Off the Black [Import]
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Nick Nolte stars as Ray Cooke a disheveled grumpy high school umpire who forms an unlikely friendship with a troubled teenager Dave Tibbel (Morgan). As the two grow more dependent on each other Ray asks Dave to go to his 40th high school reunion and pretend to be his son a benevolent act of deception that winds up opening unexpected dimensions in the two men.Runtime: 92 minsFormat: DVD MOVIE Genre: DRAMA Rating: R UPC: 821575549653 Manufacturer No: TF-54965
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Within seconds, literally, we are introduced to young Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan). He's standing on the pitcher's mound, sweat beaded on his brow, studying the catcher's signals. His face completely fills the screen, as if the director is saying, "here you go. If you don't like what you see, this will be tough for you. If you do, sit back and watch the story develop." The story is that of a relationship between Dave and someone else, of course. But that someone is no blonde bombshell or voluptuous vixen. The other half of that relationship is Ray Cook (Nick Nolte), the ump standing behind home plate. But this is not "Brokeback Baseball," no, although surely that may enter your mind. It's something else. It's something rarely explored in American cinema, and it's bold and daring. It's a love story -- a good old-fashioned romance between two individuals who just happen to be male, and it's totally platonic. "Is this possible?" you may ask. It sure is, and "Off the Black" will prove it to you.
This film is made with passion and care. The soft, natural lighting of the interiors allows the full mystery of the characters to flourish. Single point lighting allows interplay of light and shadow which echoes the bright and dark sides of Dave and Ray, as well as the family members who surround them. Dave's father Tom (Timothy Hutton), withdrawn and distant. Sister Ashley (Sonia Feigelson), on the cusp of adulthood, gawky and afraid. All have secrets to tell, but don't, or won't, or can't. Cinematographer Tim Orr manages to find beauty in every little thing -- contrails, dripping gutters, siding and eaves and gently sloping roofs. And the countryside -- oh my. The lush scenery of the Catskills is indescribable. The setting is supposed to be Ponsoldt's Georgia home. But it could be anywhere where sea and sky and small towns predominate. Some of the shots are literally breathtaking. I found myself gasping several times. But what tugged at my heart even more was the sparse, almost homespun soundtrack. Punctuated by the occasional train whistle in the distance, the music never distracted, never shouted, "this is important." The contrast between the beauty of the setting and the ugliness of the fractured individuals who populate it is stark. It is on this canvas that writer-director James Ponsoldt, in his first feature, crafts a work of art that is simply one of the most poignant love stories imaginable. The protagonists meet, get tangled in tension and deception, and finally fall in love. Occasionally that's followed by breakup and tragedy. Ponsoldt has said that he actually wrote the film as a romantic love story. It just happened to be played by two male actors and is platonic.
To be honest, the film can be hard to watch at times. Nolte's portrayal of the seldom sober Ray is unsettling and painful, like a bad toothache that you can't wait to be pulled. Morgan's sensitive, vulnerable, sad-eyed Dave is like a puppy cowering beneath Ray's rolled up newspaper. But the bravado falls away on Ray's part, the sarcastic self-confidence and humor emerges from Dave, and the boy who needs a father draws closer to the man who needs a son. Finally, what makes this film so joyful to watch is the interplay between the two. It is all so natural that it seemed unscripted. As it turned out, much of it was. Ponsoldt has admitted that he gave free reign to Nolte and Morgan quite often, and some of the best lines in the film were theirs and theirs alone. And only the best directors are willing to step back and let that happen. And only the best actors can pull it off. Most will not be surprised at Nolte's performance -- he is, after all, a veteran if there ever was one. But "Off the Black" could be the vehicle which puts Trevor Morgan on filmgoers' radar, if it's not already. I'd seen his work before (he was Ponsoldt's first choice, largely based on his performance in the indie classic "Mean Creek"), but he carries this film so confidently and easily that it left me shaking my head in wonderment. And with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face. "Off the Black" will do that to you.
Also worthy of mention are a very natural performance by Trevor Morgan, an understated Timothy Hutton and a surprise (to me) appearance by Sally Kirkland. A very nice movie for fans of indie films or character studies.
It is Nolte who carries the entire film, really. And it probably wasn't that much of a stretch for him to play the drunken Cook character considering Nolte's past notices on the local news. Which, of course, made him the perfect casting choice. His gravelly voice and fading good looks matched Ray Cook's persona to a tee. When Ray finds a bunch of team members toilet-papering his home, he's able to catch one of them and, of course, it's Dave Tibbel. They strike up an interesting relationship. Dave needs something more of a father figure (which he's not getting at home), while Ray needs to connect with someone from the outside world in a meaningful way.
The two bond in father/son fashion one night after Ray takes Dave to his 40 year class reunion posing as Ray's son. It is here that Dave learns much about this enigmatic patriarchal man. Ray has a real son that he sends video recordings of himself to, only to have most of them returned unopened. Ray leans on Dave as a crutch and Dave does likewise to Ray, each needing and receiving something from the other. And it isn't always a "good" something. But it is a needful something that leads both of them to an understanding of what lay ahead. For Ray, it's not a good thing, as he recently received some bad news from his doctor. For Dave, we just aren't sure because his home-life seems totally dysfunctional.
Nolte's performance is outstanding, but it is his performance (and only his performance) that pulls the story along in any satisfying way. Trevor Morgan tries his damnedest to match Nolte but can't quite muster enough of himself to make his Dave character very sympathetic. Timothy Hutton did a fine job as the depressed father but has so little screen time that you never get a good sense of him. Dave's sister Ashley played by Sonia Feigelson is another example of a character that could've pulled in some emotional weight but was never given enough time on-screen.
So the entire production felt a bit stilted, hedging all of its bets on Nolte's shoulder ...which was probably for the best considering the overall story/script.
Nick Nolte plays an old-school Baseball Umpire called Ray Cook - a 57-year old drunk by night barely holding it together on the field by day. At the very beginning of the movie, Ray makes what most of the town considers is a 'bad call' on the pitch of a minor Leagues game. The recipient of this gaff is a young baseball hopeful called Dave Tibbel (played by Trevor Morgan - he looks like the son of Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley) and it changes both of their lives forever.
In revenge for the sending off, Morgan and two of his mouthy team-mates shower Nolte's home that night with toilet rolls, spray paint his driveway with a dick drawing, break his car window and generally vandalize his property. But the young and inexperienced Morgan gets caught in the act by a boozed-up Nolte who vows that Morgan will have to pay for his actions - in short - clean up the mess. Morgan's character David - being essentially a nice kid - agrees - and over the next few days, they enter into an unexpected and unlikely bond - David slowly becoming the son that loser Nolte never had.
While this is going on, David's real father, Timothy Hutton, offers little help to either him or his lost little sister at home. David's sister is played by Sally Kirkland - who looks like a young Natalie Portman - just as beautiful and an actress that's definitely one to watch. Hutton's character is a man who's lost his wife two years back for inexplicable reasons (possibly mental illness, maybe drink) and seems to have mentally checked-out ever since. He offers his kids mumbles at the breakfast table, distant platitudes that have no teeth. He seems more lost in his own way than Nolte's character is - and gives the two kids worry instead of real guidance when they need it the most. Both the young Morgan and Kirkland are fantastic in these scenes - displaying a confidence and calm in the presence of such big hitters as Nolte and Hutton.
Nolte gets a diagnosis from his doctor that is unsurprising given that he has a cold tin in his hand for most of the movie. There isn't much time left. Nolte then gets his annual high-school reunion of '66 invitation in the post, which he would normally bin, but not this year. He persuades young David to accompany him to the reunion - pretending to be his son - the boy agrees. And on the story goes.
"Off The Black" is a Baseball term - it's the Umpire's call - and his call sends the Pitcher who threw the ball either into the ecstasy of winning or the misery of losing for his whole team. It's a film that has little real story but says a lot - and contains scene-stealing performances from the whole cast (most of whom are young) but especially from the gruff and growly Nolte - who could just stand there and you'd still love him...
I liked it a lot - "Off The Black" has heart and is well worth checking out. Destined I suspect to become a cult classic.