Your Weekly Roundup of Movies: Hugh Jackman Stars in the Accidentally Hilarious Drama “The Son”

What to see and what to skip.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

**** The second chapter of James Cameron’s Avatar saga ends the same way as the first: with Marine-turned-revolutionary Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) opening his eyes. Yet this time, the story is about more than one man’s awakening. It’s about a family and a community—along with the wondrous and unknowable world they must defend from the monstrous, capitalistic menace known as humanity. Onscreen (as in life) more than a decade has passed since the original film. Jake, having shed his human form to inhabit a towering, azure alien body, has started a family with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), a formidable warrior on the distant moon of Pandora. Invading humans are once again ravaging Pandora’s lands, but Cameron seems most fascinated by what happens off the battlefield. When the Sully family takes refuge among an ocean tribe, his imagination is free to roam Pandora’s depths, the home of whalelike beasts called tulkun, whose minds are as vast as the cosmos. Though a swashbuckling showdown between Jake and vicious colonizer Quaritch (Stephen Lang) reaffirms Cameron’s mastery of brutal and graceful mayhem, the luminous and tactile CGI that breathes life into the film’s flora and fauna proves that Pandora, not Jake, is the hero of Avatar. Every blade of grass, every drop of water, is a gift not to be wasted. “This is where we make our stand,” Jake declares. The real question, unspoken but implicit, is where we will make ours. PG-13. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Bagdad, Cedar Hills, City Center, Clackamas, Evergreen Parkway, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Mill Plain, Pioneer Place, Studio One, Tigard, Vancouver Plaza, Wunderland Milwaukie.

AFTER LOVE

*** Every now and again, we’re treated with a fresh story from a first-time filmmaker gifted with the perfect actor to tell it. After Love, the debut feature from Aleem Khan, stars Joanna Scanlan as a widow named Mary, who lives near the Dover cliffs and discovers that her recently deceased husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia), had a secret family. After journeying 21 miles across the English Channel to see for herself, she’s mistaken for a housekeeper by Ahmed’s mistress (Nathalie Richard)—and quietly plays along while putting the pieces of her husband’s hidden life together. Rather than clean up the emotional mess left in the wake of loss, After Love seeks to redefine it. Khan’s subtle storytelling may not resonate with all viewers, but Scanlan, who earned a BAFTA for her mesmerizing performance (playing a character based on Khan’s mother) evokes authentic feelings through sparse dialogue that resonates beyond the credits, magnifying the impact of this uncompromised, beautifully human film. NR. RAY GILL JR. Fox Tower.

THE PALE BLUE EYE

** There are plenty of reasons to anticipate Scott Cooper movies; the director specializes in adult dramas with striking period-piece visuals and committed performances. But with a fatally flawed script, The Pale Blue Eye is no different than Cooper misfires like Antlers, Hostiles and Black Mass. Based on Louis Bayard’s work of historical fiction, the new film ushers detective Augustus Landor (Christian Bale) into an uneasy partnership with a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) after a cadet turns up with his heart cut out at West Point in 1830. These investigators are no Holmes-Watson odd couple; they’re so mismatched they seem plucked from different subgenres, as if Poirot and Serpico collaborated on a case involving both intimate trauma and occult hooey. Melling (whose post-Dudley Dursley gauntness is at an all-time high) attempts an elevated, pained literary schtick as Poe, while Bale is expertly gruff (his weariness recalls Richard Burton in his later years). Their performances aren’t the problem—the grim, dragging detective narrative simply doesn’t gel with the in-story homage to the author who helped invent the form. Given the story’s flat complications, it’s frustrating how magnificent the movie appears when Bale is silhouetted in his top hat amid the Hudson Valley fog. Ultimately, Scott Cooper retains his title: master of “good on paper.” R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Netflix.

THE SON

* This new melodrama from French playwright-turned-director Florian Zeller (The Father) leaves the audience with two choices, neither ideal. The first option? You could fly into a righteous rage at one of the most clueless and narratively conniving portrayals of mental illness in the 21st century. Zen McGrath plays Nicholas, an unreachable, depressed teenager whose parents (Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern) haplessly try to prod him away from anguish and self-harm. Throughout, Zeller squeezes the plot to make every character—each dying to be understood—say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time (naturally, when Nicholas is about to process his pain aloud, he’s artificially rushed offscreen). If that doesn’t infuriate you, there’s an alternative to anger: laughter. One wonders if, on some perversely ironic, subconscious level, that’s actually what Zeller intends. The Son makes sense only as a satire of rich, self-involved parents who haven’t stopped checking their work email long enough to hear that depression exists (a key scene where the family dances while Nicholas stands forlornly on the sideline plays like an SNL Digital Short parody of an after-school special). Be furious at this faux awards contender or guffaw through its pitch-black subject matter. Whatever you choose, it’ll still be in better taste than the movie itself. PG-13. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Fox Tower.