James Ransone in Sinister 2SINISTER 2

You know the feeling you get when you go to summer camp and make a great new friend, but he/she isn't there the next summer, or the summer after that, and you end up forgetting about that friend until the next summer, when, all of a sudden, there he/she is? I don't, because I never went to summer camp. But I'm betting that sensation is similar to what I felt in the first minutes of Sinister 2 once I recognized James Ransone, who played Ethan Hawke's adorably dippy deputy pal in 2012's Sinister. Although the actor has amassed a bunch of film and TV credits since then (albeit not in anything I've seen), I can't say I've thought of him even once since the release of that low-budget horror hit. Yet the second Ransone's character showed up in director Cirián Foy's follow-up, with his chronic awkwardness and puppy-dog eyes and intense likability, it was like being reunited with a long-lost buddy whom you're ashamed to have let slip away. Ransone's presence here - as our romantic lead, no less! - was a hugely welcome surprise. That Sinister 2 didn't at all suck might've been a bigger one.

Truth be told, Foy's movie isn't really scary - or rather, barring a spectacularly well-executed "Boo!" effect involving a crocodile, it isn't scary in a traditional sense. Nicholas King's spectral bogeyman and the ghostly apparitions of several homicidal children don't deliver any notable shivers (partly because those young performers don't appear very well-directed), and there are too many distractions impeding the terror, among them the lengthy attempts to explain the supernatural phenomena and the bigger mystery of Shannyn Sossamon's intermittent Southern dialect. But as Ransone's Ex-Deputy So & So [his honest-to-God Internet Movie Database (IMDb) listing] attempts to save Sossamon and her sons (real-life twins Robert Daniel and Dartanian Sloan) from a Sinister fate, the film delves into ugly familial issues - true horrors - that can't be shrugged off, and that lend actual gravitas to Foy's and screenwriters Scott Derrickson's and C. Robert Cargill's genre entry.

It's creepy enough when the ghosts of his haunted house begin to browbeat Robert Daniel's Dylan into killing his family. When Dartanian's competitive brother Zach begins fighting Dylan for his own murderous rights, you've entered some horrifying Bizarro World of sibling rivalry, one exacerbated by the eventual return of their abusive father Clint (Lea Coco), whose aggressive bullying puts you, uncomfortably, on the side of the coercive dead kids. (The scene of Clint angrily shoving mashed potatoes onto Dylan's face is something unusual in the fright-film canon: legitimately enraging.) Sinister 2 isn't all of a piece the way its forebear was. But the super-8 footage is still fantastically unsettling - if more gruesome this time around - and the unforced themes scratch at your insides, and James Ransone, suggesting Bruce Campbell's less-ironic nephew, is unerringly, empathetically wonderful. Ex-Deputy So & So. He's not the hero scare-flick fans need, but he's the one we deserve.

 

Rupert Friend and Hannah Ware in Hitman: Agent 47HITMAN: AGENT 47

By the end of its theatrical run, 2007's deathly dull video-game "adaptation" Hitman grossed almost $40 million domestic. But according to the IMDb, it made beaucoup bucks in Russia and the Philippines. So, you know ... why not a sequel eight years later? Having now seen director Aleksander Bach's Hitman: Agent 47, I can think of quite a few reasons. My complaints are all pretty halfhearted, though, considering the original wasted the formidable gifts of lead Timothy Olyphant, and the latter merely wastes whatever gifts Rupert Friend might have. I disliked this sequel far less than its predecessor because, to me, the talent squandered wasn't of particular significance.

Which seems fitting, because nothing about Hitman: Agent 47 seems of particular significance to anyone: not to Friend or his co-stars, not to Bach, not to screenwriters Skip Woods and Michael Finch, and not to the audience. At least not to my audience. If it weren't for the patron behind me, whose noises suggested that he was both dying of consumption and devouring an entire seven-course meal before doing so, I wouldn't have known an audience was even there; the action scenes are thuddingly thrill-less, and more than an hour passes before the film gives you its first approximation of a joke. Again, an un-killable assassin with a bar code on the back of his neck tries to save someone (Hannah Ware) from diabolical someones (principally Zachary Quinto) through his sharpshooting and hand-to-hand combat, and if the ruthless, meaningless exposition delivered through the opening credits isn't enough to make you cry uncle, by all means enjoy. I more frequently wanted to cower from the laughable self-seriousness of it all, while again marveling that the easiest job in the international market has got to be the avatar in a Hollywood-ized video game: simply show up, affect a deadpan, let your stuntman do the real work, and cash your check. (Under extreme duress, Friend does think to slightly narrow his eyes.) That being said, there's at least some expert cutting when Friend and Quinto topple off the second tier of a train station and land on a speeding locomotive, and a smart scene of Ware evading airport security cameras, and some gorgeous location photography in Singapore (or CGI Singapore). But Hitman: Agent 47 is still a lumbering action-flick bore, and a maddeningly quizzical one, to boot. At one point, when speeding away from an attack by the inaptly named Friend, Ware asks Quinto, "What the f--- is happening?!" Has any movie character ever asked that question in a film that eventually made sense?

 

John Leguizamo and Jesse Eisenberg in American UltraAMERICAN ULTRA

It hasn't been a good month for veterans of 2012's Chronicle, has it? First, that super-villain-origin-story's director, Josh Trank, and co-star Michael B. Jordan found themselves embroiled in the Fantastic Four fiasco. And now Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis has unleashed American Ultra, a smart-alecky action comedy whose end credits I stuck through just long enough to make sure the movie wasn't based on an ultra-violent, Kick-Ass-y comic book of some kind. It wasn't. This thing is terrible through wholly original means, thank you very much.

Then again, that "original" should probably have an asterisk next to it, considering director Nima Nourizadeh's movie is basically the answer to the unasked question "What if Matthew Bourne were a stoner?" Jesse Eisenberg plays the pothead Mike, who, unbeknownst to him, is actually a trained (amnesiac) assassin, and the movie's narrative concerns the efforts of his allies (girlfriend Kristen Stewart, CIA liaison Connie Britton, tech wonk Tony Hale) to save his life before he's eradicated by hateful adversaries (among them Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, and Bill Pullman). There's a ton of major talent in that preceding sentence. Considering what little Nourizadeh and Landis give them to work with, I'm not sure how I could hate this movie more than I do. One scene after another finds its participants looking actively stymied by what's expected of them - poor, sad Topher Grace appears to simply give up and dutifully enact the sniveling bitch-boy he's been written to play - and no one on-screen seems to have figured out the movie's tone. Has Nourizadeh or Landis, either? If it's a comedy, why is American Ultra so brutally ugly? (After Stewart's sixth or seventh punch to the face, the movie seemed almost designed by hateful fanboys wanting to shame her for her Twilight movies, which led me to wonder why Stewart wanted to be involved in this project in the first place.) If it's a stoner comedy, why do we so rarely see our leads smoking? If it's an action flick with mere stoner-comedy elements attached, why isn't this thing remotely exciting or surprising or, you know, fun?

Back in 2009, Eisenberg and Stewart played young lovers in the eternally awesome Adventureland, and their mutual intelligence, shared humor, and easy rapport had me hoping they'd be paired with Hepburn-and-Tracy frequency over the years. At that time, obviously, I'd forgotten that they don't write Hepburn-and-Tracy movies anymore. So I'm willing to blame the actors' strangely uncomfortable byplay here on staggeringly weak material, and on the simultaneously over-the-top and under-imagined situations devised by Landis and their director, whose 2012 teen-party slapstick Project X remains a scraping-bottom low point of millennial movie-going. Nourizadeh's latest isn't quite that bad. Britton lends the proceedings some class merely by showing up, Levell Crawford is amusing as one of John Leguizamo's bodyguards, and Eisenberg's gradually disheveled stoner wig is good for a couple of mild chuckles. But they're chuckles in a void, as American Ultra winds up only slightly funnier than American Sniper.

 

Follow Mike on Twitter at Twitter.com/MikeSchulzNow.

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