This is the final post on films I watched over the Thanksgiving holiday. I watched other films (Leatherheads, Pandorum, Coffee and Cigarettes), but there isn't much to say about them. I'm ending on a high note, though.
A while back I stumbled across the work of Henry Jaglom, a filmmaker who's been forging his own indie path for forty years. He existed on the periphery of my cinema consciousness until I saw Last Summer in the Hamptons on cable and suddenly realized here was this totally original artist, untouched by any popular trends, with a consistent (and consistently fascinating) body of work.
His latest film is Queen of the Lot, a follow-up to 2006's Hollywood Dreams. Both star Tanna Frederick, an actress notable for her total emotional clarity; she communicates everything her characters feel with her whole being. There's a moment in her previous collaboration with Jaglom, Irene in Time, that is probably one of the most amazing bits of non-acting acting I've ever seen. For her to have such a response, she would have to genuinely feel the moment to a degree most film actresses wouldn't dare, and couldn't pull off.
In Queen, Tanna is back as Margie Chizek, an actress on the make who hides a will of steel behind a "gosh-shucks" Iowa farmgirl exterior. Yet the Iowa farmgirl isn't exactly a put-on, either. As "Maggie Chase," she's the star of a successful action franchise, and is dating a hot established star, but wants more (she compulsively checks her Google points). She's also under house arrest after two DUIs in one week.
Jaglom's films are as much about locations as they are characters, and the film divides itself between two main spaces: the opulent home of Margie's managers (Zack Norman and David Proval), and the family homestead of her boyfriend Dov (Christopher Rydell), scion of a fading clan of Hollywood royalty. In the first setting Margie knows her role; in the latter she's afloat, especially when she meets her boyfriend's normal, sane brother Aaron (Noah Wyle). She gets into everyone's good graces by taking them at face value, something these crass, jaded, sophisticated people almost can't comprehend. But is she showing her true face to them?
That probably makes the film sound more serious than it feels, because ultimately it's a pretty amusing story. Jaglom's improvisational methods allow the actors to essentially make up the dialogue as they go, and since many of them are playing performers as well, they know the territory. Frederick and Wyle have great chemistry together, and though she's the star, he becomes the story's center; he sees through Margie, but at the same time responds to the parts that feel genuine, just as we do. A real surprise is Jaglom's daughter Sabrina, who gives genuine bite to her performance as a resourcefully conniving teen.
But the show belongs to Frederick. Jaglom tends to make his films around specific actresses; he had an extraordinary run with his wife Victoria Foyt, and his collaborations with Frederick have brought him into new territory. He's found a context for her unique energy and given her strong co-stars to bounce off, something many filmmakers (and actresses) would avoid. As for Frederick, she brings a level of emotional intensity and honesty to Margie that feels at times like a documentary. I've never seen another performer consistently seem so absolutely unaware of the camera's presence and risk the kind of things she does.
I'd love to see Jaglom and Frederick revisit Margie every few years, in between other projects like Irene in Time. If the funny, touching Queen of the Lot is any indication, the character and milieu are far from exhausted, and Ms. Frederick remains a wonder to watch.