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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Off The Black (2006/DVD-Video)

Off The Black (2006/DVD-Video)


Picture: B     Sound: C+     Extras: B-     Film: B



After having some "terrible experiences" while making big-studio movies -- most notably co-starring with Julia Roberts in the failed romantic comedy I Love Trouble (1994) -- Nick Nolte decided to sacrifice the big paydays and stick to doing independent films.  Over the past decade, aside from taking a supporting role in 2003's The Hulk, he's kept his word, and has proven himself an actor with a lot of artistic integrity.


The salaries aren't nearly as high, but indie films give Nolte the opportunity to play the kind of interesting characters he'd never be able to portray in the increasingly shallow, youth-friendly movies coming out of the major studios today.  One such character is Ray Cook in writer-director James Ponsoldt's promising first feature film, Off the Black.


Ray is the kind of deeply unhappy, solitary character movies are seldom about anymore, living the kind of lower-middle-class life seldom explored in movies that aren't crime-related.


Living a life of quiet desperation in a small, upper-New York state town, Ray works alone by day crushing old cars in a junkyard, and makes a few extra bucks on the side umpiring high-school baseball games -- the term "off the black" means a pitch that is nearly a strike that's called a ball because it barely misses the outer-most black portion of the plate.


When Ray calls a close pitch a ball on high-school pitcher Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan) that results in him walking in the winning run, the whole town is seemingly angry at Ray.  After all, the pitch in question was just "off the black."  Later that night, while spending the evening the way he usually does -- sitting watching television until he drinks enough beer to pass out -- Ray awakens to find a few masked young men vandalizing his property. Ray catches one of the young vandals, who turns out to be none other than Dave Tibbel.


Ray won't call the cops if the kid promises to clean up the mess, and eventually gets around to making a proposition:  For one night, he asks Dave to masquerade as his son at his 40th high-school reunion.  It's been all downhill for Ray since high school, and he wants just one last chance to recapture what it felt like to be the star athlete in high school without his former classmates knowing how miserable life's become for him.  Dave reluctantly agrees, but soon finds himself enjoying Ray's company, and the two are hanging out.  It's the most socializing Ray has done in years.


Turns out Ray has a real son not much older than Dave that he hasn't seen in years.  He regularly makes videotapes of himself talking into the camera, and then sends the tapes to his estranged son.  Most of the tapes come back unopened with no reply, but every once in a while one doesn't come back, which is enough incentive for Ray to keep making them.


Off the Black is a modest, leisurely and sad slice of life about the unlikely friendship between a young man with a lot of living and learning to do and an older man who's experienced many disappointments in life, and doesn't have much time left.  Ray, you see, has a terminal illness that is well-advanced.  He knows his time is limited.


We discover that young Dave's life ain't exactly a bowl of cherries either.  A few years back, Dave's mother ran out on the family, leaving Dave's father (Timothy Hutton, who co-starred with Nolte in Sidney Lumet's Q & A) to raise Dave and his little sister (Sonia Feigelson).  Dave's dad has been an emotional cripple ever since, and Dave's anger about his father's inability to communicate makes Ray a welcome surrogate --  at least Ray talks to him.


Ponsoldt's debut is full of quiet heartache, and effectively establishes a consistent melancholy tone.  And Nolte is exceptional.  You can just see the pain in his face.  He's so honest and real here that it leaves you wanting more of his character.  The film runs just 91 minutes, and that's why the introduction of a potential love interest for Dave (a single mom played by Rosemarie DeWitt) seems extraneous.  Her few scenes take up valuable screen time that should have remained focused on Ray.


THINKFilm’s DVD of Off the Black presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound.  The picture quality is quite good, but the sound is a bit weak, likely due to the low budget nature of the production.  Extras include a feature-length audio commentary by Ponsoldt, a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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