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Sagebrush & Spaghetti 

Wednesday, Jun 6 2007
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The Sergio Leone Anthology (MGM)

Sergio Leone made westerns like Wagner made ditties. This essential boxed set -- four films with four discs of supplemental material, much of it scholarly and insightful -- shows the Italian director supplanting the elegiac Monument Valley iconography of John Ford with a darker, ruder, more bleak-humored brand of mythmaking. It's all here: the rhythmic alternation of God's-eye vistas and flyspeck close-ups, the epic face-offs in whirling duster coats, the "two beeg eyes" filling the screen as Ennio Morricone's matadorial trumpets and razor-wire guitars sound the degüello. The surprise is Leone's little-seen 1971 masterpiece, Duck, You Sucker, about a priapic peasant (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary (James Coburn) fighting a class war in 1913 Mexico; it registers today as a haunting, disillusioned rejoinder to radical chic from the opening citation of Mao. It lives up to its title -- no small feat. -- Jim Ridley

Trading Places: Looking Good, Feeling Good Edition (Paramount)

Something about Trading Places always felt a little flat. And now it just looks so 1980s -- or '40s, rather, down to its Frank Capra fairy-tale moralizing and use of blackface, which would never fly at this late date. That said, it's funnier than you remembered, punctuated by the best-ever performances of Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, and Jamie Lee Curtis; never again would they appear in a film as smart as they are (as illustrated by Norbit, also out this week). The making-of pays appropriate homage to its classy cast: Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, and Denholm Elliott. And the Paramount-exec promo clip is indispensable; Murphy and Akyroyd sold the pic to their bosses using the word "cock." Astounding. -- Robert Wilonsky

H.O.T.S.

(Anchor Bay)

A godsend to teenage horndogs at the dawn of the VHS/cable boom, this 1979 breastfest has scarcely aged a day -- it's just as insipid as it looked back then, with the volume turned down in your parents' basement. Co-scripted by '70s sex starlet Cheri Caffaro, with all the storytelling savvy of bus-depot porn, the setup pits a rebel sorority of top-heavy hotties against their snooty rivals. The plot is best savored on chapter skip: Do you really need to know why the chick and two crooks are in a hot-air balloon with a bear, or why Danny Bonaduce is getting his 'nads licked by a seal? But pause when director Gerald Seth Sindell unveils his stroke of cinematic genius: a strip-football climax shot from underneath a topless huddle. And the first T&A appears all of 38 seconds into the movie. Like I said: genius. -- Ridley

Fantastic Voyage

(Fox)

Four decades after its release, Richard Fleischer's vein voyage still dazzles -- not merely on the screen, but behind the scenes. With no proper making-of, this special edition of the pic -- in which Donald Pleasence, Stephen Boyd, and Raquel Welch are made teensy-tiny and shot into a dying man's bloodstream -- relies on old promos and commentary tracks to explain its torturous origins. And they're more effective than any old doc: The deadpan, Mystery Science Theater-style commentary is as insightful as it is hysterical, while a TV promo made before special effects essentially renders it an exercise in the worst acting ever. You'll come to see the film not as the technological marvel it was, but as some wild work of abstract art, in which someone just happened to cast Welch as a distraction. -- Wilonsky

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Jim Ridley

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