For movie studios, 2001 doesn't begin until March

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.

"Series 7" presents a string of episodes from a purported TV show called "The Contenders," which supplies ordinary people with deadly weaponry and videotapes their exploits as they hunt one another down. The last survivor is showered with praise, then confronted with five new enemies in the program's next round. Minahan's movie follows one group of contenders - a pregnant woman, a worker with family problems, a middle-aged nurse, and so on - as they stalk and shoot their way through one such marathon.

This is satire at its most ferocious, portraying not just American television but Americans themselves as cynical, predatory, and violent to their bones. It's easy to shrug off the indictment - this is a bogus documentary, after all, with no real proof to support its views - but then again, "Survivor" got America buzzing with excitement, and it's possible the next such phenomenon will escalate the elements of competitiveness and antagonism another notch or two, taking viewers in the dismal directions that Minahan predicts.

The Caveman's Valentine stars Samuel L. Jackson as an offbeat hero: Romulus Ledbetter, a homeless man with a deranged mind, a fragmented family, and a talent for music that could have brought fame and fortune if his madness hadn't interfered. His life changes when a murder takes place near his cavelike lair, and he realizes he's the only one with enough clues to reel the killer in.

Jackson gives a credible performance as this unlikely character, helped by a good supporting cast that includes Colm Feore as the effete photographer Romulus is trying to track down. The plot is too tricky to be consistently compelling, though - it just so happens that Romulus's daughter is a policewoman assigned to the very same case - and Kasi Lemmons's directing is stronger on eye-catching effects than psychological realism. More thoughtful drama and less showy cinema would have made this "Valentine" more memorable.

All three movies, rated R, contain violence and vulgarity.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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