Though his early films appeared contemporaneously with the rise of mumblecore, Azazel Jacobs doesn’t really fit into that admittedly tenuously defined scene. Like many of those filmmakers, Jacobs has waded in increasingly mainstream waters as his career has advanced, with his latest, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring French Exit, closing the New York Film Festival this year. That’s reason enough for surprising but welcome Blu-ray upgrades of Jacobs’ second and third features, from Kino Lorber.
Unlike many American indies from the same era, Jacobs’ films are both much less dependent on dialogue and more prescriptive in their writing. Though handheld camera work can give the appearance of loose, improvisational filmmaking, these two films are constructed carefully, with Jacobs teasing out bits of visual humor with his compositions and establishing mood with stray flourishes of dialogue.
In The GoodTimesKid (2005), Jacobs crafts a love triangle built on coincidence, as two men named Rodolfo Cano (Jacobs himself and Gerardo Naranjo) find their lives intermingling when an Army enlistment notice accidentally goes to the wrong one. Rodolfo 1, played by Jacobs, is in the midst of blowing up his life by enlisting without informing his girlfriend, Diaz (Sara Diaz). On the night of his birthday party, he’s nowhere to be found, just as Rodolfo 2 finds his way to their house.
It says something about Rodolfo 2’s emotional state that Diaz labels him “Depresso,” even as her relationship is crumbling. Naranjo’s performance lands just shy of shell-shocked, and there are clues to recent romantic distress. One, involving a long note written on his houseboat, shows Jacobs’ facility for creating slowly unfolding visual gags. There are more explosive punchlines too, like a sudden commiseration via fridge-punching that bonds Diaz and Rodolfo 2.
The film’s tone can be aggressively deadpan, but there’s an undercurrent of helpless rage here too. George W. Bush flickers on a television, and later, an increasingly incensed Rodolfo 1 literally wraps himself in an American flag before attacking a group of strangers. Jacobs may not be a political filmmaker like his father, Ken Jacobs, whose mammoth Star Spangled to Death is an experimental landmark, but he can be pointed. The banality-of-evil levels in the film’s Army office scene are off the charts.
With Momma’s Man (2008), Jacobs burrows into something like autobiography, though as he mentions on the disc’s new audio commentary, the project didn’t start that way. Still, there’s no way around that analysis when the end result is a film starring your parents (Flo Jacobs and Ken Jacobs) playing versions of their artist selves, shot almost exclusively in the walk-up apartment you grew up in.
Matt Boren stars as Mikey, whose brief visit to see his parents in New York turns into an extended stay when he just can’t bring himself to get back on the plane to California, where his wife and infant daughter await. Each passing day, Mikey seems to become more and more cocooned in his parents’ place, which is stuffed to the ceiling with bric-a-brac, plenty of it ephemera from his childhood.
One on hand, the film’s themes are apparent almost instantly, with Boren’s opaque performance quickly sketching in Mikey’s arrested development and declining to go much further. But again, Jacobs has a knack for teasing out small details that suddenly arrest your attention, and he can make his parents’ apartment feel both enveloping and suffocating, at turns.
And casting his parents is a brilliant move, with Flo’s open-hearted performance becoming almost painful in its extreme empathy, while Ken’s sidelong glances lend just enough annoyance to leaven the proceedings. The film justifies its entire existence with a sequence where Flo takes Mikey into her lap at the kitchen table, and a cut transports us to his childhood via one of Ken’s films, with Azazel asleep at the same table as a boy. In that moment, the mysterious hold our memories can exert becomes remarkably present.
Kino’s Blu-ray upgrades reveal subtle but noticeable improvements over previous DVD releases. The GoodTimesKid has a 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer, sourced from a 2K restoration, while Momma’s Man features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer. Both now feature a more supported grain structure, with fine detail that doesn’t get lost in noise, and the typical improved clarity and color reproduction that comes with high-def. 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are clean.
The slates of extras don’t quite supersede the DVDs, unfortunately. For Momma’s Man, everything from Kino’s DVD is carried over, except Ken Jacobs’ 2006 short Capitalism: Child Labor. (Could be rights issues. Could be concern over the film’s aggressive strobe visuals.) Alongside the ported-over making-of, conversation between Azazel and his parents, some deleted scenes, and Rain Building Music (Azazel’s first short film) we get a brand new audio commentary from Azazel.
The GoodTimesKid has more gaps. Kino’s disc has a new Azazel audio commentary, deleted and extended scenes, and a stills gallery. Missing from the previously released DVD from short-lived boutique label Benten Films: a different audio commentary featuring all three leads, Ken Jacobs’ short The Whirled, Azazel Jacobs’ short Let’s Get Started, and a booklet with an essay by Glenn Kenny.