AP writers are covering the scene as Hollywood gets ready for its big night on March 5. They'll be filing periodic reports on the goings-on as the perfect outfits are selected, the red carpet is readied and the gold statuettes are polished for the annual awards show.

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THURSDAY, Feb. 16

So I keep finding myself backstage at awards shows, ready to type ``Michelle Williams won this, that and-or the other for her role as a doormat of a wifey too spineless to tell her hubby to lay off that other man in `Brokeback Mountain''' (and I have to wonder, would the wife have had the slightest hesitation to speak her mind had her spouse been cheating with another woman?).

I've felt all along that Williams was the best hope among the ``Brokeback Mountain'' cast to win acting prizes.

But every time my fingers are poised over the keyboard to say so, the name of another wifey, Rachel Weisz, keeps getting announced instead. She won out over Williams at the Golden Globes, then at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and now Weisz has the inside track to do the same for the supporting-actress prize at the Oscars.

Weisz was great in ``The Constant Gardener,'' playing a wily, fearless humanitarian-aid worker who may or may not have been making the world's biggest cuckold out of her husband (Ralph Fiennes).

But I didn't come away from ``The Constant Gardener'' with the feeling that here was a slamdunk Oscar winner. I figured Weisz might get a courtesy nomination and be one of the thanks-for-comings on Oscar night.

Whereas I came out of ``Brokeback Mountain'' thinking that as good as Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were as gay lovers, Williams managed to steal the movie from them. It felt like one of those performances that makes academy acting branch members go, ``Wow, we better give this filly an Oscar now and jinx her career, or she'll suck up all the good parts and there won't be any left for the rest of us.''

So now I'll be backstage March 5, ready to go either way, Weisz or Williams. And to complicate matters, there are three other nominees, Amy Adams as a bonny Southern wife in ``Junebug,'' Frances McDormand as a man-of-the-house wife in ``North Country'' and Catherine Keener as nobody's wife, ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' author Harper Lee, in ``Capote.''

It sure would make my life easier if the academy would go the totalitarian route and switch to a Soviet-style, one-party system, with a single nominee in each category, Just a thought.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15

Next to blogging and blowharding about the Oscars, I think the best job in the world has to be music supervisor for movies.

I feel it's such a noble profession that there should be an Oscar category for best soundtrack assembled for a film.

Consider one of my favorite movies from last year, ``Transamerica.'' Along with its rootsy score by David Mansfield and Dolly Parton's Oscar-nominated song ``Travelin' Thru'' written specifically for the film, ``Transamerica'' is stuffed to the barn rafters with old-timey music that fans of ``O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' can't seem to get enough of.

Writer-director Duncan Tucker and music supervisor Doug Bernheim weave in everything from African motifs with a Miriam Makeba song to a modern fiddle-powered instrumental of Stephen Foster's ``Beautiful Dreamer'' to a tune by country god Ralph Stanley.

I first saw ``Transamerica'' late last summer, a few days after some vacation time spent sunning myself at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, where I was introduced to the hip yet folksy band Old Crow Medicine Show.

And wham, there's a couple of the group's rollicking songs right up front in the movie, giving a great kickstart to Felicity Huffman's road trip as the he-about-to-become-a-she-through-sex-change-surgery goes searching for his-her son that he-she never knew.

Then toward the end comes one of the most beautiful, heart-wrenching applications of a pre-existing song I've ever seen in a movie, as Felicity's Bree quietly heads up the hospital hall, bound for a new life as a woman, while Lucinda Williams' ``Like a Rose'' accompanies her.

The music does just what it should, propel and complement the story and characters the way a well-chosen epigram embodies the spirit of a piece of fiction.

The big-budget mentality of studios is to toss any old sugary pop tune onto a soundtrack hoping the music and movie will cross-pollinate each other to hit status. But it's a real accomplishment to splice song and cinema as artfully as ``Transamerica'' does.

That's why I think music supervision should have its own Oscar category, and that's why I want that job.

It combines three of my favorite ways to while time away: Music, movies and drinking beer. Buy me a pint and maybe I'll explain that beer part. Bring a couple of bucks for the jukebox, too.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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TUESDAY, Feb. 14

It's Valentine's Day, an appropriate time to ask some questions that have been nagging at me about this Heath Ledger-Jake Gyllenhaal romance.

I want to know why is Ledger the lead gay cowboy while Gyllenhaal rides side-saddle in ``Brokeback Mountain''? How come Ledger lassoed a best-actor Oscar nomination, and Gyllenhaal's just his trail buddy, stuck with a nomination as supporting actor (the category that Bill Murray, in his old ``Saturday Night Live'' Oscar bits, dismissed as awards that no one really gives a damn about)?

Sure, Ledger's got top billing, he's the bigger heartthrob, and the story eventually places stronger focus on his Ennis Del Mar than Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist.

But who makes first lip contact? It's Jack. Who does most of the talking when the boys are stealing kisses between tending sheep on old Mount Brokeback? Jack does. Who utters the line _ ``I wish I knew how to quit you!'' _ that's become the ``Show me the money!'' overused quote of the year? Jack again.

If this were a love story between a man and a woman, you can bet both actors would be nominated in the lead categories. Imagine Vivien Leigh nominated for best actress in ``Gone With the Wind'' and Clark Gable dumped in the supporting category. Or Humphrey Bogart singled out for best actor in ``Casablanca'' and Ingrid Bergman sloughed off as his supporting actress (OK, so Bergman was nominated that year for best actress in ``For Whom the Bell Tolls'' instead of ``Casablanca''; you still get my point, right?).

Great love stories need equal partners, and Ennis and Jack certainly were. But while members of the academy acting branch are free to vote for performers in whatever category they want, they get suckered into the positioning the studios undertake.

When you have a film with co-leads, it's generally considered wiser to push one in the top category, the other as a supporting player, to maximize chances that both will get nominated. That's the approach the backers of ``Brokeback'' took in Hollywood trade ads and other awards pitches.

And so, Heath flies first-class, Jake goes coach. Heath rides a sturdy stallion, Jake gets a circus pony.

Ennis and Jack. Butch and Sundance. Felix and Oscar. Thelma and Louise. Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. Mozart and Salieri. Equal pardners, all. Characterize one as supporting to the other and the movie just isn't the same.

The latter three pairs earned dual lead-acting nominations for the stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon for ``Thelma & Louise,'' Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for ``Midnight Cowboy,'' F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce for ``Amadeus.''

So who says some actors are created more equal than others come Oscar time? Granted, Salieri did prove more equal than Mozart, since Abraham won.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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MONDAY, Feb. 13

William Hurt has got to be the only person ever to score an Oscar nomination for fumbling for his keys.

I recall seeing ``A History of Violence'' at the Cannes Film Festival last spring and just rolling along with the wicked humor underlying the performances, particularly Ed Harris' as a one-eyed mad dog of a gangster.

Harris stole the show early on, and I was figuring Harris had a shot at a supporting-actor nomination. But then Hurt finally shows up at the end of the film, popping in for just a few minutes of screen time as Viggo Mortensen's brother, a grandiose mob boss with a seriously inflated perception of his own worth.

Hurt was so good in his opening confrontation with Mortensen that my Oscar allegiance starting swinging toward him and away from Harris.

Then came the moment that sealed the deal for Hurt. Safe in his big old mansion, surrounded by his posse of bodyguards and very capable killers, Hurt's character gets a reminder of what it's like to be on the shallow end of his family gene pool.

Unarmed and in enemy territory, Mortensen goes berserk and has brother Hurt's household quickly in shambles. In a flurry of misdirection, Hurt ends up standing on his own doorstep, locked out of the house and listening to the ruckus inside as his sibling permanently downsizes the domestic staff.

And with an expression of sublime befuddlement, Hurt reaches into his pocket to dig out his house keys. The laugh that scene elicited has stayed with me viscerally. It's sick and twisted and sad, and the look of defeat on the face of Hurt's blustery character perfectly summed up the utter collapse of a blowhard deflated by a better man.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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FRIDAY, Feb. 10

I wish I could track down the woman I was talking with last year as we both came out of an early screening of the pimp-turned-rapper flick ``Hustle & Flow'' at the Sundance Film Festival. Then I could practice my ``Nyuk, nyuk, told you so'' routine on her.

We both had high praise for the film, but when I told her I thought Terrence Howard could get an Oscar nomination for it, she looked at me like I was a pathetic little boy trying to sell Thin Mints to buy uniforms for my Little League team the day after a troop of cookie-peddling Girl Scouts had goose-stepped through the neighborhood (this actually happened to me once, so I know how it feels).

``That'll never happen,'' the woman said of Howard's Oscar prospects.

In fairness, I understood what she meant. Edgy little films that play well at Sundance are not supposed to have the Oscar mojo to compete against flicks with people in them that have names like Gwyneth or Denzel.

The lack of sleep and thin mountain air at Sundance makes everybody loopy, causing distributors to pull out their checkbooks and start scribbling zeroes to buy some pretty crappy movies that'll never survive in the real world.

So of course, a pronouncement that Terrence Howard is an Oscar contender _ coming in the Sundance vacuum a year before the nominations, before anyone knows who'll be releasing the film, when it will come out or whether it'll do any business _ just sounds like a case of the stupids.

But there Howard will be on Oscar night, among the best-actor contenders. Also emerging from the main dramatic competition at Sundance last year was the comic drama ``Junebug,'' which earned Amy Adams a supporting-actress nomination.

Sundance has turned into a solid farm system for the Oscars in recent years, identifying talent that gets called up to the show on nominations morning.

Among the acting nominees for films that premiered at Sundance: Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei and Tom Wilkinson for ``In the Bedroom''; Laura Linney for ``You Can Count on Me''; Patricia Clarkson for ``Pieces of April''; Holly Hunter for ``thirteen''; and Alec Baldwin for ``The Cooler.''

(And let's not forget two of my coulda-been, shoulda-been nominated actors from Sundance movies, Paul Giamatti for ``American Splendor'' and Peter Dinklage for ``The Station Agent'')

And now, a year before the 2006 Oscar nominations, I make this pronouncement: No actors in films that premiered in last month's Sundance dramatic competition will be nominated. It was the weakest crop I've seen at Sundance, and while there were decent performances, none of them were Oscar bait.

Of course, I only saw 15 of the 16 dramatic entries, and the one I missed, ``A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,'' won a prize for best ensemble performance. So nyuk, nyuk on me if Robert Downey Jr., Dianne Wiest, Rosario Dawson or somebody else in that film gets nominated next year.

If that happens, I have my excuse ready: I had to skip that movie because that was the two hours I set aside for sleep during the 10 days of Sundance.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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THURSDAY, Feb. 9

Hoffman? Huffman? Phil, Felicity, one of you has to change your last name before Oscar night, or it's going to get confusing if you both win.

As best-actor front-runner, we have Philip Seymour HOFFMAN, who won a Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild blue-ribbon as best actor for playing that weird little literary genius Truman Capote in ``Capote.''

Move one vowel over, and we come to Felicity HUFFMAN, who looks as though she's in a two-woman race for best actress for playing a man about to stir-fry the old genitalia through sex-change surgery in ``Transamerica.'' Both HUFFMAN and Reese Witherspoon of ``Walk the Line'' won Golden Globes, while Witherspoon beat HUFFMAN for the Screen Actors Guild trinket.

Amazing coincidence or Hollywood conspiracy to create name uniformity for contractual purposes that two top prospects for the lead-acting prizes should have similar nomenclature?

Who knows? Who cares? I just find it amusing. And it made me curious to see what namesakes HUFFMAN and HOFFMAN might have in the Oscar archives.

Copious research amounting to nearly a minute tooling around in the academy's database (http://www.oscars.org/awardsdatabase) turned up the curious fact that no one else named HUFFMAN ever did anything worthy of Oscar notice.

As for HOFFMAN, you're all surely familiar with the Oscar biggie, Al HOFFMAN, nominated for the 1950 best-song honor for co-writing ``Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo'' from ``Cinderella.''

There also were a number of references to someone named Dustin HOFFMAN, who was listed as having seven acting nominations, mainly for obscure arthouse movies. There were indications he even won twice, but I didn't stay on the academy Web site long enough to confirm that; I had to go to Ameritrade to see if my shares in Diageo, brewers of Guinness, had gone up enough to justify investing in an extra 12-pack this weekend.

Maybe now you understand why a little thing like the HUFFMAN-HOFFMAN debate has me confused.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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WEDNESDAY, Feb. 8

To paraphrase one of the grand Gershwin tunes he used in ``Manhattan,'' it's very clear, Woody Allen is here to stay.

Allen already was the record-holder in the writing categories when he snagged his 14th nomination, this time for ``Match Point.''

And this after we'd counted Woody among the should-have-retired-at-65-and-gone-off-to-toot-his-clarinet-full-time crowd. The string of lackluster comedies that preceded ``Match Point,'' among them ``Hollywood Ending,'' ``Anything Else'' and ``The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,'' had Allen looking has-been-ish.

But he's back on his game with ``Match Point.'' Not that I'm a huge fan of the film; it felt too much like a retread of the justice-is-blind themes of Allen's ``Crimes and Misdemeanors,'' albeit retooled for a young, pretty cast whose appeal has given the filmmaker his biggest mini-hit in many years.

Yet the dialogue in ``Match Point'' was buzz-saw sharp, a portent of more good things to come from Allen, who turned 70 last fall. It raises the question _ like Clint Eastwood reclaiming the Oscar crown last year at age 74 _ how long can Allen keep it up?

Genetically, a good long while. His dad lived to be 100, his mom made it to her mid-90s, and Allen's famous quip about longevity is that he hopes to achieve immortality by not dying.

So we could be seeing Allen at the Oscars (or more precisely, not at the Oscars, since he doesn't like coming) until well after global warming has forced him either to move out of watery Manhattan or buy a rowboat.

Allen's got writing and directing Oscars for ``Annie Hall'' and another screenplay trophy for ``Hannah and Her Sisters.'' I doubt he'll win this time against an original-screenplay lineup that includes ``Crash,'' ``Good Night, and Good Luck'' and ``Syriana.''

But the guy remains a little Tasmanian devil of verbiage. Good words just keep pouring out.

In time, the Spielbergs may crumble, the Clooneys may tumble, but our Woody is here to stay.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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TUESDAY, Feb. 7

The latest from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: You are cordially invited to a meet and greet with the Oscars. The actual, gold-plated, inanimate Oscars.

In its perpetual solicitations for any publicity imaginable that might help the show's TV ratings, the academy yesterday announced the safe arrival of this year's batch of awards in Hollywood, where they now will be made a public spectacle of at an exhibit called ``Meet the Oscars: The 50 Golden Statuettes.''

This essentially is the same thing as coming out to stare at a bunch of bowling trophies.

They don't sing and dance. They don't tell bad jokes. They don't thank their agents or toss the losing nominees a bone by claiming what an honor it was just to be in their company. And thank whatever smithy forged them, they don't squeal, a la Sally Field, ``You like me! You really like me!''

They just stand there, mute and anatomically incorrect.

Visitors will be allowed to hold one of the 8 1/2-pound statuettes made by R.S. Owens and Co. of Chicago out of something called britannium (no wonder Brits win so many acting Oscars).

And there will be photos of past Oscar winners on display. Those with heart conditions be warned; this sounds like exciting stuff.

Then two days before the ceremony, according to an academy press release, ``the Oscars, under heavy security, will march down the red carpet on Hollywood Boulevard to the Kodak Theatre, where they will be handed out during the awards presentation.''

The pageantry of it all gives me goosebumps _ especially the part about these little metal men marching along the carpet. It sounds like the lost dance sequence to ``The Nutcracker.''

In keeping with the bowling reference above, I think the academy could get real publicity mileage by closing off Hollywood Boulevard for celebrity bowling matchups, using Oscar statuettes as pins, the makers of the stop-motion animated nominees as pin-setters, and maybe the heads of last year's losers as balls.

Wouldn't you love to see Judi Dench, wearing a lavender bowling blouse with ``Dame Judi'' stitched over the breast, in a three-frame, sudden-death showdown against Ang Lee, decked out in a pastel-green polyester shirt whose back is emblazoned with the ``Brokeback Mountain'' team sponsor's name _ the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation?

Now that's publicity, and that's entertainment.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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MONDAY, Feb. 6

Snubbed by the Oscars? Don't worry, they'll catch you next year.

Paul Giamatti was glaringly overlooked in the best-actor lineup up a year ago, when his ``Sideways'' co-stars Virginia Madsen and Thomas Haden Church scored supporting nominations.

Giamatti himself _ the guy who embodied the luckless loser at love with a sad-sack desperation not seen since Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for ``Marty'' _ wound up abandoned at the altar.

I recall on nominations morning talking with Church, who basically said Giamatti got screwed (Church used more diplomatic phrasing, though). But Church noted way back then that he was hearing great things about Giamatti's performance in this boxing flick called ``Cinderella Man,'' so maybe, just maybe, the academy would make amends by nominating him for that.

Sure enough, there was Giamatti on nominations day last week, the proud owner of a supporting-actor nomination as the manager of Depression-era bruiser Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) in ``Cinderella Man.''

Not to knock Giamatti's performance in ``Cinderella Man,'' but I found it pretty ordinary next to his wonderfully, painfully authentic mix of pathos, anger, disconsolateness and wretched resignation in ``Sideways.''

Had Jamie Foxx never been born, opening the door for one of the Wayans brothers to be cast as Ray Charles in ``Ray,'' I would have bet all 12 shiny new pennies in my life savings that Giamatti would win best actor.

So the question now is, was Giamatti nominated this time around for ``Cinderella Man'' or as a consolation prize for getting shafted on ``Sideways''?

With about 1,500 performers making up the academy branch that chooses acting nominees, there certainly isn't any star-chamber collusion going on. (``OK, gang, we left one of our own behind last time, so let's toss him a bone this year.'')

But basic human psychology is a factor when people cast ballots, so feeling sorry that Giamatti missed out a year ago could subtly, somehow, earn him some sympathy votes. Just ask co-star Crowe if he thinks he really won best actor for ``Gladiator'' or for his far superior performance a year earlier in ``The Insider.'' Be sure to duck after asking; Crowe knew how to throw a punch long before training for ``Cinderella Man.''

The lesson is, the academy eventually will make up for past sins of omission.

By that theory, Oscar voters owe Jim Carrey some back-taxes, with interest.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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FRIDAY, Feb. 3

I don't care how many pixels you're packing. Real animators play with toys.

As in the playthings brought to life in ``Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit'' and ``Tim Burton's Corpse Bride,'' two of the three nominees for best animated feature at the Oscars.

Both flicks were created through that lowest-of-tech methods, stop-motion animation, in which you craft puppets of clay or rubber or other inert substances, move their little arms and legs and facial features infinitesimally, then shoot the changes frame by painstaking frame, so when the film is run at normal speed, your creatures zip about as though the poltergeist of Walt Disney were shoving them along.

So much for the dominance of computer-generated imagery in the Oscars' animated race. None of the eligible CGI cartoons, which included ``Madagascar,'' ``Robots'' and ``Chicken Little,'' made the cut, the first time since the animated category was added in 2001 that no digitally created movies were nominated.

This year's third nominee is ``Howl's Moving Castle,'' a pen-and-ink entry from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, whose ``Spirited Away'' won the 2002 Oscar.

I declare the backlash against computer animation officially open for business. From here on, digital is dead, and it's back to lush, pure analog animation, the kind you have to put on paper or craft out of inanimate objects the way my college-aged sister perversely used to do when I was a kid and she would borrow my GI Joes and my other sister's Barbie dolls and force them to waltz together late at night, alone in her room (oh, the contorted little figures that would greet us next morning when we would retrieve our toys from where they lay under her bed, spent and twisted from an evening of mad hot ballroom).

As computer animation goes the way of the 8-track, I also think semaphore's going to make a huge comeback, supplanting e-mail as the impersonal communication of choice. I'm dumping all my tech stocks and buying into flag companies.

-- AP Movie Writer David Germain

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THURSDAY, Feb. 2

Maybe you noticed, there are only three best-song nominees for the Oscars, instead of the usual interminable five. And maybe, like me, you were thinking it was a decision by popular demand, so we all have 40 percent fewer crappy songs to listen to during the show.

Granted, there have been some great Oscar-winning tunes (Bob Dylan's ``Things Have Changed'' is one of the most butt-kicking singles he's ever done). But I'm still suffering post-traumatic stress symptoms from watching Celine Dion screech ``My Heart Will Go On'' back on the big night for ``Titanic'' (``Can't somebody just drop an iceberg on her?'' I remember screaming from near the ceiling, where I had climbed in a vain effort to escape the horrible sound from the TV).

The actual reason there are fewer nominees is some Oscar rule change where songs have to get a minimum scoring average. The three that made the cut should make for an interesting musical night of introspection, inspiration and bleeped out references to women of a particular profession.

First, from best-picture nominee ``Crash,'' we have Kathleen ``Bird'' York and Michael Becker's ``In the Deep,'' a quiet, lost-soul ditty about life spinning you in circles ``till you shed your pride and you climb to heaven.''

Then, there's Dolly Parton's ``Travelin' Thru,'' from the road-trip tale ``Transamerica'' that earned Felicity Huffman a best-actress nomination as a man undergoing a sex change, the tune referencing sweet Jesus more than once and declaring hopefully, ``when I'm born again, you're gonna see a change in me.''

Finally, we have an ode by Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman and Paul Beauregard _ better known as the Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia _ to the joys of street life, ``It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.'' It's performed with gusto by best-actor nominee Terrence Howard in ``Hustle & Flow.''

With an F-bomb or two, some N-words, free use of a synonym for feces and a sprinkle of unflattering epithets for womankind, the song's going to make it hard out there for a singer come Oscar night.

Sure beats Celine.

AP Movie Writer David Germain

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WEDNESDAY, Feb. 1

I'm wrong already. Wrong is a state of being for me, though, so I shouldn't be surprised that I've muffed a key Oscar category more than a month before the awards.

I said earlier that ``Star Wars: Episode III _ Revenge of the Sith'' probably would be a sentimental favorite to win the visual-effects prize, given it's the last we'll be seeing of the Skywalker boys on the big screen.

And now those rebel scum on the academy's visual-effects nominating committee have left George Lucas' farewell to Obi-Wan off the list. The three nominees yesterday were ``The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,'' ``King Kong'' and ``War of the Worlds.''

Three impressive light shows up on the screen, to be sure, but I'd like to ask this of the nominating committee: Did you guys watch ``Revenge of the Sith''?

The movie was one long visual effect, with Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen and a few other odd humans tossed in now and then to avoid getting classified as an animated film.

OK, so some of Lucas' creatures look cartoonish. But as visual spectacles go, it was the supreme achievement of a sci-fi franchise that pretty much sired the modern special-effects business.

As for the three nominees, two of which include effects by Lucas' homegrown outfit Industrial Light & Magic, I got mighty sick of all the talking animals by the end of ``Narnia,'' which also had some cheesy fake panoramas, ``King Kong'' had a few moments of utterly phony-looking action and ``War of the Worlds'' looked like it just wasn't all quite there.

Of course, the nominating committee bases its picks on 15-minute clip reels from each contender, so the parts that sucked weren't included in the process.

So now, this primate will go out on a limb again and declare ``King Kong'' the Oscar winner, which would be another slap at ILM, since ``Kong'' is the one nominee Lucas' company didn't work on (and have I mentioned that I've been wrong before?).

Ah, well. Lucas and ``Star Wars'' already had their revenge. ``Episode III'' beat the visual-effects nominees by a light-year or two at the box office.

AP Movie Writer David Germain

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