Bloom and Knightley make for appealing young leads. Depp, meanwhile, is sensational in a role that veers from hero to villain and comic foil, and never misses a beat in Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's smart, amusing script, which only becomes convoluted in its explanation of the Black Pearl's curse.

The widescreen cinematography of Dariusz Wolski compliments the action, as does the pounding, thunderous score of Klaus Badelt, Hans Zimmer and friends. The final soundtrack does sound awfully familiar, yet it works so well in the movie -- as sort of the "quintessential Zimmer/Badelt/Gregson-Williams/Powell/et al film score" -- that it's hard to argue with the results, regardless of how "out of place" they may be with the setting.

Confidently steering this ship is director Gore Verbinski, who -- after last fall's surprisingly good "The Ring" -- continues to show a remarkable ability to work in a wide pallet of genres. The picture is long, but I found it refreshing to see a full-bodied epic hold the attention of the entire audience at the showing I attended, including plenty of kids and their parents. While most movies flare out at 90 minutes in these days of impatient audiences, it's gratifying to see a real blockbuster provide over two hours of entertainment for its hard-paying viewers.

"Pirates of the Caribbean" seemed like a promising project from the start, but given the curse of previous pirate movies, I wasn't holding my breath. Happily, it's the summer's most consistently entertaining blockbuster, evoking the spirit of classic swashbucklers with modern effects and technical prowess. A treasure trove of fun in a sea of recent disappointments, it's the one summer movie you'll still be watching years from now. Arrrr, me mateys, go and see it! (And many people did -- at over $300 million, the movie will go down as the highest-grossing live-action film of 2003.)

Disney's DVD offers a crisp and superb 2.35 transfer with a pungent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that employs the full sound field of your home theater system. Extras are bountiful in this two-disc set, which undoubtedly ranks as one of 2003's "must have" DVD releases. No less than three commentary tracks are included: one from Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski; another with Kiera Knightley and co-star Jack Davenport; and a third featuring the screenwriters. They're all entertaining and engaging, as is the mostly- promotional 40-minute Making Of that features a glossy look at the making of the movie. Some 19 (!) extended/deleted scenes are included, surprising for a movie that runs nearly 2.5 hours, and while most of these aren't essential to the movie, they're fun to watch and fans will love their inclusion. Other superb extras include on-set camcorder footage shot during production -- this is more revealing than the traditional "Making Of," and several production diaries are also included. There's also a few production galleries, an interactive segment about real pirates, and a nostalgic 20-minute program about the park ride itself, culled from the Disney "Wonderful World of Color."

Throw in a handful of PC-ROM extras, and this Special Edition is a comprehensive knockout (except the exclusion of trailers for some odd reason). Easily one of the most entertaining DVD releases of the year, for a most deserving blockbuster as well. Highly recommended!


New on DVD

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. 110 mins., 2003, PG-13, Fox, available December 16. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Sean Connery, Shane West, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Jason Flemyng, Richard Roxborough. COMPOSER: Trevor Jones. SCRIPT: James Dale Robinson. DIRECTOR: Stephen Norrington. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; multiple Making Of featurettes; 12 deleted/extended scenes. TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Entertaining enough comic-book fantasy (adapted from the highly regarded Alan Moore-Kevin O'Neill graphic novel) isn't nearly as bad as its reputation would lead one to believe, though a better script would have made this adventure truly extraordinary. In 1899, Sean Connery's Allan Quartermain leads a team of classic literary figures -- Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Mina Harker, Dr. Jekyll, the Invisible Man, and Dorian Gray -- against an evil mastermind dubbed "The Phantom" who wants to engage nations around the globe in a worldwide war.

Stephen Norrington ("Blade") directed this fun escapist adventure (and reportedly nearly came to blows with Connery during the shoot), which certainly looks good and boasts a fine cast. Connery ably fills the matinee hero bill as Quartermain, and the supporting cast does what they can with the screenplay, which neatly toys with classic heroes and villains: Tom Sawyer (Shane West) is an American agent; Dr. Jekyll's alter- ego Mr. Hyde is as much of a hulk as Ang Lee's version, while Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend) is a slick conniver and Peta Wilson's Mina Harker a butt-kicking vampiress (the most interesting of the lot) who should have been further developed in James Robinson's script.

The movie boasts several well-directed set pieces, a blaring (but effective) score by Trevor Jones, and the requisite derring-do, which alone makes it a whole lot better than Connery's last stab at similar material ("The Avengers," anyone?). The trouble comes in the screenplay, which works adequately as a story but suffers from thin characterizations and leaden dialogue that's never as humorous or interesting as it ought to be. If you've got Connery, a big budget, and an innovative concept for a "super hero" film, you should at the least have some decent one-liners to compliment the action.

As it turns out, there's no such luck on that front, and yet I enjoyed THE LEAGUE for what it is: a straightforward, good-looking genre effort with intriguing ideas. Thankfully, it seems the filmmakers will get an attempt to improve on their work, since the movie's respectable domestic gross ($67 million) and superb international receipts (over $100 million) indicate that a sequel will be forthcoming. Fox's DVD looks great in 2.35 widescreen and sounds equally good in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. Special features include an OK commentary track featuring producer Don Murphy and actor Shane West, plus a more technical commentary with members of the costume, make-up and F/X teams. A handful of Making Of featurettes (totaling about an hour) are included, along with 12 extended/deleted scenes, which sadly don't amount to a whole lot. Like "Pirates," there are no trailers to be found, either (what gives with
that?).


GIGLI. 121 mins., 2003, R, Columbia TriStar, available this week. ANDY'S RATING: *1/2. CAST: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bartha, Al Pacino. COMPOSER: John Powell. SCRIPT-DIRECTOR: Martin Brest. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.40 Widescreen, full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It's not the worst film of all-time, but even as bad movies go, "Gigli" is pretty lousy.

Ben Affleck plays a hit man/mob op named Larry Gigli who's hired to kidnap the mentally handicapped brother of a federal prosecutor whom a mob boss is fighting in New York City. Jennifer Lopez is Ricki, a tough hit woman who's assigned to help/observe Gigli carry out his mission, and naturally the two fall in love -- despite her lesbianism and Gigli's crass mannerisms!

Later, Al Pacino amusingly shows up as the mob boss, but it's a long, bumpy ride to get to that point in filmmaker Martin Brest's latest critically-castigated effort -- a foul- mouthed, tiresome "comic thriller" that seems like it wants to cross "Rain Man" with "Pulp Fiction" and throw in a '00s equivalent of a '30s romantic comedy with the would- be snappy interplay between Affleck and Lopez. What crosses up those intentions is Brest's script, which never successfully works on any level, be it comedic, dramatic, or romantic.

Brest last came under fire for his overlong Anthony Hopkins-Brad Pitt vehicle "Meet Joe Black," a movie that I nevertheless thought had a handful of strong scenes and fine performances. "Gigli," though, is almost as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe, simply because the movie can never make up its mind as to what it wants to be. Lopez looks great (though Affleck struggles with his accent and performance), but there's no fire between them in a movie that's pretty much D.O.A. right from its opening scene.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a colorful, strong 2.40 widescreen transfer (a full- frame version is also included) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a hard-working John Powell score. To be expected, the disc is completely devoid of special features, likely a direct result of the movie's hideous box-office performance. Though "Gigli" was instantly branded as one of the "Worst Films of All-Time" by the press even before it opened (likely due to the "Beniffer" off-screen shenanigans more than anything else), I wouldn't buy the hype. This is a misfire to be sure, but it's not embarrassing enough to recommend even for bad movie fans. Instead, "Gigli" commits the worst cinematic sin: it's simply boring.


Aisle Seat Vintage Pick of the Week

THE HORSEMEN. 109 mins., 1970, PG-13, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Omar Sharif, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jack Palance. COMPOSER: Georges Delerue. SCRIPT: Dalton Trumbo, from the novel by Joseph Kessel. DIRECTOR: John Frankenheimer. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen (16:9 enhanced), Dolby Digital mono.

John Frankenheimer fans have waited a long time for his gritty 1970 adventure "The Horsemen" to hit video, never mind DVD. It's been a lengthy time in coming, but Columbia TriStar has finally delivered the goods for its admirers, with a striking 2.35 widescreen transfer enhancing the anamorphic visuals of the violent adventure movie.

Omar Sharif stars as a horsemen who competes -- with his fellow Afghan tribesmen -- in the rough and tumble sport of Bozkeshi. Sharif's father (Jack Palance) tries to shape his son's path in the world, yet Sharif has other plans about competing in the sport he has been raised to play, even though it nearly costs him his life.

Scripted by Dalton Trumbo from a Joseph Kessel novel, "The Horsemen" is an odd movie to be sure. The Super Panavision 70 scope cinematography is impressive, and Frankenheimer uses the wide frame at every turn to capture the Afghan mountain ranges in the backdrop. Georges Delerue's score is another plus, as are the performances of Sharif, Palance (nicely underplaying his role) and Leigh Taylor-Young, who was quite fetching back when "The Horsemen" was made. The trouble with the movie is that the script starts and ends well but -- much like its central character's personal odyssey -- meanders in the middle with muddled psycho-babble in place of action, and supporting players who could have been further developed.

It's nevertheless a challenging film that has developed a cult following over the years -- reasons why fans will love Columbia's DVD. The 2.35 transfer, enhanced for 16:9, looks good considering that the film has rarely been screened over the years, while the mono soundtrack is also adequate. A lengthy theatrical trailer is also included, which attempts to sell the movie's action and is halfway honest about its intentions. Worthwhile, in spite of its flaws.


NEXT WEEK: The Annual Aisle Seat Holiday Gift Guide. Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!


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