Zero is a Hero but The Hobbit is Token Tolkien 

Kathryn Bigelow's movie thrills while Peter Jackson's movie is a sagging saga

In tearing through the 2012 movie season's gifts, I should have spotted two surprises tucked deep behind the Christmas tree: one wrapped ornately, the other rather drab but equally mysterious.

I'm happy to report that one of the surprises--more time bomb than trifle--is one of the best of this, or any other, holiday movie season: Zero Dark Thirty. Featuring tough-as-tungsten CIA operative Maya, played by Jessica Chastain in 2012's finest female performance, Zero Dark Thirty tosses its audience from 10,000 feet into a heart of darkness rarely seen.

Appropriately opening in darkness, with the sounds of 9/11 reports of planes hitting the twin towers and a woman's cries to a 9-1-1 operator, the film instantly inflicts its own version of pain that may cause some filmgoers to look away. But a word of warning: Don't turn away too often or stroll to the concession stand. Every minute of Zero Dark Thirty is authentically thrilling.

The film rests steadily on the shoulders of Chastain as the mysterious Maya, a woman who rules a world where men usually call the shots--quite literally. Minutes before launching the raid that will take down Osama bin Laden, Maya stares down a pair of Navy Seals, who quickly learn that she has no patience for machismo. Her focus on the mission is chilling.

Zero Dark Thirty is expertly helmed by director Kathryn Bigelow, again teaming up with journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal. They both walked home with Oscars for 2008's The Hurt Locker and need to make some room on their trophy shelves. Here, they craft a story that makes for a riveting two hours and 37 minutes.

I wish I could say the same for The Hobbit. When, after an exhausting two hours, 43 minutes, Bilbo Baggins exclaims, "I do believe the worst is behind us," I was a bit peeved. To stretch out the bauble that is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit into another of director Peter Jackson's epic trilogies is a waste of time.

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Jackson's Hobbit is eye-popping, using the much-talked about HFR-3D technology--which stands for high frame rate, as in 48 frames-per-second--to give a never-before-seen smoothness to the film's movement. Unfortunately, the technology doesn't counter the movie's lack of fun. Somewhere between his previous Lord of the Ring's triumphs and this newest effort, Jackson seems to have forgotten how wonderfully playful his earlier Tolkien adaptations were. Instead, we're saddled with a sagging saga.

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