Movie Mini-Reviews: Assault on Precinct 13, Senna, Magic Trip, The Help

Another batch of mini-reviews to wrap up the month of January:

Assault on Precinct 13 [1976, Carpenter]
Assault on Precinct 13 [1976, Carpenter]
I did a mini-John Carpenter marathon this month, and Assault on Precinct 13 was my favorite of the group. This gritty 70s action movie is indebted equally to westerns and Night of the Living Dead. While the story is pencil thin, the battle that pits the understaffed precinct against a seemingly endless supply of gangsters is a blast to watch. With no one else to turn to, Lt. Bishop (Austin Stoker) forms an unlikely partnership with convicted killer Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) as they are boarded up inside the precinct. A shocking moment during the first quarter of the movie quickly showed that this was going to be a no holds barred affair. This movie is worthy of its cult following, and it is one of Carpenter’s best. 9/10

Senna [2010, Kapadia]
Senna [2010, Kapadia]
Moving documentary about an F1 racer who I knew little about before watching. Ayrton Senna is widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers of all time, and he remains a hero to his native Brazil. His life was cut tragically short after crashing during a 1994 race. The documentary, which is masterfully pieced together, shows his rise to the top of the racing world. By the end, I was holding back tears even though I knew the outcome. Although I wish more details would have been provided about his life outside of racing, this is still a great documentary, and it is one that is accessible to non-racing fans as well. 8/10

Magic Trip [2011, Ellwood & Gibney]
Magic Trip [2011, Ellwood & Gibney]
I have always found both the Beat Generation and the 1960s counterculture scene to be fascinating, so this little-known documentary caught my eye. Magic Trip is essentially a collection of found footage of author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his group of Merry Pranksters on their acid-fueled road trip across the country. There are some amazing clips shown in this feature, including an audio recording of Kesey’s U.S. Government-performed acid experiment, but the documentary definitely has a “home movie” feel to it. There is also the burden of some terrible voiceover narration from some of the original Pranksters, particularly one woman who talks in an irritatingly dramatic raspy whisper. If you have any interest in the era, this is worth seeing, warts and all. 7/10

The Help [2011, Taylor]
The Help [2011, Taylor]
The very definition of Oscar bait. The Help is well made, but everything is dumbed down for the audience. If you ever get confused as to what’s going on, don’t fret because it will be explained by one of the characters immediately. Speaking of the characters, every single one of them is a stereotype of some sort. Many of the top names (especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) do an excellent job with the weak material, and they keep this from being a total waste of time. Do I even need to mention that white people save the day? Not a bad film, just a frustrating one. 6/10