September issues : ACNE (2007) ; THE FIRM (2009) ; HYENAS (1992)  – all online WED 16.SEP
ACNE (Uruguay 2007) dir. Federico Veiroj
Minor misadventures of a hormonally horny – but woefully self-conscious (clue is in the title) Jewish teenager in Montevideo. Presumably autobiographical, and writer-director Veiroj has a strong memory for the moods and frustrations of late adolescence, not to mention a knack for eliciting natural performances from all of the kids on view.
He scores particularly highly in evoking the sheer grubbiness of lads (of whatever background) around bar mitzvah age (all those over-emphatic doodles on the inside covers of exercise books) their propensity to self-loathing and casual boredom, and also their insularity (parents and adults in general being a different species, who speak an alien language). Result: we feel as though we're on the inside looking out, not vice versa.
THE FIRM (UK 2009) dir. Nick Love
Unneccessary – but somehow inevitable – remake of the terrific 1988 BBC TV-movie (directed by Alan Clarke from Al Ashton's script) is, predictably, much less of an indictment of Thatcher's Britain, despite being set "in period" (unspecified, but we deduce it's the winter of 1983/4).
There's the odd passing reference to Tory politicians, and much more emphasis is placed upon a general recreation of the era's fashions and trappings – which are pretty much spot on in pretty much every regard. That's just one of the areas where The Firm outstrips the most recent footy-hoolie picture to hit our screens, Awaydays – this is a rather less pretentious, more straightforward, more convincing examination of why blokes get together to scrap.
The picture (which sees Love return to the turf of his underrated Football Factory) is also very strong on group masculine dynamics – the lingo, the banter, the jockeying for position – and the set-pieces of violence have a gritty versimilitude that could never be accused of glamourising such thuggish antics. The rucks are also surprisingly few and far between – a good 40 minutes passes before a punch is thrown in anger – and the main emphasis is on characterisation.
Shifting the focus from the original, which was essentially a character-study of ostensibly "respectable" gang-leader/estate-agent Becks (Gary Oldman then, Paul Anderson now), this new Firm traces the progress of callow teenager Dominic (Calum McNab) from fascinated onlooker to eager participant. His main motivation seems to be that he's bored with breakdancing (that craze being so 1982-3), typical of the picture's low-key, underplayed approach.
Dominic doesn't have any particular need for a fatherly surrogate, nor do we get the impression that he's homoerotically attracted to the sociopathic alphamale Becks (though this element does surface from subtext to text on occasion.) McNab's performance takes a little getting used to, but he wins us over: Dominic isn't especially heroic, intelligent or interesting – he's just a normal lad, and there's an unaffected freshness to McNab as a screen presence that keeps us interested in his travails.
The downside of all this "low-keyness" is that the story, while admirable in its avoidance of melodrama, feels a bit arbitrary and underpowered, especially in the latter stages. Increasingly unstable and insecure, Becks becomes violently obsessed with getting one over on his nemesis 'Yeti', leader of the hated Millwall firm – Becks and Dominic being (nominally at least) West Ham fans (the real-life rivalry between these groups has only just flared back up again – bad timing, or ideal publicity?)
Not showing any actual football action has become a bit of a cliche of this sub-genre, of course, emphasising the fact that these chaps aren't, you know, really very much interested in soccer per se. We get that point fairly early, it must be said. Overall, however, The Firm is rather more accomplished than we might have supposed – not that this will cut much ice with Alan Clarke's band of outraged devotees.
HYENAS (Senegal 1992) dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty
Acclaimed example of "African cinema" certainly has its moments, but after a bright opening and jaunty mid-section bogs down into portentous laboriousness as it tries to take a serious turn: rather appropriate that the first image we see is the plodding step of an elephant. Fable-like tale relates how a fabulously wealthy (we're talking dreams-of-Croesus levels) woman returns home to her home town, which has long since declined into a sleepy backwater. She's keen to bestow her riches for the improvement of the locality – just so long as the locals assist her to obtain revenge over an old flame, now a popular bar/shop-owner. The latter's hapless happy-go-lucky air leads to various amusing situations as he realises the levels of deviousness and corruption among his fellow townsfolk, the atmosphere curdling into one of Kafkaesque nightmarishness as he realises his grim fate. Trouble is, by this stage the story's allegorical aspects have become increasingly heavy-handed and long-winded – a fatal combination, though Hyenas certainly provides ample food for thought.
THE FIRM : [6/10] : UK 2009 : Nick LOVE : 90m (BBFC) : seen at Empire cinema (Newcastle) 15th September : press show
HYENAS : [5/10] : Hyènes : Senegal (Sen/Fr/Swi) 1992 : Djibril DIOP MAMBETY : 110m (IMDb) : seen at The Star and Shadow (Newcastle) 13th September : paid £4