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It's summer and romance is back at the movies

Just when you're worn out with movies full of death, violence, rape, car chases, explosions and four-letter words, here come the summertime specials, a few of which seem downright sweet and lovely. Romance is getting popular again with all age groups. Hollywood, are you listening?

It's nice to have a first-class production that targets this general audience, old as well as young. For example, A Little Princess is beautifully filmed, intelligently written, skillfully acted and downright magical. It's probably best appreciated if you have an 8- or 10-year-old girl to take along with you, but you'll enjoy this one even by yourself. It doesn't have quite the bite and punch of The Secret Garden (with which it will inevitably be compared), but it is still a lovely return to the storytelling witchcraft of a more innocent childhood.

Next, The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain is a very small movie but so perfectly done with such charm, wit and warmth that it's irresistible. The only clumsy thing about it is its title, but, after you've seen the movie, you can't see the title without smiling in remembrance. An ensemble group of marvelous English and Welsh actors turns this little fable into a lesson in community values. Having the handsome Hugh Grant on hand doesn't hurt any, either.

The biggest movie of the summer (take that, Die Hard 3, Batman and Sylvester Stallone!) will be The Bridges of Madison County. Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, on the surface both wildly miscast as the two lovers in this romantic tale, are so good at what they do that they end up enchanting even the devoted readers of the most popular novel in recent history. Most people I've talked to have agreed that the movie is even better than the book, which tended to be somewhat overwritten in places.

If you liked the book, don't miss the movie; if you haven't read the book, you'll be crazy about this love story about two real people who cared about their responsibilities to the family as much as they loved each other. Take along a box of Kleenex.

For a real-life love story that most romance writers wouldn't risk trying to make believable, you have to look no farther than Dared and Done: the Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning by Julia Markus. It's a fascinating tale of true love and devotion as well as courage and determination between two famous people. Some of the Victorian precepts seem as distant as the moon to the modern sensibility, but they formed the value systems of most of our grandparents.

As an example of community values and responsibility to the environment, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is an important part of our area. To read of its heroic efforts and fund-raising events in the paper and see clips about it on local and even national TV is heartwarming, but you need to make a visit to see what they really accomplish.

Located at 18328 Gulf Blvd. in Indian Shores, this wild-bird hospital devotes itself to rescuing, treating, taking care of and, when the birds are fit again, releasing them back into their own environment. For bird-lovers, the sanctuary is such a special place; for any of us, it's one of the area's more interesting destinations for an outing.

No admission, but donations are gratefully accepted. Open from 9 a.m. to dusk every day. Educational programs are offered the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m., with guided tours at 2 p.m. every Wednesday and Sunday. Something a little different for you and your visitors.

Fourth of July is just about here, so you had better start planning your outing. Does a small-town celebration, with live music, barbecue and fireworks make you remember long-ago summertime fun? If that sounds like what you're looking for, you can find it at the Safety Harbor City Park, 940 Seventh St. S. The festivities will start about 4 or 5 in the afternoon and, weather permitting, will continue until the barbecue and fireworks are all gone. Have a Happy Fourth!

You can write to Mim Anne Houk c/o Seniority, the Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, 33731.