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Wilmington on DVD: Safe Haven, Parker, Starlet

Safe Haven (C)
U.S.: Lasse Hallström, 2013, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

Welcome to Sparksville, U.S.A., where men are hunky and nice, the ladies are funky and nice and the stories told about them are sometimes clunky but nice. Located somewhere between the Mason-Dixon Line and Never Never Land, with many of its locales on the North Carolina shoreline, Sparksville, the fictional territory of novelist Nicholas Sparks, is home to gorgeous scenery, gorgeous people, undying love, dazzling sunsets and wide beaches full of strolling lovers. A warning, though: If you have an aversion to romantic clichés and fairy tales, you might want to avoid Sparksville, where life always seems to be a book you're reading on an airplane.

If only everyone and everything weren't so -- well -- nice. Safe Haven, directed by the estimable Swedish-born filmmaker Lasse Hallström and produced by the author himself, is the eighth movie to be derived from a Nicholas Sparks novel, and like the others, including Message in a Bottle (where Kevin Costner found undying love), The Notebook (where Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams found undying love and huge box office), it's a romantic fantasy delivered with apparently just the right amounts of warmth, coolness, poignancy, picturesque scenery, sex appeal, niceness and (let's face it), undying love.

This time the story has a shot of suspense too. It's a lady-on-the-run thriller, with Julianne Hough as Katie Feldman, who flees a Boston crime scene, dyes her hair blond, heads off in a bus to Atlanta, impulsively gets off in Southport, North Carolina, is immediately hired as a waitress by a total stranger at the restaurant and fixed up with a cabin in the woods, and then wanders down to the local general store, where, on his first sight of her, she wins the heart of the handsomest man in town, widower Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), a hunky but nice guy with two adorable kids. Simultaneously, Katie discovers Jo (Cobie Smulders) when she notices her peering though her cabin windows and dispensing wise small-town advice. Katie then proceeds to find the most goddam wonderful bunch of people you could possibly meet or dream up, even if your name was Nicholas Sparks.

But don't kid yourself into thinking that life is just a bed of small-town Southern roses for fugitives from Boston. Katie is being pursued by this movie's version of Inspector Javert of Les Misérables: Officer Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), a hard-working, hard-drinking cop who apparently won't give up until he has her in his clutches. Nor, it seems, will Alex, a sexy widower, with two prodigiously cute children: bad-tempered Josh (Noah Lomax) and precocious cutie-pie Lexie (8-year-old Mimi Kirkland, who heists the movie). It's a Sparksville sort of courtship, backed up by soft country rock, and full of strolls and romps on the beach, and lazy. drifting canoe rides, and picnics, and thoughtful gifts of bicycles and everything you need to fall undyingly in love. But pretty soon, Tierney has found Katie's new town, and there's a huge fireworks show and we know it's only a matter of time before things -- well -- before things get not so nice. So....

I like Lasse Hallström's movies, especially his wonderful Swedish childhood film My Life as a Dog and his American family dramas What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. So it gives me no pleasure to admit that, despite its bucolic visuals, despite little Mimi Kirkland's best efforts, and despite some scary turns from Lyons as Tierney, Safe Haven is mostly a nice little crock of cow-pudding.

Some of the problems come from the story's weird surprise ending, but a lot of them come from Ms. Hough, who arrives in this movie on the run from two bad, silly musicals -- Rock of Ages and Burlesque -- and whose performance is pretty empty. Katie is a thoroughly uncompelling character: a lady-in-distress who shows little distress, a gal-on-the-run facing a dangerous menace in strange environs and barely reacting to it. If Katie doesn't seem all that worried, why should we be?

Parker (C+)
U.S.: Taylor Hackford, 2013, FilmDistrict

Parker, the anri-hero of the new Jason Statham movie, is someone you've met before if you've ever read one of Richard Stark's "Parker" books -- "Richard Stark" being a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake -- or any of the movies based on them. Have you seen the great film neo-noir Point Blank, with Lee Marvin as a vengeful killer named Walker? That's Parker. Have you seen -- and there's no reason you should -- Mel Gibson in Payback, as a bad-mouthed, vengeful hard guy named Porter? That's Parker too. Both movies are adaptations of the Stark book The Hunter, in which Parker is double-crossed by a guy in the mob and takes them all on: one by bloody one.

Parker is also the ruthless anti-hero in a violent new neo-noir called, appropriately Parker -- and this time the character is played by that tough Brit Statham. This Parker is an ultra-hard-boiled gunman involved in a heist where his partners double-cross him and leave him for dead -- and he goes after them all. In Point Blank, Parker's targets were mostly establishment-looking crooks, including the pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O'Connor as a baby fat businessman type with a pool. Here, they're mostly creeps and killers and thugs with money operating in West Palm Beach -- including Michael Chiklis, who played John Belushi in Wired and who here impersonates a bald mean murderous tubbo named Melander.

Marvin had leggy Angie Dickinson as a sexy sidekick and Statham has Jennifer Lopez as leggy Leslie, a real estate agent. Leslie also has a blabbermouth Latina mama named Ascension played by Patti Lupone. The movie's a revenge fantasy, one of the more often-recycled ones -- and it works fairly well here, though J-Lo is playing second fiddle, in a way, to Parker's mentor Hurley (Nick Nolte) and to Hurley's stand-up daughter Claire (Emma Booth).

Statham is, of course, a believable tough guy. I liked him in The Bank Job and in his Guy Ritchie movies. This movie is fairy well-directed , by Taylor Hackford -- who has made some very good movies, like Ray.

Parker is better written than some, by John J. McLaughlin (Hitchcock and Black Swan). It's also very violent.

Starlet (B)
U.S.: Sean Baker, 2013, Music Box

There's at least one redeeming thing about the movies. Sometimes they don't really need hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of superstars and special affects and expensive stuff to engage and move us. Sometimes pretty much all they have to have is a small budget, and the right people, a real setting, the right artists and a camera to shoot it and equipment to record it. That's about all director/co-writer Sean Baker has in his new movie Starlet -- and it's more than enough.

Baker's picture takes place in the San Fernando Valley, and it's all about an attractive and somewhat childlike young Valley woman named Jane (Dree Hemingway), her madly dysfunctional roommates, her little dog Starlet and an old woman named Sadie (Besedka Johnson), whom Jane meets under strange circumstances and befriends, and with whom she shares an oddball adventure. This tale of two Valley women absorbs you and amuses you and maybe breaks your heart.

The milieu the movie reveals here will be recognizable to some. Jane works in the movie industry or one seedy aspect of it, and so (in a way) do her hapless young friends. They're an unsavory bunch and so are Jane's employers. Jane, however, is likable, and so, eventually is Sadie (Besedka Johnson), a crabby old lady who takes some getting used to. Jane meets Sadie when she accidentally finds some money in a thermos Sadie sells her at a yard sale. Jane spends some of it, then feels guilty, then goes to Sadie's house (a very reclusive, nondescript and unpleasant place) and offers the old lady her friendship, which Sadie is slow to accept. But things change.

That's the movie, or as much of it as I want to mention here. It's worth your time, and it's much better than many movies that cost much more. Starlet's main idea -- that life can be ridiculous and hurtful but is sometimes redeemed, a little, by the humanity we put into it -- is very well done. I was quite moved, and you may be as well.

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