'Annie' is the first live-action family musical in ages
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And also like its predecessor, ''The Escape Artist'' is charged with a sense of wonder - an intimation that the world is deeper and richer than we are likely to suspect, and that children are somehow a little closer to these mysteries than the rest of us are. This is a refreshing and resonant perspective for any film to begin with, even though ''The Escape Artist'' doesn't realize its full potential. It's an imperfect movie, but a tantalizing and rewarding one. Say it with musclesSkip to next paragraph
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In keeping with his chosen image as a macho intellectual, John Milius begins Conan the Barbarian with a quotation from Nietzsche. But it takes only a few moments for the movie to get down to its real level, which is as thoughtful as a battle-ax.
The character of Conan was created decades ago by Robert E. Howard, an eccentric writer who belonged to the same literary circle as fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft. His vision and his prose were even more limited than Lovecraft's, and it seems that the pulpy Weird Tales magazine - to which he contributed - was his natural habitat.
Yet there's a vitality to some of the Weird Tales fiction that keeps it circulating year after year. And it's unpretentious, unlike much of today's portentous fantasy. Howard put it very well, explaining his attraction to muscle-minded heroes. ''They're simpler,'' he once said, in a remark quoted by a latter-day admirer who has helped collect and extend the ''Conan'' series. ''You get them in a jam, and no one expects you to rack your brains inventing clever ways for them to extricate themselves. They are too stupid to do anything but cut, shoot, or slug themselves into the clear.'' Howard certainly knew his limitations, as well as Conan's.
Milius doesn't. He turns his Conan film into an overblown epic, a noisy rehash of Cecil B. de Mille, with all the vulgarity and little of the cheer. The presence of James Earl Jones (fresh from his stage-shaking ''Othello'' on Broadway) lends a little class, but not enough to outweigh the crunching violence and charmless sex that are the movie's enervating stock in trade. This isn't fantasy, it's just a rehash of the latest obsessions; all Milius has done is transplant them to a stock Hollywood setting, updating the explicitness but not the sophistication. There's more Neanderthal than Nietzsche in it - which is appropriate, but hardly appealing. An elusive filmmaker
Budd Boetticher is an elusive filmmaker. His westerns with Randolph Scott were staples of the neighborhood movie palace during the 1950s, and have received serious critical analysis. Yet his pictures are rarely revived, even in ''art'' and ''revival'' theaters. In his 1968 book ''The American Cinema,'' critic Andrew Sarris began a section on him by asking, ''Does anyone know where Budd Boetticher is?''
At least we know where his last western is, after years of obscurity. A Time for Dying was made in 1969, written and directed by Boetticher. The producer was Audie Murphy, who also plays Jesse James. The movie was tied up in Murphy's estate after his death, however, and never released. Now the situation has been resolved. Corinth Films has put it into distribution, and the Public Theater in New York has given it a belated premiere.
A fascinating film it turns out to be, full of eccentric touches that give it a distinctive Boetticher flavor. The plot revolves around a novice gunman, a woman who becomes his wife - to the complete surprise of both of them - and a demented villain named Billy Pimple. Also on hand is Judge Roy Bean, in a grotesque portrayal by Victor Jory that seems bent on outdoing Walter Brennan's hysterical performance in ''Red River.''
All the characters begin as stereotypes and finish as archetypes, thanks to Boetticher's obsessive script, which pulls off some wildly unpredictable twists on the usual western conventions - especially at the climax, a starkly filmed showdown that sets Hollywood heroism on its ear, and the denouement, a dazzling ''long take'' that hoists Billy Pimple by his own petard. The crisp cinematography is by Lucien Ballard; the music - which almost swamps the story more than once - is credited to Harry Betts. Harry Knapp was the editor.
In sum, it's ''elemental but not elementary,'' to borrow a pithy Sarris phrase about Boetticher's work in general. And it's worth a close look by any western fan, or anyone curious about the last completed work of a truly original moviemaker.