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Lights, camera, holiday action

With kids out of school for the weekend, there's plenty of Hollywood adventure available at local theaters, plus a few movies for mom and dad

It's the most wonderful time of the year for moviegoers: during the holiday season, studios roll out their big guns - their awards contenders - in an effort to draw in filmgoers and their families into theaters, and maybe generate a little attention from Oscar along the way.

This week, six tent-pole pictures join a packed cinema that last week saw the premieres of 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' and 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.'

The new films represent a wide array of genres, including blockbuster sequels, dramatic adaptations and not one, but two, films from legendary director Steven Spielberg, both vying for family ticket sales (though no new holiday movies are on the docket).

The News-Times has assembled this handy guide to the holiday slate to help cinemagoers separate cinematic coal from cinematic gold.

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

Stars: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara

Director: David Fincher

Synopsis: Oscar nominee Fincher ('The Social Network,' 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button') reverts to the dark roots of his breakout film, 'Seven,' for an adaptation of Stieg Larsson's smash-hit international bestseller about a journalist (Craig, of James Bond fame) who enlists the help of a troubled hacker (Mara) to investigate a gruesome, decades-old mystery.

Buzz: The film is sure to register with fans and critics. The studio is so confident in its success that it invested more than $100 million in the production - a hefty sum for a movie with a hard R rating and the tagline, 'The feel-bad movie of Christmas.'

Family friendly?: With graphic scenes of rape, torture and nudity, parents and guardians beware: This is very much an adult film.

'The Adventures of Tintin'

Stars: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig

Director: Steven Spielberg

Synopsis: Based on the enduring comic series by Herge, 'Tintin' uses motion-capture animation - the same technology from 2009's 'A Christmas Carol,' with which actors movements are translated into computer animation - to tell the tale of a young reporter who trots the globe with a drunken sea captain in search of buried treasure.

Buzz: With its hero exploring a startlingly detailed 3D world of deserts, crowded Moroccan marketplaces and pirate ships, Spielberg delivers a film many are comparing to a light version of 'Indiana Jones' - with many arguing that this is what that series' fourth installment, 'Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,' should have been. Plus, Tintin's dog, Snowy, is about as cute as sidekicks get.

Family friendly?: There are a few scary moments and a bit of violence - including a shootout and a sea battle rivaling 'Pirates of the Caribbean' in terms of spectacle - but otherwise it's a fairly innocent romp.

'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'

Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg

Director: Brad Bird

Synopsis: Director Brad Bird ('The Incredibles,' 'Ratatouille') makes his live-action debut with the fourth installment of the spy series, based on the popular 1960s TV series. This time out, Tom Cruise's agent Ethan Hunt is once again saving the world, this time from a madman who framed the hero and his team for bombing the Kremlin.

Buzz: The film opened in its IMAX format last weekend, and has been drawing raves from audiences and critics alike, many lauding Bird's seamless transition from animation to live action. Of particular acclaim is a scene in which Cruise rappels down the world's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, without the help of a stunt man - not bad for a 49-year-old actor.

Family friendly?: The action is fast and frantic throughout, but relatively bloodless and cartoonish. Kids might get lost in the plot (and the innuendos), but there's nothing pushing beyond its PG-13 rating.

'We Bought A Zoo'

Stars: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson

Director: Cameron Crowe

Synopsis: Based on the true story of a man who, well, bought a zoo and revamped it with his young and optimistic family, the film boasts the kind of feel-good premise - complete with adorable and precocious children - that is a staple for the holidays.

Buzz: Crowe became a hit with audiences and critics alike with films like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, but has been absent since the 2005 bomb Elizabethtown. Early reviews of 'Zoo' are split three ways between those who see it as a return to form, those who think it too sweet and those who find it a cross between the two.

Family friendly?: Cute kids + cute animals + PG rating = safe for the whole family.

'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'

Stars: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock

Director: Stephen Daldry

Synopsis: A young boy takes a voyage of discovery in search of a key to a lock left behind by his father (Hanks), who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and whose story is told in flashback.

Buzz: Few others than critics have seen the film by three-time Oscar nominee Daldry, which is shrouded in some mystery. Their general consensus: sure-fire Oscar nominations in most major categories.

Family friendly?: The film deals with issues of loss and tragedy, so its PG-13 rating is reportedly well earned. But the film has also been praised for its life-affirming message of hope amid loss.

'War Horse'

Stars: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson

Director: Steven Spielberg

Synopsis: An adaptation of the popular novel by Michael Morpurgo, 'War Horse' tells the story of a young man who embarks on an incredible journey through the battlefields of World War I with his favorite horse, which is sold to the cavalry.

Buzz: 'War Horse' has all the trappings of a sure-fire Oscar nominee and crowd pleaser, with Spielberg going into historical melodrama mode. Some critics, though, deride it as just that: a melodrama in the classic mold.

Family friendly?: The war sequences that drive the film's narrative earned the picture a PG-13, but with Spielberg at the helm and a boy-and-his-horse story unfolding, the intensity is likely minimal.