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by Bill Gibron

27 Jan 2008


It was all the movie business could do. Television was eating into its audience, viewers more eager to sit at home and enjoy limited entertainment on a small 12” screen vs. taking the entire family to their local 1000 seat theater. Even with superior sound, enhanced visual quality (with developments like Cinemascope and Todd-O Vision), and a larger than life overall experience, the novelty of the new living room technology was changing the cultural dynamic. Then some enterprising distributors decided to use the old roadshow roll out. Developed in the days when a simultaneous national release was virtually impossible, these special event presentations saw a film - and various accompanying attractions/actors/advertising - canvas the country, drumming up interest via the mere exclusivity of a city-to-city play date. One of the last mavericks of such an approach was Samuel Bronston, and one of his biggest hits centered on the fabled Spanish hero, El Cid.

There are actually three intriguing stories at the center of the new DVD release of El Cid. The first is the legend of the title character, a sweeping spectacle dealing with important issues like loyalty, courage, and destiny. The next is the tall tale of how Samuel Bronston, a wide-eyed Romanian employee of MGM, branched out into independent production and navigated several epic films to the big screen, El Cid included. He also was famed for using the Roadshow format to maximum early ‘60s effect. This is also the story of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who’ve used their recent split from Disney (and their signature company, Miramax) as a stepping stone toward their passion for film preservation. Dedicated to their late mother, the new Miriam Collection intends to champion forgotten efforts from the past, hoping that new generations will discover their glories. With the digital treatment of El Cid, they’ve created a product that will make both Mom and the history of cinema proud.

The myth surrounding the title character, otherwise known as Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar begins as all such romanticized history does - with a wedding thwarted and an act of charity leading to charges of treason. After releasing a captured Moorish general and his men, our soon to be conqueror earns the gratitude, and undying loyalty, of his previous prisoners. Naturally, the King and his court are not happy, and Rodrigo is accused of being a traitor. As the noblemen debate his fate, he seeks the solace of his beautiful bride to be Jimena, daughter of the royal champion. Their love is undying and undeniable. But when his own father is insulted, Rodrigo challenges his lady love’s guardian to a duel. The results ruin the relationship with his fiancé forever. As the King’s newest knight, El Cid is sent to negotiate with disloyal factions in the kingdom. He eventual succeeds, and an innate ability to avoid ambush and double cross turn him into a rural icon. Soon, competitive elements within the royal family will challenge his sense of duty, and his love for Jimena…and all the while, the Moors are preparing for all out war.

Anchored by yet another stellar Charleton Heston performance and propelled by director Anthony Mann’s sense of scale, El Cid is the kind of good old fashioned filmmaking that truly satisfies the deepest inner cravings of an aesthetic starved movie buff. Lacking the usual clunky dialogue that dooms such sword and sandal period pieces, and laced with a thread of near religious allusion in its themes, we wind up with the kind of larger then life experience that makes history seem evocative and personal sacrifice the noblest of all intentions. While the story of how Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is slightly marginalized by the artform’s natural tendency to over-tweak the genre, and some of the supporting players can’t match master thespian Chuck’s mantle, we still walk away feeling drawn in by a monumental experience that does a devastating job of putting us right inside the ideological conflict at play.

Indeed, some may feel an odd sense of déjà vu as the main Moor villain - the incredibly bad Ben Yussuf, portrayed by an unrecognizable Herbert Lom - delivers his anti-enlightenment screeds. It’s all burning books, avoiding knowledge, limiting freedom, and Islamic fundamentalist fanaticism. The notion of a Muslim army overthrowing the rest of the known world via sheer brute force and insane violence is nothing new, but in our current hot button foreign policy pickle, such pronouncements seem prophetic. Some will also recognize a similar Arabs as mannered madmen ideal like the one forwarded in 300. The enemy’s misguided sense of purpose is outlandish and intense. With the exacting costumes and large scale battle scenes, Mann and his mega-sized war machinery definitely leave a big impression.

But El Cid is not all gigantic battles and a cast of several thousand. Some of the best moments are one on one, like Rodrigo’s swordfight with the father of his fiancé. It’s a perfectly paced and performed bit of stunt swashbuckling. Similarly, the jousting gauntlet sequence strikes the proper balance between dread and intended daring-do. Heston handles all his demands with aplomb, grace, and just a small amount of indirect demagoguery. Unlike his work in The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur, there is very little humility in how he plays Cid. Only when confronted by his King does he ever let his guard down. Even playing against a slightly stiff Sophia Loren (who really isn’t given much to do except look stoic), there is a humble hubris percolating at the core of his character’s being. He knows he’s right - he’s just waiting for the rest of Spain to get clued in.

All of this leads to one of those amazing real life recreations, complete with a windswept seaside setting, untold extras, and enough found location legitimacy to keep the pomp palpable. It takes oversized actors to carry off Mann’s motives, and Heston is the perfect proto-idol. While not quite Latin in his looks, he is one of the few thoroughly modern actors who appear comfortable, even authentic, in outlandish 11th century garb. It’s easy to scoff at this material, to see El Cid as a throwback to the days when producers provided audiences with the pre-CGI notion of eye candy and figured that this would be enough - and in some cases, it was. But within this rather dense narrative, Mann incorporates enough Shakespearean substance to amplify the ideas projected. It makes the main character’s last act sacrifice, and the denouements surrounding it, all the more memorable.

Long unavailable on DVD - many of these bloated bits of ballyhoo became lost in a quagmire of competing rights once movies went simplistic and post-modern - the Weinsteins should be praised considerably for bringing this movie back from the home video dead. The pristine, almost perfect anamorphic widescreen image captures Mann’s magnificent framing and composition with polish and professionalism. The picture here is just amazing. Similarly, a newly struck Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix bolsters the brilliant score by Miklos Rozsa (Ben Hur, King of Kings). But the best element of this Miriam Collection release is the context. With commentaries, production featurettes and other print-based bonuses, we get a vivid picture of what it took for Bronston to bring this project to life.

On the full length complementary discussion, Bill, the late producer’s son, talks about his dad and his desire to make movies. He’s joined by Neil M. Rosendorf, historian and Bronston biographer. While the latter can’t help but overly praise the film, and link everything back to his Jewish heritage, the overall conversation provides the kind of clarity we need to understand this phase of mainstream moviemaking. Equally insightful are the documentaries, bonuses that concentrate on the movie, Mann, Rozsa, and the difficulty in preserving cinema’s past. Together with a booklet outlining the film and its famous roadshow success, we get a clear picture of what made Bronston tick - and why he choose such a large canvas to tell his tales.

The answer is obvious - in order to battle novelty, one has to be equally unique as well. The roadshow, with its event-like mentality and sense of spectacle, was a surefire way to get audiences back to the bijou. It announced an experience unlike anything they were normally used to, and promised to deliver sound and vision incomparable - especially from a fledgling medium like television. And for a while it worked, and watching El Cid some 48 years later, it’s easy to see why. By combining expert casting, lush opticals, and narratives that span the scope of all human experience, the epic promised the very essence of man’s place within the universe. In that capacity, Bronston and El Cid truly deliver. Thankfully, the Weinstein’s new DVD arm gets such grandeur as well. This new digital package is one of the year’s best.


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by Bill Gibron

26 Jan 2008


One of the more intriguing elements of science fiction is its allegorical ability. Using a fantasy or fictional setting to comment on the current state of society has always been one of the genre’s greatest strengths. It allows the author to discuss subjects and situations that otherwise would result in controversy and/or contention. But when buffered by aliens, future shock situations, and interstellar overdrives, even the most debatable material can be dissected and discussed in a rationale, insightful manner. That’s why so many film fans lament the category’s slip into straight forward Star Wars space battling. Where once serious speculative fiction meant the free exchange of ideas, now it’s all Ewoks and heavy breathing man-machine villains.

Automatons is different. A Super 8mm home movie manufactured in the basement of a Brooklyn building, this war between competing ideologies looks like a child’s toy fair gone nuclear. Filmed in black and white, and using miniatures and other less than special effects to generate its brave new worldview, it’s the classic tale of a post-apocalyptic war between rival factions, each using superior scientific knowledge and an undying vendetta to fuel their fury. In essence, the development of robots allowed political factions (represented by the generic named ‘Girl’ and ‘The Enemy Leader’) on a planet gone precarious to split, and then start using the technology to destroy one another. Eventually, a ragtag group of survivors try to commandeer the remaining iron men and use them to end the hostilities – by annihilating the other side.

Within the context of this blank Buck Rodgers, a desolate landscape visualized via tiny handmade props, we have issues regarding national and personal security, the abuse of power, the mismanagement of science, and the blind faith in violence to resolve all issues. There are hints of the Republican desire for a new world order as well as talk of terrorism and fanaticism overruling reason and rationality. Throughout the course of the plot, as our rogue engineer tries to repair and reprogram her minions, a videolog of her famed father’s rantings (essayed with verve by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) play in the background, and it’s during these screeds that we learn most of the narrative backdrop – the state of emergency, the competing philosophies, the Terminator-like takeover of the machines.

Granted, filmmaker James Felix McKenney borrows a lot of his outsized ideas. There are elements borrowed from James Cameron’s classic, as well as The Matrix, Dark City, and any number of human vs. mechanism protocols. The use of grade-Z visuals adds to the disquiet, as well as the grainy, caught on surveillance sense of the cinematography. There are moments of stagnant optical ambiguity, times when we aren’t sure what we are watching and where the action is taking place. During the so-called action scenes, where minuscule monsters shoot animated ammunition at each other in an attempt to create the epic on a very small scale, we wonder if McKenney can pull it off. Once we get to the final confrontation, however, the splatter-oriented stylistic choices actually add to our dread.

There are some very gory, very Tetsuo: The Iron Man inspired deaths toward the end of the film, a collection of killings that suddenly shift our understanding of the title machines. While the wordy, whiny stand-off between the two female leaders adds little to the overall tone, watching a cardboard creature rip the limbs off a person in black blood detail is highly effective. The change of perspective is crucial to Automatons’ overall success. We want to comprehend the horrible world we are dealing with. But if we can’t have that, we’ll take the grue and its resulting reconfiguration of events. All the while, we believe the robots are just bad F/X. The craven desire to destroy comes as a weird, welcome shock.

This is not the kind of film you come to looking for great acting or insightful direction. The no name cast complements the material well, but they add very little from an emotional or creative angle. They are interchangeable, faces featured within scenes where the demons are in the sci-fi details. Also, McKenney tends to use the battle scenes as tension gathering time sucks. There are sequences of inventive composition, moments when the conflict looks like the panel from an early EC comic. In fact, a lot of Automatons recalls old school space operatics filtered through a retro, almost ridiculous conceit. But then the ‘bots bring the blood, and the message gets incredibly, incredibly mean.

For all it accomplishes, for all the imagination and “Robo-Monstervision” it employs to rise above basic camp and cult kitsch, this is a movie that will be judged almost solely on its schlock. With break-dancing extras trying to act mechanical, bodies trapped in large cardboard and tin foil mock ups, it’s hard to rise above the ridiculousness. But McKenney tries, and for the most part, succeeds. Facets Video has released this film on DVD with a wealth of extras that truly highlight the effort put into this production. The Behind the Scenes featurette illustrates the difference between the color world of digital video and the single hue aura of celluloid. We see tests for how the effects will work and overall artistic concepts for the film. While it may feel like the sloppy stumbling of a shoe-string visionary, the extras explain that there is much more to Automatons than meets the candy-less eye.

In fact, it’s safe to say that, decades from now, when cinephiles are looking through the past to find meaning in the otherwise mediocre mainstreams of post-modern cinema, something like Automatons will be rediscovered - and readily embraced. Similar to another mindboggling achievement in no-budget tone poetry - Cory McAbee’s brilliant The American Astronaut - we again have proof that serious speculative fiction can rely more on ideas than optics to make its many points. While some have suggested the film channels Dr. Who, The Twilight Zone, or even vintage Outer Limits, it’s far more original (at least ideologically) to realize such retro aims. In fact, it’s far more original than such hints of homage suggest. The “This is How Humanity Dies” tagline should be rephrased to state “This is how true speculative storylines are handled”. That’s this small film’s greatest achievement.

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by Bill Gibron

25 Jan 2008


Jess Franco is the bipolar prince of soft core sensationalism. To call him duplicitous would be an understatement. He’s a moralistic deviant, the kind of craven conservative who laments the liberals as he meets his mistress for a very non-family values style rendezvous. He works in both sex and its physical (if not psychological) opposite, violence, and utilizes lush vistas as the backdrop for the most minor of intimacies. Nowhere is this dichotomy clearer than in the latest double feature from DVD distributor Blue Underground. Long a champion of Franco in all his forms, this pair of perverted treats - Eugenie de Sade and Cecilia - shows how one man can be both filmmaker and farce, slave to the salacious as well as inventive old school exploitationer.

Made in 1970, Eugenie (released under this title before a late ‘80s change by distributors) focuses on the title character, an isolated young lady living with her eccentric stepfather in a secluded European estate. She is infatuated with the man, a writer who specializes in the “science of erotica”. After being exposed to the work of the Marquis de Sade, Eugenie is ready for an awakening - sexual, philosophical, and social. Faux father is eager to oblige. He convinces her that the supreme pleasure is the giving of pain - or more specifically, the arousing and killing of unsuspecting strangers. Reluctant at first, Eugenie ends up her stepdad’s accomplice - and indirect lover. They travel all over Europe, setting up marks and making their move. First comes the seduction. Then the sensuality. And finally…the slaughter.

Though it loses a bit of steam toward the end, and can’t forgive itself for being made way before inferred incest was acceptable, Eugenie de Sade is actually one of the best movies Jess Franco has ever made. Now to many, that would be like saying that a cold glass of urine is better than a lukewarm one. Somewhere between inexplicably praised and outright hatred lies the director’s current reputation. The movies he’s made in the last 15 years have really destroyed his Euro-trash legacy. Yet thanks to DVD, which can resurrect his past successes, a whole new generation of cinephiles has found themselves under his visually opulent spell. Franco never met a castle or centuries old estate he couldn’t make the most of. Characters don’t converse in sitting rooms - they dialogue among massive old growth gardens, wide open windswept seashores, and baroque boudoirs where royalty once whispered their indiscretions.

Certainly, there are times in his films where locations are rustic and rural (Eugenie and her parent live in a modest little chalet on a snow-dappled lake), where bedrooms can be quiet and warm. But whenever a major confrontation must take place, Franco places his actors on famous French roadways, or lounging near the edge of a huge cultivated garden. The effect is intriguing, if not all together successful. We instantly recognize the filmmaker’s attempt to broaden the scope of things, to make these passions and problems more “universal” by having them set alongside or within an eye popping milieu. We buy it initially, that is, until the exchange continues. Then we hear the bad Penthouse Forum poetry in the feelings, the one too many nights with a volume of Shelley sentiments. At this point, listening to characters discuss their hormonal rages near a sparkling 15th Century fountain is more cockeyed than compelling.

Luckily, this first film has much more going for it than topiary and faux futuristic skyscrapers. The main narrative thread - father and daughter as partners in crime and carnality - works very well. Actors Paul Muller and Soledad Miranda do a very good job of selling the surreal set-up. Franco also appears as a combination confidant/detective. He catches onto the couple’s ruse rather quickly. Yet instead of turning them in, he taunts them, letting both participants know that he’s as much in charge as they are. The murders themselves are interesting, a combination of basic bump and non-gory grind. A little blood is spilled by the end, but we don’t really mind. At that point we are waiting for a little cinematic comeuppance - and Franco delivers the kind of viewer vigilantism that makes Eugenie work.

Ten years later, the same can’t be said for Cecilia. Originally released under the censorship defying Sexual Aberrations of a Housewife, we meet the lonely, insatiable spouse of a foreign diplomat. After a whirlwind romance and a couple of years of sexual satisfaction, she’s grown bored. During one of her many naked visits to the beach, she is picked up by her driver, Kan. Instead of taking her home, however, he drives to his dilapidated shack where his nar-do-well brothers rape her. Oddly enough, she finds the experience liberating, and the resulting sex with her husband fantastic. The duo makes a deal - they will have an open marriage, bedding who they want as long as they are totally honest as to the details. All works well for a while until Kan returns from a stint as a Merchant Marine. He loves Cecilia, and that outpouring of emotion threatens to destroy the couple’s freethinking agreement.

Far more beautiful in environment and performers than Eugenie, Cecilia is all tease and no release. It’s a sour, sad little film, as misogynistic as it is flagrantly feminist. One can easily hear post-modern woman cheering our title trollop, a woman who is finally being candid about her body, its needs, and the lox failing to fulfill either. Andre is a husband whose ever-changing hairstyles are far more interesting than his personality, and it’s a good thing to: Franco’s frequent flashbacks to events before our corporeal coming out need something to tell us we’ve traveled back in time. Our hero’s coiffure is as good a visual cue as any. Lead Muriel Montosse certainly isn’t offering any. She’s nude for so much of the movie - walking, sitting, calling on the servants for support - that you wonder if the production spent more than a $1.85 on wardrobe. For those who come to these films for skin, that’s perfectly acceptable. But at nearly 100 minutes in length, a little boob goes a long, long way.

Franco does try to change things up a bit. During a midpoint in the movie, Cecilia and Andre meet a pair of local performers. The female strips and seduces her teenage co-star, who also happens to be her son. They put on an elaborate dance number, she gyrates while simulating something on his thumb. He just sits there, transfixed. It’s the best moment in what is, otherwise, an exceedingly dull experience. We never care for our callous heroine, wonder why she reacts so when hygienically challenged bums violate her, and find ourselves flummoxed by all the lazy nudism. Sun-worshiping in one thing, but Cecilia takes the bare bodkin art to unheard of levels. If one had a calculator, and the time, they could easily discover the clothed to unwrapped ratio. Here’s betting it’s somewhere between 30/70 or 20/80.

That’s not the only irritating issue in Cecilia. For some reason, an incredibly flaming old queen - and such a description is actually less of a hate crime than the character himself - must flit around the fringes of the action, overly groomed eyebrows and limp wristed revelry adding untold moments of misery for an audience. He’s like Waylon Flowers and Madam genetically engineered together. Clearly, Franco thought he was stellar comic relief. Why else would he feature him so often? Never given a redemptive moment where the ‘yoo-hoo’ act gets turned down a notch, it’s eye rolling time whenever he walks into a room. Sadly, an equally catty blond bimbette is Harvey to this gray haired fool’s Firestein.

While it’s clear that both films have their issues, Eugenie is far more entertaining than Cecilia. On the other hand, if all you care about is faux fornication and palpable heavy petting, the latter really does deliver on such diddling. It’s part of the reason there’s such a debate over Franco and his films. As he says in interviews which make up the only bonus feature offered on each DVD, many of the movies he made were jobs - product that producers, distributors, studios needed to guarantee profits and international release dates. He’s not ashamed of his shill status, but he also recognizes that few can see beyond it. Films like Eugenie de Sade and Cecilia only cloud the issue. On the one hand, they represent both sides of the man perfectly. On the other, they prove why his paradoxical nature is so difficult to embrace.


Scores: Eugenie de Sade
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Scores: Cecilia
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by Bill Gibron

24 Jan 2008


Untraceable tries. Boy, does it try. One can just imagine the pitch meeting presented to gullible studio suits - “It’s Silence of the Lambs meets Saw! Get a name star and high profile director and you’ve got gold!” Well, in its present configuration, Diane Lane is your main marquee draw and Gregory Hoblit, the man behind Fracture, Hart’s War, and Frequency is your Master of Suspense. Together, they conjure up a dread quagmire filled with pointless exposition, cloudy character motivations, and more than a few leaps in logic. Toss in a fair amount of geek cyberspeak and you’ve got bewilderment on top of boredom.

Jennifer Marsh is an FBI agent specializing in Internet crime. Working out of the Portland office, she tracks down cases of identity theft, fraud, and pornography. Working closely with partner Griffin Dowd, she takes her job very seriously. Her only relief from the daily horrors she sees online are her aging mother and her precocious young daughter. Thanks to a tip, Marsh stumbles across KillWithMe.com, a site showing the slow starvation of a kitten. Within days, the image changes to that of a bound and gagged man. Hooked to a steady stream of anti-coagulant, the minor cuts on his torso are bleeding out profusely. Even worse, the number of hits to the address increases the amount of medicine. Suddenly, everything adds up in Marsh’s mind - there’s a killer somewhere out there, using the World Wide Web, and all who surf it, as an accomplice to their crimes.

In a genre that’s already died a thousand mediocre movie deaths, Untraceable is not the last stab into its heart of darkness. Instead, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a blueprint, a generic outline for something that, with the right creative input, could add up to something special. There’s no denying the supposed novelty of the premise - though the classic Chris Carter series Millennium did the concept better, and more compactly, during the run of the Lance Henrickson horror drama - but the minute we see a victim strung up in a dingy basement, trap apparatus convolutedly taking his life, we know we’ve ‘seen’ this all before. Lane brings nothing new to the mix - she’s Clarice Starling as a walking wounded widow, life zapped out of her thanks to endless overnight shifts chasing teenagers with stolen debit cards. What we need is a manageable monster like Hannibal Lecter, a Jigsaw styled jokester with some panache to his passion for death.

What we get instead is a mixed up murderer who voices one intent, and then instantly reneges on it to draw our policeman into his scheme. It’s a narrative conceit of convenience, a way to work clichés plot points and personal threats throughout what is, otherwise, a one man crusade against You Tube. Indeed, without giving much away, the TMZ exploitation of everything by the media, increased exponentially thanks to rabid fanboy file sharing, becomes the source of all our villain’s ire. Apparently, had he stumbled across Cute Overload instead of Shock Video.com, a lot of semi-innocent individuals would still be downloading smut. The rationale behind the crimes is so specious, so little boy lost in their configuration, that when we meet the fiend at the 45 minute mark, we loose all hope that the film will be anything other than routine.

You can tell that director Hoblit wanted to tweak the formula, to explore the elements of a standard police procedural with the added spark of a little puzzle box torture. Lambs managed its fear factors without resorting to tanks filled with sulphric acid or cement traps surrounded by heat lamps. It used a little something called character, and the inherent intrigue in discovering the truth behind the terror to set things on edge. Here, Hoblit jumps onto a bandwagon that’s long since left the depot. Arriving really late to the ‘gorno’ party is one thing. Thinking you’re capable of being the life of such an already overdone celebration is a cinematic fool’s paradise. 

And still Untraceable plods along. After the too early intro of the killer, we see the storyline shift, chestnuts fall into place, and possible formulaic finishing moves appear. We just known Marsh or her immediate family (or friends) will be involved, and that the initial motives for the crimes will be turned so that last minute confrontations and subsequent heroics can be bolstered. Red herrings abound, from the everpresent meow of the family cat (calling back to the feline death at the beginning), to the moribund police detective whose status as staid love interest gets sidetracked for some scene of the crime inference. Even worse, it’s up to Lane to deliver more or less alone. When the biggest supporting cast member is Tom Hanks’ son Colin, it’s borderline b-movie time.

In fact, Untraceable does feel like one of those last ditch effort acting gigs by a former studio system face looking for a paycheck to save their estate. Lane’s legitimacy skyrocketed after her Oscar nod for 2003’s Unfaithful, though her nearly three decades in the business more than buffers any reputation. Older, wearing whatever problems her profession provides on her slightly craggy face, this is not a glamour shot part. But there is also a level of ludicrousness to Jennifer Marsh that begs some retrospection. The character presents questions like - why bring such horrible work home? Would you really leave key information on your computer for cyber dorks to hack? If you know all the tricks within the illegal trade, would you really let your daughter download a game from the web? And finally, with all the information you have, wouldn’t the obvious connection between the victims just jump out at you?

With a viable level of tension, with cold shivers running up and down your spine, much of this wouldn’t matter. But Untraceable just can’t deliver on its proposed fear factors. Instead, it borrows heavily from those that came before while bringing very little that’s novel or inventive to the terror table. If you don’t mind pedestrian plotting surrounded by uninteresting individuals going through the movie motions, you just might enjoy this film. There is no cruelty or creativity in this creaky cat and mouse. It’s just an uninspired combination of every crime thriller archetype ever offered. The only thing deadly about this film is how exceedingly dull it all is. 

 

by Bill Gibron

23 Jan 2008


Wow. When Oscar gets it wrong, they get it REALLY wrong. Amid rumors that the ongoing Writer’s Strike may dampen the 24 February festivities, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did there typical early morning “thang” and proved it couldn’t be more out of touch. It’s not just the glaring omissions, ridiculous choices, or questionable nomination tactics (in at least one major category). It’s the knowledge that, in an arena that saw nearly 600 movies arrive in theaters worldwide, this is the way the old guard sees things.

Clearly not wanting to play favorites, four films walked away with 30 of the major nominations. Of that group, only two technically deserve such amassed recognition. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men (eight each) have garnered so many critics awards that to have Michael Clayton (good, but not great), and Atonement (middling Merchant Ivory at best) one acknowledgement away seems specious. And when you add to it that Clayton‘s got seven of the big ones - including picture, director and acting - while our pretty British period piece is left holding up the technical ends, the distinction is even greater.

That just leaves Juno as the odd duck out in what, by now, is being labeled the Little Miss Sunshine Recognition of Indie Quirkiness achievement. It is a huge feat for such a divisive little movie. Even more amazing, Jason Reitman walked away with one of the five coveted Best Director slots, beating out DGA given Sean Penn. Speaking for the accomplished actor/director, his brilliant Into the Wild deserved a lot more attention than two whole nominations (Hal Holbrook, Supporting and Jay Cassidy, Editing). In fact, going back to Atonement for a moment, there is nothing in that stylized snooze fest that can match the final moments of Penn’s life in limbo real life drama.

But that’s why Oscar is Oscar, and why fans are flocking away from its narrow minded backslapping year after year. Take the two Supporting actor categories. No offense intended to the individuals in the running, but its dead pool time once again. No matter how good Javier Bardem is, or how memorable Casey Affleck (Jesse James) or Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) are, Holbrook is probably going to win. By the time the ceremony rolls around, he’ll be 83, and with this being his first trip to the Academy red carpet, visions of Alan Arkin and James Coburn begin filling one’s head.

The Best Supporting Actresses have it even worse. The clear front runners - Cate “I’m Not Dylan” Blanchett and Amy “Gone Baby” Ryan - figured to be even money come envelope ripping time. Even the talented Tilda Swindon, who perspired like a champ in Michael Clayton, had an outside chance of swiping Oscar gold (the less said about Atonement‘s bratty little Saoirse Ronan, the better). But all that changes now that Ruby Dee is in the mix. Another certified oldster (she’s 83 also), her blink and you’ll miss it - literally - turn as Denzel Washington’s mother in American Gangster is the kind of left field freak accident, Marissa Tomei meets the Grim Reaper wrench that’s destined to destroy the predictions of many a prognosticator.

It just feels like that kind of year. The kind where conventional wisdom - and creative logic - loses out to warm fuzzys and already celebrated career achievement. How else would you explain the inexplicable decision to nominate three songs from Disney’s Enchanted? It’s not like Alan Menken needs another Oscar (he has eight). Even worse, the craptacular sonic sludge referred to as music in August Rush got a nod - and a weird “nominees to be determined” on the accompanying press release. This must make Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder groan. His work for Penn’s Wild was crucial to the film’s overall success. Since the movie failed to get any real awards push, he appears to be the victim of your typical Academy myopathy.

Even worse, some artists never got a chance to go for the gold. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood delivered an amazing score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood. But because some of the music was “not made specifically for the movie” an arcane rule was invoked and he was disqualified. Similarly, films from Israel (The Band Visit) and France (Persepolis) were discounted from the Foreign Film category. The latter now battles it out with Pixar’s mighty mouse and some lame cartoon penguin flop for Best Animated effort (someone involved with Surf’s Up must have pictures of naked Academy members cavorting with livestock - it’s the only way to explain that jaw dropper of a nom).

It never changes. George Clooney picks up another Best Actor nomination for playing a legal eagle version of himself with gambling issues. Cate Blanchett, already rewarded for her brave turn as the iconic ‘60s protest prince finds herself listed among the baffling choices for Best Actress for replaying (rather unexceptionally, mind you) the role of Queen Elizabeth I. Sweeney Todd - all but forgotten except in a couple of inconsequential categories and the wink to Johnny Depp, can’t even call up a glance from the sound segment of the Academy…and it’s a musical. And back to foreign film for a moment. Like documentaries a decade before, the randomized manner in which these no name offerings got on the ballot continues to baffle the mind.

It’s not that the choices are bad - for all this critic knows, they could be amazing. Of course, very few if any were screened for the general reviewing populace, nor did companies send out screeners. So how, you may ask, did these five get chosen? By a combination of The Da Vinci Code and The Star Chamber, apparently. Industry insiders can explain the process much better, but apparently, Oscar takes noms from specific countries, determines if they meet their mysterious and sometimes contradictory rules, and then gives their handpicked choices to a group of Academy volunteers (usually old members who’ve retired) who agree to screen them and narrow the field. That sounds fair, right? Well, it’s not. There are a couple of egregious omissions this time around - the 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, The Orphanage - and all this just one year after two masterpieces (The Lives of Others and Pan’s Labyrinth) battled it out for best film supremacy.

There is a little light here and there. It’s nice to see Julie Christie - and even better, Sarah Polly - get acknowledged for Away from Her, and Nancy Oliver’s bump for Lars and the Real Girl argues that the members of the Writer’s Branch understand the value of a good script (they did reward the undeserving Savages, and the gimmicky Juno however). Yet if you were a betting man or woman, you can easily see the Academy setting you up. Atonement gets the surprise Best Picture win in a classic Shakespeare in Love style statement. Aside from Christie, the entire Best Actress category seems set up to simply hand the statuette to a far too young to deserve it Ellen Page. Depending on how the DGA decides, the directing trophy could be another of those out of left field flukes, and there is the distinct possibility that Norbit, one of the worst if not the worst film of 2007, will walk away with more Academy cred than Sweeney Todd, Into the Wild, or Eastern Promises (it’s already beat The Darjeeling Express, Zodiac, and Knocked Up - films that didn’t garner a single nomination).

The best thing that could happen to the Oscars is a Golden Globes like lockout, with host Jon Stewart and a select group of union busting performers reading the list of winners and then running away before the villagers remember where they put the pitchforks. There’ll be the standard 15 minutes of moaning, the typical ‘woulda’, ‘coulda’, ‘shoulda’ of a collective that can’t get its pejorative head out of the studio’s behind. Consensus will crown the true non-Crash champ, and the motion picture planets will temporarily realign. Then like the most sinister and secretive of cabals, the Academy will slink away and reconfigure its formula to guarantee even more ennui next time around.

Perhaps we have their purpose all wrong. Maybe AMPAS was designed not as a means of recognizing the industry’s best. It could have been specifically crafted to create contention and debate. Of course, that would make them very smart and rather forward thinking, and so far, their methods have been very, very dumb. As the mainstream moves further and further away from the sainted celebration, as a stint on TMZ or You Tube becomes the larger badge of fame whore honor than a symbol of old school studio system stagnation, as Indie’s continue to forge new art, and established names go digital, or simply disappear, Oscar 2008 remains a lot like Oscar 2007, 2006, etc. That means more Acade-mediocrity at its bumbling best.

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