Archive | May, 2020

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

31 May

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Because of his WASPy, blue-blooded demeanor and cheeky curiosity, George Plimpton always stuck me as a something of a cross between Thurston Howell III and Hawkeye Pierce – the latter maybe because Alan Alda played Plimpton in the 1968 film based on the writer’s bestselling book, “Paper Lion.” Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling, in their plumbing of the author, editor and sometimes actor, seek to paint a portrait of a man who was more than the sum of his stunts, which famously included turns as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins, acting with John Wayne and performing with the New York Philharmonic.

Plimpton choose to call these endeavors “participatory journalism,” and it made for good readership in the pages of Sports Illustrated back in the days when Hemingway and Richard Ford were turning in copy. (There was also a “Plimpton! Adventures in Africa” TV series in the early ’70s, hence the film’s title.) He was a string bean of a kid – one of the big reveals early in the film is Plimpton at the prestigious Exeter boarding school failing to make a sports team, which makes his bold undertakings later in life feel like he had something to prove. The main event the film homes in on is Plimpton going a few rounds with boxing legend Archie Moore, the only man to fight both Ali and Rocky Marciano.

And where there is George Plimpton, there is The Paris Review, the literary magazine Plimpton help found in the ’50s and edited until his death in 2003. His love of figures such as Hemingway and Roth is palpable throughout the film, especially in his relentless pursuit to get such luminaries to sit down for interviews. As the doc progresses, Plimpton’s love of the Review shines through even brighter as he becomes a pitch person for car sales and garage openers to make money to support the literary rag. The ads make for a wonderful little time capsule.

Plimpton, as the movie paints him, was a romantic and idealist who kept close ties with the Kennedy family and was there to help wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Plimpton also enjoyed a party, hosting late-night soirees in New York with the likes of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg. His son Taylor, who reads some of his father’s pieces throughout the film, recounts being kept up regularly by the late-night carousing. Plimpton was also friends with Hugh Hefner and dabbled in acting – we all know of his turn as a shrink in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), but he also had small parts in “Rio Lobo” (1970) and even “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

Not all were warm to the eclectic Plimpton. Several literati, such as James Salter, make brief appearances in the film to brand him a “dilettante” – something echoed by Plimpton himself, as the film is imbued with an eerie sense of rue that the journo did not produce “more serious” works.

Other notable local flavorings include former hockey player and coach Mike Milbury, who was one of the Bruins whom Plimpton (often seen wobbling on skates in clips) embedded with, and co-director Poling, who later partnered with Independent Film Festival Boston founder Adam Roffman for the beguiling 2015 short doc, “Spearhunter.”

Bigger familiar faces who make the doc include Ken Burns; “The Wild Bunch” (1969) screenwriter Walon Green, who directed an episode of the “Plimpton!” show; and author Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) whose literary career Plimpton helped launch. Bean and Poling’s balanced tribute makes clear Plimpton was a lover of adventure and new things, and wanted to bringing those experiences firsthand to his readers – and to do so he was unafraid to go into the lion’s den.

Getting in two steel wheel in complicated times

31 May

Covid-19 makes bikes more important than ever; It also complicates everything about getting one

A line forms Saturday outside Ace Wheelworks between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

When gyms and parks were restricted and shuttered by the coronavirus shutdown, cycling saw a surge as a means of exercise, recreation and transportation – biking by definition has social distancing built into it, a sterling alternative to a crowded subway car where one good sneeze could have a devastating effect. As Massachusetts seeks to get back to normal, bikes will stay important for summer recreation and commuter options. Cambridge just announced a “Shared Streets” initiative to pair with Somerville, and over in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a “Healthy Streets” plan, safer paths encouraging new riders who were formerly deterred by the crush of regular motor vehicle traffic.

If you don’t have a bike and want to get on one, how do you do it with the Covid-19 restrictions still in place? One way is a bike share such as Blue Bikes, but most people will want the comfort and convenience of owning their own steel steed. Buying off Craigslist and the like is one option, but brings with it questions about bike size and other factors – including whether the bike was stolen. Bike stores offer professional advice and a better understanding of quality and cost, help for first-time buyers and assurance of help and service down the line.

Bike stores were deemed “essential” by Gov. Charlie Baker during the shutdown, and most in the Cambridge/Somerville area remained open. Now all are back online with the exception of Quad Bikes, which operates out of a Harvard-owned facility on Shepherd Street. During the stay-at-home mandate, maintenance and repairs were by curbside appointment, and it’ll be largely the same for the first phase of Baker’s four-phase return plan. One of the big challenges presented are hands-on sampling and test rides. Carice Reddien, owner of Bicycle Belle368 Beacon St., near Porter Square in Somerville, a specialist in cargo bikes, e-bikes and family-friendly extension bikes (and just reopened) said, “We’ve been doing socially distanced test rides outside the shop, and it seems to work.” Jason Paige, co-owner of Ace Wheelworks145 Elm St., between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville, whose shop was open for the duration, said, “We do a pretty thorough sales job on the phone, but the first time they ride it is when they pick it up curbside.” That model is flipped from before Covid-19, but Paige said the store has adopted a relaxed return and exchange policy to make shoppers more comfortable with a big purchase. “If you call with a price range and type of style, we’ll make something happen,” Paige said.

The bigger problem is supply and shipping in times of high demand. “Be patient,” Reddien said. “Supplies are low and shops are stretched thin trying to work in new and safe ways.” Paige said Wheelworks at one point had to stop taking orders over the phone because a salesperson would take an order only to have an online shopper beat them to the last SKU. (On the day that I wrote this, the website had a message saying “Sales temporarily suspended.”)

Other stores coming back are trying novel approaches to meet demand and their customer’s needs. Crimson Bikes, the Cannondale retailer at 1001 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, offers mobile visits to your home as well as curbside appointments; Cambridge Bicycle259 Massachusetts Ave., The Port, has something of what shop manager Josh Smith describes as an “Old West countertop service,” with accessories and helmets exhibited at the door for customers to review and try out. Cambridge Bicycle also offers limited test rides.

One thing all agreed on was that the shutdown has been both a boon for cycling. “More people now see cycling as a more attractive and viable thing,” Smith said. Paige said that he’s doing a lot more family sales, with overall sales in units notably up from last year, but accessory sales down. “Families are getting out and biking together,” he said. “That makes me emotional.”

The best way to buy a bike in these socially distancing times seems to start with online research, then a sales call before a scheduled test ride. And to remember, as Reddien said: “Be patient.”

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

25 May

‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’: Failed film haunts, so director does retake on a cruel comic genius

 

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“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is something of a therapy session for director Peter Medak, who worked with Sellers on the abysmal 1973 pirate comedy “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak was an up-and-comer hot off the 1972 hit “The Ruling Class” and chanced into Sellers – the world’s most revered comic actor of the time – and at the “Pink Panther” star’s behest, agreed to helm the film conceived by Sellers’ comedic running mate, Spike Milligan. Medak, 35 at the time, said yes (“How could I not?”) and the film went on to be an unmitigated disaster. It ran well over budget, and has still never fully been released.

What we get from Medak’s unique point of view – which is kind of meta, as he’s a filmmaker making a documentary about the making of a film he made – is rue, remiss and a tang of anger. Sellers, after all, pretty much quit the film early on and, as Medak has it, did plenty to undermine the young director and upend a once-promising career. The film is not a hit piece on Sellers, though, and ultimately embraces the troubled star as it delves into his several messy relationships, cardiovascular issues and, as Medak frames with care, mental health issues. Medak’s assessment of his star is backed by Sellers’ daughter, who provides earnest and thoughtful insights.

What’s also amazing to glean from Medak’s rewind is his own journey as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II and the Communist iron glove that took hold during the formation of the Soviet Union. But nothing looms as large as Sellers to Medak; it’s the thing that has consumed him for years, and the use of “ghost” is the title is more than apt. The dissection of the production, the filmmaking process and the shenanigans of Sellers and Milligan provide for jaw drops, be it Sellers leveraging his heart condition via a doctor’s note so he could go party in a pub, or the magical transformation of a Chinese junk into the pirate ship only to have it crash on its maiden voyage. Similar films about the making of great films (from the clips of “Noon” that you see here, you know that is not the case), “Burden of Dreams” (1982, about “Fitzcarraldo”) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991, about “Apocalypse Now”) are more distant and observant; “Ghost of Peter Sellers” to me felt like a somber “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018), Orson Welles’ last, unfinished film framed inside of a documentary. There’s loose narrative play in that film, but Medak here stays close to his heart. In the end he brings it all home while shedding light on careers and films worth remembering … even if the one he’s focused on is not one of them.

Fourteen

20 May

 

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A sharp, clever character study revolving around two friends whose relationship takes on varying shades (ever darker) over a 10-year period. In “Fourteen,” streaming from The Brattle Theatre​’s Virtual Screening Room, what initially looks wholesome and organic becomes something forged more out of matters of necessity, guilt and obligation.

When we first meet Mara (Tallie Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) they’re young Brooklynites with bright futures. Jo is statuesque and stark in style, form and attitude, especially compared with Maria, who’s petite, pixieish and demurring. They’re Mutt and Jeff in more ways than one. Early on we think we understand the balance; Maria works as a kindergarten school teacher, while Jo allegedly is a social worker but seems to be always out of work for one technicality or another. Her ostensible dysfunction and bad situation pools and expands as we drop in on the pair in various settings (a spare apartment, a dinner party, broad windowed cafe or sitting on a park bench) getting snapshots of the evolution of their relationship. And there’s men, and sex, always there but never as important as the Jo and Maria dynamic, its inherent camaraderie and edgy jealousy.

In one drop-in, Jo quips to Maria, just back from an unsatisfactory date, “You know you have a tendency to think people are insulting you when they try to fuck you.” It’s an odd exchange, but you’re on the edge of your seat trying to dissect and plumb. You learn the title of the film is the age that Jo is diagnosed with certain mental disorders, the kind that slip under the radar and manifest themselves in bigger, more problematic ways as they become pillars of the formed adult.

Made for less than $100,000 by critic and writer Dan Sallit, “Fourteen” is a lo-fi wonder, long on talk and short on setting – the kind of small, intimate film John Cassavetes used to make. Sallit’s big win here are his two impressive leads, who should see their stock soar. They and the film have likely triumphed in ways that might not have come about without Covid-19.

The Brattle and COVID-19

18 May
The Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” a repertory staple, plays to an empty house at The Brattle Theatre, which closed its doors to the public March 14. (Photo: The Brattle Theatre)

A four-phase strategy for reopening Massachusetts businesses and public facilities was announced this week by Gov. Charlie Baker. The plan was vague on details and dates leading up to a final “new normal,” which is something like where we were before Covid-19 turned Boston into a hot zone, though Phase I presumably kicks off May 18. Just what that means and for whom seems to be a bit of a moving target. Among those with questions is the “gathering industry,” as Ivy Moylan, executive director of The Brattle Theatre, explained was how the Harvard Square repertory institution and other arts venues were tagging themselves since the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’re hoping to heal and rebound and bring back the joy,” Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle said, “but not be too quick about it. The goal is to open as quickly as possible when it’s safe to do so.” The Brattle ran a survey of its members recently to gauge what “safe” means.

A smattering of drive-ins have opened around the country, and Universal released “Trolls World Tour” digitally (making more than $100 million in three weeks of digital release, something Hinkle says likely happened due to lack of competition) while art houses such as The Brattle and Somerville Theatre have been running Virtual Screening Room selections – smaller releases such as “Deerskin” and arthouse and foreign language classics with a portion of rental fees benefiting the theater you rent from.

“As a small business, we’re pretty agile,” Moylan said. “We could come back pretty quickly.” When shuttering March 14, The Brattle did not have to furlough its employees. “Most are part time,” Moylan said, “but when we shut down, they were our first priority. We want to protect them.” Moylan said at first the shutdown was terrifying, but as things went on managers realized going offline for a while and coming back was doable. “A couple of months,” she said. “A year would be hard.” The nonprofit theater has taken in a good sum through donations and has received Payroll Protection Program funding for its employees.

There’s also the dollars rolling in from the Virtual Screening Room. “It’s great,” Hinkle said, “but a good chunk of what we and theaters make is from concessions.” The Brattle during this time has also engaged filmgoers through virtual programing (movie lists, such as our Film Ahead section has morphed into), a podcast and Friday movie nights co-sponsored with the city.

Aside from slow openings, there’s another problem that will face mainstream theaters relying on the studio system for films, Hinkle said: a dearth of product. The latest James Bond (“No Time to Die”), the next two “Mission: Impossible” chapters, “A Quiet Place Part II” and the next “Wonder Woman” installment have all had their release dates pushed by months. The Brattle, on the other hand, which plays smaller releases and repertory fare, isn’t so reliant.

“We want to bring a rich experience back to our valued patrons,” Hinkle said, “people are hungry for that type of communal experience.” The looming question remains when.

 

Spaceship Earth

10 May

 

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One of my daughter’s favorite rides at Disney World is Spaceship Earth, so it caught her attention when I told her I was seeing a movie called just that, and left her crestfallen when she learned it was essentially a Nat Geo special about old people living in a greenhouse in the desert. The documentary by Matt Wolf follows the rise and fall of (and what went horribly wrong with) Biosphere 2, the artificial environment built in Oracle, Arizona, where, from 1991 to 1993 eight people sealed themselves off in a self-sustaining complex as an experiment to see if humans could live in a contained terrarium without the regular gifts of Mother Earth – aka Biosphere 1.

The stage is set as a bunch of San Francisco idealists and entrepreneurs caught between the Wall Street greed of the 1980s and the Internet bubble conceive an experiment in controlled sustainability and, with deep pockets, build it and select their earthbound astronauts – which, like the Starship Enterprise, has a scientist, doctor, biologist and engineer among the crew. Their mission: to live in the mini Earth (it has its own sea) for two years without contact, nutrients, sustenance or air from the outside. Sunshine is fair game.

Given where we’re at today, you could view Biosphere 2 as the ultimate quarantine, but it’s when personalities take center stage that “Spaceship Earth” gets interesting. Of the eight people in scientific lockdown there’s a couple, a fitness freak physician who waves his virility wide and high to a near gonzo degree, and the must-have MacGyver, ever with screwdriver in hand and donning a utility belt as things go bust now and then. The big challenges inside the bubble come when oxygen levels get low, or one woman gets her hand caught in a straw shredder; outside, project head John Allen, who comes off as something of a cult leader, is embroiled in court proceedings regarding control of the endeavor. It’s one of a few small failings of Wolf’s doc that the enigmatic persona of Allen, a self-described ecologist and early climate change whistleblower, remains vague and unprobed. As the film has it, many in the science community labeled him a hack and Biosphere 2 a stunt producing no real data of value. Times have changed, however, and that’s another failing: There’s no contextual relevance for the experiment to our Biosphere 1 today.

Wolf’s straight-ahead use of archival footage and interviews with surviving terrarium astronauts (terranauts) is effective in conveying the more intriguing narrative of how personalities played off each other in such a confined petri dish. It’s a chronicle of a curious blip in history, a time capsule of the era and food for thought for the future, especially in these self-contained times.

The Bellmen

10 May

 

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“The Bellmen” is the kind of weak-kneed, cheeky comedy David Spade or Rob Schneider might have made a decade or so ago. It’s a lo-fi romp about a posse of misfit bellhops at a fancy Arizona resort that plays its thin premise loose and fast for sophomoric laughs; what deepens it are the inadvertently topical plot developments that involve hand sanitizer and a white person hijacking another’s heritage for their own gain.

The film centers on a boisterous, posturing hunk named Steve (Adam Ray), something of a throwback to the blow-dried salad days of Scott Baio and John Travolta. Steve’s proud and boastful of his station as bell captain, and a professed bellhop for life. His main ambitions besides quality service and landing a big tip are Kelly (Kelen Coleman, of “Big Little Lies”), the cute head concierge, and his frat boy hazing of new bellhops – if only Jerry Lewis could apply. People check in and people go, as the ribald bellmen bite their knuckles over statuesque check-ins while barely maintaining professional standards. Then there’s the big weekend where the hotel is filled with folks teeming to see a self-help spiritual guru named Gunther (Thomas Lennon, “Reno 911!”), who plays up his mystic Indian roots and arrives with a pair of comely attachés in bikinis who administer hand sanitizer liberally and regularly to a cult of wide-eyed worshipers. That hand cleanser, it turns out, does more than just sanitize: It opens your mind to the power of suggestion and loosens your purse strings. Steve smells something amiss, but he’s waived off as a goofball control freak to those slathered in the stuff.

Written and directed by Cameron Fife, extending a 2017 TV short, “Bellmen” runs freely with its shaggy dog underbelly of paradise concept, a genre for which “Caddyshack” (1980) remains the gold standard. The slack comedy notches its laughs mostly from Lennon’s slippery guru, who has an answer for everything from under a knowing, raised eyebrow, and his slinky twosome as they mind – and libido – control the masses with ease. The core story about Steve and Kelly’s budding romance never fully grabs, but Ray does get a solid opportunity to spread his comedic wings when his despondent Steve goes on a tequila bender south of the border. He’s holed up in one of those spare adobe dwellings you’d find in a Sergio Leone film, an unwanted houseguest of a señorita and her son who take pity on him but are also deeply annoyed by his drunken babbling and chest-beating bravado – which the language barrier serves only to deepen.

One can’t image Fife was tapped into the whole Covid-19 hand-sanitizer hoarding spectacle at the time of writing and filming. The timelines just don’t marry, which makes “Bellmen” both oddly timed and timely. It’s trite, innocuous fun. Just ring the bell and forget your bags.

The Third Strike

10 May

By Tom Meek

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In states such as Massachusetts, where recreational marijuana is legal, the processing for awarding sellers’ licenses has been done with a preference and prioritization for those from communities adversely impacted by drug criminalization laws. That translates mostly to people of color from inner-city enclaves, though just what “adversely impacted” means may be elusive to most looking in at the process. For anyone who’s wondering or finds that phraseology somewhat vague, Nicole Jones’ documentary “The Third Strike” arrives to set you straight.

“The Third Strike” revolves around laws enacted in the early 1980s that made a three-peat drug offender a candidate for life in prison – actually, automatically, with no deliberation or real process. That may sound good if we were talking about a violent criminal, but this is about people who deal an occasional dime of weed, something barely above a jaywalking offense today. In the threes-strikes era, a person who commits murder three times would be entitled to parole hearings and the possibility of release; deal even a small amount of weed three times and it’s essentially “a death sentence,” as one taking head in the film puts it.

To underscore the point, Jones examines the case of Edward Douglas, the first man released as a result of The First Step Act in January 2019. Key players in his freeing are attorney MiAngel Cody, who leads a liberation project, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, who talks in convincing volumes about the injustice of the “three strikes” law. Jones’ juxtaposition of Douglas’ transgression with those of hardened violent criminals is an easy sell, but the soul-shaking win of the film is the man himself, a sweet, jovial, innocent sort, looking to catch up on lost time with family and grateful rather than angry. He brims with innate warmth and obvious humanity.

The conclusions of “The Third Strike” are nothing new, but it does shed a powerful light on social inequities of color and crime and reminds us of people who did little more than spit on the sidewalk still rotting in jail, tagged with a sentence more ironclad than that of the repeat killer one cell over.

The Matrix

5 May

Neo One, Neo

published in the Boston Phoenix March, 1999

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Like Dark City, David Cronenberg’s upcoming eXistenZ, and even Sean Connery’s freaky ’70s flick ZardozThe Matrix is a feverish sci-fi thriller that combusts on the idea that man’s perceived reality is in truth a virtual veil controlled by a higher, undetected dark force. Keanu Reeves, who always looks good on screen but seems to be from the Al Gore school of drama when it comes to dialogue and emoting, finally lands in another action role (since Point Break and Speed) that works with him. Here he plays a computer nerd who goes by the alias of Neo. After an all-night hack session, he’s sought out in the flesh by a fellow on-liner named Trinity (an angular and bondage-clad Carrie-Anne Moss). She warns that “they” are watching and “they” are coming. Neo is engaged by the notion of something bigger and diabolical but nevertheless drones on in his mundane corporate hell until a trio of Men in Black assassins show up and things erupt into a spectacular FX extravaganza.

The “they” in question are agents of the new order, a world run by computers and machines, where mankind believes it exists in the prosperous 1990s when it is really enslaved as a sheepish energy source on a barren Earth nearly a century later. It’s through a creepy, digital caesarean that Neo is birthed into the resistance by Laurence Fishburne’s charismatic Morpheus, who believes the über-hack is “the one” (shades of Little Buddha?) to master “the matrix” and free man’s mind. The performances by Fishburne, Moss, and Hugo Weaving as a relentless agent are noteworthy, but the real stars of The Matrix are the Wachowski brothers (the team who made Bound) and their slick, gothic future world, where hip black garb is paramount, cyber combat is a death-defying thrill ride (heightened by the mesmerizing use of “dead time” FX), and an individual can become an instant martial-arts expert simply by downloading a program to his or her cerebral cortex.

Deerskin

2 May

‘Deerskin’: Georges’ fancy new jacket doesn’t fit, but adrift and sad in the hills, he’s a good fit for it

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A trippy arthouse horror film that’s tedious and arousing at the same time – what would one expect from the director who made “Rubber” (2010), a dark comedy about a homicidal tire that goes on a killing rampage? This one’s about a suede jacket made of (can you guess?) deerskin and its obsessive owner (Oscar winner Jean Dujardin), who appears adrift and in need of direction. Once he gets it, the outré drama set in the alluring French mountainside turns très dark as bodies quickly start to pile up.

About halfway into “Deerskin” you begin to wonder if the protagonist, Georges, is mad, and perhaps an unreliable narrator. He does pay 9K for the fringed garment of the title, which doesn’t quite fit (too small) and, as part of the odd deal (the old coot who sells it to Georges is played by Julie Delpy’s father, Albert) gets an antiquated video camera. From there, the content yet forlorn Georges settles into a nearby hamlet where he postures himself a filmmaker and quickly makes the acquaintance of a young bartender (Adele Haenel from “BPM” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), an unemployed film editor – talk about convenient circumstance.

To echo the internal malaise of Georges, director and cameraman Quentin Dupieux (also writer and editor) shoots everything in flat, washed-out hues. We’re informed early on that Georges has been spurned by his wife and left destitute, but we’re given little else to go on. Dujardin, who rolled to international fame with the 2011 silent-era Oscar winner, “The Artist,” bears the weight of the world as Georges, with eyes that are sad, heavy and weary; they also show flickers of devious inner workings. It’s a performance that carries the film through the meandering buildup, but as gears shift, Dujardin’s nuance gets submerged in the bloody boil of black comedy. There are scenes at night when Georges lies in his boardinghouse bed and talks to the jacket – and it talks back. Yes, we are in the slightly surreal realm that made “In Fabric” (1918) a lingering curiosity, but Dupieux, who moonlights as a techno-pop star, can’t fully rectify the character study of Georges with the rushed, final bloody pages. Haenel’s bartender-turned-collaborator is a game player, and deepens the stakes. She’s no waif in waiting, but a strong observer who’s onto Georges. Their collaboration on Georges’ macabre footage is unfortunately far too brief. A similarly themed curio, “Man Bites Dog” (1992) had a film crew following a serial killer on his weekly hunts. It was dark, devilish and a biting reflection of society’s obsession with grim happenings. Here those moments go by in a fast-forward montage. Questions linger and burn, and only the napped suede jacket seems to know the answers.