Wednesday, July 6, 2011

61* Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Taking  nostalgic look at one of the greatest baseball teams and most memorable seasons in the game’s history, spotlights the summer of 1961, when Maris and Mantle chased one of the  most hallowed baseball records ever – Babe Ruth’s 1927 single-season mark of 60 home runs.  In the spotlight of the press and at the mercy of public opinion, Maris and Mantle paid a high personal price for doing what they did best, when what should have been a season of triumph turned into a nightmare.  Ultimately, it was their deep friendship and mutual respect that saw them through their historic pursuit.  61* refers to the asterisk that baseball commissioner Ford Frick affixed next to any season record set after 154 games (by 1961, the American League has expanded to a 162-game schedule). The “distinctive mark” showed that it had taken Maris 162 games to break Ruth’s 154 games record.  It was not until 1991 that the qualifier on Maris’s achievement was lifted.

Film (4 out of 5 stars) 

Billy Crystal’s heartfelt ode to the New York Yankees and even baseball itself, 61* tells the story of two men’s friendship and their race to beat Babe Ruth’s record for home runs.  Mickey Mantle (Thomas Jane) is a longtime fixture of the Yankees and is beloved by the fans and the press. Roger Maris (Barry Pepper) is fairly new to the team and isn’t as loved as Mantle despite his incredible playing ability and winning the Most Valuable Player award the previous season.

Despite being the team’s most popular player, Mantle’s private life is hurting his performance on the field due to his incessant drinking and carousing.  Amazingly enough, his teammates do their best to help him even though he is dragging them down.  Whitey Ford (Anthony Michael Hall) keeps bailing him out of trouble much to his own expense and Mantle gets so out of control that Maris and and Cerv (Chris Bauer) invite him to live with them in Brooklyn in an effort to keep him out of trouble.  Both Maris and Mantle both miss their families who live far away although Maris is more of a family man than the hard living Mantle.

Initially, it’s Mantle who is red hot and Maris is the one struggling through a slump but eventually things change and Maris is on a roll.  Even his new hot streak doesn’t endear him to the press or the public who still hammer away at his self-confidence and self-esteem.  It doesn’t help that the press seems to be out to get him either through false stories of Mantle and him feuding or by taking his comments out of context.  While Mantle is comfortable in the spotlight and can deal with the press and the fans easily, Maris struggles to walk the fine line of fulfilling his obligations to the fans and the press even when most of the time it backfires on him in some way.

Jane and Pepper not only look eerily similar to the people they are portraying, but I can’t imagine more honest and true performances being done by anyone else.  The both inhabit their characters so well that the movie feels very authentic and as if it was captured from real life.  The movie also is helped by some of the best character actors around like Bruce McGill, Christopher MacDonald, Bob Gunton, Richard Masur, Peter Jacobson, Seymour Cassell,  Connor Trinneer, and more. Crystal does an admirable job keeping the viewers interested in an already well known outcome and also manages to keep the film balanced without it becoming too caught up with baseball minutiae or get too melodramatic.

Video (5 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks practically perfect just like the rest of of HBO’s Blu-ray releases. Detail is sharp, colors are distinct, and all of that shouldn’t come as any surprise since the legendary Haskell Wexler is the film’s cinematographer.  Flesh tones look natural and lifelike and the black levels are suitably inky.  The shots on the field look beautiful and everything about the film feels real partly due to the incredible job Wexler did capturing the textures, light, and colors of the film.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also very good and it’s a perfect fit along with the picture quality.  The sounds of a baseball game are true to life and replicated here to great effect.  From the roar of the crowd, to the crack of each time a bat knocks one out of the park, this is a very good lossless audio mix.  There’s also some very nice directionality that sounds great for the scenes in the stadium and adds quite a bit immersiveness to the movie.  I especially liked the delay effect from the gamer announcers introductions and play by play that made me feel like I was in the park.  Dialogue is clear and understandable and the music by Marc Shaiman is also well balanced and utilized well.

Special Features (3 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

The extras on the disc are pretty good with “The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of 61*,” featurette being my favorite, the others are also interesting as well.  I would have liked to have seen some extensive actual footage of the two players included on this disc, but I guess I can get that from other sources.
  • Audio Commentary with Billy Crystal – A insightful and loose commentary where Crystal recounts the challenges of making the film on a tight schedule and everything that went into making it happen.  This is a wide-ranging commentary and it’s filled with interesting tidbits and anecdotes.  If you weren’t already aware that he’s a baseball fanatic before this, this commentary track will correct that quickly!
  • The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of 61* - While a lot of this behind the scenes look is already covered by the director’s commentary, I still think this is the best extra on the disc and recommend watching it.  Crystal takes us behind the scenes and explains his love for the game and the Yankees and offers a personal glimpse into the reasons he wanted to make this film.
  • Mickey Mantle Bio and Hitting/Fielding Stats – A short bio of Mantle and his stats.
  • Roger Maris Bio and Batting/Fielding Stats – A short bio of Maris and his stats.
  • Roger Maris’ 1961 Home Run List

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This is an excellent look back at two of the greatest baseball players of all time.  It feels real and authentic and a lot of that is due to both the actors and the director doing their best to remain faithful to historical events and to the people being portrayed.  I recommend the film to both fans of baseball and those people who have never seen a game before, since it’s very accessible and well done.  This is a home run for all involved!
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