It's always a pleasure to watch Ellen Burstyn, even in a film as routine as "The Stone Angel," adapted by director Kari Skogland from Margaret Laurence's revered novel. As Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old widow recalling her past before being shipped off to a nursing home by her earnest son (Dylan Baker) and icy daughter-in-law (Sheila McCarthy), Burstyn gets to use her full bag of tricks to bring this crabby, hard-knocks survivor to life.
Though she's aged 15 unflattering years, forced into awful old lady clothes and her character teeters on unsympathetic, the actress manages a rich, vanity-free performance, perhaps her best since "Requiem for a Dream."
Unfortunately, too much of the Manitoba-shot picture evokes Hagar's earlier days, wherein her iron-fisted father (Peter MacNeill), unruly husband (Cole Hauser) and reckless son (Kevin Zegers) led to a compromised life that -- hot sex aside -- was not especially unique or compelling.
Shifting the present-day action from the book's 1960s setting to now may also account for the film's dated feel, as well as for its questionable timeline.
In addition, although talented newcomer Christine Horne is ideal as the younger Hagar, letting Burstyn play the character at around 50, despite best-effort lighting, was not the wisest choice.
-- Gary Goldstein
"The Stone Angel." Rated R for sexuality and brief language. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 281-8233; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.
Acting veterans get a spotlight
China Zorrilla is a grande dame of South American stage, film and television, and with "Elsa and Fred," Argentinian writer-director Marcos Carnevale has created an unabashed valentine to her and her equally venerable leading man, Spain's Manuel Alexandre.
The film may be fearlessly sentimental, but it is sturdy enough to provide rewarding major roles for two veterans, who are of an age when such starring parts are rare. Zorilla's Elsa is a plump, effervescent blond in her 80s, and it is easy to see how, back in the day, she reminded men of Anita Ekberg, with whom she identifies strongly.
When she moves into a Madrid apartment house and discovers that her neighbor is the polished but very proper recently widowed Fred, she becomes determined to have one last fling. There are no surprises in this picture, but it is a pleasure to see veteran performers draw upon a lifetime of effortless technique and undiminished talent in a romantic comedy inevitably tinged with an aura of mortality.
-- Kevin Thomas
"Elsa & Fred." Unrated with adult themes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8233.
A setup that grows old fast
The titular character in the comedy "Harold" is a 13-year-old suburban boy (Spencer Breslin) whose premature baldness created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since nearly everyone save his tough-love mother (Ally Sheedy) and his older teenage sister (Stella Maeve) thinks he's an old man, he's become the part: cranky, stooping, plaid-favoring, bunion-riddled, proud of being "regular," and conversant in "Murder, She Wrote."
If this sounds like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, that's because co-writer-director T. Sean Shannon worked there for years, but he's still stuck in a three-minute-idea mind-set. There's little indication, beyond the endlessly unfunny school humiliations and fogey-dom signposts (ha ha, he uses Old Spice), that the notion of a preteen codger is worth our sympathies.
The nice overweight girl (Nikki Blonsky) hangs around waiting for Harold to stop sucking up to his tormentors and notice her but, sheesh, you know she can do better.
Where "Superbad" found something raucously winning in hanging with adolescence's loser elite, "Harold" is a disingenuous, one-note underdog portrait. Especially when they trot out the tired sexist gag of Harold's fat, desperate, hard-bitten neighbor setting her carnal sights on what she assumes to be a mature bachelor. Because no matter how much ridicule a pretend old man endures, nothing's more comically pathetic in this movie's eyes than an actual old woman.
-- Robert Abele
"Harold." Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Exclusively at the Laemmle Monica 4-Plex, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741.
Still more people finding their way
Movies about young -- and not-so-young -- people adrift in a soulless Los Angeles became a genre unto itself long ago. Writer-director Jason Freeland's "Garden Party," although competently acted and directed, lacks a fresh point of view and its people lack individuality.
The arrival in L.A. of a chic, beautiful 15-year-old (Willa Holland) fleeing an untenable home life sets in motion a series of stories about people whose lives inevitably interconnect.