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Rome Review: ‘Tar’ With James Franco Is A Dreamy Collage Of Pretty But Overfamiliar Aesthetics

Rome Review: 'Tar' With James Franco Is A Dreamy Collage Of Pretty But Overfamiliar Aesthetics

It’s difficult to know quite what to make of ‘Tar,’ a multi-authored project seemingly coaxed into being by the sheer force of James Franco‘s current artistic cachet. Playing In Competition in the XXI sidebar of the Rome Film Festival, the film represents the work of twelve newbie directors — NYU film students all — and attempts to create an impressionistic interpretation of the work of poet CK Williams, who himself appears occasionally, reading from his collection. Championed by and starring Franco, amongst a starry cast including Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Henry Hopper, Bruce Campbell and Zach Braff, the film shifts around in time and mood, using four different actors (Franco one of them) to depict Williams at different stages in his life, with the scenes sometimes playing out with internal dialogue and mini-storylines, and other times played mute, with snatches of poetry voiced over. It is to be commended that despite the far-ranging approach and the cadre of people involved in its making, the film doesn’t feel disjointed or particularly uneven, that’s a lot down to shared cinematography and production design departments, we are told. But whether the approach enhances or detracts from our appreciation of Williams’ poetry is another question. 

The problem really lies in the last place you might look for it: the originality and resourcefulness of these young filmmakers. We don’t want to do anyone down, but it seems a slight shame to us (and perhaps it was as a result of trying to maintain tonal control over the whole), that, for example, when handed the often autobiographical work of a poet who grew up close to his mother in mid-20th century America, the choice was made to cast Jessica Chastain, and then to essentially recreate half of her “Tree of Life” scenes, right down to the lens flares and the twirling on the grass. It comes across not as homage, but rip off, and does a disservice to the poetry that supposedly “inspired” it, which surely should have engendered a more personal, less derivative response. And this issue carries through even to the less Malickian segments, where the aesthetic may not be of smiling red-haired mothers bleaching dreamily out to white, but is no less familiar. Call it the Instagrammation of our culture, but grainy, blurry, oversaturated/desaturated images no longer mean what they used to mean; at best they evoke ‘Levi’s ad’ and at worst ‘my friend Dave’s holiday snaps uploaded to Twitter.’ It’s still lovely to look at, often, but we’ve seen this cornfield, we’ve seen this closeup of Mila Kunis looking sexy and disheveled, we’ve seen this tender handholding moment between kids — we’ve seen an awful lot of these images elsewhere. Its effect on Williams’ poetry is therefore reductive, taking words that are free and wild and evocative on the page and pinning them to images that could sell perfume. Personally, we’re pro-word, and think these particular ones deserved, not better, exactly, but braver choices. 

The XXI section is designed to showcase films that challenge the boundaries of what is considered cinema, whether in format or content. “Tar’ for all the experimentalism of its conception, falls some way short here, and ends up an irreproachably tasteful, easily digestible but an unsurprising, undemanding watch.  [C+]

We should note, the film was preceded by Franco’s own 1-minute short “Dream,” a lustrously staged showpiece featuring a roving camera wandering restlessly through a house in which trees grow, mists hang and ethereal girls, wearing white, open fridges full of apples. It looks great (until the Grand Canyon bit at the end, and the whispered text over the beginning and end is a bit silly), but feels more like a test film for something else than an entity unto itself. 

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Movie Lover

Very boring and tiresome movie!!!! Very poor director's work…… Very, very disappointing….. I just wondering how the director Edna Luise Biesold find any money for this disaster…… Hopefully for the first and last time!!!!!!!


James Franco has been swamping in making things with his own marks and kinda different indeed. And he still can not be attractive to me, don't know why. Why Henry Hopper did this.


Suspicious amount of defensive comments on this piece. Seriously I've read most of the Rome festival stuff on here and none have garnered this much defensive attention. I'll never watch this movie, not because of the review, but because it sounds as pretentious and poncey as the people defending it.


This sounds pretty good.

UNoriginal Review

I watched this film at Rome (at the third screening).

Ms. Jessica Kiang is basically saying that several "SHOTS" in the film are unoriginal. That is true. The Jessica Chastain shots with the child and the teenager have been seen before. That, however, does NOT mean that the story lines of those parts, where the child has bad dreams and the teenager is trying to be independent of his mother, are unoriginal. Do you understand the difference, Ms. Kiang?

The shot of the kids holding hands near a stream (teenage Williams) is, yes, unoriginal and that moment is also part of the story of that segment/poem. It seems like an easy and trite treatment of a fairly powerful poem. This *one* example holds weight, fair enough.

The shots of Mila Kunis etc. are "SHOTS", not story.

So it seems like Ms. Kiang is the one who is unable to separate visual shots from story – a pretty big issue for a reviewer. The stories were not things we had seen before and as a fan of Williams' poetry, I found the takes on the poems, for the most part, interesting and intriguing.

To dismiss everything as unoriginal because of a handful of shots is a very unoriginal review of a intriguing movie that is far from perfect (it feels long and repetitive at times), but is a good effort.


Franco rules, haters drool.


James Franco does too much. He needs to give it a rest. Quality over quantity, please.


TARWATCHIT, James is a arrogant and insufferable tool , that is very full of himself. This guy trashed the very good Rise of the Planet of the Apes , before it was released in the cinemas. Franco will never be able to erase his stoned behavior at the Oscars. That will always be a part of his legacy.


I admire James Franco for funding and building his own rocket to take himself to Mars.


Very berry cool!!!


I really can't wait to see this unique film and the students should all be very proud. Clearly, it will not be for all tastes but it's something different. It seems now every movie has elements of scenes that we might have seen before, but with different interpretations. If this, is highlighted in this movie then so be it, I'm sure the total package is still beautiful and makes a point.

I also admire Franco for trying to bring poetry films into mainstream culture more. If nothing else, at least someone else will now have heard of CK Williams that's always a good thing.

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