By Steven Rea
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug The "most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm" of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings forerunner gets the title role in the second part of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. Introducing Evangeline Lilly as the Katniss Everdeen of Middle Earth, a bow-and-arrow-wielding woodland elf by the name of Tauriel. PG-13
The Last Days on Mars "Do not open your bay doors! Repeat! Do not open your bay doors!" A crew on the Red Planet makes an unsettling discovery in this sci-fi scare-'em-up, starring Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, and Olivia Williams. PG-13
Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas A culture-clash comedy from the prolific Perry. He dons the familiar wig and plus-size wardrobe of his hugely popular Madea character - who this time finds herself in rural redneck country to celebrate the holidays. The seventh installment in a franchise that just won't quit. PG-13
Also Opening This Week
Go For Sisters When a parole officer's son goes missing along the Mexican border, she enlists the help of her lifelong friend and new parolee. LisaGay Hamilton and Yolonda Ross star.
Reviewed by critics Steven Rea (S.R.), Tirdad Derakhshani (T.D.),and David Hiltbrand (D.H.). W.S. denotes a wire-service review.
Blue is the Warmest Color Yes, there is a lot of sex. Graphic sex between two young women. But that's only part of what this extraordinary film is about. This three-hour portrait of a French high school student (an amazing Adèle Exarchopoulos) is shot with a close-up intensity that brings the character out from the screen and into your heart. It's emotional 3D! 2 hrs. 59 NC-17 (graphic sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Captain Phillips Based on the real-life story of a U.S.-flagged cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, with Tom Hanks in the title role as a steady-as-she-goes veteran forced to face his own mortality. Paul Greengrass (the second and third Bourne films, United 93) masterfully orchestrates the intense, suspenseful drama. 2 hrs. 14 PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Enough Said Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in his final leading role) are divorced parents, each with a college-bound daughter, who meet, date, and take a real liking to each other. And then the trouble begins. A smart, funny movie for grown-ups from the hugely talented writer director Nicole Holofcener. 1 hr. 33 PG-13 (sex, profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Gravity A transcendent, zero-g tale of survival, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as orbiting astronauts caught in a debris storm, quite literally at the end of their tether. A technological marvel, and an emotional, spiritual, and physical voyage of stratospheric suspense. 1 hr. 30 PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Nebraska Bruce Dern in a career-defining performance as an ornery coot who believes he's won a $1 million prize, and heads from Montana to Nebraska to claim it. His son (Will Forte) reluctantly tags along in Alexander Payne's funny, sad, poignant, absurd road movie. In black and white. It's a gem. 1 hr. 55 R (profanity, violence, adult themes) - S.R.
12 Years a Slave The remarkable, essential story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. The British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor gives body and soul in the lead, and Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt are part of a superb supporting cast. 2 hrs. 13 R (violence, nudity, profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Very Good (***1/2)
About Time A young man travels back in time with the purpose of improving his life by finding a girlfriend. The task turns out to be more difficult than expected. Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams star. 2 hrs. 03 R (obscenity and some sexual content) - W.S.
Dallas Buyers Club The "inspired by true events" tale of a party-hearty Texas cowboy and self-employed electrician who, in 1985, contracted the AIDS virus. Matthew McConaughey gives a literally transformative performance as this homophobic hellraiser who won't accept the doctors' diagnosis that he has 30 days to live. He proves them wrong, becoming a cash-rich drug dispenser and patients' rights advocate in the process in this wild, colorful, compassionate film. 1 hr. 57 R (sex, nudity, drugs, profanity, violence, adult themes) - S.R.
The Great Beauty A writer (Toni Servillo) lives on the success of a novel published 40 years before, doing just enough journalistic work to keep him in contact with everyone worth knowing in Rome, where he hosts parties large and small in his apartment overlooking the Colosseum. Melancholy deepens when he is visited by a stranger bringing news of the death of his first love. 2 hr. 2 NR (nudity, sexual content, strong language, drug themes) - W.S.
Philomena A surprisingly tough and tender tale from director Stephen Frears, adapted from the true story of a 70-something Irish woman (Judi Dench) looking to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption when she was an unwed teen, and of the cynical veteran journalist (Steve Coogan) who tags along on her quest. R (profanity, adult themes) - S.R.
Also on Screens
Best Man Holiday ** The old college friends from 1999's Best Man (Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, and others) gather for a long Yuletide reunion, during which secrets come spilling out and old wounds get reopened. The ensemble sparkles in the comedic moments, and suffers in the artificially melodramatic ones. 2 hrs. 4. R (emphatic profanity, nudity, adult themes.) - D.H.
Frozen *** A plucky princess (voiced by Kristen Bell) is joined by a slapstick snowman (Josh Gad) in a delightful animated film that is part fairy tale, part farce. 1 hr. 48 PG - D.H.
Homefront **1/2 Jason Statham stars as a retired DEA agent trying to go off the grid with his 10-year-old daughter in a sleepy Louisiana town that suddenly isn't so sleepy when a crazed meth kingpin (James Franco) discovers who our hero really is. An updated take on the reluctant-hero Western from a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone. R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes) - S.R.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire *** Bigger, better, and broodier, with Jennifer Lawrence back again, causing no end of trouble as the Districts' rabble smell rebellion in the air, and the Panem puppetmasters try to quash it. An Occupiers' parable about class warfare? A metaphor for teen defiance? Or just a kooky story of survival in a controlled environment where, sadly, most of the contestants must die? However you read it, this franchise rocks. 2 hrs. 26 PG-13 (violence, dystopian bleakness, adult themes) - S.R.
Out of the Furnace *** Casey Affleck and Christian Bale are brothers facing hard times, and hard choices, in this gripping Rust Belt noir. A solemn, blood-soaked drama about broken dreams. Cue the Springsteen. 1 hr. 56 R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes) - S.R.
Thor: The Dark World **1/2 The sequel to 2011's Thor is darker and messier, with much of the action restricted to Asgard and the Nine Realms - where a freaky alignment has allowed the long-banished Dark Elves to reemerge and make trouble for the God of Thunder. Chris Hemsworth, in red cape and breastplate and wielding his magic hammer, is back in the title role. 2 hrs. PG-13 (action, violence, adult themes) - S.R.
Reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield (W.R.), Jim Rutter (J.R.), David Patrick Stearns (D.P.S.), and Toby Zinman (T.Z.).
New This Week
A Child's Christmas in Wales (Lantern Theater) Dylan Thomas' poetic language and Sebastienne Mundheim's puppet artistry combine in a new version of this classic. In previews, opens Wednesday.
Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia (Curio Theatre) Just what Shakespeare always needed: robots. In previews, opens Friday.
Jersey Boys (Forrest Theater) They're ba-ack, for a month of dazzling four-part harmony and history. Preview Wednesday, opens Thursday.
Potted Potter (Prince Music Theater) All seven books - in 70 minutes. Previews Tuesday, Wednesday, opens Thursday.
The Twelve Dates of Christmas (Act II Playhouse) A very unromantic Thanksgiving setback sends a woman on a dating roundelay. Previews Tuesday-Thursday, opens Friday.
Wind in the Willows (Quintessence Theatre Group) Toad, Mole, Rat, et al. are back in Alan Bennett's adaptation of the classic Kenneth Grahame story. Previews Wednesday-Friday, opens Saturday.
The Big Time (1812 Productions) Philadelphia's all-comedy company goes back to vaudeville for the holidays. Through Dec. 31.
Cinderella (People's Light & Theatre) Time for the annual panto, and this year the gal with the glass slipper is back in a terrific show that's mandatory for your holiday merriment. Through Jan. 12. - W.R.
Elf (Walnut Street Theatre) This musical-stage adaptation of the 2003 film about Buddy the non-elf's journey to fulfillment is a warm, energetic sugar rush. Through Jan. 5. - W.R.
Frost/Nixon (New City Stage) Interviewer par excellence meets disgraced ex-president. Conversation ensues. Through Jan. 5.
Miracle on South Division Street (Montgomery Theater) The Nowaks of Buffalo suffer a Christmas crisis of faith in this well-acted, well-crafted Tom Dudzick comedy. Ends Sunday. - W.R.
Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play (Bucks County Playhouse) A musical nostalgia-fest based on the 1944 MGM movie starring Judy Garland. Through Dec. 29.
My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm Home for the Holidays! (New Penn's Landing Playhouse) All about Steve's struggles to get home, and what he finds when he gets there. Through Dec. 31.
Nerds (Philadelphia Theatre Company) A musical timeline of the age of software with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, updated since its premiere here in 2007. Through Dec. 29.
Sister Robert Anne's Cabaret Class (Society Hill Playhouse) A one-nun show from the writer of Nunsense. The nun is great, the show less so. Through Dec. 29. - J.R.
Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas (Independence Studio at the Walnut) Tucker appears in a tight red gown, tiaraed and bejeweled, a kind of female Liberace before the fact. She's funny, tuneful, and completely endearing. Through Dec. 29. - T.Z.
Stick Fly (Arden Theatre) A well-to-do African American family gets together and begins coming apart in Lydia Diamond's contemporary drawing-room play. It works. Through Dec. 22. - D.P.S.
The Story of My Life (Delaware Theater Company) Ben Dibble and Rob McClure star in this musical about a disrupted friendship. Through Dec. 22.
Twelfth Night (FringeArts) Pig Iron revives its bibulous 2011 Shakespearean hit for the holidays. Through Dec. 22.
Despicable Me 2 **1/2 The Anti-Villain League recruits Gru when a powerful criminal emerges in this animated family sequel. 1 hr. 38 PG (mild scares, rude humor, use of flatulence guns) - T.D.
Philadelphia Orchestra on the Radio
Sunday's 1 p.m. WRTI-FM (90.1) concert broadcast from late October features Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos in an all-French program - the second suite from Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloé, Debussy's colorful La Mer, and, in his Philadelphia debut, German violinist Augustin Hadelich in Lalo's exuberant Symphonie espagnole.