Tag Archives: Maria Bello

Afraid of the Dark?

‘Lights Out’ will give you the fright-night heebie jeebies


Lights Out
Starring Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer & Gabriel Bateman
Directed by David F. Samberg

Are you afraid of the dark?

If you are, then here’s something to really give you some real fright-night heebie jeebies. In Lights Out, a family is menaced in a big, old “haunted house” by a beastly figure that shuns light and can only be glimpsed in the shadows of darkness.

Lights on, it disappears. Lights off, it attacks.

It’s name is Diana.

Expanding on his well-received three-minute short film of the same title, first-time feature director-writer David F. Samberg makes an impressive debut, proving you don’t need mega bucks to get maxi scares. Cinematographer Marc Spicer, who worked on Moulin Rouge, The Wolverine and The Shallows, makes the most of every creepy angle, tracking shot and dark blob in the background that might be nothing, or might be something else—something far more menacing, vengeful and deadly.


Teresa Palmer

Maria Bello plays Sophie, a mom with serious mental-issue baggage she’s been dragging around since childhood. Teresa Palmer is her grown daughter, Rebecca, who’s moved out, playfully fending off the advances of her amorous boyfriend, Brit (Alexander DiPersia). Her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is still at home, where he’s losing sleep because he’s afraid to turn out the lights—after he’s seen the frightening, violent figure in the inky corners of his mother’s bedroom.

Billy Burke (who plays Mitch Morgan on TV’s Zoo) appears—briefly!—as Rebecca and Morgan’s stepdad.

All the pieces of the Lights Out puzzle begin to come together about midway through, when we learn more about the mysterious Diana. I give the movie high marks for story development and making us feel invested in its characters, a rarity in a lot of horror flicks. There’s virtually no blood, almost zero gore, and a fright machine that runs on well-timed gotchas, real-world surprises and supernatural shocks.

LIGHTS OUTSome experts think that humans carry an ancient, primal genetic code to be afraid of the dark, a holdover from when we were much more helpless and defenseless after the sun went down—and predators were on the prowl.

This movie certainly plays off that idea, and others, too—including madness, family and the fear of going insane. But one of its most clever ideas is the way its protagonists fight to keep the “lights on” in every way possible, as Diana fights to turn them off. Boyfriend Brit’s resourcefulness, in particular, had the audience literally cheering in the screening I attended.

These days, you can watch movies many ways: on your TV, on your laptop, on your tablet, even on your phone. But for full effect, see this one in the big, open expanse of a dark theater, surrounded by people you don’t know and by things you can’t see…with the lights out!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Running to Inspire

Kevin Costner is perfectly cast coach in uplifting true-life sports tale


McFarland, USA

Starring Kevin Costner, Maria Bello & Carlos Pratts

Directed by Niki Caro


When the folks at Disney were looking for someone to play the coach in this real-life sports drama, they knew who’d be perfect.

Kevin Costner, who turned 61 on Feb. 18, has been in just about every kind of movie, but he’s become a sort of senior statesman of sports flicks, with a career arc that started in the 1980s with baseball (Bull Durham and Field of Dreams) and continued through the ’90s with Tin Cup (golf) and into last year with Draft Day (football).


Maria Bello, Kevin Costner, Elsie Fisher & Morgan Saylor

In McFarland, USA he plays Jim White, a high school football coach who—like Costner—has been around the block a few times. White doesn’t have a lot of patience with pampered jock-star players who don’t put their hearts, as well as their shoulders, on the line and into the game. An “incident” at the beginning of the movie—in 1987—finds the coach, his wife and their two kids on the move, again, transferred from Boise, Idaho, to the small central California town of McFarland, where he quickly discovers that the mostly Hispanic football team is a flop—but man, can those boys run.

That’s because they’re always running home from school to help their parents, or running after school to work in the fields. White sees their potential as a cross-country running team that could compete with bigger, better-funded schools—and possibly even compete at the state level. Never mind that the school has never had a running team, or that White has never coached one.

It’s a pretty basic underdog-tale movie template, but several things about McFarland, USA make it a standout. For starters, director Niki Caro (whose three previous other features include Whale Rider and North Country, both of which received Oscar nods) never cloaks Costner in the glow of aMcFARLAND “white savior” spotlight; he may be the star, but she makes sure the high school athletes shine. This “based-on-a-true-story” movie is their story, too, and the young actors cast as the runners, all newcomers and relative unknowns, give their onscreen characters personality, substance and dimension.

There’s humor as well as heart as White and his family clash with, and ultimately embrace, their new culture. “You got burgers?” White asks on their first—bumpy—night in town before settling for the local restaurant’s only offering: tacos. Maria Bello does a solid job as Mrs. White, even though she’s not given near enough to do, and Morgan Saylor, who played Dana Brody on TV’s Homeland, is lovely as their teenage daughter, Julie, who falls for the running team’s leader (Carlos Pratts).

We meet parents, neighbors, shopkeepers and other town residents. When the camera pans the crowd at the big state meet in the climactic final race scene, we realize that we—like coach White—have come to know, like and respect all these people, who were once unfamiliar, or even threatening.

As the credits roll, you’ll get to meet the real stars of this story: the now-grown McFarland cross-country runners from the team, and the real Jim White. And if you don’t walk out of this feel-good movie feeling better, more inspired and more uplifted than when you came in, proud of what happened back in this small California town in 1987 and proud of the boys and coach who made it possible…well, you must have seen a different movie than I did.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘Prisoners’ Pounds Its Message(s) Home

How far is too far when the law doesn’t go far enough?



Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal & Paul Dano

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

R, 153 min.

Released Sept. 20, 2013

Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when his young daughter and her friend disappear and the local police department can’t get answers out of the man he’s convinced abducted them.

With no evidence to hold the developmentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving the rattrap minivan seen near the girls just before they vanished, the cops have to let him go. That’s when Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, abducts him, secretly holds him prisoner in an abandoned building, and begins a prolonged attempt to beat the truth out of him.

PRISONERSHow far is too far to go, Prisoners asks, when the law doesn’t go far enough?

That’s not the only question the movie raises, in its brutally direct way, as it plows through a minefield of raw nerves, shattered emotions, shifting moral boundaries and unnerving religious overtones. Most of those questions don’t have easy answers.

What are we to think, for instance, when Dover fortifies himself with the Lord’s Prayer before another grueling session subjecting his captive, who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, to almost unthinkable abuse? Or when Dover’s neighbors Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), whose young daughter was also taken, justify their complicity to his plan? “We won’t help him,” Nancy reasons, “but we won’t stop him, either.”PRISONERS

And feel free to overlay any number of social issues, current events, theological debates or other entry points for discussion onto Dover’s declaration that his prisoner is “not a person anymore,” and that “we have to hurt him until he talks.”

Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), seemingly the only cop on the case in the entire (unnamed) Pennsylvania town, tirelessly tracks down clues that always seem to leave him frustratingly short of a breakthrough. Unable to cope, Dover’s wife (Maria Bello) retreats into a prescription-induced haze.

Melissa Leo plays Alex’s aunt, who raised him after his parents died, and David Dastmalchian is chilling as another suspect with a peculiar interest in children’s clothes…and other creepy things.

“Prisoners” has a strong cast with seven Oscar nominations and two Academy Award trophies among them. The movie’s palette of bleak winter landscapes also packs a visceral punch, thanks to ten-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s worked on five Coen Brothers movies and the sumptuous-looking James Bond adventure Skyfall.

But strip away its impressive Hollywood pedigree and it basically boils down to basic B-movie stock, shock and schlock. If you’ve seen anything like it, you’ve probably seen a lot of things like it.

PRISONERSNote the “s” in the title. By the time Prisoners ends after a marathon 153 minutes, it’s obvious it wants to leave you thinking about how you’ve encountered more than one prisoner, in more ways than one. But you’ll also be thinking about how it’s at least half an hour too long, how much of a grim ordeal the whole affair turned out to be, and how director Denis Villeneuve threw in way too much of just about everything, including snakes, some mumbo-jumbo about a “war against God,” and all those mazes, mazes and more mazes that all lead nowhere.

Fans of forensic-investigation and crime-procedural TV shows like CSI might enjoy the twisty-turn-y trip down the zig-zaggy rabbit hole to the end. But as the credits rolled after the final scene set in the darkness of night, in the winter cold, with a frosting of snow on hard, frozen ground, I was glad to “escape” to somewhere brighter, somewhere warmer, and somewhere I hadn’t just seen Paul Dano’s face repeatedly bludgeoned into the consistency of raw deer meat.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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