Bleed Out


Steve Burrows faces an overwhelming situation.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) Stephen Burrows, Judie Burrows, Beth Burrows, Cindy Knueppel, Lynn Laufenberg, Mark Bauer, Susan Darmstadter, Ted Payne, Mike End, Marty Markery, Cindy Payne, Mary Ellis, Charles Harper, Margo Burrows, Catherine Scoon. Directed by Stephen Burrows

 

It is no secret that the American health care system is badly broken. Just how broken may come as a surprise to those who are only aware of statistics. Sometimes, getting to the heart of a problem requires us to look at it from the perspective of a single incident.

Steve Burrows in 2008 had a good career going. A comedian, he also wrote and directed comedy features (Chump Change) as well as acted in them (Spy Hard). He had a close-knit family including his mom Judie, a retired schoolteacher in Wisconsin who traveled the globe in her golden years, as independent and free-spirited a woman as Steve had ever known.

Then he got the call from his sister; his mom had fallen and broken her hip. Surgery was required. Fortunately it would be an old family friend – Mark Bauer – who would be doing the operation. Things seemed to be well in hand, but then they weren’t. The surgery took much longer than expected. While in recovery they were unable to rouse Judie, so she was sent to an intensive care unit. During the night, her blood pressure fell to near-fatal levels.

That’s when the bottom fell out of Steve’s life. First of all, it turned out that Judie was on Plavix, an anti-platelet drug used to reduce the risk of stroke and heart attacks; it is recommended that patients on Plavix discontinue the use of it at least five days before surgery. Bauer knew that but assured the family that he had performed surgery without the buffer period without any ill effects. In any case, Judie was in serious pain and he wanted to get the surgery done as quickly as possible.

Also, the ICU that Judie was in had no doctors assigned to it. In what can only be deemed a cost-cutting move, the ICU was monitored remotely by a physician in a building near the Milwaukee airport. To make matters worse, it is possible that the camera in Judie’s room had never been turned on. In any case, it was evident that Judie had slipped into a coma. She had lost more than half of her blood during the operation; either at that point or when her blood pressure dropped in the supposedly monitored ICU her brain didn’t get enough oxygen and became damaged. Judie would never be the same person again.

Nobody would take responsibility. The surgeon blamed the anesthesiologist who blamed the hospital who blamed the surgeon. Everyone was pointing a finger. Steve was urged to sue, especially by his Uncle Ted (Payne) whom Steve trusted because his Uncle Ted was a doctor. The advice sent Steve and his family into a quagmire of legal issues, laws stacked against the patient and in favor of insurance companies and hospitals, and against health care professionals who lied through their teeth during sworn depositions.

Judie’s savings, which were to get her through retirement, were blown through in a matter of months. Soon Judie was broke and in need of constant care; Steve and his wife took the brunt of responsibility to see to Judie’s medical needs and steer the lawsuit, although few lawyers wanted to touch it – medical malpractice lawsuits in Wisconsin have been rendered pointless mainly because they are expensive to prosecute and laws putting a cap on how much patients can win makes lawsuits impractical; the plaintiff could win the lawsuit but receive nothing and in fact owe the lawyers a considerable sum afterward. Still, Steve persisted in trying, even though it was impacting his own finances and career.

If you look at Steve’s iMDB page you’ll notice that between 2008 and 2018 there is almost nothing. Yes, he did do some advertising work but for the most part his life was focused on taking care of his mom. His agent ended up dropping him and until this documentary came out, his career was essentially over. Relationships within his family, who watched this saga drag on for a decade, became frayed and in some cases unraveled completely.

Burrows shows the incident from all sides whenever possible, interviewing the various participants as well as experts in the medical insurance business. We get a fairly comprehensive view although his intent – and rightly so – is to give his mom a voice. She is the one who has been most devastated by all of this. Steve has had his own suffering; as he suffers setback after setback, listens to his own mother sob that she wants to die, getting no help from any corner, his sense of humor begins to ebb and the weight of the world is clearly on his shoulders. I don’t know what I would do in his shoes but there would be a lot of tears and yelling.

This is a sobering and depressing film that is nonetheless essential viewing. We often talk about the state of the healthcare system but here it is in al it’s ignominy. People like Judie Burrows, through no fault of their own, are left holding the bag physically and financially, their lives altered in meaningful ways, their future grim. For all the political talk about why single payer healthcare won’t work here, it remains a fact that had Judie resided just a few hundred miles north, she wouldn’t have been bankrupted because she’d have been living in Canada.

Medical errors are the third largest cause of death in the United States to the tune of a quarter of million deaths annually. Think of it as three fully occupied 747s crashing every day. Certainly there’d be more of a hue and cry if that were going on but partly because we tend to hold doctors in such high esteem – and honestly, most are deserving of it – we seem to be willing to allow them to dodge accountability when, as human beings, they mess up.

I don’t think it’s possible to watch this movie without feeling angry – not so much at the doctors, although there is some to spare for the doctor who falsified records and lied about it – but at the insurance companies, the for-profit hospitals and the politicians who protect their interests at the expense of the patients. If you ever wondered if your local representative is looking out for you, this is a movie that will put in stark focus that they are not.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely flabbergasting. Burrows lays out the various facets of the film very succinctly, covering all sorts of different dimensions. Burrows is a likable on-camera presence.
REASONS TO STAY: This cautionary tale may hit a little too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steve Burrows got his start as a member of Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bleeding Edge
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dede

Ricki and the Flash


Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep are getting lost in the rock and roll.

(2015) Dramedy (Tri-Star) Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Sebastian Stan, Nick Westrate, Rick Rosas, Bernie Worrell, Joe Vitale, Ben Platt, Audra McDonald, Big Jim Wheeler, Keala Settle, Joe Toutebon, Aaron Clifton Moten, Peter C. Demme, Adam Shulman, Charlotte Rae, Bill Irwin, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Joyce, Hailey Gates. Directed by Jonathan Demme

I was a rock critic in the Bay Area for more than a decade and in that time I spent a whole lot of time in bars seeing a whole lot of bands. It was during this time that I developed a healthy respect, even an appreciation for bar bands. This is generally used as a derogatory term, but there is a kind of nobility about bar bands that the big stadium bands often lack. I’ve had more fun listening to a bar band do covers than listening to the bands that originated them in a big, impersonal arena.

Ricki Rendazzo (Streep) didn’t always want to front a bar band. She went to L.A. with dreams of becoming a rock star, and even made a single album – on vinyl, to give you an idea of how long ago this was – which sank like a stone. She’s never really given up on her rock and roll dream but she has more or less come to terms that she is never going to open for the Rolling Stones, but now middle aged, she clerks at a grocery store to make ends meet and pays gigs at a local bar to keep her from going insane. She is having a relationship with Greg (Springfield), her lead guitarist, although she doesn’t like to acknowledge it publicly.

Then again, Ricki has a history with relationships and it isn’t good. She has a family – an ex-husband and three kids – but she abandoned them to chase her rock and roll dream and another woman raised them. Her relationship with her children is pretty rocky to say the least.

Then she gets a call from her ex, Pete (Kline) – her daughter Julie (Gummer) was deserted by her husband who left her for another woman, and she’s taken it hard. She hasn’t changed clothes in days, hasn’t bathed, mopes in her room, hasn’t eaten and barely talks to anyone. Pete is desperate; his wife Maureen (McDonald) is away tending to her own father who is in the end stage of Alzheimer’s and he needs help with Julie. So despite being bankrupt, she scrapes together what little cash she has – all of it – and buys a ticket to Indianapolis.

There she discovers that Pete has done very well for himself with a beautiful house in a gated community. Ricki, being Ricki, comes dressed like an 80s rocker chick – which is what she is – with an oddball braided hair style that no decade would be willing to claim as its own. She’s a bit like a tornado, inflicting damage indiscriminately and impossible to ignore. Her sons Adam (Westrate) who is gay and wants nothing to do with her, and Josh (Stan) who is relatively warm to her but is getting married soon and hasn’t invited her, make obligatory appearances. Ricki though starts to connect with Julie somewhat, at least bringing her out of her funk. Then Maureen returns, and Ricki is summarily dismissed.

Back at home, she goes back to her life of weekly gigs, working at the grocery store and living on almost nothing. However, her time back in Indy has given her an appreciation for not being alone and her relationship with Greg begins to flower as a result of it. Out of the blue she gets an invitation to Josh’s wedding; part of her wants to go, part of her is scared that she’s not wanted and most of her knows that she couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if she wanted to go. Can rock and roll save Ricki Rendazzo?

As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and I’m guessing Diablo Cody, who wrote this thing based on the experiences of her mother-in-law, has as well. She gets the vibe perfectly, although bands with the talent that the Flash have are pretty few and far between – that’s one of the charms of a bar band is that for the most part they have more passion than talent. The world’s best bar band is Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, a fact that the movie gives a respectful nod to. However, few bar bands have the pedigree of the Flash – with Springfield on guitar, Parliament/Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, session drummer Joe Vitale and Neil Young’s bass player Rick Rosas who sadly passed away after this was filmed. The movie has the advantage of using these musicians, and Streep showed in Mamma Mia that she’s a good singer and while she is more of a Bonnie Raitt kind of vocalist and less of a belter, she holds her own vocally.

Streep isn’t afraid to show she’s getting on; clearly Ricki’s best days are behind her but she still is a handsome woman who looks pretty damn good in a leather catsuit. Streep’s creation of this character is dead on; I’ve met many women like her who are kind of a stuck in an era and for whom the music is everything. Ricki is through and through a rocker chick and would not think that an unfair description. She wears her allegiance proudly.

Kline is one of my favorite actors and here he plays a bit of a square, but when he’s around Ricki he actually blossoms a bit. Usually in pictures of this sort the gender roles are reversed but Pete realizes that he has to be the responsible one for his kids and when he’s left holding the bag at last, he finds himself the most stable woman he can to be their mom. Kline is at his best when he’s playing characters that are a little bit oblivious to the world around them and Pete carries that quality as well. Streep and Kline are two of the best actors in the business and watching them together is a rare treat.

Streep also gets to act with her real life daughter who plays her onscreen daughter and Gummer shows that she didn’t get the part through any sort of nepotism; the lady can act as well and while there will always be her mom’s shadow looming around her, one has to admit that Streep’s shadow really covers nearly every actress of the last 20 years – that’s how good she is – and Gummer handles it extraordinarily well. We darn tootin’ will see more of Gummer and in, I predict, some higher profile roles.

The music here is mainly covers, which is as it should be. The Flash are as I’ve explained above a lot better than the average bar band in covering these songs, and they certainly don’t disgrace any of them. That’s a plus for a movie like this.

Where the movie falters the most is that the cliche monster is actively working on some of the scenes and plot points. We know how this is going to end almost from the moment the movie kicks into gear with Ricki singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and to be honest, the characters are so compelling that you don’t mind that the movie is heading to an obligatory feel good vibe. The point the movie is trying to make I guess is that family is family, even when they make horrible mistakes. There is redemption even for the most unforgivable errors within family and that is true enough. Demme, who is into his 70s now and has had a hell of a career of his own, understands that. This really isn’t typical of a Jonathan Demme film, but then again he’s made a career out of keeping audiences guessing.

This isn’t disposable entertainment exactly, but it is as close as you can get to it in a movie that Meryl Streep is in. Like the local bar with the local cover band playing on a Thursday night, it is a movie that demands you have a good time whether you want to or not. It is a movie that reeks of stale beer, desperate women with too much perfume and too much make-up, working class men who are desperate to relive their glory days, and the soundtrack of a generation that is now, as your critic is, a bit long in the tooth. And Amen, Amen, Amen to all that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Kline are always worth seeing. Gets the bar band vibe right.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too cliche a little too often. Tends to use a sledgehammer to make its points.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find some drug use, foul language, sexuality and adult content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep and Kline previously starred together in Sophie’s Choice, for which Streep won her second Oscar. At the time, Streep was pregnant with her daughter Mamie who would play her daughter in this film, 33 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: It’s Complicated
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sinister 2

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour