This year being the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate for Duncan Jones’ admirable, if derivative, low-budget science-fiction think piece Moon; a pared down exercise in minimalism that serves as a one-man show for its edgy lead, Sam Rockwell.

Co-writer and director Jones covers the opening ground quickly, a mock television commercial explaining that Earth’s energy needs are now met by mining the moon for Helium 3, converting rocks into fuel in massive robotic factories. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a Lunar company employee who is coming to the end of a three-year stint as the sole human inhabitant of the mining station Selene. He is not entirely alone, however. His companion is a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey in a soothing monotone) who looks after the mine’s complex systems and thanks to a robotic arm, assists Sam’s in his work.

Owing to a problem with the communications satellite, his only communication with his Earth-bound wife (Irish actress Dominique McElligott) and baby daughter is via pre-recorded videos. The constant routine of work, exercise and sleep increase Sam’s sense of cabin-fever, his isolation and paranoia. With only a fortnight to go in the mission, Sam starts hearing and seeing things. When a routine operation goes badly wrong and he is knocked out for a couple of hours, the now-bedraggled astronaut awakes to discover that things have changed in his absence.

Watching Moon, it is virtually impossible not to be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are nods also to other sci-fi classics of the 1960s and 1970s; Silent Running, Outland and Alien, films that posed questions about the nature of humanity or considered the possibilities of the future. To say much more might ruin some of the surprises in the film's sparse, delicately positioned plotting. Jones immerses the viewer into a future world, quickly explains the mechanics of the narrative and uses the rest of the time to marry the intricacies of the story into a wider theme, in this case asking moral question about human identity in a world where creating life has become laboratory science.

This is not the kind of cosmic environment evoked by Star Trek, a chummy club of adventurers scooting around the universe surrounded by safe, reliable technologies. This is a cold, indifferent place, where machines built by humans are corroded by use and contain built-in errors. Jones constructs a credible, realistically grimy space station interior, a modular, utilitarian place instantly familiar and satisfyingly real, at least to genre fans. There are ironic touches everywhere, from Gerty’s simple emoticon interface to Sam’s wake-up call, a shrill blast of Chesney Hawke’s 'I Am The One And Only'.

Moon never quite reaches the heights of its inspirations, but neither does it explode on the launch pad. In his feature debut, Jones (who is no doubt sick to tears of people going on about him being David Bowie’s son) displays an impressive technical command of his budget-restricted special effects, spinning a spare, genre specific chamber piece into a thoughtfully considered and consistently inventive story filled with ideas, even if some of those were originally Kubrick’s.

Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince

Harry Potter and his magical chums are all grown up in The Half Blood Prince, the sixth film in JK Rowling’s franchise, which has darkened considerably since the jolly schooldays fun of The Philosopher’s Stone back in 2001. The Half Blood Prince is a stop-gap film, designed to drag these characters into young adulthood while providing Harry with the motivation to confront his evil arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort in the series finale The Deathly Hallows, now split into two parts for release over the next couple of summers.

The film opens with a wordless shot - in what will become a signature inky monotone - of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), battered but victorious after the events of The Order of the Phoenix. The story closes, two stirring hours later, at a sensational moment familiar to readers of the book, a time when all hope seems lost. The Half Blood Prince is a film made up more of fleeting emotions, moods and tones, than a strictly plotted story. Harry has returned to Hogwarts school for the start of another year when the demonic Death Eaters, led by Voldemort, start wreaking havoc throughout the country, including attacks on Muggles, ordinary people not connected to the wizard world. Sworn to protect their leader, and destroy Harry, a covert Death Eater has followed him to Hogwarts and begun hatching a sinister plan.

Harry has his suspicions, but his friend and headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) is more interested in preparing the young wizard for his most dangerous mission so far, the discovery of a vital clue to destroying Voldemort known as a Horcrux. The key to finding this fragment of Voldemort’s black soul is known only to Hogwarts’ new Potions Professor, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), information Dumbledore can retrieve from his memories and display on a shining bowl of silvery water. At the same time, Harry is benefiting from helpful notes jotted in the margins of one of his schoolbooks, a battered old text that used to belong to a young prodigy who signed himself “the half-blood prince”.

Meanwhile, teenage hormones are casting a spell of their own. Harry’s moon-eyed pursuit of Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) is developing into something deeper, helped by their shared skills on the quidditch field. Harry’s best friend Ron (Rupert Grint) has spurned his long-time crush Hermione (Emma Watson) and become entangled in the lavish affections of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), to everyone’s annoyance.

The ins and outs of Dumbledore and Harry’s quest might prove confusing to the uninitiated, but otherwise Yates and his screenwriter Steve Kloves draw clear, clean lines through the reams of Rowling’s original text, dropping everything that doesn’t contribute to their ever-darkening theme of momentous change. In the process, characters like Robbie Coltrane’s ungainly Hagrid and Maggie Smith’s pernickety McGonagall are relegated to remember-me cameos or solitary, declamatory scenes.

If there is no real urgency in The Half Blood Prince it is because we have waited so long for these events to arrive, and are still awaiting a final conclusion, that the film feels like it is spanning a gulf in time and development rather than standing alone as a narrative. Everything is pointed at the catharsis of the final reel, meaning much of the rest is incidental; a series of comforting comic asides, cleverly introduced flashbacks, distractions and side-bars. They might mean very little but these sequences are beautifully rendered by Yates and his creative team, who create a tangible atmosphere of foreboding with muted, spectral light, innovative angles and a sparing use of the series’ occasionally intrusive special effects.

Read my set-visit and interview with Daniel Radcliffe here

35 Shots of Rum

The films of French director Claire Denis are maddeningly reticent and ephemeral things, wisps of character and story that, depending on ones disposition, will either linger long or disperse at the slightest breeze. Her latest, 35 Shots of Rum is a bittersweet story of a phase in family life told with the director’s signature languor.

The first time we meet Josephine (Mati Diop), she is buying a rice cooker, an everyday item that becomes a symbol of the young woman’s growing independence. A student and part-time worker, Josephine lives with her train-driver father Lionel (Alex Decas) in an apartment in a modernist block on an anonymous street in the outer ring of Parisian suburbs. Their life together has settled into a comfortable household routine which often sees them sitting together at the table and eating steaming plates of rice, topped with scarlet harissa.

Their chain-smoking taxi-driving neighbour Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) holds a lingering flame for the leonine Lionel, waiting for him on the stairs and writing poetic love notes. Upstairs, the suave, jet-set Noe (Grégoire Colin) is cautiously circling the feline Josephine, batting away rivals for her affections and catching her eye with meaningful glances.

Halfway through, the story that Denis is forming appears to be about this foursome pairing off in their own romantic directions, but the director aspires to more subtle methods than that. Gentle ripples begin to appear that reveal a smaller, more intimate story that the director wants to show us, not tell us. A night out that doesn’t go as planned leaves all four stranded in a cafe where they drink, flirt and dance to The Commodores’ Night Shift. Later, father and daughter take a road trip to Germany; a journey that explains how father and daughter came to be living together alone just as Josephine will soon leave home.

The trouble is that by the time these critical moments come about, they might pass unnoticed among the rest of the perfectly photographed, comfortably meandering incidents and trajectories. Does it mean anything that Lionel’s colleague has recently retired? What, if anything, are we supposed to glean from the lecture about the Breton Woods System that Josephine delivers to her classmates?

Suitably for a film that opens with a ten minute montage of trains, 35 Shots of Rum is more about the journey than the destination. Denis is reluctant to signpost anything, preferring to gently nudge her characters into place and have the viewer decide what is important. Her way of telling a story places manners and behaviour over action or plot, working a delicate web of gestures and actions that threatens, at times, to not form into a film at all. This kind of construction requires a talented cast to make it work, and Denis ambitions are well realised by fine performances from the ensemble, in particular her regular male lead Descas, who brings power and dignity to what is a slightly-written character.

Public Enemies

The short, sensational life of 1930s Chicago gangster John Dillinger passed into folk legend even before his corpse grew cold. During the Great Depression, Dillinger robbed the banks that in turn had robbed the public, in the process becoming a hero to the public and a lightning rod for gangsterism. He was the first crook dubbed “Public Enemy Number One” by J Edgar Hoover’s newfound FBI, who eventually cornered their man outside a Chicago cinema, the Biograph. In time, Hollywood even came to made films about him; Lawrence Tierney scowling down the barrel of a tommy-gun in 1945’s mostly fictional Dillinger and Warren Oates repeating the trick in John Milius’ ribald 1970s retelling.

Now, following his redundant attempt to revitalise Miami Vice, Hollywood’s specialist crime auteur Michael Mann brings us his biopic of the ‘gangster’s gangster’, with Johnny Depp playing an unlikely but mesmerizing Dillinger. It is an electrifying story, brilliantly told by Mann from a historically precise script based on Bryan Burrough’s book of the same title, adapted by Irish writer Ronan Bennet, which casts the bank robber as a man caught between criminality and celebrity, a real life movie character.

Public Enemies opens at a gallop in 1933 with Dillinger already infamous and the head of his own criminal gang. Brought to a vast Ohio prison in shackles, Dillinger turns the tables on his jailors and breaks his gang out of the jail, including Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum), Harry Pierpont (David Wenham) and Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi). The gang are soon back doing what they do best, robbing banks across the American mid-West, a series of increasingly audacious robberies that makes Dillinger’s capture the priority for Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his best FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). As the cops start their pursuit, Dillinger becomes involved with Billie, a half-French nightclub dancer, played by Marion Cotillard in her first role since winning the Oscar for La Vie En Rose.

This is the crime movie stripped down to bare essentials; fedoras, sub-machine guns, bags of loot, fast cars, spinning headlines and lipsticked molls. Mann takes all these creaky devices and uses them to make an old story feel new and unexpected, exhilarating and emotionally moving. From the straightforward biography of a daring thief, Mann spins a multi-layered history that documents the seismic shifts in both crime and justice that defined the era; the establishment of a continental police force, the FBI, and the rise of the Mafia, who see Dillinger’s attention-seeking methods as dangerous to their way of life. However, Mann’s deliberate paring has the effect of rendering some of the secondary cast, including Stephen Dorff and Shawn Hatosy, almost completely anonymous.

Photographed with digital cameras in glorious deep focus, Public Enemies moves at a breathless pace, banging out the story in a series of staccato set-pieces and illuminative diversions. Jailbreaks are followed by bankheists and getaways in a tumble of adrenal scenes before the tension is broken by a moment of character, like an eerie sequence that sees Dillinger walking alone through a police station, looking at his own photograph on the wall. Better yet is a surreal scene, in a packed cinema, where Dillinger sits and watches a newsreel clip that asks the audience to check of the man sitting next to them isn’t the infamous gangster.

Depp plays Dillinger with effortless charisma and confidence, a timelessly glamorous cross between Robin Hood and Clark Gable. Opposite him, but relegated by the story into a grim-set cipher, Bale does well as the clenched, driven Purvis. There is a gripping inevitability to the way in which Mann places two opposing forces at either end of the spectrum and gradually, carefully brings them to a point of violent convergence, as he did in Heat, or Last of the Mohicans. With Public Enemies, this payoff happens during a bullet-ridden shootout at a remote hotel, filmed at the actual historical location, where Dillinger and his gang, including Stephen Graham’s Baby Face Nelson, are corner by the G-Men and must shoot their way out. It is an extraordinary centrepoint scene; frantic, percussive, bloody and brutal.

*Read my interview with Micheal Mann for Heat here.

Year One

Writer and director Harold Ramis has had a lean time of it since the days of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, a run that continues with Year One, an epoch-spanning comedy about a couple of Palaeolithic morons who get caught up in a series of scrapes with various Old Testament characters.

Jack Black and Michael Cera play caveman buddies Zed and Oh, literally an old-school double-act composed of obnoxious, zinger-spouting mammoth hunter and meek, straight-man fruit gatherer. When Zed eats a golden apple from a forbidden tree, they are both exiled from their village at the end of a pointy spear. Their quest proper begins when they stumble into the middle of the last argument between Cain and Abel (Cena’s Arrested Development co-star David Cross and Paul Rudd).

Things quickly go from bad to worse when Zed and Oh are sold into slavery and marched across the desert by the imperial Romans, led for some reason by the deeply unamusing Vinnie Jones. They escape their bonds, only to inadvertently intervene during a delicate moment between a sword-wielding Abraham (Hank Azaria) and his timorous son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), at the top of a mountain.

From that point on, the story dissolves into a series of skits build around Biblical stories with much unprintable merriment derived from a visit to the notorious city of Sodom. There, the duo's aim is to rescue their slightly more evolved romantic interests, Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), taken as slave girls by the scheming Princess Inanna (Olivia Wilde).

Flat, broad and unnecessarily scatological, Year One is slow to get going and never quite picks up the kind of pace it needs to carry it forward. There are a few genuinely funny moments; a trip on an ox-driven cart and a discussion about the origins of circumcision, but far more gags fail to find their mark and many scenes seem to end before time or drag unnecessarily.

Although admirably mounted and photographed (with scant use of cheap computer graphics), the same care hasn’t been taken with the script, which draws heavily on Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 by way of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s 1940s Road To… farces. These are jokes that have been told MCVXX’s of times before and there's little the cast can do to make then fresh again.

The bully Black should creates sparks opposite Cena’s withdrawn nerd but the dynamic doesn’t quite come off. As character comedians, both actors have staled badly; Cena’s drawling dreamer festering into an awkward passive-aggression while Black's energetic charm has been exhausted on almost-funny comedies like, well, like this one.