Coming April 23
"The Impossible" (PG-13, 114 minutes, Summit/Lionsgate): The catastrophic nature of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that opens this fact-based drama is rendered with nightmarish realism by Spanish director J.A. Bayona. The wall of water looks harrowingly real as it slams into the Thai resort where the film is set and where tourists Henry and Maria (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) are spending the holidays with their three young sons. Equally realistic looking is the shocking aftermath: Maria's bloody wounds from slamming into underwater debris; piles of human and animal corpses; uprooted trees and uprooted lives. But what is rendered even more convincingly is the anguish of separation experienced by Maria, who's swept away from the others with her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), and by Henry, who also miraculously surfaces, with no one nearby but sons Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). After the intense opening sequence, the rest of the film tracks the efforts of these two halves of a family to reunite in the chaos and confusion left in the giant wave's wake. It's not a momentous story about heroism writ large, but an intimate tale of the small acts of kindness and connection that can occur when people are most desperate. Contains intense, violent disaster sequences and brief nudity. Extras: commentary with Bayona, writer Sergio G. Sanchez and producers Belen Atienza and Maria Belon; casting and making-of featurettes; deleted scenes.
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"Gangster Squad" (R, 113 minutes, Warner): The action opens in 1949, when a pathological crime boss named Mickey Cohen -- played by a prosthetic-schnozzed Sean Penn serving up pure ham -- is running Los Angeles' brothels, drug trade and police department with sadistic fury. One of the few cops Cohen hasn't bought is John O'Mara (Josh Brolin), a straight shooter and World War II hero with a pregnant wife at home and a yen for fighting the good fight. When O'Mara is enlisted by police chief William Parker (Nick Nolte) to go off the books to wipe Cohen out, the square-jawed vet enlists a ragtag team of misfits that could have stepped out of any of the war pictures "Gangster Squad" continually references. The most interesting of the vigilantes is Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who, early in the film, becomes entangled with Cohen's main squeeze, a Jessica Rabbit-esque bombshell named Grace. Lucky for viewers that Grace is played by the sensational Emma Stone, giving them a chance once again to luxuriate in the chemistry she and Gosling can generate in just one smoldering glance. "Gangster Squad" trafficks in the same glib violence and excess as Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." But unlike "Django," "Gangster Squad" doesn't have an idea in its pretty little head. Contains strong violence and profanity. Extras: "Tough Guys With Style" featurette. Also, on Blu-ray: commentary with director Ruben Fleischer, "The Gangland Files," "Rogues Gallery: Mickey Cohen," deleted scenes.
"Promised Land" (R, 106 minutes, Universal): A contemporary drama about a community in the throes of the natural gas boom, the over-earnest movie stars Matt Damon as Steve Butler, a good corporate road warrior for a $9 billion energy company whose specialty is persuading poor farmers to lease their lucrative land for a relative pittance. After buying some flannel shirts and work gloves to better fit in with the locals, Damon and his co-worker Sue (Frances McDormand), begin to make their time-perfected pitches to small dairy farming town of McKinley, Pa. There are a few naysayers, chiefly a local teacher and later, an interloping environmentalist in the person of Dustin Noble (John Krasinski). "Promised Land" isn't a particularly arresting piece of filmmaking, but it benefits from one refreshing twist in a corporate villain who isn't really a villain, a man motivated not by avarice and greed, but by compassion. What's more, despite their Everyman appeal, Damon and Krasinski don't create much by way of emotional investment, instead becoming mirror images of their most mild-mannered, white-bread selves. Contains strong language. Extras: making-of featurette, extended scene.
"Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" (unrated, 90 minutes, in Russian with English subtitles and narration, Music Box Films): Set in the Siberian wilderness known as the Taiga, the documentary by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov is structured around life in Bakhta, a remote village along the Yenisei River of about 300 people, most of whom appear to be ethnic Russians, with a few native Ket peoples. This is a film about what it means to be happy. As Herzog and Vasyukov present it, happiness is a state of mind having little to do with material things or physical comfort. Their fur-hatted main subject and his comrades have, by Western standards, a very rough life. But many of the villagers seem to be almost perversely happy. This lends credence to an oversimplified view of the simple life. The filmmakers' argument -- that happiness can flourish in the most inhospitable of places but that you must choose it -- is undercut by the appearance of the native Kets, who suffer from high unemployment and alcoholism, thanks to the introduction of Russian vodka. They decidedly don't seem happy. And the filmmakers' failure to examine their unhappiness more closely leaves a slight chill. Contains a scene of a hunting dog killing a sable and other scenes of dead animals. Extras: Herzog introduction, "Chasing Spring In West Siberia" documentary, Siberia fact sheet.
Also: "A Haunted House," "Pawn," "Richard III" (1955, The Criterion Collection), "Any Day Now," "The Central Park Five" (Ken Burns documentary, PBS), "Last Summer Won't Happen" (1968, documentary on the 1960s anti-war movement), "Family Weekend," "Pierre Etaix" (a collection of all the French director/actor's films, including five features, The Criterion Collection), "Thale" (Norway), "God's Country," "Cold Prey II" (2008, Norway) , "Electric Button (Moon & Cherry)" (2004, Japan), "Looney Tunes Super Stars Sylvester and Hippety Hopper" and "Cheech and Chong's Animated Movie."
Television series: "Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge" (PBS), "Merlin: The Complete Fifth Season" and "Maverick: The Complete Second Season" (1958-59).