In this, the most profligate expenditure of $1.2 million since Universal sent Dennis Hopper down the river to make The Last Movie, the thing that'll have your eyeballs coming out on stalks is the end credit for Atom Egoyan as associate producer. What the cinema's current champion of the Stanley Kubrick Anal Retention School must have made of this incoherent romp in a playpen full of caca is beyond the scope of my imagination. Press notes report that the director spent a total of 18 years working on this artifact, in which preteen riot grrrl Shirley Pimple (a sort of woozy bad-ass palimpsest of Miss Good Ship Lollipop) starts a rebellion against the John Wayne Institute for American Values. If you're guessing that there are scenes in which a cancerous, skeletal Wayne chases Shirley on a tricycle, you get two points. But I daresay no one could imagine that Shirley Pimple would contain buckets of Hershell Gordon Lewis-esque splatter and inexplicable eruptions of "Muskrat Love" and "99 Luftballons." As an analysis of Duke semiotics, this ain't up to the ankles of Garry Wills's John Wayne's America. And as an "avant" jamboree, it requires a bowl of skunkweed and a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos just to make it past reel two. Matthew Wilder
Mr. Rice's Secret
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 1:00 p.m.
From Bambi to Old Yeller and My Girl, there's an entire canon of movies that prepare kids for facing the death of a loved one. In its fanciful way, though, this low-key Canadian fantasy tackles a kid-movie taboo: a child's own bout with terminal illness. Bill Switzer gives an appealing performance as Owen Walters, a 12-year-old devastated by the recent death of his friend and mentor, Mr. Rice (a grandfatherly David Bowie, looking and acting like his "Little Drummer Boy" duet partner Bing Crosby). Owen himself is suffering from Hodgkin's disease, and Mr. Rice's demise only heightens his fear and resentment of other stricken kids, especially Simon (Richard de Klerk), who's in the final stages of leukemia. At this point, Joel Wyner's script introduces a Harry Potter-ish adventure involving a treasure hunt, a decoder ring, and a buried secret. But if Nicholas Kendall's direction never transcends the level of an after-school special, he still avoids the bland, plastic soullessness of Disney's current live-action product. Jim Ridley
Wisconsin Death Trip
Bell Auditorium, Saturday at 1:30 p.m.; and Oak Street Cinema, Thursday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m.
It's hard enough to adapt a good novel for the screen. But a history dissertation thesis seems downright doomed--especially one with no main plot, no conventional characters, no climax, and no resolution. Nevertheless, Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy's radical and disturbing history of the town of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, is faithfully captured by this film of the same title. The book, first published in 1973, is a cult classic. On the surface, it's a collection of photographs and newspaper excerpts that document death--disease, suicide, murder, and the living death of insanity--in a small town at the turn of the last century. But Lesy's rhythmic arrangement of the verbal and visual images transforms the merely historical into something like music: a requiem for the white man in America, an operatic rendering of his tragicomic decline. The movie version isn't so much a film based on Lesy's book as it is a loving translation of the text into the language of film--not adapted but adopted. Most of the book's conventions are faithfully reproduced onscreen: the unusual "chapter headings," the photographs and events, even the pages of white-on-black printing that punctuate the book. But the film begins to develop its own hypnotic power when director James Marsh departs from Lesy's template, intercutting the historical stills with staged reenactments of the newspaper accounts: a schoolteacher with a compulsion to smash windows, a teen murderer, a farm suicide. Still more interesting are the occasional glimpses of modern life in Black River Falls, the snatches of interviews and strangely suspended landscape suggesting that the intervening century has only intensified our afflictions. Joseph Hart
The Magnetist's Fifth Winter
Oak Street Cinema, Saturday at 5:15 p.m.
This Danish film's glorious obsessions with the intersections of light and darkness--the flickering tongue of a candle carried through a night-shrouded house, the shadow of a hand lingering over a body, the acute blade of curtain-obscured light illuminating a character's face--thoroughly overcome its limitations as a psychological melodrama. Set in 1820s Sweden, in a small town where science is just beginning to make headway against folk beliefs, a struggle is quickly sketched between the town's establishment and a visiting magnetist (Ole Lemmeke) who promises alternative methods of healing. This "Doctor" Meisner claims to use the body's ability to see into itself, through the manipulation of "magnetic fluids" and other, more theatrical cures. The vaguely sinister visitor immediately sets his sights on the well-respected Dr. Selander (Rolf Lassgard), whose daughter Maria (Johanna Salstrom) suffers from a blindness that's resistant to modern potions. With its trademark hoodwinking/revelation/trial structure, the film's plot remains lamentably pedestrian. Yet director Morton Henriksen uses the generic possibilities of suspense to establish a framework for oblique reflections of character, with Lemmeke, in particular, defining the shady magnetist as an unresolved blend of confidence man and conscience. Mike Reynolds