Tar: Rome Review

Tar Film Rome Festival - H 2012

Tar Film Rome Festival - H 2012

Twelve writer-directors don’t spoil the broth in a young film whose lyrical expressionism should work best at liberal arts colleges.

James Franco produces and stars as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams with Jessica Chastain as his mother and Mila Kunis as his wife.

Written and directed by 12 N.Y.U. film students and produced by and starring James Franco,Tar is an odd shoe that sometimes walks and sometimes sits and waits. Sophisticated viewers will appreciate its modern expressionist style and its deep bow to To the Wonder and master Terrence Malick, whose influence on future generations of film students is apparently going to be substantial. And rather uniquely, it’s based on a collection of poems, in this case written by prolific Pulitzer Prize-winner C.K. Williams (born in 1936) who is played by a number of actors at various ages but most resonantly by Franco. Boasting a dream cast that includes Jessica Chastain and Mila Kunis, the film should have no trouble finding festival berths, but Williams is not the household name that Allen Ginsberg is, and the audiences of Howl (also starring Franco) will have to be downsized proportionately, should the film find theatrical release.

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It’s enough of a surprise to find that the 12 young cooks have produced a unified work, one whose stylistic variations are largely smoothed over by common D.P.s, production designer Maki Takenouchi and the lyrical scores of Daniel Wohl and Garth Neustadter. It’s also clever to tell the story of Williams' life through his poems and in tenuous flashbacks to the experiences of his childhood, early youth and college years, through to his marriage with Catherine (played by a fully engaged Kunis) and preoccupied parenthood. The film’s different authorial voices perhaps complicate or blur the poet’s portrait, but inevitably the audience reads this as different phases of the life of a changing, growing man.  

Parts of several impenetrable poems are portentously read by an elderly scholar, but they serve as mere jumping-off rocks to dive into the strange biopic. The versatile Franco plays Williams as a married man with a bit of a beard who obviously adores his sexy wife and young son Jed, yet who can’t help live part of his life in his memories, the source of his poetry.  

Throughout the film we see teasing fragments of Williams as a very young child with his vivacious mother (Chastain), literally hanging from her lips and the words she mouths. As a 12-year-old he falls for a little blond girl with braids, whose spontaneity and innocence are irresistible as they wander through a magical natural universe. He writes poems as a young man, drops acid and pays a nasty visit to a prostitute. As an adult, his certainties are suddenly shattered by the nuclear incident at nearby Three Mile Island.

So in the end, there is just about enough narrative to hold interest, while the lyrical camerawork, constantly in motion, blurred images and all, offers a single emotion that is impossible to stretch over a feature-length film.   

Venue: Rome Film Festival (XXI section), Nov. 16, 2012.
Production company: Rabbit Bandini Productions
Cast: James Franco, Henry Hopper, Mila Kunis, Jessica Chastain, Zach Braff, Bruce Campbell
Directors, screenwriters: Edna Luise Biesold, Sarah-Violet Bliss, Gabrielle Demeestere, Alexis Gambis, Brooke Goldfinch, Shripriya Mahesh, Pamela Romanowsky, Bruce Thierry Cheung, Tine Thomasen, Virgina Urreiztieta, Omar Zuma Hidalgo, Shruti Ganguly
Producers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy, Shruti Ganguly, Edward Bass
Director of photography: Pedro Gomez Millan, Bruce Thierry Cheung
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Costumes: Brenda Abbandandolo, Lauren Delaney George
Editors: Jenn Ruff, Bruce Thierry Cheung

Music: Daniel Wohl, Garth Neustadter
No rating, 72 minutes