Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Movie Review’ Category

Should Society Expect More From Mothers Than Fathers?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 11, 2015

Mom changes her name to Ricki, leaves her children, moves to California from Indiana, and plays in a rock band, making little money and has  little fame. Her children are deeply hurt. Her ex-husband remarries a woman who the children now consider their mom. She is called back to her adult children when one of them has an emotional crisis. The story unfolds from there. Ricki is filled with guilt and shame over her behavior and as a result is inclined to withdraw, but at the same time, she feels the pull to help out her children. Her children, both angry and grateful that she has come to help, give her painful mixed messages. Her ex-husband still seems to love her, and so he too, is filled with mixed and painful feelings. What is amazing about this movie is how Meryl Streep portrays the complicated and contradictory feelings, leaving me, the audience member, feeling as much for her, as I do for her innocent children who suffered from maternal abandonment. It is hard to “show up” for your children in ways that are meaningful, but it is even harder to do that after you have hurt them deeply. To face the damage she has done, while at the same time, attempt to repair a small piece of it, is the torment of this movie. Should Ricki never see her children again to spare herself and her children the complicated nature of hurt and forgiveness? Or, should she attempt to “mother” them despite the years and years she missed as they grew and developed into adults? These are difficult waters to navigate. The more primitive side of Ricki wants to stay away and say she has no money to see her children. The more sophisticated side of Ricki knows that where there is a will, there is a way, and so she can show up for them, in the way that she knows how to. Every parent can relate to the judgmental comment of, “how could a mother do that,” knowing the inherent gender disparity of that statement. Mothers can be hurt people who hurt their children and mothers can want to repair that. Embracing the complexity of that repair is the beauty of Meryl Streep’s acting. In the end, no one feels good, and that is not the goal. Less bad is “good enough” and after all, “good enough” is all any parent can hope for.

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Not Liking “Her”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 6, 2014


“Her” is a Spike Jonze movie that seemed psychological and technological at the same time. What if artificial intelligence could produce a voice which was attentive, sympathetic, and seductive? What if the feelings elicited felt like love, even though there was cognitive dissonance to suggest that it is “crazy” to be in love with an operating system? So, the movie unfolds with a melancholic character named Theodore, who is brought to life by Samantha, the new “OS”. Unlike “Lars and the Real Girl” where a fantasy relationship felt to me to be moving and deep, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, in my mind, proved to be shallow and predictable. Yes, if someone says everything you want to hear, then good feelings will ensue, but does this, or can this, compensate for the lack of an individual who has his own thoughts and needs? It was not that Samantha was an “OS” that was the problem, but rather the “OS” was limited in her ability to go deeper into Theodore’s psyche, such that her responses were predictable and trite. Theodore was too melancholy to have us laugh at the premise, such that he created pity in me, rather than connection. Similarly, Samantha was always polite and giving that, as with all unidimensional people, I began to wonder what else is going on. She had no layers. The best part of the film, and yes, that is not saying much, was a video game character who was programmed to be an adolescent, making us laugh at ourselves for enjoying the sarcastic anger that adolescents bring into our lives. The futuristic notion of an OS serving as a human companion seems reasonable and helpful as a tool for many folks who have, for a variety of reasons, have become islands of loneliness and despair. This movie, however, was not a good selling job for the future. I want my OS to have more complications. Of course you do- I hear my readers say aloud.

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The Butler

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 23, 2013


“The Butler” is a flawed, but interesting movie, continuing to hold my deep interest in racial tensions in the United States. In particular, the portrayal of the father/son ambivalence is the most moving, as each black male, struggles to fit into a white society, yet manifests this struggle in opposing ways. Cecil, the father, conforms to his role as a servant, paid less than his white colleagues, but still maintaining a salary which allows for a middle class family life. Louis, the son, fights the place of black people in society through non-violent, then violent, then political means. Cecil sees Louis’ choice as a betrayal for everything he worked so hard to have for his family. Louis sees his father as giving in to the power of the white folk. As an audience member, I could see that they were both right, but the strength of their beliefs prevented them from having any empathy for the other, while at the same time, they both seemed to be sentient beings. There is a clear Oedipal rivalry here, with Louis trying to gain his mother’s love by trailing a different path from her husband, who worked long hours, leaving Gloria feeling lonely and abandoned. Louis reacted in a way which caused grief in his father who, we see early in the movie, never had one. This trans-generational experience, of seeing each father, hoping that his son charts a better path, but then realizing that what better means, is not clear, at all. This father/son relationship, set in the midst of a groundswell of civil rights movements, is a timeless experience of seeing how parenting brings up the core need for the child to justify the parent’s existence, in a way, that the parent, not the child, defines. This important thread could have been more robust, but even so, it got me thinking, and for that, I am glad I saw it.

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‘Short Term 12″-Long-Term Pain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 9, 2013


The healer needs to be healed. That is what I took away from this sweet, touching, and yet painfully unrealistic film in which abused teenagers are housed until a more permanent, sometimes less desirable placement is found. We, the audience, feel the pain of both the staff and the “inmates,” so to speak, feel as they try to heal each other. There is a deep sense of humanity in this film, as the victimization of childhood is shown in full color. As the audience, I imagine the collective group, wants to scream out and remind these unseen parents that no child asks to be born. The responsibility on these parents is clear, and yet, the helplessness to make people take good care of their children is also clear. As the movie unfolds, as with life, the victim becomes the victimizer, as the pain is shared in so many directions. The line between self-harm and aggression towards other is blurred. In a way, it does not matter. There is just a lot of pain. There is the agony of abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, and most of all, the absence of a nurturing figure. How can these abused teenagers break out of their past and not live in a world guided by emotional vulnerability? What kind of people are drawn to work in these residential care settings? Is the answer to the former, the latter? The movie makes us think that. I felt sad, really sad, experiencing this movie as the hours and days have gone by. Emotional pain begets more emotional pain. It is so hard to break out of that universe.

Posted in child abuse, Movie Review | 2 Comments »

Riches To Rags: “Blue Jasmine”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 7, 2013


“My Xanax is wearing off,” one of the many great lines in this latest Woody Allen movie about class struggles, corruption, and the never-ending search for meaning. The opening scene is one of my favorites. Jasmine, a name she creates in order to be the person she wishes she was, arrives from New York, after flying first class, with loads of expensive luggage, only to tell her blue-collar sister that she has no money. This sharp interchange foreshadows the movie’s theme of how upper class and lower-middle class do not understand each other, leaving a feeling of mutual contempt.   Jasmine’s affluent lifestyle appears to have been a cover for an empty self, causing the many scenes in which she turns to pills or alcohol to “fill her up”. The movie unravels her story in the same way that therapy unravels the patient’s mental state. Each round we learn a little more, adding on to a story in which context is obtained in pieces, leading the viewer, or the listener, to put the story into a more coherent narrative. Like in psychotherapy, the story begins at the crisis, and then the details are added in as time goes by. With retrospect, we can see that Jasmine’s life was bound to fail. She had no inner core in which to navigate the universe. She was so heavily dependent on external validation. We know early on that she and her sister are both adopted from different birth parents, leading the audience to wonder, if somehow, this sense of landing in a new family is the pattern that Jasmine repeats, with each crisis, stimulating the search. She says she wants to go back to college, but the viewer knows this is a wish to find herself, and as patterns go, the wish remains a wish. Usually, we, the audience, quietly rejoice in seeing the affluent fall, but in this movie, the sadness of her personality pivots us away from her history of amazing wealth, towards her painful search for meaning. In this, the humanity of the movie trumps all of the scenes with large houses, expensive boats, and well-toned bodies, which had the movie missed the right note, would have made us cringe with envy. A fake name, drugs and alcohol, a reversal of fortune, sounds like an old Hollywood story, but there is a freshness to this movie which makes me think that Woody Allen’s years on the couch might have paid off.

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Fruitvale Station: Fruitless

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 24, 2013

Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a BART officer in the early hours of January 1, 2009. The shooting was documented by cell phones, giving us vivid details of a horrifying event. The movie starts there and works backwards by one day, showing us how Mr. Grant lived and loved his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother, his brother and his sister. We see him trying to please these people in his life, while at the same time, struggling to survive, with little financial resources, and seemingly little tenacity to hold down a steady job. As I watched the film, I felt manipulated, rather than seduced. His ending was tragic, as was his life. With my oedipal lens, I sensed that Ryan Coogler, the writer and director, wanted the audience to feel that because of his strong attachment to his mother, he was trying to turn his life around. There is one scene which almost captured this deep motivation, but it failed. The character of Oscar felt conflicted by his relationship with his mom, but this conflict was poorly illustrated, leaving me, the audience member, to feel shallow, hardly connected with Oscar. Consequently, and in sharp contrast to “The Way, Way Back” I did not care about the main character, even though at the same time, I wanted to care. I wanted that feeling in which I was outraged that this man’s life was cut short, leaving a turn-around story unfinished. Instead, I felt nothing. So, I conclude, as the title of this post suggests, ‘Fruitvale’ was fruitless.

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Oedipal Pain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 17, 2013


Liam James, as Duncan, in this movie “The Way, Way Back” illustrates the oedipal pain of a fourteen year old boy, wanting to see his mother happy, wanting to see himself happy, yet feeling helpless and alone while his divorced mother pursues a relationship that hurts both of them. The title suggests the place in those old station wagons from the 70’s, but at the same time, hints at going back to an earlier time where a boy could love his mother, without the awareness that his mother has her own psychological and sexual needs which he, the child, cannot fulfill. The separation from his mother, that an adolescent boy goes through, was brought to light by Sigmund Freud. The boy loves his mother, but has to suffer the rejection that his mother loves a grown-up man. This separation spurs the pursuit for another relationship, and so Duncan, unconsciously, it seems like, goes hunting for a new family. This pursuit helps Duncan emerge as a unique being, which,  then gives one hope that his mother will also find a loving environment. It is a “sweet” movie in that the pain is quiet. We understand Duncan through what he does not say, more than what he does. At first, I wondered if he was socially impaired, but as the movie unfolded, he was inhibited by his negative feelings about his life, and not about a misunderstanding of people. In fact, as so often happens, while he was appearing to be awkward, he was actually being quite perceptive. There is pain and there is love, and neither one is very tidy. I liked that.

Posted in Adolescence, Movie Review | 4 Comments »

Reposting: In Honor of Margaret Thatcher’s Passing: “The Iron Lady”- Feminism and Love-Together At Last

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 8, 2013

‘Iron Lady’ is a remarkable film, layered with so much of life’s challenges and disappointments. Meryl Streep did an Oscar worthy performance as a remarkable female leader in a man’s world, supported by the love affair with her husband, with the background music from ‘The King and I’. What is remarkable about this film is that a life unfolds in a messy way. There is the young Margaret Thatcher. There is the powerful and confident Margaret Thatcher. There is the smitten Margaret Thatcher. And sadly, there is the elderly, deteriorating Margaret Thatcher. The richness of seeing these various stages of life makes this a movie that I imagine only appeals to a more mature audience in that one has to appreciate what it is like to look back on so many chapters of one’s life, with both clarity and haze. There is also the wonderful thread of a woman succeeding in a man’s world, with conviction and confidence which seems almost magically based. It is not clear from the film how she was able to be so tenacious. What I loved most about the film was watching a woman trailblaze British government, while at the same time maintaining a deeply meaningful relationship with her husband. So often, movies depict lives in which one chooses one or the other: ambition or love. The title “The Iron Lady” does not speak to a woman capable of caring for another, but that is the delight of the movie-indeed the delight in life. The idea that Margaret Thatcher hit that delicate balance between work and home, gave me great admiration for her. The movie also depicts her sunset years, which are both terrifying and rich with memories. Those scenes are hard to take, yet they give us perspective on the arc of life. Ms. Thatcher, ‘The Iron Lady,’ has had quite the arc.  The music from “The King and I” pointed to the great irony, that she was the “King” and yet, she loved the dance. “The Admirable Lady” might be a better name for this movie.

Posted in Movie Review, Women's Issues | 4 Comments »


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 5, 2012

Believing lies so much that your life depends on it, combined with powers of persuasion can be life-saving. So goes the tale of this wonderfully done movie, based on a true story, where a fake movie becomes the lifeboat for six American hostages. This, along with the compassionate Canadian government, leads to a feel-good story, told in the midst of bestial hatred for American. What is so gripping about this movie is that the absurd becomes real. At first, the notion that one could create a fake movie which peacefully takes out six American hostages, seems implausible, or as they say in the movie “the least bad idea”. As the plot unfolds, the investment in the idea builds to a fever pitch, where the audience, along with the cast, feels like this just has to work. This dramatic arc works so well, since it gives us hope that creative thinking, “out of the box,” as they say, sometimes, just sometimes, is a remarkable capacity. There was no good algorithm for how to get these hostages to safety, so they had to invent one. I am left to thinking that is so undervalued in our society, where automation is pushed so vehemently. I am deeply in favor of using technology to eliminate human error, but at the same time, we need to find a way to preserve our ability to create new ideas, where the old ideas simply fail. This movie gave me hope. Thank you, Ben Affleck.

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“The Sessions”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 22, 2012

“The Sessions” is a movie worth seeing, perhaps at home, with friends on a cool winter night. It is a “feel-good, feel-bad” movie, with good actors, but not good acting. As a Psychiatrist, it brings me back to the days where sex therapy was an acceptable intervention in which therapists helped their patients with their intimacy issues, by being intimate with them. Today, of course, we would consider this a boundary violation, but at the time, the field accepted this practice as a helpful tool for some patients. As a person, the movie brought me to a place of compassion for those with disabilities, reminding me, yet again, how we able-bodied folks take so much for granted. The story is a true one; a story I have followed over the years, as the details grab me. Mark O’Brien, a healthy child until age six when he was stricken by polio. This meant that his brain was fully functioning, but his body was paralyzed and he depended, mostly, on an iron lung. He went to college at UC Berkeley, followed by Journalism school there as well. I get emotional thinking about his struggles, and yet, the movie did not tug there. The movie tugged at his sexual frustrations, no doubt a large part of his mental existence. The movie, missed, from my perspective, a more comprehensive understanding of his relationship with his body. Sure, we felt his frustrations, his utter dependency on a machine which required electricity, and his keen sense of understanding his situation. However, we did not, to my satisfaction, probe into how he discovered joy and satisfaction in the midst of overwhelming helplessness. Most striking, was the lack of interaction with any biological relatives. No relatives ever came to visit. He was not just portrayed as alone in his body, but alone in the outer universe as well. This part disturbed me. It is hard for me to imagine that no family member was checking in on him, but maybe that was the case. My hunch is that some family members served as a lifeline to his emotional being. Surely, the church did that, and so that part of the movie, with the wonderful Willam H Macy, was delightful. Is this a comedy? I wondered. No, I would say not. I was not amused, nor made sad. My emotions stayed flat, but I enjoyed the story. Home theatre seemed more appropriate, given the linear nature of the experience.


See also…

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