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'Whatever Works' gives Allen fans a treat

If you're a fan of Woody Allen and have found delight in Allen's ability to write and direct films set in Manhattan, framed by the central character's existential plight (what purpose? what meaning?) and seasoned by his chronic hypochondria, then you will not be disappointed by "Whatever Works."

The film opens with an aging Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) — lapsed physics professor at Colombia, an almost-winner of the Nobel Prize, a self-absorbed misanthrope — standing on a New York street reminding anyone who will listen that he's surrounded by mental pygmies and inchworms. He also reminds all who will listen that his genius is unequaled and he is surrounded by the dimmest of bulbs.

Having divorced his wife some years back (she was too wealthy and too smart), attempted suicide in a moment of hopelessness and despair (leaving him with a limp), he now lives alone in a walk up in Chinatown.

Unexpectedly, a young waif, Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), appears at the foot of his stairs in need of shelter and a meal. Against all of his more selfish instincts, Boris agrees to let her stay one night. And so Melody, the quintessential inchworm, a mental pygmy personified, a retired beauty pageant winner from a small Southern town, always cheery and definitely clueless, gradually inserts herself into Boris' life.

Not surprisingly, they begin a relationship and Boris grows accustomed to having company, inchworm or no.

The theme of older men and younger women, ripe with Pygmalion-Henry Higgins implications, threads itself through some of Allen's work and it's hard not to be reminded of Soon-Yi and the ensuing scandal when Allen married her (she was Mia Farrow's adopted daughter that Farrow and Allen, for a time, raised together).

Of course, though David delivers a solid portrayal of Boris, it's impossible not to see Woody Allen doing Boris' standup rants while wondering why Allen didn't play the role himself. The character is pure Woody to include moments when Boris wakes in the dead of night with a panic attack, screaming "the horror, the horror," Boris being an unyielding fan of Conrad's Kurtz in "The Heart of Darkness."

While "Whatever Works" may seem a flip title, akin to that insouciant, adolescent rejoinder, "whatever," Boris' explanation of those two words is poignant and then some. There are also laugh-out-loud moments to be sure, though the film lacks the complexity and subtlety of, say, "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Manhattan," or, more recently, "Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona." The fact is that even when Woody is not quite at the peak of his game, he can still be smart and funny as is the film "Whatever Works."

Public Enemies

Michael Mann wrote and directed "Public Enemies" relying on Ryan Burrough's nonfiction work, "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934."

Set during the Great Depression, when the country was awash in criminals who became rock stars — Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker, Bonnie and Clyde — the story of John Dillinger was clearly one of the most notorious.

Mann's film shows in rich detail the texture of the time, the look and feel of America during a period when millions struggled to survive economic hardships that were unprecedented. Dillinger (Johnny Depp) solved his cash flow problem by robbing banks (assume that the thought crossed more minds than just Dillinger's) and breaking out of jails as if he were Houdini.

With his name and picture gracing countless newspapers and newsreels, he walked the streets of the heartland with surprising anonymity and élan. He relished his fame and enjoyed the ambivalence the public felt about him: he was a figure of romantic adulation while at the same time he was a ruthless thief.

Mann's film nicely captures the test of wills played out between Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), the chief Chicago field agent for the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), who was charged with thwarting the infamous bank robbers plaguing the Midwest. Hence, at the center of the film are graphic shootouts and bank robberies that are beautifully shot and choreographed. Dillinger and company glide into banks in long black coats, fedoras at an angle, shotguns in hand, leaping over counters and proceed to empty the vaults.

Mann used high-definition digital cameras that need less light for interior and night shots, but the look of the film can be less nuanced in its depth of field. The film has a dark look, the colors and tones muted without losing details that might have been diffused had Mann used 35mm film. Some opine that HD digital is the future of filmmaking. Others argue that 35mm remains state of the art.

As a narrative, "Public Enemies" is always engaging. It also is a film of action and movement and not introspection. The only relationship that is explored is between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a nightclub hat-and-coat-check girl who makes a life-changing decision when she agrees to be Dillinger's girl.

Cotillard delivers a subtle portrayal of Frechette, a woman who followed Dillinger with her eyes wide open and is eventually arrested. Depp, in contrast, plays Dillinger as an outlaw who rarely displays intense emotion of any kind, even when kicking a man out of a speeding car. Depp is a long way from Captain Jack Sparrow; however, in retrospect, this is not a film about emotion but a film about robbing banks. "Public Enemies" achieves that in spades.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

If you're considering taking the kids to see "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," you may be wondering if it's a solid pick for the gremlins. Will this third installment still be fresh and fun?

First things first: the kids will enjoy the return of Sid the Sloth, Manny and Ellie the wooly mammoths, Diego the saber-toothed tiger and, of course, Scrat the sort-of squirrel. What is Scrat, really? It's like asking if Goofy is a dog. Pluto yes, but Goofy?

The movie opens with the irresistible Scrat in pursuit of that ever-elusive acorn. This time, the long-nosed sort-of squirrel runs into a serious diversion in the form of Scratte, a foxy looking sort-of squirrel. Their antics are inserted throughout the movie and eventually the acorn is forgotten, but that's act three. Truth be told, for all of the attention given to Manny and company, Scrat has always had the most comic potential. The critter is funny. Sort of Road Runner funny.

Anyway, as it turns out, Sid the sloth, wanting to start a family like Manny and Ellie (she's pregnant and Manny is nervous) finds three large eggs, down in an ice cave. He wrestles them to the surface, the eggs hatch and surprise! The wee ones are three small T-rexes. That's right, dinosaurs in the ice age (isn't this the Pleistocene era?). And their mother is not happy when she discovers they're gone. She grabs the three little guys plus Sid and heads home, which is a Mesozoic era jungle beneath the ice. Yep. Hot and humid below, frozen and cold above.

The Ice Age gang goes looking for Sid, journeying into the land of the dinosaurs.

The movie is glacial, so to speak, poorly written, the creatures seem to be going through the motions, the jokes lame, the situations tedious. But remember, the audience. Kids love these characters: the rascal twin possums; the aging Diego; Sid, Manny, and Ellie; and they'll love the new guy, Buck, a weasel who has lived in dinosaur land for too long. So, if time hangs heavy, days start to grow long, grabs the kids and go. Or wait for the DVD.