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Holiday weekend movie guide

It's Christmastime and that means movies, movies, movies! Between the 21st and the 25th, seven movies will open at local theaters. Here's a look at them:

OPENED WEDNESDAY

"Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" ***

RATED PG-13  (sequences of intense action and violence)

"Ghost Protocol" is the most action-packed, jokey, self-aware and James Bond-ish of all the Cruise "Mission" films. Animation veteran Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") creates a "Here's what I can do with live actors" highlight reel of a film with Cruise, as Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt, out to save the world from yet another Russian gone mad.

Bird pulls out all the stops in an opening stanza-wowza where slick IMF agent Jane (Paula Patton) and her tech whiz pal Benji (a returning and even funnier Simon Pegg) are sent to bust Ethan out of a Russian prison, from hiding Cruise's face to the ways Hunt goes off script, comically staring down Benji on the surveillance cameras and releasing block after block of fellow inmates.

The rogue Russian, played by Michael Nyqvist (the Swedish "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), is after launch codes as part of a mad dream to purge the human race, mass extinction style. Hunt and his team must break into the Kremlin, which infuriates the Russians. The entire IMF is disavowed -- "ghost protocol." Hunt & Co. are utterly on their own as they dash from Dubai to Mumbai in an effort to head off global thermonuclear war.

Well, on their own with lots of gadgets, of course. There's a magnetic levitation suit, a computerized contact lens and a magic mask-making machine, for starters.

And Jeremy Renner. The "Hurt Locker" star, being groomed to take a bigger role in future "Impossible" missions, is an analyst sucked into the mission, where he'll have to prove his mettle with the rest. He's most interesting in his man-of-mystery early scenes.

Patton ("Precious") makes a seriously credible butt-kicking spy bent on revenge. Pegg, whose character has to leave his computer behind and take up arms on occasion is comically out of his depth. However, our villain is barely sketched in and barely worth the fuss.

But Cruise makes us feel the stakes here. Time and again, Hunt shows his mortality and hesitates, looks before leaping, never more so than when he tackles one of the film's signature moments: scaling Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.

The few static scenes seem more clumsy than planned moments of reflection and character development. The action beats are breathless, violent and visceral blurs.

But "Ghost Protocol" shows Bird passing his audition for a career as a live-action director. And it makes a great argument for why Tom Cruise should continue in this role as long as his knees -- and nerves -- hold up.

"The Adventures of Tintin" ***

RATED PG  (adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking)

Watching "The Adventures of Tintin" gives you the same thrill you felt when you saw "Toy Story" for the first time: Here is a next-gen animated film that builds on everything that has come before to create something new and exciting.

In his first foray into animation, director Steven Spielberg uses motion capture technology to achieve something that could be described as cartoonish photo-realism -- the images look like impossibly beautiful hand-drawn photographs -- and then frees his camera from all earthly constraints.

The results are extraordinary. This is the first in an intended series of films from the comic books by the Belgian artist Herge. The character of Tintin (played by Jamie Bell), the intrepid reporter who looks like a boy but is actually a man, is a beloved icon around the world but not that well-known in the U.S., so Tintin, his dog Snowy and supporting characters such as the reformed alcoholic Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) will be new to the majority of Americans who see the movie. Herge could not have asked for a better introduction.

The first action setpiece in "The Adventures of Tintin" comes just a few minutes into the film, a brief bit of business involving Snowy and a cat. From that point on, the sequences get bigger and bigger until an extended motorcycle chase through a city in Morocco, all done in one astonishing take, that is the most thrilling piece of film in any movie this year.

There are sequences in "The Adventures of Tintin" that rival some of the high points in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Spielberg has no contemporary peer when it comes to cutting action together and finding just the right spot to place his camera, and Tintin gives him an opportunity to indulge his creativity without worrying too much about plot.

And the 3-D! Spielberg is the third big-name director (after Wim Wenders and Martin Scorsese) to give it a try this year, and the results are so extraordinary, they make you start wondering if it's a good idea, after all.

The story of "The Adventures of Tintin" isn't all that engaging and a bit hard to follow, which makes the film feel more than a little frivolous. But there isn't a moment in the movie when you're not staring at the screen in wonder.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" ***

RATED R  (Brutal and disturbing violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity and language)"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" opens with a howling-banshee cover of "The Immigrant Song" by Karen O and Trent Reznor, amping up the Led Zeppelin classic to new heights of energy and angst. The remix is the ideal emblem for David Fincher's wintry, brutal remake of the 2009 Swedish cult sensation. Fincher pushes the tale of serial killing to the blackest depths of noir depravity.

The late Steig Larsson's bestseller is an epic whodunit whose heroine is only slightly less insane than the chief villain. In Lisbeth Salander, Larsson created one of the most indelible sleuths in popular literature, a goth street punk, Einstein-level computer hacker and psychologically scarred survivor of child abuse. He plugged her into a routine police procedural tale and fried every circuit in the story as Lisbeth's dark energy overwhelmed the standard detective-yarn template.

Fincher raised eyebrows when he cast American actress Rooney Mara ("The Social Network") in the lead, but his decision was nothing less than a coup. Mara dominates every scene, delivering the kind of white-phosphorous performance that Heath Ledger brought to the Joker.

As Lisbeth and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) research the 40-year-old disappearance of an industrialist's grandniece, getting to the bottom of the corruption is like peeling an onion. It never ends.

The process of fact-finding and deduction is thrillingly visualized. Salander and Blomkvist create a matrix of historical photographs from the time of the girl's disappearance in the 1960s. As the visual jigsaw begins to yield important clues, we're right there at their shoulders, urging them on.

Over the rocky course of their partnership, Salander and Blomkvist begin to warm to one another, an unlikely thaw that gives the story a new twist of emotional tension. "Who's the killer?" and "Will they or won't they?" become equally compelling questions.

Craig is utterly persuasive as Blomkvist, a clever man but no action hero. His attraction to the uncanny Lisbeth, who mounts him repeatedly and graphically, is believable, and so is his hesitation at becoming deeply involved with an emotionally volatile 23-year-old genius.

As usual in a Fincher production, every frame is composed with care befitting a Faberge egg. He uses space thrillingly, making an open-plan modern house with glass walls into a foreboding maze, and turning pleasant Swedish streets into floodgates of menace. The last scene, nearly wordless, is one of the great heartbreakers of modern film.

With this film, Fincher has made his first love story. It's a killer.

OPENING FRIDAY

"We Bought a Zoo" ** 1/2

RATED  PG (language and some thematic elements)

Sometimes, reacting to a movie is all about the expectations you bring with you walking into it. "We Bought a Zoo" is about a family that buys a zoo. It's as high-concept as you can get, outside of maybe "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" or "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," and it's equally straightforward in wearing its heart on its sleeve.

We know to expect this ahead of time because "We Bought a Zoo" comes from Cameron Crowe, the writerdirector of "Say Anything. . . ," "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" and, more recently, the 2005 flop "Elizabethtown." We know there will be some poignantly phrased life lessons in store for this family as they struggle to reconnect after the mother's death.

The whole exercise could have been agonizingly mawkish, and/or filled with cheap, lazy animal-poop jokes. And yet, it's not. It's actually surprisingly charming and more emotionally understated than the material would suggest, and a lot of that has to do with Matt Damon's performance. He is an actor incapable of faking it, one who cannot mail it in, and so he brings great authenticity and gravitas to the role of Benjamin Mee, a widower and father of two. ("We Bought a Zoo," which Crowe co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, is based on a true story.)

Six months after his wife died of cancer, Benjamin is struggling to move on. He's having trouble dedicating himself to his career as a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and finds himself squabbling with his troublemaking teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford); meanwhile, his younger daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is an impossibly adorable angel.

Benjamin thinks a change of scenery might help, so he quits his job and moves the family to a rustic, rambling house on 18 acres outside the city. Seems perfect - except for the fact that the land includes an animal park that has fallen into disrepair. Since Benjamin is a writer and not a zoologist, he has no idea what he's doing. He gets some  help from the park's ragtag, hippie crew, led by Scarlett Johanssonas the hottest zookeeper on the planet.

Moving to a zoo eventually helps everyone reconcile. No big shocker there. Dylan also makes friends with the only other kid his age on the grounds, the ebullient Lily, played by Elle Fanning.

Yes, "We Bought a Zoo" is sentimental and overlong, and full of obligatory fish-out-of-water physical humor, but everyone is so good in it. It's a beautiful film, too: Everything is bathed in this sort of magical sunlight, the work of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, which enhances the sensation that anything is possible.

"My Week with Marilyn" *** 1/2

RATED R (some language)

(At Park Place Cinemas only.)

When Marilyn Monroe walked into a room, men and women froze in her orbit. Athletes and intellectuals fell before her. Presidents, too.

How does an actress portraying this Hollywood icon convey such magnetism? In "My Week With Marilyn," Michelle Williams disappears so effortlessly into Monroe's translucent skin that the camera lens seems to fog up with desire. She's that good.

The year is 1956 and Monroe, at the height of her pinup popularity, is making a movie in London with master actor Laurence Olivier. Behind the scenes she is a complete mess: doped up, paranoid and suffocating in insecurities.

Monroe finds solace in one of Olivier's young assistants, Colin Clark (the film is based on his memoir). It's an unlikely pairing, as Monroe is in the midst of her third marriage - this time to playwright Arthur Miller. Told through the kid's eyes, "My Week With Marilyn" is burdened with an unnecessary narration. While Colin's expository musings move the story along, they also tend to snap us out of theeuphoria produced by Williams' performance.

The actress' gritty roles have won her Oscar nominations ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Blue Valentine"). Her Monroe is something else entirely. Williams stalks through the film, both as a sexual nymph bent on conquest and, at times, a childlike victim, injured and afraid.

As Colin, the British actor Eddie Redmayne is sufficient, but inevitably overshadowed by the British acting royalty who portray their 1950s equivalents. Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as Olivier while Dame Judi Dench devours her scenes in a brief turn as aging actress Dame Sybil Thorndike.

Colin's fleeting moments with the most famous woman of the century provide a further glimpse into Monroe's complex identity. And Williams' performance is the key. With it, she unlocks the beauty, the raw talent and the destructiveness that was, in the end, Marilyn's undoing.

OPENING SUNDAY

"War Horse" **

RATED PG-13 (intense sequences of war violence and some animal brutality)

Director Steven Spielberg has taken the stage production "War Horse," based on the children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, and transformed it into a sweeping story of love, loss, devotion and determination set against the brutal battlefields of World War I. As is the trademark of the much touted director, he tells this story against a backdrop that at times is breathtaking.

But this is a case where Spielberg's grand vision worked against him.

"War Horse" is a moving story of a friendship between a young English boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and a spunky horse he calls Joey. The pair are separated when Joey is sold to a British officer at the start of the war. The remainder of the film is about Joey's journey, from pulling weapons for German troops to being the love of a young girl.

"War Horse" is at its best when Spielberg focuses on small moments, such as a brief truce called between English and German troops so that the soldiers can come to the aid of the injured horse. There also are some very touching farewells and reunions.

But those moments lose some of their power when the action sweeps in and takes the story back to a grand scale. There's an intimacy that comes when reading a book -- or even seeing a production on stage. But in this movie, where there are no boundaries, the personal stories get diminished.

Spielberg's a master manipulator, who has used a more subtle approach in the past. In "War Horse," his emotional trickery is telegraphed in every scene -- or accented with such visual bravado, such as the hokey closing shots, that the power wanes.

Spielberg's film also has an inherent problem in the story. It's one thing to read about the brutal way the horses are treated; seeing these events on a big screen is at times quite horrific. This is certainly not a movie for youngsters, and it will test the metal of animal lovers.

There are no major problems with "War Horse." Spielberg has created a moving and beautifully shot film. It's just that the intimacy that such movies should evoke isn't there. Similar movies like "Old Yeller" or "My Dog Skip" drew moviegoers in so close that the emotional moments felt real.

"War Horse" isn't a champion effort by Spielberg, but it does have its moments.

"The Darkest Hour"

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence and some language)

This film was not reviewed in advance. It stars Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild"), Olivia Thirlby ("Juno"), Max Minghella ("The Social Network"), Rachael Taylor ("Transformers") and Joel Kinnaman (TV's "The Killing") as young adults in Moscow leading the charge against an alien race that has attacked Earth via our power supply. It is directed by Chris Gorak ("Lords of Dogtown").

-- Reviews from The Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers


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