Duel at the Mound is the latest feature length film from director Travis Mills and Running Wild Films. ‘Mound’ opened the first week of November 2014 and screened for several weekends that month at the Tempe Pollack Cinema. Afterwards it became available as a pay-per-view on Vimeo. ‘Mound’ is currently off the grid as it seeks submission to film festivals and potential “Duel At The Mound” follows two of the most unlikable and unfriendly ex baseball players to ever swing a bat. First up is Walt (Michael Hanelin), a recently divorced father of a teenaged girl. He’s taken plenty of line drives to the ‘ol melon, while his nemesis Mel (Jonathan Medina) has certainly seen more than his fair share of balls to the chin. Unable to speak to anyone about their top secret baseball careers and being too manly to console each other about their own life issues, they threaten, harass and humiliate each other on a regular basis as they maintain their train wreck existence, continually stalking each other by leaving a baseball with the time and place of their next showdown at the mound.
Walt regularly visits his shrink (Amy Searcy) hoping for a breakthrough. She informs him that baseball is the cause of all of his problems and until he’s ready to completely exorcise the demon sport from his psyche, he’ll never be normal. Across town, Mel lands a job teaching history at the local high school. Before the ink is even dry on his employment contract, he breaks into the baseball fields on campus so he and Walt can work out their bizarre nocturnal aggression. Campus security catches him in the act but Mel informs the hapless flatfoot that he is a big wheel on the field and unless the lowly rent-a-cop wants to chase feral cats every night with a flashlight, he’d better kick rocks. The next day he hands out a test, and when a student inquires if it will be graded on a curve, Mel pegs the creep-o-meter with “the only curves I’m interested in are on a woman.” The principal (Eric Almassy) calls him in the office, congratulates him on his teaching technique and pshaw’s the property damage from the previous night. He reveals how thrilled he is to discover that Mel has blatantly lied on his job application and what an honor it is to have a true baseball legend on the staff. Mel is astonished that he has been discovered and (as usual) downplays his baseball past.
As Walt desperately tries to repair his broken relationship with his daughter, he attends nursing school to help put more distance between himself and the game of baseball (??). During a smoke break, he meets a cute blonde classmate (Colleen Hartnet). They say howdy-do and she begs him for sex. Turns out, her folks own a romantic getaway north of Payson and are out of town, and would he like to accompany her for the long drive up and stay for the weekend. He dolefully begs off, citing his distracting personal issues: mainly his heartless harpie of an ex wife that keeps haranguing him about his inability to move on and start a normal relationship with other women. He wishes there was some way to prove to the evil shrew that he is still quite manly and women still find him attractive, but how? HOW? He feels like the answer is right in front of him, but he just can’t quite put his finger on it.Walt and Mel continue their bizarre nocturnal exploits to the point of violence and bodily injury, but they just can’t quit each other. Meanwhile, anyone that tries to peek into their past or even hint at the B-word gets the eye roll and the brush off. It’s a baseball thing that only hardened veterans of the game can understand. Walt finally patches things up with his daughter and Mel begins a relationship with Amanda (Michele Palermo), the mother of one of his students. She’s turned on by teachers that show up to work drunk and verbally abuse her son, enabling the now thoroughly alcoholic Mel to get his drink on after school. Through therapy, understanding, copious alcohol consumption and intense evenings of macho-posturing, Walt and Mel finally open up about their post-traumatic baseball stress and learn to love the game and other people, while finally telling each other to get lost.
“Duel At The Mound” is a very well shot drama with excellent sound. As an AZ indie movie it covers all the bases and is ready to play ball. As a baseball movie ‘Mound’ takes away more than it pretends to offer, presenting two vile protagonists whose lives have been decimated as a result of their chosen career and their snobbish unwillingness to adjust to ‘civilian life.’ The game we thought we enjoyed is presented with such unwelcoming, elitist arrogance that even if we wanted to relate or even empathize to their plight; it will be done so at an appropriate distance. With ‘Mound,’ director Travis Mills unveils his passion for the great American pastime; a deeply personal understanding of the sport that extends far beyond the scope of a single game ticket holder such as myself. The performances in ‘Mound’ provide the expected fare in a Running Wild film as of late: Michael Hanelin checks in with a flawless Michael Hanelin, and likewise Jonathan Medina delivers a dead-on Jonathan Medina. All of the actors appearing in ‘Mound’ have stepped up to the plate, just as they have time and time again. But once again the talented starting lineup has been busted down to the minors by their team manager; too concerned about personal stats to let any of the heavy hitters swing on any wild pitches.
It seems like it has been ages since I’ve seen anything from the filmmaker Travis Mills. These days, I only get to see films about Travis Mills. I miss that young filmmaker I met all those years ago at the old IFP offices in downtown Phoenix, when he boldly announced that he was bringing feature filmmaking to Arizona; defiantly staking his claim with his excellent short film “The Ruffians” and then swiftly and deftly delivering on his promise with his outstanding feature; “The Big Something,” a film which gained critical acclaim around the globe, heralding a brand new wave of independent filmmaking accessible to everybody. Things that were important to the director were included in this film. Elements of the filmmakers’ interest were invitingly offered to all, simply as an ingredient to be shared; an influence, but certainly not the essence. Now those elements are locked away in a gaudy trophy case for the rest of us to simply ogle and admire; when it is hauled out to be Windexed and Wood-Glowed with every new film.
Final Take – Strike three.