FILM / NEW RELEASES: Stealing from the rich: Adam Mars-Jones on Mel Brooks's Men in Tights, Robert Townsend's Meteor Man and the re-released Cinema Paradiso

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The Independent Culture
Mel Brooks never seems to have got around to having an identity crisis, and the question should be: why not? Apparently he thinks that any genre of film will benefit from being chopped up and garnished with his unvarying vaudeville routines. When the object of his parody was, say, Frankenstein, then his laziness looked very much like respect. He seemed to love the look of what he was parodying, even when he was mocking its successes. But when it comes to Robin Hood: Men in Tights - which doesn't so much lampoon Prince of Thieves as try to ride on its jerkin-tails - what is it that he thinks he is adding when he takes off a film?

In one of the gags in Men in Tights, all the characters consult their scripts to find out whether Robin gets another shot in the archery contest. The documents they pull out, though, seem oddly bulky, when they can hardly contain much more than: half-hearted comedy song, silly name, pratfall, penis joke, sheriff who mixes up his words, Rabbi Tuck routine. Supposedly it took Tracey Ullman five hours to get into make-up for her role as the king's cook, Latrine. She could have written a better script in a single session while her wrinkles hardened and they built up her nose.

Cary Elwes is perfectly watchable as Robin. He has a good light romantic presence and could have handled this role in a real film. Anyone who has seen him in the Princess Bride, though, will feel sorry for the under-using of his talent. Anyone who has seen Roger Rees in anything will feel sorry for him in the part of Sheriff of Rottingham (Rottingham] You slay me, Mel Brooks, with your comic inventiveness). Times must be hard when a call from Mel Brooks offering you a role seems like good news.

These days it's hard to tell, when Brooks repeats himself, whether he's smugly referring to past work or hasn't a new idea in his head. Igor's moving hump in Young Frankenstein returns as the king's mole, which migrates from scene to scene. Back comes a line from History of the World Part I, 'It's good to be the king,' side-splitting as ever. When at the end of the film a black character is suggested as the sheriff's replacement, he points out that 'It worked in Blazing Saddles,' which must be a conscious reference. But why would Mel Brooks want to remind an audience that his films once had some sort of spark?

By contrast, Robert Townsend's Meteor Man, which he wrote and directed in addition to playing the lead, looks like a masterpiece of discipline and hard work. It's not that the story is particularly original - shy schoolteacher in ravaged inner city gains super powers from a freak encounter with a meteor - but the tone is highly endearing. There's nothing confrontational or even especially charismatic about Townsend's comedy. He doesn't burst off the screen like Eddie Murphy, but nor does he amble about being likeable like Bill Cosby (who has a cameo role). Like his hero, whose fear of height persists, even afer he acquires the ability to fly, Townsend steers a middle course.

This isn't exactly a crowd-pleasing approach these days, and a speech about not blaming the police, in particular, may not go down too well in inner cities. But Townsend's good nature will win most audiences over. With his fantasy of a world where a super hero is immediately recruited by a Community Watch group, who can't wait to install a hotline in his flat?

In a characteristic scene, the hero makes a speech about the need to understand the kids, while his new X-ray vision is showing him destructiveness behind every wall. When destructiveness reaches school leaving age, though, the attempt to understand also leaves off.

To compensate, the gang members in Meteor Man - known as the Golden Lords - have a startling visual presence. They come in different age groups, with echelons of Junior Lords and even Baby Lords, who carry wads of cash in their tiny lunchboxes. All of them have their flat-tops dyed blond. In a moment of great flair, the massed Golden Lords emerge from the shadows of an alley accompanied by a tiger on a leash. Their leader plays not with a knife or a gun but with a golden Slinky, pouring its shining coils from hand to hand.

The film has roughly the least satisfactory ending you could imagine, with neighbourhood gangs, reconciled to each other by Meteor Man but still armed to the teeth, seeing off international drug runners. But if Robert Townsend's plotting runs out of steam before the end, his film is still welcome. There is a pleasing off-kilter balance to the view of his world, where the good guys have all the best lines, but the baddies have a monopoly on dress sense. Meteor Man's costume is run up by his mother, and it shows.

Giuseppe Tornatore's 1989 film Cinema Paradiso, winner of a mystifying number of prizes, has been re-released in a special edition which adds 50, yes, that's 50 not 15, minutes to the running time. Brigitte Fossey is the major beneficiary of this resurrection job, and rises from the cutting room floor where the entirety of her contribution ended up in the original cut. She plays the hero's first love in maturity, married to someone else and rediscovered only when Salvatore returns to his home town for the funeral of the projectionist who was his surrogate father and gave him a lifelong love of the cinema (he grows up to be a famous director). Fossey's restored scenes are bittersweet, hackneyed and interminable.

Salvatore's father never returns from fighting for the Axis in Russia, but there's no nasty politics or embarrassing history to cloud the film's nostalgia. Back in the lovely past, the cinema in the Sicilian town of Giancaldo was a sort of secular church where sacraments of all kinds were celebrated. There was breaking of bread and sharing of wine in the three-and-nines, and though marriages weren't solemnised in the cheap seats, who knows how many had to be because of what went on there?

The interdependence of Church and cinema, one feeding the soul, the other catering to all other appetites, is shown by the centrality of the priest to both. The same angelus bell that little Salvatore, known as Toto, rings during mass is imperiously tinkled by the priest during previews of coming attractions whenever desire starts to smoulder on the screen.

The only reason for adding to the length of Cinema Paradiso - it was never short for so slight a subject and stretching it out to nearly three hours is preposterous - would be if there was additional footage of Salvatore Cascio, who plays the child Toto. His adorabilty-quotient can be a bit hard to take, but this is one of the better pieces of screen moppetry in recent years. If only Tornatore had resisted the temptation to give Toto a symbolic name (Salvatore di Vita translates as life- saver) and then had him drag the injured projectionist out of danger in the burning cinema - Philippe Noiret, who plays the projectionist, has a solidity that would make most firemen flinch - like some Lassie of the Mezzogiorno.

(Photographs omitted)

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