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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Duel at the Mound (2014)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Hanelin, Jonathan Medina, Holly Nordquist, Michelle Palermo, Eric Almassy, Stacie Stocker, Kyle Gerkin, Amy Searcy, Colleen Hartnett, Shellie Ulrich, James Leatherman, Kristi Lawrence, Gus Edwards, Keylor Leigh and John Miller
With an enviable number of short films, not to mention three features behind them, it's hardly surprising to find that Running Wild's fourth feature, Duel at the Mound, boasts a highly recognisable cast. There are fifteen names given special attention during the end credits and fourteen of them are regular faces, led by Michael Hanelin and Jonathan Medina as the two former semi-pro baseball players whose duel of the title helps keep them sane in lives otherwise full of pain and heartbreak. Hanelin is Walt and Medina is Mel and the two lead otherwise separate lives, never once meeting up for a beer or to just reminisce on old times. Perhaps that's because baseball may have given them everything, but it also took it all away again. Walt lost his family to the game, the film opening with his divorce and continuing with his struggle to keep his daughter close. We're never told why Mel quit, but it's surely something similar and he soon loses a girlfriend to the ongoing duel. She thinks he's cheating on her, but he's just facing down Walt.

Bizarrely, even though they don't talk to each other, Walt and Mel are each other's closest friends, which realisation explains much. 'I don't have any friends,' Walt tells his therapist. Well, except an 'old baseball acquaintance'. They communicate through baseballs, which they leave at each other's houses with dates and places written on them, and they connect through baseball, silently playing out their duel. While I'm English and thus don't understand baseball in the slightest, their pain is universal. It's troubling to watch people clearly driven by the one thing they're trying desperately to stop being part of their lives. Medina has the edge because Mel is notably less in control. He's completely driven by an all-consuming passion that he's failing to quench; he suffers when not playing and the game just won't let him be. Walt is able to suppress it better but it's still there. It's notable how close this pair are without knowing a thing about each other; their first real interaction is particularly telling for a number of reasons.

The fifteenth name in the credits belongs to Holly Nordquist, who plays Walt's daughter, Chloe, and does a respectable job of doing so in what is the most substantial role behind the leads. She's not completely new to Running Wild, having appeared in a 52 Films in 52 Weeks short, James Joyce's After the Race, and she establishes herself well here, sparring capably with Michael Hanelin, but she's not one of the quickly recognisable faces that populate the rest of the supporting cast. For instance, Walt's ex is Stacie Stocker and his therapist is Amy Searcy. The romantic connection Walt almost finds is with Colleen Hartnett and, of course, they don't quite connect as the moment Hanelin and Hartnett find a screen relationship that might actually work, the apocalypse will surely be upon us. The girlfriend Mel loses is Shellie Ulrich and, after a date with Kristi Lawrence, he finds Michelle Palermo. He works for Eric Almassy and he encounters a drunken Kyle Gerkin in a bar. Elsewhere, we find John Miller, James Leatherman and Michael Coleman.
These actors are here because they're quintessentially reliable. They're all immediately notable in their supporting slots and they're all capable in their roles, but few have substantial parts. While Stocker has the most emotional scenes, it's Almassy who makes the most of his role. Mel has become a high school teacher and though he's apparently good at it, it isn't what drives him and so he starts to let his life get to his performance. Almassy could easily fire him, but he googled his new employee and discovered his previous life, so everything he says has two layers: the spoken and the unspoken, which is flavoured by the school team that's in sore need of someone who knows what he's doing. He's the best of the bunch here, but the most obvious is Kyle Gerkin, partly because he has a decent amount of screen time late in the movie but mostly because he spends much of it drunk, including a memorable scene where he gets to drunkenly substitute for Walt in the duel. He's just a baseball fan; he doesn't understand.

I've both been looking forward and not looking forward to Duel in the Mound. I'm a fan of many of these actors and relish the opportunity to see them in a feature, but I'm not a fan either of baseball or movies that revolve around sports, something that's shaping a future Apocalypse Later book. I have a great deal of background with Running Wild Films, of course, as I've spent two years opening up each month with a review of one of their shorts; I'm now working through their 52 Films in 52 Weeks in 52 weeks of my own. I've reviewed each of their previous features and have been eagerly waiting the great one which I know will come from them but has been stubbornly refusing to show up thus far. I've long preferred their zero budget debut, The Big Something, to the more ambitious features that followed it, The Detective's Lover and The Men Who Robbed the Bank. I think I prefer it to this too, for its quirky humour and its astounding soundtrack, but there's no disputing that this is the best of the four, in front of and behind the camera.

The biggest flaw early on is probably rooted in the editing, as each scene feels crafted more like a short film than part of a feature. They're all complete vignettes in themselves, pieced together with care, and they might benefit from being looser and flowing less deliberately. However, they all benefit from strong cinematography and sense of place, underpinned by a good score and they still draw us in. Also notable in the early scenes is the fact that almost everything is negative, perhaps inevitably given how the story has to grow with depressed characters coming out of bad situations and struggling to find a way to turn them into good ones. It's the montage scene of Walt and Mel on the pitch that temporarily lifts us up out of their depression as much as them and tells us that there is indeed some positive in the picture. It may sound odd from me, but perhaps there should have been another of these early on to temper how down these two have become. It takes a while for the negative to bleed into positive and characters to engage.
The film engages more as it moves on, of course, and we learn more about these two characters. Hanelin is the more obvious for a while, as he's working hard on finding a life after baseball. He's working through the exams he needs for a career in medicine, working on his relationship with his daughter (who doesn't seem to be returning the sentiment) and working in therapy to figure out how to make it all, well, work. It might sound like we ought to be behind his admirable effort, but he's a hard man to like because he's so relentlessly lonely. 'I'm just not looking right now,' he tells a fellow student who clearly wants him. There's a superbly shot scene where he walks past her without acknowledgement, right through the hospital car park to be on the mound in the rain. While his story arc is one well worth following, he does get a little bit of a get out of jail free card at the end, because his subplot turns into a longer version of Shine Like Gold. I wonder if he would have made it out without that, down the tougher road that he was following.

Gradually, Hanelin gives up the floor to Medina, who is initially less interesting. For a while, he's the other guy in the duel and little more, his background less explored and his motivations less understood. There's worthy material in the school scenes but the effort he's making is all internal, not as quantifiable as what Walt is doing. Yet Medina, always so fantastic at being moody, brings real danger to the picture when his personal struggle starts to really falter. In a way, he gets a get out of jail free card too, but, unlike Walt's, it wasn't there all along waiting to be found and it isn't as easy for him to accept. Walt's story is over and done with by the time the end credits roll, but Mel's isn't. He might have a way out but he still has to take it and it's still not going to be an easy task for him. I should add that this aids the film to no small degree because it ends on a high note. We leave not only with Medina's thunderstorm of a performance but with the sun finally starting to shine through between the clouds. He absolutely rocks the end of this picture.

Of course, while it belongs to Medina, a lot of people rocked the end of this picture, not least because I'm utterly unaffacted by the national sport of the United States yet thoroughly enjoyed this part of the movie which revolves around it. Sure, the rendition of the national anthem backed by stock footage is overdoing the sentiment to no small degree, but all four characters playing the film out are on fire at this point and Travis Mills, who wrote and directed Duel on the Mound, gifts them with really good material to work with. The trio of short baseball films which Mills adapted from stories by Ring Lardner for 52 Films in 52 Weeks are some of my favourites in that project, not least because they're less about baseball and more about passion. This is no different, baseball being something of a MacGuffin because the film is really all about people struggling with their passion and how to let it co-exist amidst the rest of their lives. At a mere 68 minutes, this could have been a lot more, but it bodes well for Durant's Never Closes, coming soon.

Duel at the Mound has two nights left on the big screen at Pollack Tempe Cinemas this Friday and Saturday (7th and 8th November, 2014) at 9.30pm.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good reviews.

-TM