Three new movies available to watch digitally might not be the summer blockbusters we would ordinarily be seeing during this foggy July, but they’re nonetheless worthwhile.
Character actor Romany Malco, perhaps best known as Jay in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and Conrad Shepard on TV’s “Weeds,” makes his feature writing and directing debut with “Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison.”
That’s quite a title, and, as the colon implies, it’s a documentary, or rather, a mockumentary. It opened last week in drive-ins and debuts on VOD and digital on Friday.
Tijuana “T.J.” Jackson (Malco) is in prison for the sixth or seventh time, and wants to be a world-famous motivational speaker. Film student Rachel Cho (Shannon Dang) has chosen to make her 10-minute documentary about him.
She finds him to be fast-talking and a bit of a con man, but also convincing, and, yes, very possibly a good life coach.
She films his release from prison. He gets home to a not-so-warm welcome from his mother (Lyne Odums) and sister Sharea (Tami Roman), and to his room, which, hilariously, shows just how little he has been able to adjust to life on the outside.
Later, he convinces Rachel that her film needs to keep going. It really needs to be feature-length.
Along with T.J.’s brainy nephew Lil’ Eric (Alkoya Brunson), they launch Jackson’s career, first going out and talking to ordinary folks. This seems to go well, until Rachel and Lil’ Eric learn that T.J. was charging people. (“I made 137 bucks!” he says proudly.)
To make matters more complicated, T.J.’s parole officer is Cheryl (Regina Hall), an ex-girlfriend, with whom there’s still some lingering attraction. Then, an opportunity comes up across the state line, which could send T.J. right back to prison.
Truthfully, “Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison” isn’t quite a slam-dunk. Its tone wobbles, never quite becoming as hilarious or as touching as it hopes, though it does come close.
Malco rests most of the movie’s burden on T.J.’s fast patter, which can be alternately funny, disorienting and distancing. He blunders into bad situations, and his arrogance makes it hard to feel sorry for him.
Eventually, the fluctuating character traits more or less come together in a clumsy human way, and T.J. becomes someone to root for.
The other characters are well-cast and well-written, and help the film take shape. Hall (“Support the Girls”) is always great. As the nephew, Brunson makes a great foil for T.J., and Dang is an essential presence as the filmmaker at the edges of the story, becoming more and more involved.
It’s also a good deal more organic and believable than many mockumentaries, staying consistently true to the format.
At times the movie recalls the notorious 1992 Belgian film “Man Bites Dog,” in which a cunning, charming serial killer coaxes a film crew following him to become accomplices.
That’s probably not the vibe that “Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison” was aiming for, but it uses a similar dynamic to acknowledge human foibles as well as celebrating the human spirit. In the end, T.J. is here to help.
Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison
Starring: Romany Malco, Regina Hall, Alkoya Brunson, Shannon Dang
Written and directed by: Romany Malco
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Speaking of helping, the documentary “The Fight” — co-directed by Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, who worked on the 2016 film “Weiner” — tells the story of four specific cases fought by the American Civil Liberties Union after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017.
They involve an immigrant woman banned from getting a much-needed abortion, a transgender man forced out of the military, immigrant families who were separated, and the proposed addition of the question “Are you a U.S. citizen?” on the census form.
Produced by Kerry Washington, the movie introduces lawyers, Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, and Chase Strangio, depicting them as a ragtag bunch of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants misfits, tattooed, slightly befuddled by technology, and sometimes quite funny. (“Train wine!” proclaims one while riding home after a win.)
“The Fight” has an understandable left-leaning bias, but it tries very hard to feel even and fair, focusing on the right, rather than the political, thing to do.
For balance, it devotes a small section to the battles the ACLU has fought for right-wing causes. There’s even a powerful sequence in which the lawyers read their hate mail, trying to laugh it off, but still a little wounded. (“If you don’t look at the negative stuff, then you’re in your own bubble,” says one.)
Indeed, “The Fight” is an unwelcome reminder of the seething hate in the world today, but also a welcome reminder of the good souls that occupy the first line of defense.
Starring: Brigitte Amiri, Joshua Block, Lee Gelernt, Dale Ho, Chase Strangio
Directed by: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
“Around the Sun” offers a bit more of an escape, or, more accurately, a head trip. Full disclosure: It is written by my colleague and fellow San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle member Jonathan Kiefer.
“Around the Sun” will be available for $9.99 on Apple TV and through the Roxie, the Rafael Film Center and other theaters for $11 as part of the Virtual Cinema program, which benefits theaters of viewers’ choice. Details are here.
As the movie begins, Bernard (Gethin Anthony, “Game of Thrones”) sits in his car and receives a text, showing a photo of a positive pregnancy test. He’s less than thrilled.
Bernard is a location scout and has made an appointment to look at a French chateau, and Maggie (Cara Theobold, “Downton Abbey”), is there to show it to him. Like a good Englishman, he pulls himself together when she arrives.
Apparently, the 17th century scientist and philosopher Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle wrote “Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds” while staying there. Much of the discussion between Bernard and Maggie is about or inspired by Fontenelle.
As suggested by that book’s title, this movie, “Around the Sun,” directed by Oliver Krimpas, has its own little twists on the multiverse, as Bernard and Maggie continue to meet and converse and try to connect.
A metaphysical walk-and-talk, it’s a brainy movie, and clever, too, as when its chapters end, it leaves fascinating little clues as to its methods, delightful little pregnant moments that leave off just before closure.
The acting and cinematography are top-notch, and, at 79 minutes, it never overtaxes or wears out its welcome.
Those unfamiliar with Fontenelle (as I was) may find it easy to lose the movie’s thread (as I did). And, as tightly woven as it is, it’s not easy to get a handhold back after that happens.
Still, it’s irresponsible to penalize a movie that asks for a bit more involvement than a normal movie would, and “Around the Sun” is worth the effort. Certainly a trip into another universe sounds very appealing right about now.
Around the Sun
Starring: Gethin Anthony, Cara Theobold
Written by: Jonathan Kiefer
Directed by: Oliver Krimpas
Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes
Additional movies debuting this week are Ron Howard’s documentary “Rebuilding Paradise,” the drama “Summerland” starring Gemma Arterton and “The Cuban,” starring Louis Gossett Jr.