Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Playing House'

Usually when Jessica St. Clair or Lennon Parham pop up as guest stars on some comedy show or in supporting roles in movies, I'm happy to see them. They contribute something sharp and funny and then bow out at exactly the right time. I'm less enamored of the projects that have the pair as the main focus; a little of them goes a long way, especially when they're teamed together. I thought their short-lived NBC sitcom Best Friends Forever was pretty grating, and their new USA sitcom, Playing House, is only slightly more tolerable. Like Best Friends Forever, it features the two creators/stars as best friends who move in together after one of them experiences a personal crisis; in this case, Maggie (Parham) is pregnant when she discovers that her husband is having an online affair, and so her best friend Emma (St. Clair) moves in to help her get through the pregnancy and raise her child.

Presumably the show's focus will shift a bit once the baby's born, but for now it's a buddy comedy much like Best Friends Forever, and like that show its main problem is that St. Clair and Parham's characters are completely obnoxious. I've seen a few articles recently praising the duo's portrayal of female friendship, and they do have a convincing bond (they're best friends in real life, too). But they reinforce each other's most irritating qualities, and while they may offer a realistic look at the strong dynamic between platonic female partners, it doesn't really matter when those partners are shrill and unfunny.

Playing House is less crass and annoying than Best Friends Forever, and when it focuses on the emotional connection between Maggie and Emma, it can be sort of sweet. But as a comedy, it's mostly a failure, especially when it comes to portraying any characters other than the central duo. The second of two episodes provided for review tries to feature Keegan-Michael Key's Mark, a small-town cop and Emma's ex-boyfriend, in his own subplot, but the writers clearly have no idea what to do with him as an independent character. St. Clair and Parham have a good handle on their own relationship, but maybe they need to stop trying to make sitcoms about it.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m on USA.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apartment 1303' (2007)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

One thing I've learned from this project is to avoid all apartment numbers with 13 in them. After the horrors of India's 13B, we move to Japan for Apartment 1303, a fairly familiar horror exercise with your basic stringy-haired female ghost. It's actually more of a traditional haunted-house movie than a J-horror tech nightmare, with an extensive back story about abuse and murder taking place in the titular apartment. The beginning of the movie quickly shows two different young women jumping to their deaths right after moving into the apartment. It turns out that a number of young women have done the same thing, and yet the rental company doesn't seem to have any problems finding new people to rent the apartment (apparently only young women are interested in living there).

Main character Mariko is the sister of the most recent victim, who decides to unravel the mystery with the help of a rumpled police detective. Star Noriko Nakagoshi brings some emotional weight to the role, which helps ground the mostly silly story, but the supporting performances are more cartoonish, and the cheesy special effects don't help. As Mariko learns more about the haunting of the apartment, the movie takes a lengthy detour to recount the back story, which involves an abusive mother who's killed by her own daughter. Eventually Mariko faces down the ghost of the daughter, but the climax is neither scary (thanks mostly to the aforementioned cheapo effects) nor emotionally involving (since Mariko has no real connection to the ghosts).

Mostly Apartment 1303 is a rote collection of haunted-house and J-horror tropes, held together by one decent performance and a whole lot of bad ones. The movie ends with what is probably meant as a chilling final moment, but it comes off as more of a shrug, thanks again to the cheesy effects, but also to the complete lack of engagement in the characters. Some girls jump off a balcony, and then some other people do, also. Nobody cares.