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WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS

The backdrop—the Electronic Dance Music scene in Los Angeles—might be hip and edgy, but what happens against it in Max Joseph’s movie is as conventional and musty as a forties melodrama. Despite being jazzed up with woozy camerawork, kinetic editing and splashy graphics, “We Are Your Friends” is old-fashioned hooey.

Zac Efron stars as Cole, a guy from the San Fernando Valley—Hollywood’s poor cousin—who would very much like to become a DJ in L.A.’s raucous dance scene and win fame and fortune like that of James Reed (Wes Bentley), a celebrity in the field whose appearances Cole and his buddies—volatile Mason (Jonny Weston), would-be actor Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and hanger-on Squirrel (Alex Shaffer)—help to promote for club access and free drinks. Cole hunches over his laptop to fashion a track that will get his foot in the door and lead to break-out success.

His big opportunity arises in a chance meeting with Reed outside a club called Social. Reed invites him to a party where they hobnob with the slick set and ingest drugs that allow Joseph—who’s made a name for himself with music videos, commercials, Internet postings and the MTV series “Catfish”—to indulge in a hallucinatory sequence combining animation and live action to depict their effect. Reed may be a cynical, boozy guy, but he takes Cole under his wing, urging the kid to find his own voice rather than trying to copy others and giving him access to his private studio to experiment. He even hires the younger man to preside at a pool party at his place, getting the guests gyrating to the beats he fashions from the console.

But predictable problems undermine Cole’s smooth road to success. One involves the behavior of his long-time friends, who cause a disturbance at Reed’s party; Mason in particular acts the roughhouse boor. He’s also responsible for hooking up his pals with sleazy Paige (Jon Bernthal), who runs a boiler-room style real-estate operation that seeks out homeowners faced with foreclosure for possible fleecing. Becoming one of Paige’s phone solicitors, Cole is duly disillusioned when he lures a single mother desperate to keep her house into Paige’s orbit and Paige persuades her to sign over the house to him for eventual sale at a big profit. Cole struggles with his conscience over taking advantage of people, even though the job is lucrative and allows the quartet to get an apartment of their own, where they do drugs and booze to the heart’s content.

An even bigger problem involves Reed’s young, pretty girlfriend/assistant Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who—we eventually learn—dropped out of Stanford because she couldn’t afford the tab. It’s inevitable that she and Cole should find their way into the sack and that Reed should find out about it. Needless to say, he’s not pleased, and it ruptures the men’s friendship—as well as Cole’s chance to open for James at a summer festival. Happily the story has a fairy-tale ending as Cole finds the material for his breakthrough track in the sounds of his own life, does the right thing when it comes to resolving his doubts about Paige, and begins a sweet courtship of the fired Sophie, now a waitress but returning to school.

All of this seems exhumed from a Melodrama Playbook, and the flashy milieu and Joseph’s cinematic pizzazz can’t hide the fact. And we haven’t yet mentioned that Cole’s redemptive turn is occasioned by the death of a major character whose doom is so obvious from his first appearance that he might as well be wearing a sign identifying him as the coming subject of a brief funeral scene. There’s nothing in the script that Joseph and Megan Oppenheimer have cobbled together that doesn’t seem lifted from previous films, from “All About Eve” on.

The sole truly enjoyable aspect of “We Are Your Friends” comes from watching Wes Bentley, who’s had a rocky career, sink his teeth into a meaty role at last. He brings alive Reed’s world-weary, seen-it-all attitude and delivers the screenplay’s best lines with a knowing wink. As for Efron, he suffers mightily—so much that at times you think he might be feeling the effects of a persistent stomach ailment. At least he gets to relax somewhat in his scenes with Ratajkowski, although in those he shifts into puppy-dog demeanor reminiscent of his “High School Musical” days. Weston and Bernthal certainly come across as obnoxious—which, admittedly, is the point—while Fernandez and Shaffer hover at the fringes of the action, basically nondescript. And while on the technical side Joseph and his collaborators—cinematographer Brett Pawlak, editors Terel Gibson and David Diliberto, production designer Maya Sigel, art director Shannon Kemp, set decorator Siobhan O’Brien and costumer Christie Wittenborn, as well as the effects artists—strive for some visual panache, the result is never as eye-catching as they obviously hope. Even the throbbing music isn’t as compelling as it should be.

So even if you think that the EDM milieu deserves to be captured on film, “We Are Your Friends” proves a wan, cliché-ridden attempt at doing so.

SINISTER 2

Grade: D

The original “Sinister” spun a convoluted tale about a demon called Bughuul, a spectral boogeyman who cajoled children into murdering their families and filming the slaughter so that the footage could be used to incite the next incident of mayhem—a complicated procedure that supposedly had something to do with the corruption of innocence and feeding on fear. Spiffily produced and sporting a star in Ethan Hawke, it made even less sense than the most preposterous horror movies but was a modest financial success, so a sequel was inevitable. It arrives after three years and was most definitely not worth the wait.

Penned by Scott Derrickson, who also wrote its predecessor with C. Robert Cargill and directed it as well, the plot further elaborates an already insanely labyrinthine premise. Now, it seems, the children whom Bughuul had turned into killers over the years serve as his ghostly recruiters, enticing unhappy kids to watch the scrappy home movies that document their accomplishments and use them as training reels for their own imaginative massacres. Their current target is Dylan Collins (Robert Sloan), a shy boy whom his mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) has sequestered in an abandoned Illinois farmhouse along with his more extroverted brother Zach (Dartanian Sloan) after fleeing their insanely abusive father Clint (Lea Coco). The house is adjacent to a decrepit church where one of the earlier mass murders occurred and the spirits of Bughuul and his child minions now apparently reside.

Dylan sneaks down to the cellar each night to watch, though reluctantly, the gruesome movies Bughuul’s kids screen for him on an old 8mm projector (to musical accompaniment provided by an equally vintage phonograph). It appears that the boy is being primed to slaughter his mother and brother—and maybe his daddy too, if he should find them. But Bughuul’s elaborate plan is interrupted by the arrival of the deputy (James Ransone) who witnessed the horrors of the original film and has turned serial arsonist, finding and destroying houses that might be the sites of future enormities. Despite his nebbish quality, he quickly becomes not only the family’s protector but Courtney’s oddball romantic interest. And assisted by a nervous paranormal investigator (Tate Ellington, replacing the first film’s Vincent D’Onofrio), he learns something of Bughuul’s modus operandi from an antique tape recorder that’s preserved a record of a massacre in Norway, a land where the demon had apparently practiced his trade before decamping for the U.S.

None of this makes the slightest lick of sense, which is par for the course with today’s increasingly ludicrous horror movies, but it all winds up at the Collins farm, where Courtney, Dylan and Zach have been restored to the bosom of volatile Clint. Bughuul and his helpers have followed them there to encourage one of the brothers to earn entry into their number by crucifying and burning the other members of the family, but once again our fearless deputy shows up to foil the plan. Oddly, the spectral children now transform into something like poltergeists, tossing furniture about and ripping open shower curtains, and for a brief while the movie turns into a “Children of the Corn” clone as they pursue the live folk through the fields—it is Illinois, after all. Suffice it to say that all the intended victims do not die and Bughuul must leave almost empty-handed, though a final twist suggests that he’s not given up and yet another installment might be in store.

That suggestion is easily the scariest thing about “Sinister 2,” which is poorly conceived and ineptly executed. The “contemporary” scenes of Dylan and Zach being tormented by Bughuul and his aides try to be moody and suspenseful, but director Ciaran Foy and his craft helpers—production designer Bill Boes, art director Merje Veski, cinematographer Amy Vincent and editors Michael Trent and Tim Alverson—don’t have the skill to pull it off. Except for that final would-be cross-burning, the gross-out elements are pretty much segregated to the old “found footage” of massacres past, with such dandy images as folks being electrocuted, disemboweled by rats or decapitated by hungry alligators, but the herky-jerky hand-held camerawork and frenetic editing in those sequences turn them into mush. Even the thumping score by Tomandandy fails to generate any tension.

As to the performances, the best are definitely turned in by the youngsters, particularly the two Sloans, who earn a measure of audience sympathy, and though the spectral kids—played by Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz and Olivia Rainey—don’t do much but glower, they’re all okay. It’s the adults who come off worst. Ransone has difficulty combining lovable klutziness with heroic mettle, and Sossamon is just bland. Perhaps to compensate, Coco chews the scenery so much that he’s far more frightening than Nicholas King, whose Bughuul is just a passive sort of guy with bad gargoyle makeup.

“Sinister 2” is yet another chintzy exploitation potboiler from Jason Blum’s horror shingle. It appeared that his last release, Joel Edgerton’s clever thriller “The Gift,” might have signaled a turn for the better for Blumhouse, but this movie proves a sad regression from that standard—and a swift decline from its predecessor, which at least had some of the spooky quality this sequel aims for but misses completely.