"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.
"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.
Also released Tuesday
"Happy People: A Year in the Taiga"
"A Haunted House"
"The Central Park Five"
"Any Day Now"