Sleepy Hollow [HD DVD] Tim Burton  
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The secret to "getting" Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is appreciating that it's the film he's wanted to make his whole life. After the intimately expressive Edward Scissorhands, this is his most personal venture. Burton's Gothic style—apparent through all his work—stems from a childhood misspent watching the horror movies of Roger Corman, Hammer studios, and anything featuring his idol Vincent Price. For Sleepy Hollow Burton surrounded himself with his usual collaborators and friends; the production was almost entirely shot on location outside London to reunite him with key members of the crew he'd used a decade earlier in Batman, and also to capture the atmosphere of Hammer horror on its own turf.

Johnny Depp's Constable Ichabod Crane warmly emulates the mannerisms and enunciation of Peter Cushing. In a prologue scene Burton plays out a long-held fantasy by pitting Depp against Christopher Lee. And it is fantasy that categorises the film throughout, from the mythical fireside telling of the Hessian Horseman's origin (a mesmerising Christopher Walken), to the bright spots of colour saturating Crane's childhood dreams (featuring Burton's real-life love Lisa Marie). These moments literally shine out amid a meticulously crafted look for the film, which underwent a bleaching process to tone things down to an almost monochrome hue. The Scooby Doo-like whodunnit plot, concerning family lineage and petty vengeance, is naturally secondary to what Burton is aiming to achieve through photography and performance, which includes expressive cameos from Michael Gambon, Michael Gough, Jeffrey Jones, and Iain McDiarmid. Yet despite all these subtleties, it's also his best action movie: the swordplay betters anything from his earlier work, while the windmill escape and subsequent coach chase is truly breathtaking in choreography and execution. If you find a cheesy grin on your face for most of the film, you've "got" it. If not, see Hammer's Dracula at once! —Paul Tonks

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The Thing (1982) [HD DVD] John Carpenter  
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Director John Carpenter and special makeup effects master Rob Bottin teamed up for this 1982 remake of the 1951 science fiction classic The Thing from Another World, and the result is a mixed blessing. It's got moments of highly effective terror and spine-tingling suspense, but it's mostly a showcase for some of the goriest and most horrifically grotesque makeup effects ever created for a movie. With such highlights as a dog that splits open and blossoms into something indescribably gruesome, this is the kind of movie for die-hard horror fans and anyone who slows down to stare at fatal traffic accidents. On those terms, however, it's hard not to be impressed by the movie's wild and wacky freak show. It all begins when scientists at an arctic research station discover an alien spacecraft under the thick ice, and thaw out the alien body found aboard. What they don't know is that the alien can assume any human form, and before long the scientists can't tell who's real and who's a deadly alien threat. Kurt Russell leads the battle against the terrifying intruder, and the supporting cast includes Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, and Wilford Brimley. They're all playing standard characters who are neglected by the mechanistic screenplay (based on the classic sci-fi story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell), but Carpenter's emphasis is clearly on the gross-out effects and escalating tension. If you've got the stomach for it (and let's face it, there's a big audience for eerie gore), this is a thrill ride you won't want to miss. The collector's edition DVD includes a behind-the-scenes "making of" featurette, production photos, the original theatrical trailer, and more. —Jeff Shannon

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The Big Lebowski [HD DVD] Joel Coen  
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After the tight plotting and quirky intensity of Fargo, this casually amusing follow-up from the prolifically inventive Coen (Ethan and Joel) brothers seems like a bit of a lark, and the result was a box-office disappointment. The good news is, The Big Lebowski is every bit a Coen movie, and its lazy plot is part of its laidback charm. After all, how many movies can claim as their hero a pot-bellied, pot-smoking loser named Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) who spends most of his time bowling and getting stoned? And where else could you find a hairnetted Latino bowler named Jesus (John Turturro) who sports dazzling purple footgear, or an erotic artist (Julianne Moore) whose creativity consists of covering her naked body in paint, flying through the air in a leather harness, and splatting herself against a giant canvas? Who else but the Coens would think of showing you a camera view from inside the holes of a bowling ball, or an elaborate Busby Berkely-styled musical dream sequence involving a Viking goddess and giant bowling pins? The plot—which finds Lebowski involved in a kidnapping scheme after he's mistaken for a rich guy with the same name—is almost beside the point. What counts here is a steady cascade of hilarious dialogue, great work from Coen regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, and the kind of cinematic ingenuity that puts the Coens in a class all their own. Be sure to watch with snacks in hand, because The Big Lebowski might give you a giddy case of the munchies. —Jeff Shannon

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The Fast and the Furious [HD DVD] Rob Cohen  
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There's a refreshing modesty to Rob Cohen's matter-of-fact commentary track, which contains one of the more practical dissections of direction voiced on DVD as it covers a mix of nuts-and-bolts filmmaking and cinematic thrill making. And why not? The Fast and the Furious is a sleek, unapologetic speed-demon buddy film, and the collector's-edition disc gleefully revels in the rush. Skip the "making of" featurette puff piece and cut to the visual-effects montage of the film's opening race: behind-the-scenes footage, raw photography, rough computer effects, and storyboards are intercut with the finished scene to give a whirlwind production overview. Other revealing supplements include an eight-camera multi-angle look at the climactic 360-degree flip stunt and an enlightening five-minute featurette about the film's editors shaving the film down to a PG-13 frame by frame, which says more about the MPAA than any danger this film poses to our unprotected youth. —Sean Axmaker

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Unforgiven [HD DVD] Clint Eastwood  
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Winner of four Academy Awards, including best picture, director, supporting actor and best editing, Clint Eastwood's 1992 masterpiece stands as one of the greatest and most thematically compelling Westerns ever made. "The movie summarised everything I feel about the Western," said Eastwood at the time of the film's release. "The moral is the concern with gunplay." To illustrate that theme, Eastwood stars as a retired, once-ruthless killer-turned-gentle-widower and hog farmer. He accepts one last bounty-hunter mission—to find the men who brutalised a prostitute—to help support his two motherless children. Joined by his former partner (Morgan Freeman) and a cocky greenhorn (Jaimz Woolvett), he takes on a corrupt sheriff (Oscar winner Gene Hackman) in a showdown that makes the viewer feel the full impact of violence and its corruption of the soul. Dedicated to Eastwood's mentors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel and featuring a colourful role for Richard Harris, Unforgiven is arguably Eastwood's crowning directorial achievement. —Jeff Shannon

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Space Cowboys [HD DVD] Clint Eastwood  
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Even though this DVD doesn't boast that it's a special edition, it has some of the nicest extras you'd want to see. There's nearly an hour of behind-the-footage material, all of it superior made-for-cable featurettes so often included on DVDs. The technicians divulge little tricks of the trade, revealing more computer effects in the film than you'd think. Longtime Eastwood editor Joel Cox provides insight into the director's work routine. The highlight, though, is an extended version of the four principles' appearance on The Tonight Show, with Jay Leno providing some interesting comments on how he chooses what films will "appear" on his show. —Doug Thomas

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