THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
The first great sequence in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - and, sadly, one of the few truly great sequences in Peter Jackson's second (or fifth, if you'd rather) J.R.R. Tolkien installment - is an escape scene. At its start, hobbit protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions sneak out of the Elven dungeon cells in which they've been imprisoned, and hope for clean getaways by stashing themselves in empty wine barrels and floating down a nearby river. Sounds simple. And it might have been if it weren't for the rapids, and the waterfalls, and the whizzing arrows, and the savage orcs, and Orlando Bloom gingerly bouncing atop our heroes' heads.
Jackson gets a lot wrong in his follow-up to last December's similarly epic-sized The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; the movie, with its visual effects ranging from sublime to distractingly phony, boasts a lumpy, lurching structure and an oftentimes woeful lack of irony, and at 160 minutes, it's criminally long for the tale it's recounting. (This middle part of Jackson's latest Middle-earth trilogy covers roughly five chapters in Tolkien's adventure classic.) Yet in this one instance, Jackson, aided immeasurably by the work of editor Maysie Hoy, appears to get everything right. From the moment that Bilbo and the dwarfs careen down the first of several waterfalls, with the orcs in hot pursuit and elves Legolas (Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) with bows at the ready, this extended escape is nearly 10 minutes of undiluted, uninterrupted fun - a breathless spectacle that, at my screening, both received and earned hearty mid-scene applause.
Part of Jackson's genius here lies in his exquisite choreography, with yowling monsters popping out from all directions and life-saving arrows striking exactly when needed. But, as in nearly all of the director's finest set pieces here and in other films, what makes the sequence especially wonderful is that it's also legitimately hilarious. With our wee travelers left with little to do but haplessly float and pray for the best, the ferocious, relentless battle action between the orcs and the elves is so complexly staged, and so brutally painful (in a bloodless, Wile E. Coyote way), that it's funny; you cackle as much in surprise as you do in genuine amusement. And when Legolas, indeed, traipses down the river by hopping from one dwarf's head to another's, all the while decimating orcs with arrows, your laughter stems not just from the slapstick perfection of the scene, but from its unquestionable logic: That really is the only way Bloom's elf can get the job properly done. Watching this segment of the film unfurl, you can practically visualize the kick-ass amusement-park ride it could inspire - the one you'd stand in a two-hour line for at PeterJacksonWorld. Modestly engaging though it is, however, most of the rest of the movie feels like the waiting line itself, a tedious experience you have to endure to get to the good stuff (which, hopefully, will be delivered in next December's The Hobbit: There & Back Again).
So, yes, I yawned a bit as our plucky adventurers, occasionally joined by Ian McKellen's wizard Galdalf, made their slow trek to reclaim their fortune from a vicious dragon. (Jeff Anderson's snarky approximation of Lord of the Rings' storyline - trudge, trudge, trudge - in Clerks II would be pretty apt for this release, too.) And I did roll my eyes when the movie and its oppressive Howard Shore score took itself way too seriously, which it did especially during Lee Pace's humorless pronouncements as the elven king Thranduil, and the unnecessary hints at romance between Legolas and Tauriel, a character famously (or rather, infamously) created for the film by Jackson and his three fellow screenwriters. But thankfully, there are just enough diverting encounters on hand to make the sit a relatively painless one. An attack by a group of oversize spiders - who, when Bilbo places his precious-s-s-s ring on his finger, speak in hissing, strangled cadences not unlike Gollum's - delivers some queasy enjoyment, as does an early chase/rescue involving the skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), who's just slightly less hirsute as a human than he is as an enormous black bear.
And thankfully, the film's last half hour - in which we finally find ourselves in the desolated kingdom usurped by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug - is mostly terrific. Grandly scaled and insidiously frightening, this skyscraper-sized winged creature moves with an eerie, slithery grace that's echoed in the mellifluous baritone rumblings of Benedict Cumberbatch; although we're given a quick glimpse as to how it might eventually happen, Smaug truly does seem like an unbeatable foe. (The vocal casting also provides some giggly meta-humor, at least if you've enjoyed Cumberbatch's and Freeman's sparring as Holmes and Watson on the BBC series Sherlock.) I may have left The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug underwhelmed, but I wouldn't have missed this climactic encounter for anything, particularly given the stunning imagery that finds the dragon sleeping under a blanket composed entirely of gold pieces and priceless jewels. Much like Peter Jackson himself, I'd wager.
TYLER PERRY'S A MADEA CHRISTMAS
Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas finds the auteur's titular, motor-mouthed, malapropism-prone lead spending the holidays dispensing no-nonsense wisdom to folks in rural Alabama, and discovering an unexpected ally in Larry the Cable Guy. In other words, it sounds like a nightmare created just for me. But color me shocked: It may be my favorite Tyler Perry outing since 2010's For Colored Girls. I won't argue that the filmmaking isn't frequently atrocious. The muck-ups shown in the end-credits gag reel are nearly indistinguishable from several ad-libbed scenes that made their way into the final cut, and in one sequence set in a department-store break room, the sound quality is so abysmal that you'd think the movie was shot in its creator's backyard tool shed. But while Perry's plotting is simplistic, you could hardly call it formulaic, given that it involves culturally enlightened hillbillies, jokes (and surprisingly good ones) involving the Ku Klux Klan, and a well-meaning but quietly vicious antagonist (the fine Anna Maria Horsford) whom we're initially led to empathize with. Among its large ensemble, there isn't one performer who delivers less than a completely committed performance, and some of Perry's casting choices are so joyously welcome - Kathy Najimy! Alicia Witt! The Facts of Life's Lisa Whelchel! - that you smile even while you're groaning at some of the things they're forced to say. And while Perry may have, as even he admits, played his ball-busting harridan too many times by now, the character proves in A Madea Christmas that she/he is still good for numerous sustained laughs; Madea's lunatic retelling of Jesus' birth to a grade-school class constitutes three of the funniest movie minutes of 2013. Oh yeah, and full disclosure: I chuckled at some of Larry the Cable Guy's shtick, and found him appealing all throughout the movie. Please don't tell anyone.