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For movie studios, 2001 doesn't begin until March

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It had to happen sooner or later, and finally the 2001 movie scene is starting to gather some momentum. After an uninspired string of January and February releases, studios and distributors have cleared their shelves of 2000 leftovers, opening the way for pictures potentially worth checking out.

The Mexican has the most impressive cast of this week's crop, led by Julia Roberts as a long-suffering woman and Brad Pitt as her on-and-off again boyfriend, a small-time crook who's been pressured by the mob into one last job: retrieving a valuable pistol from a Mexican town where everyone seems to have a different story about the weapon's history and heritage. Also on hand is James Gandolfini, of "The Sopranos" fame, as a gay thug whose behavior oscillates between heartless mayhem and sensitive conversation about the vicissitudes of life and love.

Directed by Gore Verbinski with much visual flair, "The Mexican" has lots of energy, lively acting, and a clever screenplay that includes beguiling tilts into bygone Mexican folklore. On the downside, its view of guns and violence is disconcertingly romantic. It's far from perfect, but it's clearly destined to be a walloping hit.

Series 7 continues the line of comic pseudo-documentaries that stretches from "This Is Spinal Tap" to the recent "Best in Show," among many others. But this time the humor is very dark indeed.

In a remarkably well-timed maneuver, filmmaker Daniel Minahan set to work four years ago on a script about real-life triumphs and traumas being marketed as mainstream TV entertainment. Little did he know that his completed movie would reach theaters just after "Survivor" and its ilk turned such once-exotic fare into everyday diversion.

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