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With its teenage lesbians, Hell’s Kitchen locations, and grrrl-rock score, All Over Me has everything it needs to be a distinctive, if slightly trendy, contemporary-youth drama. Unfortunately, scripter Sylvia Sichel has also provided her sister, director Alex Sichel, with such tired elements as drug-addled toughs and a murder.

The film began in Alex’s plan to make a documentary about the riot-grrrl scene, and all the ingredients of that project remain. They ended up as the backdrop, however, to the story of two 15-year-old best friends who grow up and pull apart during a few weeks of summer vacation. Big-boned Claude (Alison Folland, who played a similar role in To Die For) worships delicate Ellen (Tara Subkoff), and Ellen appreciates Claude’s friendship and devotion. While Claude realizes that her feelings for Ellen are erotic, however, Ellen takes up with thuggish drug dealer Mark (Cole Hauser), the guy in the neighborhood who most belongs in Kids.

Bereft, Claude has nothing left but her job at the pizza parlor, where she works with Jesse (Wilson Cruz), one of the film’s many likable gay characters. The girls used to practice their guitars together, and Claude can’t imagine starting a band without Ellen. Then rocker Luke (Psychotica lead singer Pat Briggs), another likable gay character, moves into Claude’s building and starts encouraging her. His most useful tip is the location of a riot-grrrl club, where Claude discovers a welcoming subculture and meets yet another likable gay character, gregarious fuchsia-haired punker Lucy (Murmurs singer/songwriter Leisha Hailey). Though Claude still spends much of her time protecting Ellen, she begins tentatively exploring a relationship with Lucy.

This scenario probably wouldn’t get funded by a major studio, but it’s just fine for a small-budget film scored to music by such indie-label grrrls as Sleater-Kinney, Ani DiFranco, and Helium. The Sichels don’t quite trust it, though. Before the film is half over, one of the supporting characters is slain, and the circumstances of the death and the identity of the killer (neither of which is hard to discern) can only lead to more conflict between Claude and Ellen. As if this weren’t sufficiently melodramatic, Ellen’s slide into drug dependency is epic in scale: She goes from everygrrrl to OD-bait in a matter of days.

The Sichels are not guilty of a failure of nerve. Ideologically, All Over Me can be bracing, notably in its earnest portrayal of hetero sex as false, abusive, and (ugh) middle-aged: Ellen’s relationship with Mark is clearly destructive, and in one scene Claude chances upon her mortified mom (Ann Dowd) doing a striptease for her new, balding boyfriend.

The problem is mostly one of focus. Although both Folland and Subkoff give remarkably unguarded performances, this is clearly Claude’s story. Yet the filmmakers can’t let go of Ellen. Thus one remarkable scene, in which Claude is overcome by emotion while dancing to Patti Smith’s “Pissing in a River” in Lucy’s room, is mechanically intercut with a less interesting encounter between Ellen and Mark.

Such structural stumbles are echoed by the script, which sometimes seems a few steps ahead of its characters. Before Claude has checked out the riot-grrrl world, she’s already Rollerblading to Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” Later, she tells Ellen, “I’m your dog,” an insight whose bluntness clashes with Claude’s otherwise halting self-expression. This is typical of All Over Me: The film’s spirit is as exuberant as its scrappy new-girl-network soundtrack, but its narrative details keep hitting bum notes.

The increasing dominance of Hollywood is an issue in virtually every country that has a viable film industry, but nowhere so much as in France. The Gallic reaction, though, has been a little odd. Rather than extol such quintessentially French younger directors as Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, the French movie biz seems set on demonstrating that it can make movies that are just as fatuous as their American competition. Last year, the producers of Little Indian, Big City demanded that Disney release a dubbed version of their moronic comedy in the U.S., where it flopped spectacularly. Now Gaumont has bankrolled director/co-writer Luc Besson’s attempt to make a futuristic special-effects extravaganza to rival, say, Judge Dredd.

Shot in English on London soundstages with a principally Anglo-American cast, The Fifth Element is not belligerently French. After all, it echoes Blade Runner, Total Recall, Independence Day, Stargate, and even Species. Still, Besson imagines a future that is dressed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, decorated by Moebius, and throbbing to Eric Serra’s lame French art-hop. He’s even found a small part for an edgier French director, Hate’s Mathieu Kassovitz.

This too-long flick suffers from an overinvolved prologue, pacing that manages to be both frantic and sluggish, and wild fluctuations in tone. The laboriously established premise is that every 5,000 years a force of pure evil attempts to negate the world, and that Earth must be saved by a benign alien race. The aliens have left on Earth a priesthood that’s supposed to know how to employ the five elements to repulse the threat. When the force threatens the earth of 2259, however, chief priest Cornelius (Ian Holm) is not prepared. The stones that constitute four of the five elements are in jeopardy, sought by a bad guy who’s a cross between Ming the Merciless and Alan Greenspan, Zorg (Gary Oldman, who was actually more preposterous in Besson’s The Professional). The fifth element, embodied by intergalactic child-woman Leeloo (Return to the Blue Lagoon’s Milla Jovovich), has nearly been destroyed by the mercenary Mangalores, hulking latex-faced shape-shifters who work for Zorg. The government has no choice but to enlist Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a former operative who now drives a hover-cab in a New York that looks like a ’30s notion of the city of the future.

Actually, there’s a lot that’s retro in Besson’s future, especially as regards sex. With its contemporary product placement and ’50s-Playboy sexual futurism, The Fifth Element conjures a 23rd century of McDonald’s, Coke, and stewardesses dressed in peekaboo techno-hooker uniforms. After Leeloo is resuscitated by scientists, she’s wrapped in revealing “thermobandages” that look a lot like a failed Gaultier swimsuit design. Naturally, the superhuman yet fragile creature breaks free and must flee through Manhattan in this revealing getup, babbling in an unknown language that sounds like sexy baby talk. When Korben rescues her, their relationship—”love,” we’re told—has kiddie-porn undertones. And the final scene, in which Korben and Leeloo make out while keeping important dignitaries waiting, is straight out of the James Bond book of swinging-’60s sexual etiquette.

After a fairly solemn setup, The Fifth Element becomes increasingly cartoonish. Korben takes hectoring calls from his guilt-slinging mother, the timid Cornelius Heimlichs the imperious Zorg, and Korben and Leeloo take a trip to a resort planet where they’re accompanied by a flamboyantly swishy (yet aggressively heterosexual) cross-dressing radio host, Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker). It’s interesting to note who are the objects of fun in this multiculti millennium: Nearly all the women are bimbos, and the most prominent Asian character is a stereotypical Chinese lunchstand operator who floats through New York’s skies in a flying junk. Although the president of the universe is African-American, most of the darker-skinned characters (including Brithopper Tricky as a hapless Zorg operative) are buffoonish. Even in the 23rd century, the spirit of French imperialism lingers.

After a violent burlesque that eliminates most of the lesser villains, the film turns sententious again. The world still must be saved, but Leeloo, catching up alphabetically on Earth’s history via CD-ROM, finally hits the entry on “War.” She weeps, gazing at a photograph of a mushroom cloud (Hiroshima, presumably, and not a French nuclear test). “What’s the use,” she sobs, “of saving life when you see what you do with it?” Watching the massive waste of resources that is The Fifth Element, such despairing thoughts seem only logical.

Previously reviewed in the Filmfest issue, Children of the Revolution features some of the biggest names in Down Under filmmaking, including Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Rachel Griffiths, and Shine sensation Geoffrey Rush, all in the cause of a one-joke movie that doesn’t make much sense up here. The most fervent commie in ’50s Australia, Joan (Davis) comes back pregnant from a trip to Moscow. The baby’s name is Joe; could his real father be his namesake, Joe Stalin (F. Murray Abraham)? Joe (Richard Roxburgh) grows up to be a firebrand labor leader and a threat to the country’s domestic tranquility. This is the point at which, presumably, intimate knowledge of Aussie politics transforms writer/director Peter Duncan’s contrivances into something quite hilarious. But then maybe the political satire is really no more penetrating than the film’s portrayal of Stalin as a preening old phony who likes to break into show tunes. CP