The Martian is a Ridley Scott film. While the director is best known for Alien, and less so for Prometheus, he's gone for a much more scientific space film, undertaking the adaptation of Andy Weir's novel. It's been accurately described as "Apollo 13 meets Cast Away" as the realism of the NASA lunar misadventure is coupled with the spirit and tenacity of the stranded survivor drama.
We're thrown in the deep end as a mission to Mars is aborted and botanist, Mark Watney, is left for dead. As the resourceful astronaut makes a surprising recovery, he soon realises the extent of his predicament, counting the days and trying to send a distress signal to his distant compatriots.
Matt Damon has been entrusted to carry the weight of what would've been a Tom Hanks performance 20 years ago. You get the impression the first choice may have been Mark Wahlberg, given the cheeky nature of the character. Damon is more than up to the challenge and delivers an emphatic, human and well-balanced performance that ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply affecting. His casting echoes his pivotal role in Saving Private Ryan.
Damon headlines a sharp ensemble including: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor. While the supporting cast share the other half of the screen time, they ground the film with the weight of personal guilt or scope of concern surrounding the recovery of Watney. Chastain is pensive and altruistic as Lewis, Daniels is grand as political bigwig Sanders, Wiig is amusing as Montrose the "campaign manager" and Ejiofor provides level-headed diplomacy in all the panic as Kapoor.
This isn't an existential drama, but more of an entertaining science class and scouting expedition on defying the odds with available resources. At it's core, it's "Magyver in Space", as we find a likable guy performing everyday magic, using practical know-how and his intellect to execute the unthinkable. Instead of wallowing in a hopeless situation, Watney faces the Red Planet head-on, armed with his wits and mental resilience.
"So... help is only 225,000,000 km away?"
Scott swathes us in a film that effortlessly moves from the dusty wastelands of Mars into space and back to Earth without flinching. The visuals are seamless, transporting us to a very real survival scenario and then zooming out to a more political drama playing out back home. The deep space scenes may not be quite as revolutionary as Gravity, but we're captivated, whether Watney is moving slowly on Mars or the space crew are gliding from compartment-to-compartment.
The Martian has many contemporaries and parallels. Gravity is the most obvious contrast, as another deep space survival drama plays out with first-rate visuals, compelling drama and cinematic precision. Then, we're reminded of Moon as our hero finds himself operating alone and isolated as the sole inhabitant of a makeshift space colony. The escalation of tension, entertaining tone and stars-and-stripes recall Armageddon. Then, the scientific detail and NASA politics of Europa Report come to mind as the situation becomes more desperate, while the time frame and casting echo Interstellar.
The Martian is a finely-crafted film that blends elements from science-fiction across the ages. The Magyver tricks and dexterous genre-mix make it stand out from the crowd as we're fascinated by the science of our hero's enterprise, empathetic towards his stay positive frame-of-mind and amused by his flippant do-or-die attitude.
At 140 minutes, The Martian is a lengthy but rewarding investment, yet the central criticism stems from the original story itself. We're acquainted with the American bravado surrounding the sentiment of "leave no man behind" from many Vietnam war movies, but the realism is underwritten by an invisible budget. Would a federal agency (or crew) spend or risk billions of dollars on an iffy mission to rescue one man in space, when it would better serve millions back home? Thankfully, the film's enjoyment is not dependent on this fundamental issue, but the irony is thought-provoking as a haunting residue.
Ayanda is a fresh coming-of-age romance drama set in the suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg, South Africa. Yeoville's identity has evolved over the years, becoming "Afropolitan", a melting pot for Africa and now a stylistic theme for Ayanda, as we embrace a brave, hip and vibrant community culture.
The neighbourhood's diversity, energy and swagger is translated into Ayanda, originally titled Ayanda and the Mechanic, as we encounter a young woman desperately trying to fuse her talent and resources to rescue her late father's auto mechanic repair shop.
Director, Sara Blecher, brought us the surf movie, Otelo Burning, in 2011 and has racked up two more directorial credits for Dis ek, Anna and Ayanda in 2015. She's crafted another winner in Ayanda, drawing solid performances from her ensemble, setting them against a universal story about letting go and encapsulating the ambient flow of life in the street savvy, Yeoville.
This romance drama has a strong leading lady and title character in Fulu Moguvhani, who delivers a charming and captivating performance. Her hairstyles, wardrobe and stubborn optimism keeps the upbeat, urban chic tone intact, despite getting greasy with overalls, and she represents a strong, determined woman with great self-belief. You admire her for daring to dream, but the character's self-interest does become a little cloying.
Moguvhani is supported by Nthathi Moshesh as her mother, Dorothy and Kenneth Nkosi as her "godfather" Zama. These experienced actors add weight and substance to the cast by bringing two fine performances to the mix. Ayanda's "Mechanic", David, is played by O.C. Ukeje, whose gentle and unassuming performance shines through as a romantic interest and key to her dreams, while Thomas Gumede keeps the goo in check with a fun and spirited turn.
"Denise Cosby? You ain't seen nothing yet..."
Ayanda deals with a born-free South African woman intent on setting the world on fire with her dreams, while cherishing memories of her father. It's a touching story of swimming upstream, challenging the system and coping with grief as Ayanda tries to keep her father's legacy alive. The drama is layered with themes including: forgiveness, heritage and unity as Ayanda struggles to part with mementos and feels the undertow of her family's history. You could even say it's an allegory for the state of the New South Africa.
Ayanda's visuals bristle with life from the sleek cinematography to the range of stylistic choices from wardrobe to production values, making it a decadent and colourful film that brims with vitality. While the car modification romance drama and local music made Fanie Fourie's Lobola, it doesn't hurt to see it again with a more classical African slant. Curious animated sequences lace the African story together with imaginative interchanges, while a roving documentary film-maker gives us humorous and heartwarming insights into the characters and extras.
Ayandakeeps our eyes transfixed, but the storytelling does get bogged down by some scenes that verge precariously close on TV melodrama. While our lead's motivations are noble, she seems emotionally-stunted and this translates into a narcissistic agenda. It may be more reflective of the Facebook generation than most would admit, but gives us mixed feelings about the character at crucial turns.
The end result is enjoyable, emotionally connective and visually stimulating as we ingratiate ourselves in a South African romance drama with surprising depth. The performances are mostly charming, the hip Afrocentric culture is refreshing and the film fires on all cylinders, making it a world-class vehicle, in spite of one or two rust spots.
Spling reviews The Intern, The End of the Tour and Song One as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.