The Bag Man
⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for violence, sexual content and language.
Theater: Eden Prairie.
The movies of Robert De Niro are a crapshoot these days. I can’t say that he’s actually good as a flamboyant crime boss in “The Bag Man,” but he’s certainly fun to watch. His character pays John Cusack, a trusted courier, “an exorbitant amount of money” to bring a zippered bag to a podunk motel and await instructions. There’s one ironclad rule: Don’t look in the bag. Cusack, doing his long-suffering thing, runs afoul of the clerk, played by the stratospherically weird Crispin Glover. He shields an Amazonian hooker (Brazilian model Rebecca Da Costa) from her tiny but dangerous pimp and repeatedly butts heads with a genteel, menacing good-ol’-boy sheriff (Dominic Purcell.) There’s much sub-Coenesque violence, corpse disposal and skulduggery with the underhanded De Niro always maintaining the upper hand.
Decked out in Mr. Magoo glasses and a bouffant hairdo worthy of a Miami Beach dowager, De Niro delivers wackadoodle speeches name-checking Sun Tzu and Herman Hesse. Once an academic researching international crime, he decided to take the plunge and live the life rather than lecture about it. He switched paths, he explains, after “watching an episode of ‘Full House’ where Jesse goes bungee jumping with Becky. Changed my whole life.” At one point, he holds forth on Hesse’s novel “Magister Ludi,” whose title is Latin for “master of the game.” Belittling Cusack’s efforts to keep up with his lightning-fast scheming, De Niro taunts, “Don’t you think you should give the master of the game a better game?” You couldn’t hope for a better summary of his current career.
⋆ out of four stars
Unrated but suitable for all.
The “oh, come off it” art movie of 2014. Director Godfrey Reggio (of 1982’s avant garde image-dump “Koyaanisqatsi” and three sequels) gives us 74 sustained shots, mostly of monumental faces, set to a Philip Glass loop-de-loop score. The gist is there is no gist. The effect is like encountering a coffeetable book with delusions of grandeur. It’s true that much of our neurological real estate is devoted to reading expressions, but do 90 minutes of slow-motion portrait photography in stark black and white constitute a film? Those shots of a pensive gorilla (awwww) and an abandoned amusement park (sad!) have got to mean something, right? Right.
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated: Violent images and language. In subtitled Hebrew and Arabic.
There’s a quality of biblical tragedy to this Mideast spy drama, which was Israel’s 2013 Academy Award submission. It’s a primal conflict, the story of a child coming of age between two father figures. Sanfur (Sahdi Marei) is the teenaged brother of a wanted Palestinian militant. Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli military intelligence officer who has spent years cultivating Sanfur as a mole, pumps him for information that can thwart suicide bombers. He also gives the sullen boy more guidance, attention and kindness than his biological father.
Debut filmmaker Yuval Adler reportedly was an Israeli spook, which would account for the film’s rich and persuasive spy-world detail. “Bethlehem,” cowritten with Muslim journalist Ali Waked, presents an even-handed if pessimistic portrait of its characters and the outlook for peace. The infighting between rival Palestinian factions is as rabid and deadly as their battles against Israelis. And that nation’s approach to combat is portrayed unsparingly, with Israeli soldiers winning battle after battle yet pushing ever deeper into a quagmire. There’s a “Zero Dark Thirty” level of tension in a scene of troops demolishing a bystander’s house in a firefight with a fugitive militant. Nerve shredding as it is, the most resonant emotion is the feeling that another family will be radicalized in this self-defeating victory.
Halevi makes a charismatic and sympathetic hero, with real feelings for the boy he has essentially raised. Marei taps into a convincing vein of youthful distress and rage as he comes to terms with his dangerous situation. Swap the characters’ contemporary clothes for historical garb and the bloody climax between the emotionally tormented boy and the ethically compromised man could be a scene of Old Testament retribution.