Friday, October 2, 2015

Black Mass

Dinner and a Movie

Black Basque

By Steve Herte

Black Mass (WB, 2015) – Director: Scott Cooper. Writers: Mark Mallouk & Jez Butterworth (s/p). Dick Lehr & Gerard O’Neill (book). Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mary Klug, David De Beck, & Luke Ryan. Color, Rated R, 122 minutes.

Don’t call him ‘Whitey.’ He doesn’t like to be called that.” Extremely good advice.

Were it not for the lead actor in this film, I probably would not have seen it, and I would have been much the worse for that mistake. I admit, I haven’t followed Johnny Depp’s career from its inception (he only caught my attention with Edward Scissorhands in 1990) but since then I’ve become a pretty avid fan. For me, he’s the new Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, and this latest role is such a diametrical departure from Captain Jack Sparrow, I had to see it. I didn’t even recognize him from the trailers. Otherwise, gangster films are not my cup of tea.

In a way, this film begins at the end and goes forward, depending on the answers to police interrogations of Kevin Weeks (Plemons) and Steve Flemmi (Cochrane) and various members of the Winter Hill Gang after their capture.

Fresh out of Alcatraz, Jimmy (Whitey) Bulger (Depp) returns to his childhood neighborhood and rejoins his cronies in South Boston. He’s devoted to his mother (Klug) – even though he believes she cheats at bridge – and he loves his wife Lindsey (Johnson) and young son Douglas (Ryan). His organization – if you can call it that, alternately known as the Irish Mob – gets its main funding from loan sharking and vending machine concessions. Both operations are in direct competition with the Italian counterpart in the North End run by the Angiulo family, who have ties to the Mafia. Both groups control the streets of Boston in 1975 but the north is starting to invade the south.

Enter, FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) who grew up with Bulger, and he has a plan. He knows Jimmy would like to eliminate his competition and, since he’s the only person who can make an alliance with him and have it not sound like he’s “ratting” anyone out (Jimmy may be a second-rate criminal, but he’s no rat), he meets with Jimmy and gets him to agree. For obtaining information leading to the arrest of the Angiulo brothers, the Winter Hill Gang will be protected from any backlash and cleared of any wrongdoing.

John involves Jimmy’s brother, Billy (Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts senator and currently the most powerful man in town on the deal and eventually convinces his boss, Charles McGuire (Bacon) that the scheme will work. John’s best friend and co-worker, John Morris (Harbour) loyally backs Connolly up on every stage. But John totally misjudges Jimmy. Bad idea.

Jimmy fills in his right-hand man, Steve Femmi, on this unusual opportunity – who, by the way, is naturally suspicious of working with the FBI – and he translates it as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Steve would normally follow Jimmy blindly, but when he hears that not only would they have the police fighting their battles for them, they could do whatever they please, he’s in. With Kevin, they “remove” the lesser members of the Italian mob while doing photo surveillance on a possible hideout. But just when McGuire thinks Jimmy’s not holding up his end of the deal and berates Connolly for making it, John strolls in with an envelope full of eight-by-ten photos of the Arguilo hide-out, they get a tape of the brothers plotting a hit, and they are able to corner and capture the entire gang.

That leaves the Winter Hill Gang now free to expand into drug dealing and eventually the jai alai betting based in Florida. (All this and Heaven too, without repercussions.) One member of the gang, Brian Halloran (Sarsgaard), feels free enough to shoot two enemies at his table in a busy restaurant and calmly walk out.

But no one is as coldly violent or as explosive as is Jimmy. When he loses his son to Reye syndrome, it breaks up his marriage (he blames his wife for not taking Douglas to the doctor immediately). Subsequently, his mother dies, and he can’t even be one of the pallbearers – he’s too public a figure. He now loses all restraints. Anyone that can possibly stand in his way is murdered. He strangles Steve’s prostitute stepdaughter in front of him and commands him to “clean up your mess” after they pick her up at the police station. It’s a new reign of terror.

Fred Wyshak (Stoll), a righteous hotshot prosecutor, arrives at South Boston police station wondering why Jimmy Bulger has not been arrested for his various crimes. John Connolly tries to explain, but to no avail. He tries to get Billy’s help, but Billy has to think of his own career and future and calmly throws him out of his office.

Things go from bad to worse when Jimmy has John Martorano (Brown) gun down Roger Wheeler (De Beck), a Tulsa businessman who had the misfortune of buying the World Jai Alai contract, a killing easily linked to Jimmy. And then, learning of the struggles in Ireland, he arranges for a shipload of guns to be sent to the Irish Republican Army on the Valhalla – which is stopped at the port by Irish customs. This is also easily linked to the Winter Hill Gang. Wyshak and McGuire investigate Connolly’s doings with Jimmy and it leads to Morris’ revelation of the true nature of the “alliance.”

The story of “Jimmy Bulger, Informant to the FBI” is deliberately leaked to the Boston Globe in 1995 and Jimmy realizes that his days in Boston are numbered. He leaves Boston and his gang members are arrested one by one – which brings us back to the beginning.

Black Mass is a powerful movie based on a true story and is a fancy metaphor for the “Unholy Alliance” made between an FBI agent and a mob boss. Although the acting is excellent throughout the cast, Depp is terrifyingly superb. I actually believed he’d shoot me if I looked at him the wrong way. The make-up department did such a good job, that, when asked, several of Bulger’s surviving gang members saw him and remarked, “That’s Whitey!” The only time I could see how thick the make-up was, was in an indoor close-up. Otherwise, it was great. It seemed like a role rehearsed so perfectly that it would be difficult to come out of it and just be Depp again.

At two hours and two minutes, this film had no dead spots, no shifting in the seat (but that could have just been the comfy plush leather rockers in the Chelsea Bow Tie Cinemas). It was either extreme tension or action, supported by a beautifully orchestrated soundtrack, with lots of gore and tons of vulgarity – definitely not for kids. In fact, if the “f” word were removed from it, there would only be 16 minutes of dialogue left.

As my readers know, I look for the “Wow!” factor in any movie and this one had it in spades. I see a definite Best Actor nomination coming for Depp in the next Academy Awards. And as in the old TV police dramas, there are brief descriptions at the end of the movie that tell the audience what happened to the major characters. I wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t until 2011 that the police caught up with and arrested Bulger in Santa Monica, California. Wow!

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Txikito (pronounced, “Chih – key – toe”)
240 9th Ave. (between 24th and 25th Streets)New York

Did you know that West 24th Street in Manhattan makes an “s” curve between 8th and 9th Avenues? Neither did I until I walked from the theater to Txikito. Located in the middle of a mini strip mall, it was almost “miss-able.” All the shops have matching black borders above the entrances with the names of the establishments in white script. It was a lovely evening, weather-wise and Txikito was fully open to the sidewalk with a few blonde-wood tables outside the restaurant proper.

Inside, all is ponderous wood paneling and bright red tabletops lit by three cylindrical swags over the bar on the right and circular sconces on the walls. There are also votive candles on each table. When I announced my reservation at the Captain’s Station, which was at the end of the bar, the young lady gave me a choice of a seat at the bar, a table next to the bar, or one in back. I chose the latter. From my viewpoint, the heavy wood on the walls made it seem like I was a passenger on a sturdy old-time sailing ship (except for the view of 9th Avenue out the front).

The name, pronounced exactly like the Spanish “chiquito” means “little one,” and in this case, refers to a small glass of wine. Shortly after I was seated, my server, Amy, arrived with a pitcher of water and the menu card (food on one side, drinks on the other). I confirmed with her the correct sound of the restaurant name and learned that it’s been seven years since they opened.

After an appropriate amount of time, Amy asked if I wanted a cocktail and I chose the El Cantábrico (Bay of Biscay) – Greenhook Old Tom gin, Aperol, Sweet Vermouth, Fever Tree ginger beer, and lemon. I would guess that the servers here have very little problem with spilling drinks when Amy served mine in a half-filled plastic tumbler, which would have worked very well as a water glass. The main flavor of the drink came from the ginger beer and a slight kick from the gin, a refreshing start.

The food menu had classifications in Basque: Para Picar (for picking or choosing), Pintxos (small plates or appetizers, both cold and hot), Verduras y Ensaladas (greens and salads), Del Mar (from the sea), and Carnes (meat dishes). There was, oddly, no side-dish category. But this was easily cleared up later, and logically so. Basque country is situated between Spain and France and the cuisine has influences from both. Here, the Spanish “tapas” is the rule and a vegetable pintxo could double as a side.

Before I delved into the menu, Amy listed the specials for the day, which were written on a blackboard at the front of the bar and thus unreadable from my viewpoint. She then left me to decide. Upon her return, I was ready with three courses. She assured me that I hadn’t chosen too much food. For the wine, I chose a Spanish varietal, the 2009 Basilio Izquierdo “Acodo,” a lovely blend of rioja, tempranillo and garnacha. Up until Amy uncorked it, I had wondered what the little shelf above my table on the wall was for. After she poured and I tasted the excellent red, she placed both the bottle and the tumbler (yes, a very informal glass) on the metal shelf. The wine was a pleasant ruby color and a light tannin flavor with a tart grapy overtone that eventually would match the dishes I chose. The only drawback was that it was a little too cool in temperature for a red.

While I waited for the wine to breathe the appetizer arrived. The Txangurro a la Donostiarra (Donosti style crab) – a “montadito” (a flavorful topping “riding” on a slice of baguette) of deviled crab – was a mouth-watering enigma. I didn’t know if it was finger-food or to be eaten with knife and fork. It turns out that either is correct. The finely chopped crabmeat was mixed with Spanish paprika and other spices and was delightful no matter how you ate it.

The next course was one of the specials and was classified as salad. The Conejo (rabbit) was a corn salad with rabbit meat pulled off the bone in sofrito pepper sauce (tomatoes, onion, garlic and oil). It was as colorful as it was delicious, with the yellow corn, the pale beige meat, the green parsley garnish and the reddish-brown sauce. The slightly spicy sauce added interest to the sweet corn and savory rabbit.

My main course was also the size of a “tapas” (surprise!) and I chose it because I’ve not had beef tongue in over 20 years. (It’s one of those things you actually liked as a child, or not.) The Lengua, three thin slices of crispy-coated beef tongue with mustard Española and cornichons (gerkins) was as much a surprise to my taste buds as it was to my eyes. The meat was so thinly sliced I really could not get the flavor I remembered but there was no doubt about the Spanish mustard’s sting. The cornichons flavor combined to give an eggplant-like taste to the dish, which was intriguing. Upon finishing it though, I was ready for more food.

It was time for Amy to help. She asked if I wanted to “add on” dishes before I could say it. After determining that there were two categories on the menu I hadn’t ordered from we chose the Láminas de Setas – thinly sliced King Oyster mushrooms, garlic/oil, Marcona almonds and Roncal (a cheese). This was easily the prettiest dish. Made golden by the all-encompassing sauce, the delicate, paper-thin slices of mushroom were placed like petals of a dahlia on the plate and were sprinkled in green, white and red by parsley, almonds and tomatoes. It only had a light woodsy flavor from the mushrooms, but blended with the garlic and slightly salty oil and the whole experience was a totally new delicacy for me.

Though there were several interesting desserts on the menu (separate from the main one) I chose the cheese plate, not only because I love cheese, but because it made me feel more continental. Arranged nicely on the plate were three wedge-shaped slices of cheese – two Spanish and one French – and a larger wedge of a fine French bleu cheese, accompanied by walnut halves and slices of quince jelly, and a plate of baguette slices. The French cheeses were more assertive in flavor and hence, more to my preference, but all were delicious. In fact, it’s the only dish I ate before taking a picture of it – greedy me.

Amy knew I would have a double espresso without my telling her and I chose the Patxaran – a sloe-flavored (plum) Basque liqueur from Navarre – as my after-dinner drink. How much of this wonderful meal was truly Basque, I would have to ask of a native of that country. It was only my third venture into the cuisine and the last one was many years ago. All I know is that I enjoyed every bite and sip. While I was finishing up, Amy came over and asked, “So what’s with all the lions?” (Referring to my rings, pendant and wallet cover.) “I’m a Leo!” “So am I!” “What month?” “July.” “Gee, there usually are more August Leos than July ones. What day?” “The 26th, me and Mick Jagger.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. Amy and I were born on the same day of the same month.

Restaurant 2,690 was complete with surprises, both gustatory and social. Chefs and co-owners Eder Montero and Alexandra Raij have been doing something remarkable over their seven years and I believe I will be back.

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