Off the Black Review

Ray Cook (Nick Nolte) is a washed-up, alcoholic, high-school baseball umpire. When his call goes against the home team he’s not popular…so much so that three kids decide to vandalise his car to teach him a lesson. But Ray catches one of them in the act – Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan). Ray makes a deal with Dave: he’ll cancel the debt for the damage if he’ll pretend to be his son at Ray’s fortieth anniversary school reunion.

Off the Black is a slow-burning character drama about a bond that develops between an older man and a younger one. It’s not hard to guess where it’s going – particularly as we find out early on that Ray is terminally ill, though the other characters don’t know this. With a film like this, a lot depends on the actors, and especially the two leads. Nick Nolte has carved out a niche for himself in the last decade or so in indie films like this and he’s a dominating presence here, more than usually large and bearlike, with a voice even more gravelly than it usually is. It’s a tribute to Trevor Morgan that he isn’t overshadowed by Nolte’s performance. (Morgan has been acting steadily for a decade, though I can’t pretend to have noticed him before.) A strong supporting cast includes Timothy Hutton as Dave’s father and Sally Kirkland as Ray’s old flame he meets again at the reunion.

James Ponsoldt’s film – his debut as writer and director – is an archetypal indie, with its emphasis on character rather than plot. Depending on taste, this approach may try some viewers’ patience, particularly as Ponsoldt takes us down a few alleyways that are more grace notes than strictly contributory: Dave’s sister Ashley (Sonia Feigelson) singing “Clementine” and entire semi-subplots involving an unwed mother friend of Ray’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Ray’s father, who has Alzheimer’s (Michael Higgins). The film certainly looks a lot slicker than many a low-budgeter – Tim Orr’s Scope camerawork (shot with anamorphic lenses, not Super 35) ensures this.

Off the Black is the sort of character-led film that major studios hardly ever make any more, having become indie material over the last couple of decades. It’s not without flaws – the pacing is sometimes off, with scenes ending too abruptly – but it’s made with enough confidence and is well enough acted to be well worth a look.

Axiom’s release of Off the Black is a dual-layered PAL disc, encoded for Region 2 only. The transfer is in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and widescreen-enhanced. Given that this is a brand-new film there’s no excuse for the transfer being less than excellent, and it is. This isn’t a long film, and it benefits from the extra space of a DVD-9 with a healthy bitrate. Colours are vivid, blacks strong and blacks solid.

According to the end credits, Off the Blue was released with a Dolby Digital soundtrack, but we have a 2.0 track on this DVD and not a 5.1. Playing this track in ProLogic mode, it’s pretty much monophonic anyway, with almost everything coming through the centre speaker and very little use of left, right or surround. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are provided.

The main extra is a commentary by James Ponsoldt. This is an interesting talk which covers the usual bases and some you don’t often hear about, such as the reasons for filming in 35mm anamorphic and the difficulties in finding agreement to do this. Ponsoldt also mentions that some of the music in the film had to be changed in between the Sundance showing and commercial release due to rights clearances being too expensive. He namechecks a few of his influences, such as the early character comedies of Jonathan Demme, in particular Melvin and Howard and also Barbara Loden's 1971 indie Wanda, which also features Michael Higgins.

Also on the DVD is a production video diary, a mixture of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews. This featurette scores some points by highlighting some of the people you don’t normally see, such as camera interns and prop makers, as well as the cinematographer, costume designer and the writer/director. This extra is in non-anamorphic 16:9 and runs 22:13.

The extras are concluded by a stills gallery. As with Axiom’s DVD of Spanking the Monkey, released the same day, this is a series of colour images arranged in story order, so it would be best not to view this before watching the film.

Off the Black is an unassuming “little” movie, possibly too low-key for some people and maybe not “essential” because of its littleness. But it’s a pleasant, well-acted and poignant film, and it will be interesting to see what James Ponsoldt does next.

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