I've never really been a fan of baseball since I reached a certain age. When I was young, I collected baseball cards (still have quite a few), followed players, watched the games. Yet, I reached a point where I became less interested. As an adult, I look at the ticket prices and think that I can find a better way to spend an afternoon. There's a line in one of the episodes of "The Simpsons" that I find particularly hilarious - when Homer gets sober, he sits to watch the local team and finally goes, "I never realized how boring this game really is."
I still find the idea of what baseball used to be enjoyable. The smell of the grass, the roar of the crowds. You know, before it became a multi-billion dollar industry. This is why I particularly enjoyed HBO's series, "When It Was A Game", as well as why I found Billy Crystal's directorial effort, "61", entertaining, as well. Although not one of the best baseball movies ever filmed, Crystal's effort really does stand up strong against such genre entries as "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham".
The film revolves around the home run race between Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane of "Deep Blue Sea") and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper of "Saving Private Ryan") during the 1961 season. Maris is a kind and gentle figure that often remained quiet and subdued; he was also focused on the game - not only a terrific player at bat, but in the field. Mantle, on the other hand, had a way with the women and enjoyed the nightlife, which didn't always do wonders for his health. As the film progresses though, things begin to change in the way Mantle acts. In a particularly funny sequence in "61", Maris asks him over and the scene has them watching "The Andy Griffith Show". The camera pans over past two characters whistling, then reaches a completely bored looking Mantle. In another great sequence, the two players react to news footage that claims the two are having a feud.
The world latches onto the story of both players chasing Babe Ruth's home run record; Mantle doesn't quite reach the mark, but Maris does. Yet, the comissioner doesn't feel as if the fact that Ruth played less games makes it fair. So, there's an * next to the 61, which sets off additional controversy. Fans also were pulling for Mantle instead.
Crystal couldn't have made better choices when it comes to both the cast and crew of "61". Pepper and Jane are very effective in their respective roles and I'd be willing to say that both turn in their best performances yet. Jane made a superb action hero in "Deep Blue Sea", but he's both dramatic and funny here. It's impressive that the two, who apparently didn't even know a great deal about the people they were portraying, were able to inhabit their personas so well. Technically, the film looks gorgeous. Haskell Wexler's glossy cinematography gives the film a solid period look and feel, keeping the images wonderfully glossy and gorgeous. The film's production design is perfect down to the last detail, as Crystal states in the commentary that photos of the time were used to make sure that items included in the locker room lockers were there in the scene.
If anything, at 129 minutes, the film could be tightened up very slightly. Still, the performances are terrific and the film looks accurate and visually vibrant. It captures the spirit of what the game used to be perfectly.
VIDEO: "61" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen by HBO. Aside from a few minor imperfections, this is one of the very best presentations that the company has offered on DVD that I've seen. Haskell Wexler's cinematography is simply stunning, and the DVD presentation does do it fine justice. Sharpness and detail are generally quite solid. A few moments show footage that was taken from video and they appear slightly softer than other moments. Still, I certainly thought the picture seemed smooth and well-defined overall.
In fact, the only problem that I found were a few trace instances of faint pixelation. These certainly didn't pose that major of a problem, nor did a few very slight speckles on the print used. I noticed very little in the way of edge enhancement and no other problems.
Colors looked tremendously good throughout the presentation, appearing beautifully well-saturated and vibrant, with no instances of smearing or other problems. Black level looked solid, as well. Flesh tones also appeared natural and accurate. This is a very enjoyable effort from HBO.
SOUND: Rather unusual for a cable effort, "61" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Although this is a 5.1 presentation, don't expect a great deal of agressive surround use, as the material simply doesn't call for it. The outdoor baseball scenes present a very nice amount of ambience from the surrounds - crowd noise, etc., but aside from the music and ambience, the surrounds stay largely quiet. Audio quality was quite solid, as the ambient sounds when the film was on the field sounded natural and convincing, while dialogue sounded clear and natural. Generally a subtle presentation, but a nice one, nonetheless.
MENUS:: HBO offers great animated menus, with clips from the movie playing behind the main menu. The transitions between menus are a tiny bit longer than I'd like, but overall, the menus are a nice way to introduce the film, nonetheless.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Billy Crystal. Crystal has provided commentary before for "Analyze This". His infrequent comments there had me prepared for an equivalent here, but I was very pleasantly suprised. In fact, this is definitely one of the best commentaries that I've listened to in quite some time. A gigantic baseball fan and very knowledgable about the game, Crystal lets us in on a wealth of production information while also including some tidbits about the history behind the scenes. Crystal is fairly serious throughout the commentary, but there's the occasional funny moment throughout the track. A few minor pauses of silence are on the track here and there, but Crystal really keeps things going wonderfully. A stellar commentary and well worth listening to.
The Making Of 61: This is a nicely produced 50 minute documentary that focuses on not only the production itself, but the history behind the story the movie focuses on. Crystal himself hosts this look behind-the-scenes and although his statements do get a little sappy at times, it's obvious that he truly has a great love for the game. Some of this gets a little "clip-heavy", but I felt that it was an engaging and interesting piece, worth viewing.
Also: Trailer, bios, Mantle and Maris bios & stats, 61 Home Run List and DVD-Rom weblinks.
Final Thoughts: "61" is a triumph from director Crystal and everyone else involved, a really superb picture that wonderfully captures the game and the era. HBO's DVD is also one of their best efforts, presenting the movie with fine audio/video quality and a group of informative and entertaining supplements. Highly Recommended, especially at the low $19.99 price tag.