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Skylan Brooks (left) and Ethan Dizon star in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete."
Skylan Brooks (left) and Ethan Dizon star in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete."

Kid stars keep "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" on its feet

"Never work with children or animals."

That quote is attributed to famed actor-comedian W.C. Fields, but it now belongs to all of show business as a humorous – and often accurate – piece of advice. See "The Last Airbender" or "Star Wars: Episode I." Then again, you could Frankenstein the talents of young Mary Badham, Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal and the kids from "Moonrise Kingdom," and those scripts would still come off wretched.

From performance quality to production concerns, relying on child actors is a risk or reward proposition. In the case of "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," the latest from director and native Milwaukeean George Tillman Jr., the results land firmly in the latter. Youngsters Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon end up being the best thing Tillman could’ve asked for, electrifying the film and giving the story the heart it needs.

Right from the opening moments, things are looking grim for Mister (Brooks). He’s failed the eighth grade, and his mother (a shockingly haggard Jennifer Hudson) is a resigned servant to her drug addiction and her pimp/drug dealer (Anthony Mackie). As things reach the breaking point between Mister and his mom, the police come knocking and take her away. Now, during a punishing summer heat wave, Mister must take care of himself and Pete (Dizon), his quiet Korean neighbor whose junkie mother – seen for just a fleeting moment – ran off.

The two scrape up whatever food they can to stay alive and avoid getting caught by the police – led by an intimidating Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – and sent to a boys’ home with a history of violence. This means panhandling on the street next to an ornery homeless man (Jeffrey Wright) who may or may not be a war vet, and battling with an Indian corner store clerk (Kenneth Maharaj) who hasn’t taken kindly to Mister’s attitude.

And as the sweltering days drain the boys’ bodies and resolves, it seems more and more like Mister’s mom may have taken the same route as P…

Matthias Schweighofer and Milan Peschel star in "Break Up Man," the opening night film of the Milwaukee Film Festival.
Matthias Schweighofer and Milan Peschel star in "Break Up Man," the opening night film of the Milwaukee Film Festival.

"Break Up Man" not really worth falling for

Imagine if you tossed "Hitch," "Up in the Air" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" into a bag, and forced them to mate. The end result would probably end up a bit like "Break Up Man," which is to say a loud, unstable mess that’s a good bit lesser than the sum of its parts.

The Milwaukee Film Festival’s opening night selection – which won the audience award at the German Film Awards – follows the escapades of Paul Voigt, played by co-director Matthias Schweighofer. He’s the charming star employee at a separation agency, where he breaks up couples for those too cowardly or prideful to do it themselves. Like a handsome grim reaper of love, he delivers the bad news along with a polite smile and a cute little box assumably filled with Haagen-Dazs, tissues and a copy of "(500) Days of Summer."

His latest break-up (for his boss’s daughter no less), however, hasn’t quite gone according to plan. His client’s now ex-boyfriend Toto (Milan Peschel) is what some would call a stage five clinger, unable to cope with the bad news and dweebily pattering after Paul with his things and a tree in hand. But thanks to the wonders of contrived screenwriting, Paul loses his driver’s license to the police and needs Toto to drive him around to his upcoming, high-pressure appointments.

Shenanigans ensue, and if the goopy, incessant inspirational pop songs and music are to believed – and they are – a whole lot of heartwarming feel-good too. In fact, in a twist not seen since every road trip movie ever, lovesick Toto and cynic Paul overcome their ideological differences to ­become the best of chums. Dare I say Paul might even learn something from this big-eyed, life-wrecking rapscallion?

I do dare, something I wish "Break Up Man" did more of.

Much of the reason for choosing the German hit for the festival’s opening night feature was to recapture the magic of last year’s sweetly satisfying opener "Starbuck" (which has been remade into "The Delivery Man," starring Vin…

Patrick Wilson haunts "Insidious: Chapter 2," now playing.
Patrick Wilson haunts "Insidious: Chapter 2," now playing.

"Insidious: Chapter 2" mixes chilly scares with silly schlock

Pianos play without anyone sitting at the keys. Babies’ toys keep moving on their own. People use the phrase "astral projection" with a straight face, and the violins on the soundtrack are violently spazzing out like there’s a stubborn bee perched on each of their bows. Yep, it must be time for a new "Insidious" film.

The first chapter – about a young family trying to stave off otherworldly ghosts and demons from possessing their young, comatose son – was a surprise hit for newbie distributor FilmDistrict, making $54 million back in 2011 from a $1.5 million budget. And deservedly so. "Insidious" marked a much-appreciated step away from the world of torture porn and found footage gimmicks, and back toward classic bump-in-the-night tactics done right.

Part one’s creative duo, writer Leigh Whannell and current horror golden boy director James Wan (who, for maximum irony points, were also behind the original "Saw"), have returned for "Insidious: Chapter 2." So have Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson and the rest of the effective cast of the first film. The gang’s all here and in fine frightening form, but the sequel seems just a little … off, like it’s been oh-so-subtly possessed by the ghost of a lesser horror flick.

After a quick flashback, "Chapter 2" picks up where the last film’s final act left off. The family is attempting to get back to a normal life with Josh’s knowing mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) and her equally creepy house. And this being a horror movie, it’s going poorly. When she’s not being pestered by phantom pianos and the baby’s chirpy toys, wife Renai (Byrne) sees mysterious figures wandering through the living room.

Meanwhile, husband Josh (Wilson) keeps talking to himself in the mirror and looks like he’s slowly transforming into a corpse. But I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about.

While Renai fends off vicious backhanded slaps from the ominous spectre of the day, the kooky paranormal aids of the first film (Angus S…

Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo are "The Family," now playing.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Dianna Agron and John D'Leo are "The Family," now playing.

"The Family" a band of not-so-goodfellas

Sad fact: Most younger action movie fans most likely know the name Luc Besson not because of "Léon: The Professional" or "The Fifth Element." For them, he’s that guy whose name keeps showing up in ads for slicked-up Euro-centric thrillers like the "Taken" series, "Colombiana" and "Lockout" (aka "Space Jail"). And based on those disposable films, it’s hard to see what the big deal is unless you’re Liam Neeson’s agent.

For over a decade, Besson’s been out of the spotlight, putting together indie projects ("Angel-A"), prestige biopics ("The Lady") and animated kids movies (the "Arthur and the Invisibles" series) that rarely bothered to make the trip across the Atlantic to America. But now, Besson has popped back into the director’s chair in the hopes of showing his disciples – one of whom has the surname Megaton and the violently caffeinated style to match – how it’s done.

Or at least that’s how the story of "The Family" should’ve gone. Instead, Besson’s dark mob comedy plays like a punch to the face. A well-acted and well-shot punch to the face, but I still walked out rubbing my head in pain and confusion.

Robert De Niro, pleasantly still in showing up mode, plays Giovanni Manzoni, a former Brooklyn mobster who ratted on the local don and ended up dragging himself and his whole family into the witness protection program. After their last home gets compromised, the Manzoni clan – under the guise of the Blake family – heads off to the quaint little French town of Normandy. The granite-faced Tommy Lee Jones plays their frustrated FBI keeper.

Gio keeps himself busy writing his memoirs, finally opening up about the good and the bad of a mobster’s life. He also investigates why his new home’s water is brown, introducing him to dismissive businessmen and corrupt plumbers. And unfortunately for them, breaking old habits isn’t as easy as breaking bones, nor as effective at de-bronzing his water.

The rest of his kin have their own struggl…