MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Extraordinary Measures and Tooth Fairy

Extraordinary Measures (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.; Tom Vaughan, 2010

Nothing can break your heart like the spectacle of a loved one with a seemingly incurable disease; few can elevate it like a true story of disease defeated, a life saved, a doom deferred. Witness the stirring medical drama Lorenzo‘s Oil, with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon as the determined parents fighting to keep their son from the ravages of adrenoleukodystrophy.

But Extraordinary Measures — based on the real-life story of a father battling to save his two young children, both afflicted with the incurable, degenerative, fatal Pompe disease, and caught in the cul-de-sacs of the U.S. medical and pharmaceutical establishment and its business protocols — muffs the opportunity.

As you watch, your heart goes out to the dramatized father here, John Crowley (played with all due earnestness and sincerity by Brendan Fraser). Crowley was a Bristol-Myers Squibb marketing executive, a desperate guy who, trying to save daughter Megan (Meredith Droeger) and son Patrick (Diego Velazquez) from a disease that usually kills victims in childhood, leaves his well-paid job to start up his own tiny pharmaceutical company with an eccentric but brilliant research scientist who may have unlocked the path to a cure. His partner: the fictionalized Dr. Bob Stonehill (played with obvious dedication by the movie’s executive producer, Harrison Ford).

It’s hard not to root for them, as Crowley performs arduous feats of fund-raising and business-building to get the company going, all the while clashing with the irascible Dr. Stonehill, a surly Nebraska genius who hates all establishment types, picks fights with all his bosses, and likes to work with tapes of The Band and The Grateful Dead, blasting from his sound system.

And it’s hard, for me at least, not to become incensed all over again at any dramatization of the way greed and corporate mind-sets can affect the U. S.’s sometimes incurably profit-compromised health care system, and the way it sometimes sabotages the process to health and solvency with a lust for profits and the demands of big corporations — in this case, the business “laws” that force Crowley and Stonehill to sell their small company to a giant combine, the Renzer corporation, full of money-oriented, cold-blooded execs like Crowley’s nemesis, the (seemingly also fictionalized) reptilian Dr. Kent Webber (Jared Harris).

I like using that kind of clash as a dramatic fulcrum. But Extraordinary Measures doesn’t yield extraordinary results, or even really measure up. Ford‘s character — who was concocted to replace the real-life researcher, Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen — is a little too much of a knee-jerk big movie hothead. And though Fraser and Ford play their roles with what seems impassioned commitment, neither rings totally true. (The real-life Crowley has a cameo, as, according to the credits, “Renzer Venture Capitalist 2.”

The drama of the real-life story keeps getting compromised by what may be the demands of studio moviemaking and its own corporate rules. The children are aged a little to make them cuter and feistier. Dr. Bob keeps blowing up at everybody. There are implausible suspense scenes, sticky get-togethers with other Pompe parents.


A good point that Roger Ebert, who’s no stranger to medical problems, makes in his review is that Extraordinary Measures at the end neglects to tell us that that resulting cure costs $300,000 a year, and therefore is largely unavailable to American parents with private health insurance — though it is available to parents in every other developed country with universal health care.


Harrison Ford, now 67, obviously tries to broaden and deepen his image here. He’s partly successful. It’s just too bad that his Dr. Bob tends to be written as a string of clichés, replacing the non-clichéd genuine article, Dr. Chen.

Decades ago, in 1964, when we were all younger and maybe happier, I acted with Ford in summer stock in the old Belfry Theater, a proscenium stage structure fashioned from an old Mormon church, in my hometown, Williams Bay Wisconsin. Harry was a friend of my late mother Edna. In fact he worked with her on the sets that year. (She was the Belfry’s scenic artist, designing and painting all their beautiful cycloramas, and he was the resident star actor and carpenter/builder.) He also suggested to director Bill Fucik that Edna play the Conjur Woman in that year’s prize-winning production of Dark of the Moon (Harry was Preacher Haggler in the show and I was a rustic dolt), thereby giving her a genuinely compelling but all-too-brief acting career.

So I have a soft spot for Ford, and I would have loved to give a nod to this pet, prize-slanted-project and labor of love, especially since its been, so far, negatively reviewed — and also, of course, since Edna wound up a victim of the health care system herself. But the complaints about Measures hold water. Writer Robert Nelson Jacobs falls into too many clichés. Director Tom Vaughan (Starter for Ten) doesn’t sustain the proper mixed mood of tension and poignancy. And cinematographer Andrew Dunn keeps everything in such a light haze that even the scenes with marked sunlight and shadows seem overcast.

Too bad. I think the more movie documentaries and dramas that we get exposing the valuable tools and good people wasted in the greed-crazed business-as-usual health care system, and about the sometimes destructive practices encouraged by that greed, the better. There‘s a miasma of misinformation out there about American health care, swallowed by gullible suckers, fueled by huge doses of insurance company moolah and Fox News-style crappola, and it needs to be aggressively answered, attacked, countered and fully illuminated.

People who buck the system and triumph despite it, like Crowley (and even fictional composites like Dr. Bob), should be celebrated. But it takes extraordinary dedication and craft to make something like Extraordinary Measures, and make it right. Better luck next time.


Tooth Fairy (One Star)
U. S.; Michael Lembeck, 2010

Help me! Please! I‘ve had some kind of crazy nightmare and I think that I‘m cracking up.

You see, the other night, I dreamed — I must have dreamed — that I went to see a critic‘s screening, at the local AMC multiplex, of a movie called (I‘m not making this up) Tooth Fairy.

At first everything seemed normal. All the other critics were there, gabbing away. I had a bottle of Dasani water. My cell phone was off. The lights went down.

But then things started getting really strange.

A movie came on — and it wasn’t like any movie I’d ever seen before, though it sort of resembled a kind of camped-up Santa Clause. It was supposed to be a would-be family-fantasy-sports-romantic comedy (or maybe a fam-fan-spor-rom-com?) in which the ever-genial star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played Derek “The Tooth Fairy” Thompson: a rough-and-tough, really-ripped minor league ice hockey defenseman so nicknamed because he keeps knocking opposing players’ teeth out.


I think he established some kind of minor-league tooth-bashing-out record. Without steroids.


That was bad enough. But then it got weirder and weirder. The Rock, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever he was, was wooing a beautiful single mother named Carly (played by Ashley Judd, who kept smiling, even though there was nothing to smile at). And he made the mistake of telling Carly’s little daughter that there was no coin under her pillow one night because there was no such thing as tooth fairies

This made the real tooth fairies — who turned out to be a well-organized, heavenly-looking bunch led by, no kidding, Julie Andrews (as Lily) — very angry. And they kidnapped Derek and took him to Tooth Fairyland and turned him into a tooth fairy himself, dressed in a pink tutu, with little flopping white wings.

I swear I saw this! And it got even worse. In this so-called movie I was watching, Derek/Dwayne was aided by a would-be fairy named Tracy (played, toothily, by Stephen Merchant of the British The Office), who kept trying to get his wings, just like Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life. They also kept making a lot of fairy jokes, while Derek was being ordered by Julie (that is, Lily) to adhere to a rigid Tooth Fairy schedule.

At the drop of a tooth, and a call from Tracy (or was it Julie?), he had to drop everything, don his wings, and fly off at all odd moments — including right in the middle of hockey games — to shove coins under the pillows of sleeping children, who started losing teeth at an alarming rate.

Then — did I really see this? — somebody whom I swear looked just like Billy Crystal (though I couldn’t find him in the IMDB credits) gave Derek a batch of official Tooth Fairy gadgets including amnesia gas, invisibility aids and shrinking potions, so Derek could be “invisibled,” or made to forget everything, or get really small, crawl under locked doors and get chased by “Incredible Shrinking Man“-size pussycats. All the while, Billy (or was it Lily?) was doing a standup comedy monologue that instantly won Mr. C. the Tonight Show host job from Jay Leno. And then Jay himself showed up and also turned into a tooth fairy, with flopping orange wings, pursued by Conan O’Brien, who had flopping green wings.


No, I just made that Tonight Show gag up. No flopping green wings. I’m sorry.

But I swear I saw the rest of it. And a lot more, including a climactic ice hockey game where Derek the defense-man started scoring last minute game-winning goals just like Bobby Orr, helped by the invisibility stuff — and by Mick, a nasty young hockey phenom, who turned into a nice young hockey phenom (played by Ryan Sheckler, who’s a skateboarding phenom). At the end, Tracy gave Derek the amnesia stuff and Derek forgot everything and he went off to see Carly’s son play electric guitar god in a school talent contest. And guess who won?


Nobody in their right mind would actually make a movie like this would they? Especially co-writers like Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — who once wrote Parenthood. And director Michael Lembeck, whose dad Harvey was on the Sgt. Bilko show with Phil Silvers? And The Rock? And Julie Andrews? Flopping white wings? Tutus? Amnesia spray? Monster pussycats? “The Office?“ Fairy jokes? Come on! They’d all take an invisibility pill before they‘d appear in anything like that. Tooth Fairy? Give me a fucking break.

Nah, it was all a horrible nightmare. It had to be.

Anyway, the lights went on and the critics started gabbing away, as if we’d all actually just seen a real movie. They were very convincing. They actually looked like real movie critics. Or someone on “At the Movies.“ They…They… (See early Robert Heinlein stories.) But it was all just a bad dream, brought on by too much frozen pizza. And too many artichokes. And too many bad movies at the multiplex. It had to be!

But just in case, I‘m putting all my teeth under my pillow tonight. I just hope Billy C. (or was it Lily C.) shows up with some amnesia spray.


Or was it Lily C?


– Michael Wilmington
January 21, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon