The following are capsule reviews of movies recently reviewed by Catholic News Service.
The Book Thief (Fox)
Mature adolescents should be able to enjoy this beautifully filmed adaptation of Markus Zusak's young-adult novel, in which Sophie Nelisse plays a young Nazi-era German girl who learns compassion through reading and through the example of her adoptive parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), becoming somehow immune to the worst of the Hitler Youth's indoctrination. Many adults, on the other hand, may be shocked at what appears to be a fairy-tale gloss on the Holocaust, as director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni have removed all the nuance and moral ambiguity found in Zusak's book. Some anti-Semitic dialogue and scenes of wartime bombings. (A-II, PG-13)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Warner Bros.)
Lively sequel in which a once-timid hobbit (Martin Freeman) continues his courageous quest to help a group of dwarves (led by Richard Armitage) recapture their ancestral mountain stronghold from the terrifying dragon (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) who displaced them. As he does so, the wizard (Ian McKellen) who originally chose him for this seemingly unlikely mission works to prevent larger, darker forces from consolidating their power. Director Peter Jackson's second installment in a trilogy of films based on Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel is --- like its 2012 predecessor, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" --- too intense for the smallest viewers. But most others will likely appreciate the peppier pace of his return to Tolkien's fictional world of Middle-earth as well as the implicit warnings against the corrupting influence of wealth and power that accompany it. Much vivid but bloodless action violence, some occult undertones, a brief instance of mildly sexual humor. (A-II, PG-13)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Weinstein)
Handsome but flawed biographical profile of South African dissident-turned-president Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) who, after spending 27 years in prison for resisting apartheid, advocated peace and forgiveness and endeavored to steer his country away from violence toward reconciliation. Based on Mandela's 1994 autobiography, the movie glows with admiration for its subject and is bent on demonstrating the historical significance of his personal journey, with second wife Winnie's (Naomie Harris) vengeful reaction to the mistreatment she suffered serving as schematic counterpoint. Director Justin Chadwick's glossy presentation has a static quality, as if he's trying to preserve Mandela's legacy in amber. But regardless of any cinematic or historical limitations, the picture rightly lauds a statesman whose greatest virtue was his ability to see beyond his personal circumstances and discern what was best for his nation as a whole. Considerable violence --- including many gun battles, bombings and an immolation --- demeaning treatment of prisoners, a half-dozen premarital and adulterous sexual situations, though without nudity or explicit activity, some crude language and hate speech. (A-III, PG-13)
Nebraska (Paramount Vantage)
A road trip mends frayed family ties in this quiet, unassuming blend of comedy and drama filmed in black-and-white. Director Alexander Payne tackles the issue of caring for elderly parents with realism and sensitivity. But, as penned by screenwriter Bob Nelson, his film also includes material unsuitable for most viewers. A grizzled and frail patriarch (Bruce Dern) receives a sweepstakes solicitation in the mail offering a "prize" of $1 million, which he can collect in person in Lincoln, Neb. -- a long way from his home in Montana. His overbearing wife (June Squibb) thinks he's crazy, but his estranged son (Will Forte) is more sympathetic. Seeking an opportunity to mend fences, he sets off with his father on a journey that includes a portentous stopover in Dad's hometown. Amid the salty language and bawdy humor, there are some positive core values and good people on display, along with a celebration of familial love, respect and understanding. Frequent profane and crude language, some sexual references and innuendoes, a few jokes directed at Catholics. (L, R)
Out of the Furnace (Relativity)
Grim journey into hardscrabble, rust-belt America where two Pennsylvania brothers --- the older (Christian Bale) a steel worker, the younger (Casey Affleck) a directionless Iraq War vet --- suffer a series of personal misfortunes. These culminate when Affleck's character tries to make a living as a bare-knuckle boxer and, despite the warnings of a local bookie (Willem Dafoe), gets mixed up with a vicious backwoods fight promoter (Woody Harrelson). Religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, are shown to offer a ray of hope to the good characters in director and co-writer Scott Cooper's often bleak, sometimes touching drama. But plot developments involving vigilantism are treated equivocally at best and thus require mature interpretation. Much harsh violence with some gore, revenge and narcotics themes, cohabitation, several uses of profanity, pervasive rough and crude language. (L, R)
Compelling fact-based drama about a warmhearted Irish woman (Judi Dench) who enlists the help of a cynical British reporter (Steve Coogan) in her search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption by the nuns who ran the oppressive facility for unwed mothers in which she lived as a teen (Sophie Kennedy Clark) after being abandoned by her family for becoming pregnant. Director Stephen Frears' screen version of Martin Sixsmith's book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" makes uncomfortable viewing for Catholic moviegoers since church institutions are uniformly presented in a negative light. Yet, while illustrating the dangers that can result when appreciation for the virtue of chastity degenerates into puritanical repression, his film also implicitly makes the point that its protagonist's enduring individual faith is the source of the enthusiasm for life, friendliness toward strangers and willingness to forgive that set her apart from the jaded journalist. Mature themes including premarital sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and homosexuality, a scene of painful childbirth, a couple of same-sex kisses, a few rough terms, a couple of crude expressions. (L, PG-13)
Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas (Lionsgate)
Broad-strokes comedy is interspersed with a strained family drama as the freewheeling matriarch of the title (Tyler Perry in drag) travels from Atlanta to rural Alabama in the company of her uptight niece (Anna Maria Horsford) to surprise the latter's grown daughter (Tika Sumpter) with a holiday visit. Their hostess is less than pleased to see them, however, since she has been concealing from her overbearing mom her elopement with a white agriculturalist (Eric Lively) whose kindly redneck parents (Kathy Najimy and Larry the Cable Guy) know about the marriage and have been invited to spend Christmas with the newlyweds. A subplot involving a corporate sponsor's efforts to denude the local yuletide festival of all references to Christianity finds the townsfolk determined to stay focused on the reason for the season. But in adapting his stage play for the screen, writer-director Perry stuffs viewers' stockings with an excess of vulgar wisecracks. Much crude and some mildly irreverent humor, at least one use of profanity, drug references, numerous crass terms. (A-III, PG-13)
Catholic News Service classifications: A-I --- general patronage; A-II --- adults and adolescents; A-III --- adults; L --- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O --- morally offensive. Full-length reviews: www.catholicnews.com/movies.htm.