No No: A Dockumentary


Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

(2014) Documentary (Arts + Labor) Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Ron Howard, Bruce Kison, Mudcat Grant, Dave Cash, Al Oliver. Directed by Jeff Radice

Florida Film Festival 2014

As someone who lived through the 70s, I can tell you that I never thought them particularly turbulent or interesting. Many point to the 60s as being a far more fascinating decade but the 70s had its share of difficult times. Looking back through the eyes of someone who was in his prime then and turned out to be a much more important influence than you could imagine, I can see that the 70s were far from boring.

Dock Ellis is probably not that well-known outside of baseball fans and knowledgeable baseball fans at that. He pitched his last game in 1979 and his glory years were from 1970-76, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates but also with the New York Yankees (he also pitched for the New York Mets, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers).

During his time in  the game, Ellis was an impressive figure. Baseball is full of characters who march to their own drummer but Ellis was one of a kind. He was kind of a Superfly with a great slider. Outside the stadium he was the paragon of style and fashion; inside he was a dogged competitor. Both on and off the field he spoke out against what he thought was wrong. He was a powerful individualist.

Unfortunately powerful individualists in the 70s were attracted to recreational drug use. Ellis famously pitched his no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Now, while the film doesn’t really cover this, it should be said in the interest of full disclosure that there are some who dispute this, including the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press, Bill Christine, who was at the game and knew the team well. Corroborating evidence has been hard to find but in fairness, neither has any information disproving the story. What is not in dispute is that drug abuse was rampant in the major leagues at the time.

The main offender and Ellis’  usual drug of choice was dexomyl, an amphetamine commonly known as greenies is the locker room. Use of the drug was widespread in Major League Baseball and while the MLB continues to have drug issues (mainly with steroids), recreational drug use is apparently not nearly as common in the majors as it was back then.

Ellis was also known for being a proponent for players’ rights, particularly those of African-American descent. He was in the line-up when the Pirates dressed an entirely non-white team, the first time in Major League Baseball history that had been achieved. He was known to argue with management when he felt he was in the right, sometimes stridently.

However, his drug abuse and sometimes distracting behavior undoubtedly shortened his major league career. He would eventually get straight and after retiring from the game became a counselor to major league players and helped many of them get rehabilitated. When he died in 2008 from complications from liver disease, he was far too young but had left an indelible mark.

The documentary about Ellis is clearly a labor of love. First-time feature filmmaker Radice is based in Austin and has been working on this since reading Ellis’ biography ten years ago. Like many independent documentaries, it has been filmed in bits and pieces as the filmmakers could afford to go out and get interviews in Pittsburgh (where they talked to many of Dock’s old teammates) and Los Angeles (where Ellis grew up and where many of his family and friends still reside).

Like many independent documentaries, there is also a tendency towards talking heads. The filmmakers interviewed more than 50 people for the film and while that adds a lot to the mix, it’s just too many. Still, I can understand Radice’s dilemma; all of the interviews are pretty interesting and give a good deal of insight into Ellis.

The drug use is certainly a big part of Ellis’ life but that’s not all he was and the movie does a good job of portraying who he is as a person beyond the more sensational stuff. Sometimes the portrait is humorous, sometimes frightening (one of Ellis’ four wives did leave because Ellis, no longer himself, was menacing her physically) and often touching. Baseball wasn’t big enough to contain a larger-than-life person like Ellis by itself. In essence, this is a documentary about a person, not a drug abuse documentary nor a baseball movie although again, both play major parts in who Dock Ellis was.

Unfortunately, Ellis passed away before the filmmakers could interview the man himself but one of the movie’s highlights is an archival interview when Ellis was reading a letter from the great Jackie Robinson commending him on his activism and urging him to continue. The tough pitcher, one of the most competitive in the game and one of the most unique individuals to ever play, breaks down into tears. Dock Ellis got it, and the filmmakers do as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights. Ellis is an engaging character.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language, drug content and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to self-financing his debut effort, Radice employed a volunteer advisory board to help him get through rough patches. The board included former major league pitcher Scipio Spinks, photographer and Ellis family friend Glen E. Friedman, documentary director Keith Maitland and SXSW/Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black. No, not that one; that one is spelled Lewis.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Congo

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Edge of Tomorrow

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Florida Film Festival 2014


Florida Film Festival 2014Last night, the Florida Film Festival announced their line-up for 2014 and it is another impressive one. The Festival will run from April 4 through April 13 this year and 170 feature films and shorts are on this year’s menu. While we won’t be previewing all of them, this is just a taste of some of the films you can expect to see.

Last year’s opening night film, 20 Feet From Stardom, went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature and opening night guests were wowed by one of the film’s stars, Merry Clayton (the female voice on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) crooning a sensual and amazing version of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You.” While that set an awfully high bar, this year’s opening film has plenty of quality of its own. A Trip to Italy is the sequel to 2010’s The Trip and returns stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as well as director Michael Winterbottom. Once again Coogan and Brydon play versions of themselves, sent to write restaurant reviews but this time not in the North of England but in Italy. They kept audiences in stitches with their impressions and comedic routines but deep down there was a story that kept the interest of the readers. I can’t wait to see what they do in the sequel.

Ernest and Celestine netted an Oscar nomination of its own for Best Animated Feature at the recent Academy Awards and while it lost to Frozen this story about the unlikely friendship between a bear and a mouse is sure to delight children of every age. The British crime comedy Dom Hemingway stars Jude Law as a safe cracker newly released from prison who wants to reconnect with his daughter and settle his debts but that proves to be a proposition far less easy than it sounds. For No Good Reason documents artist Ralph Steadman’s remarkable career, his collaborations with writers Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs and of course his unsettling and iconic drawings. Johnny Depp hosts this passion project. 

Joe is the latest from director David Gordon Green and stars Nicolas Cage as a rough and tumble ex-con with a hair-trigger temper who falls in with a young boy whose life has been at least as hard luck as his own. The ex-con takes a liking to the boy who finds in Joe a father figure which doesn’t sit too well with the boy’s actual father. This is said to be one of Cage’s best performances in years and might just elevate him out of the poor reputation he’s had in recent years. The Double is a stylish modernization of the Dostoevsky novella in which a shy and abused young worker, played by Jesse Eisenberg, has his life taken over by a brash and manipulative doppelganger, also played by Eisenberg. 

Gabrielle is a French-Canadian romance about a developmentally challenged woman’s quest to assert her independence. Obvious Child tackles the controversial subject of abortion as a young stand-up comedian finds her life turned upside down by an unexpected pregnancy. Before I Disappear chronicles a despondent young man’s attempts to commit suicide marred by his responsibility to babysit his niece. In Words and Pictures stars Clive Owens and Juliette Binoche play teachers of English and Art who in an effort to inspire students who couldn’t care less declare a war between words and images. Cheatin’ is the newest animated feature by Oscar winning animator Bill Plympton – ’nuff said. 

Crimes Against Humanity pairs a woman whose pet rabbit has died and who has been hospitalized with frequent nosebleeds with a pompous boyfriend whose investigation of sexual escapades at the university he works at becomes an obsession. In I Believe in Unicorns a woman with a vivid imagination falls for a skateboarding punk and chooses to run away with him, leaving her disabled mother behind. Doomsdays covers two slackers who convinced the apocalypse is just around the corner take to squatting in vacant Catskills vacations homes until the food runs out or they are chased off. The addition of two other would-be squatters changes the dynamic irrevocably. This year’s Audience Award winner at Slamdance was Copenhagen, a voyage of discovery of a young man who journeys to the Danish capital to discover his last living relative and finds love instead. Last I Heard stars Paul Sorvino as a mob boss who returns from prison to find that his gang has become inconsequential and the world a far different place than he left it. 

No No: A Dockumentary follows the fabled career of Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis who famously pitched a no-hitter while tripping on LSD in 1970. How he overcame his addictions and reached out to help others in similar straits is one of baseball’s great untold stories. Levitated Mass is a fascinating look at artist Michael Heizer’s monumental task of transporting a 340 ton boulder from a Southern California quarry to the L.A. County Museum of Art and creating a media and social sensation in the process. American Jesus examines the pervasive Christianity in all it’s different forms and effects on American culture as seen through the eyes of a Spaniard. 

Mail order brides is the subject of Love Me as the documentary filmmaker follows several relationships that were established in that manner and discovers that they aren’t all you might think. Mission Congo details the abuses of an American televangelist in the Congo following the Rwandan genocide under the guise of humanitarian aid. The Sacrament is the latest from horror auteur Ti West and covers a filmmaking crew’s descent into the hellish secret of a Utopian religious cult during a documentary shoot. The Babadook was one of the films at this year’s Sundance that got a great deal of attention; in it a single mom reads to her son from a mysterious storybook which prompts strange and frightening occurrences in their home.

Chu and Blossom stars Ryan O’Nan, Mercedes Ruehl and Melanie Lynskey in a story about  a unique Korean exchange student adjusting to life in the United States. After Winter, Spring is a loving tribute to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing – the French family farm. Led Zeppelin Played Here looks into a mythic concert that may or may not have taken place. 

In addition to new movies, there are some classics that will be available at the Festival this year including the Oscar-winning murder mystery Murder on the Orient Express with an all-star cast, The Big Lebowski which is one of the Coen Brothers’ classics, the Italian thriller Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the James Bond classic Goldfinger

There are usually celebrities involved at Film Festivals and the FFF has had their share. Not all of the celebrity attendees have been confirmed at press time but two who are on the list for 2014 include Paul Sorvino who will be in attendance on Friday April 11 for the screening of his new film Last I Heard and Giancarlo Esposito for a screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary.

That’s just a rundown of some of the films that will be on the docket for this year’s Festival. There are also panel discussions and of course the legendary parties that the Festival throws every year.Ticket packages and passes are on sale now at the website (just click on the logo above to go directly there) and individual film tickets will be on sale Saturday, March 15th. 

This promises to be another memorable Festival and if you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to go and experience it firsthand. Words can’t describe the experience but it is fun, engaging and unforgettable. Filmmakers and celebrities rub elbows with film fans at the Festival and you never know who you will run into while grabbing a drink at the Eden Bar at the Enzian. It might even be me.

As always, movies from the festival will have the Festival logo above attached to the review to mark it as a proud participant in the 2014 Festival. Cinema365 will cover the Festival from beginning to end and beyond – last year we posted over 50 reviews of Festival films and related events and we should be in the same neighborhood this year. This is one event that I look forward to all year long and as we get closer to opening night, the excitement is building exponentially. This truly is one of the great Film Festivals in the country – it has been ranked as one of the 50 best in the entire world by IndieWire and the top 25 coolest in the country by MovieMaker magazine. That isn’t by accident; while I do tend to gush about the Festival it is really a unique event. If you love movies – and even if you don’t love ’em but just love to socialize – this is your event. Get your tickets now – you’ll thank me for it later.