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Sweet and Lowdown

Two new films starring Marley Shelton prove it’s real hard to be a girl.



Forget that heavily leathered and bespectacled collection of audio-visual club refugees up in the mountains who just had their little exclusive film festival. It’s time for the Marley Shelton Film Festival at your local cineplex.

If you play your cards right, you could go to movies all weekend starring this generically attractive, generically talented, generally unknown 26-year-old blonde who’s got a lengthy résumé of TV movies and straight-to-video work. The planets have aligned for her in 2001, with no less than four films arriving in theaters—including two starring turns in two recent weeks. How she did it, nobody knows. Why Hollywood let her do it is an even better question. But it’s clear she’s the hardest-working nobody in showbiz.

One of the pictures is Valentine, a slasher flick designed to appeal to the angry, lonely loser in us all on the most romantic of holidays. It begins with a flashback in which a junior-high kid is humiliated and ostracized for what frankly seem to be perfectly justifiable reasons. We fast-forward to the present, where the girls who dissed him have all turned into dynamite babes who torture men while simultaneously bemoaning the lack of good guys out there.

When trouble starts over Valentine’s weekend, we assume it’s this guy who’s wearing a Cupid mask and trying to kill the dynamite babes, but—and here’s the good part—we can’t be sure it’s him! Is it him? Isn’t it him? The questions could last for minutes.

Shelton is the sympathetic member of the group, which also includes Denise Richards and her impenetrable phalanxes of hair, breasts and teeth. You don’t date Denise, you launch tactical assaults. Anyway, we get no more than a few perfunctory scares from director Jamie Blanks, who tries just about as hard as the depressingly tame script.

There’s no way for Shelton, Richards and the rest of the actors to win here. If they play it straight with a played-out concept like this, they just look silly—like actors in the films the Scream series made fun of before it started making fun of itself. If they went for camp value, there would be no point in watching another Scream retread. Shelton is boring and one-note, but that’s exactly what she’s supposed to be.

It’ll take a vicious imagination and some serious risks for a slasher film to ever truly scare us again. Like Shelton’s performance, Valentine is just a tired reshuffling of stuff that wasn’t cool the first time we saw it.

There’s no such problem in Sugar and Spice, where a group of even younger girls also have trouble involving love, violence and strange masks. It’s the story of Jack and Diane, two American kids et cetera. When cheerleading captain Diane gets knocked up with twins, her parents kick her out. She and quarterback Jack need money quick—so she schemes with the rest of her cheerleading squad to concoct an elaborate bank-robbing scheme.

The cheerleaders range from a strict Christian to the daughter of a convict, and there’s another one who’s obsessed with Conan O’Brien. But the best performance comes from Shelton, who’s hyperkinetically upbeat in the face of everything that could possibly go wrong in this sarcastic little script. She and fellow generic ingenues Mena Suvari and Rachel Blanchard get enough quirk time to make themselves memorable—which is more than anybody in the cast of Valentine could pull off.

The yell squad Brings It On and Sets It Off in a cool little heist that has complications, of course. By the time it’s all said and done, Sugar and Spice falls somewhere short of that much-sought-after Heathers cynicism vibe—though it’s still much further along the sophistication scale than the standard Sarah Michelle-Melissa Joan-Jennifer Love teen fare. Sometimes it’s loud when it should be clever, and other times its characters strain against the boundaries of their caricatures. The comic tone never quite finds a brilliant groove, but it keeps a steady stream of easy laughs coming.

In final analysis, both entries in the Marley Shelton Film Festival deliver what they promise. Valentine gives us dead bodies, people jumping out of hiding places and a solution so stupid you’ll be grateful you’re not a screenwriter. Sugar and Spice is simultaneously mean and syrupy, with enough creative spark to carry through the dull spots. When the festival returns next season, I’m hoping for additional weekend screenings, better parking and at least two interesting films.

Valentine (R) H Directed by Jamie Blanks. Starring Denise Richards, David Boreanaz and Marley Shelton. Sugar and Spice (PG-13) HH1/2 Directed by Francine McDougall. Starring Mena Suvari, James Marsden and Marley Shelton.