Scanlines

The Young Poisoner's Handbook

D: Benjamin Ross; with Hugh O'Conor, Antony Sher, Ruth Sheen, Roger Lloyd Pack, Charlotte Coleman, Paul Stacey.
VHS Home Video
Waterloo Video, 1016 W. Sixth

A boy and his chemistry set. It's a deadly combination in this black comedy based on the true story of 14-year-old Graham Young, whose experiments in Britain during the Seventies left behind a trail of dead family members and workmates. Hugh O'Conor's ultra-focused performance takes us into the deranged and passionate mind of a sociopath who is merely ridding himself of life's obstacles, all the while charting and graphing the progress of his lethal compounds with the seriousness of a Nobel prize-winning scientist. And we follow along in his blue book just as matter-of-factly, waiting for the empirical evidence to present the effect we've hypothesized. In fact, we almost want to cheer Graham on as he does in his not-really-so-evil stepmother, though the whole process is far from pretty. When he attempts to tip the fatal sauce into the beer of his poor old pop though, his compulsion is discovered and Graham is committed to a psych ward where he must craftily hide his lack of remorse. And as Graham continues to remain as emotionless as Science itself, it sure makes for a strange laugh. -- Jen Scoville



Welcome to the Dollhouse

D: Todd Solondz; with Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton, Jr., Daria Kalinina, Matthew Faber, Angela Pietropinto, Eric Mabius.
VHS Home Video

Maybe I'm just sentimental, but Welcome to the Dollhouse was the film that finally put to rest all of the demons that taunted me in my junior high years. A breakthrough first film from writer/director/producer Todd Solondz, the picture is the darkly tragi-comic tale of Dawn "Wienerdog" Wiener (Matarazzo), an 11-year-old outcast who is ridiculed at every possible turn in her miserable existence. From her parents' fawning over her kid sister Missy (Kalinina) to Dawn's crush on the local high school stud (Mabius), Solondz has the details of pre-teen angst down pat. Her parents even dismantle her backyard clubhouse (the "Special People Club", Membership: 2) in order to throw a party. In the end, Solondz's social commentary and witty delivery are hilarious and cathartic reminders of bygone days.

-- Christopher Null



Strictly Ballroom

D: Baz Luhrmann; with Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice.
VHS Home Video

Since Baz Lurhmann's Romeo & Juliet has received such critical acclaim for its magnetic camerawork and ability to breathe life into a 400-year-old script, it is worth checking out the earlier Strictly Ballroom, where it may be possible to see the seeds of his style starting to take root. Set in a variety of Australian ballroom dance competitions and practice halls, this film simply bubbles with romance and charm as it tells the story of Scott, a dancer who wants to dance his own crowd-pleasing steps despite the rigid rules of competition, and Fran, the dumpy woman turned paso doble queen after she finds the right partner. Like Romeo & Juliet, Scott and Fran must overcome familial and societal pressure to win acceptance for their need to dance together, and Luhrmann's visually quirky style fills the frame with whimsical shots that show the same old boy-meets-girl story in a fresh new way. The undercurrent of his contempt for the ballroom dance atmosphere, evidenced partially by his tight shots of the characters' sweaty and overly made-up faces, injects a streak of dark humor that is difficult to ignore. Still, the fierce chemistry between actors Mercurio and Morice makes you want to run right out, find a partner, and learn how to rhumba.

-- Adrienne Martini


The White Balloon

D: Jafar Panahi; with Aida Mohammad Khani, Mohsen Kalifi, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani.
VHS Home Video
Vulcan Video, 609 W. 29th

Seven-year-old cherubic Razieh (Khani) not only charms a 500-tomans note out of her mother to buy a fat, "lacy" (her word for extra special) goldfish; she charms it back from the street performer who bamboozles it from her. If only for its peek into Iranian daily life, The White Balloon would fascinate, but it is artful beyond its exotic locale. Awash in the bright hues of Iran, The White Balloon took home two of the top prizes at Cannes in 1995. Razieh and her brother Ali are endearing without being overly sentimentalized and their simple quest to buy a goldfish builds a gnawing suspense. Most compelling, though, is the sense that their story, their stubborn resolve, and their smiles are less Iranian than they are universally childlike.

-- Kayte VanScoy

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