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High hopes for a flock of holiday flicks

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Would-be holiday blockbusters are lining up for screenings at your multiplex, and few observers dare to predict how the competition will play out.

Most agree that 2001 has been a disappointing year for quality. Hollywood revenues are up, though, and Americans dazed by the scary headlines of recent months seem eager for old-fashioned entertainment.

Of course, the studios dreamed up this season's slate long before Sept. 11. But it happens that old-fashioned entertainment is high on the bill, and hopes for a ticket-window gold rush are running strong.

To get the flavor of movie events between now and New Year's Day, consider "Ocean's Eleven," opening today. It has time-tested ingredients from the get-go, starting with the fact that it's a remake of the 1960 comedy-thriller about a rascally gang bent on burgling a trio of Las Vegas casinos.

It's been updated, of course, with 21st-century scamps - George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia - replacing Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals of yore. But director Steven Soderbergh has opted for a retro mood that's refreshingly restrained by current standards, keeping the violence and vulgarity to a PG-13 level.

The results are flimsy, but fun, combining the suspense of a crisply planned heist movie with the smart-alecky dialogue of a screwball comedy. Add the eye-dazzling charm of Julia Roberts as the "wild card" character (played by Shirley MacLaine in the original), and you have a caper that rarely goes wrong.

Still, no one expects Soderbergh's souffle to win the season's box-office crown. Current tastes in entertainment run less toward raffish buddy pictures than straight-out fantasy, and in that category a victor has already been declared. Can any force compete with "Harry Potter," which is filling Warner Bros. coffers with record-setting speed?

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