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From The Elephant Man to A Star Is Born, the best TV films to watch this week

Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born
Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born

Film of the week

A Star Is Born, Sunday, BBC Three, 9pm

A remake of the iconic 1976 rock musical starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, itself an update of both the 1937 original and a 1954 stage version starring Judy Garland, this award-winning 2018 version marked the directorial debut of actor Bradley Cooper, best known for his Oscar nominated performances in David O Russell pair Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As well as working behind the camera Cooper takes the lead as hard-drinking country rock star Jackson Maine, whose chance meeting with aspiring singer Ally Campana in a drag club after a gig brings him the love of his life. What it brings her, when she reveals herself to be a budding songwriter and he drags her onstage to perform with him, is a ticket to the stardom which has so far eluded her. “Almost every single person that I’ve come in contact with in the music industry has told me that my nose is too big and that I won’t make it,” she tells Jackson as they sit in a car park on the evening of that first fateful meeting.

Soon she is playing on stage with him and after a performance she meets impresario Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron), who offers her the chance to record her own material and then tries to mould her into his idea of what a pop star should look like. She initially resists the changes but they pay dividends in terms of acclaim and validation. And who can turn down acclaim and validation? But as her star is rising, Jackson’s is falling, leading him further and further into alcoholism and putting him on a path to self-destruction. Can she save him or is this just another story of rock and roll excess?

The charismatic Cooper, acting on his own terms in what is clearly a pet project, is at his loose and easy best. He’s joined in an impressive cast by Big Lebowski star Sam Elliott as Jackson’s elder brother Bobby, and Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, Lorenzo. But it’s Lady Gaga who really shines – she is a revelation and it’s no surprise she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, alongside Cooper who received a Best Actor nod. The film picked up six other nominations including for Best Supporting Actor for Elliott, and Best Original Song, which it won. The film’s soundtrack, meanwhile, went on to garner seven Grammy nominations, winning four.

And the best of the rest …

Saturday

Alita: Battle Angel, Channel 4, 9pm

Cyborg Alita (Rosa Salazar in motion capture) awakens with no recollection of her past or recognition of her surroundings. Taken in by a kind doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz), she makes a new friend in street-smart Hugo. But when deadly and corrupt forces come for her, Alita discovers she has unique abilities that serve as a clue to her past -and may be the key to saving her new family. This epic sci-fi-adventure, co-written by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, was based on the Battle Angel Alita anime comic-book series from the 1990s, and is a fun distraction for a couple of hours. Just try not to be put off by the CGI cyborg’s slightly odd-looking eyes.

Burning, BBC Four, 10pm

South Korean director Lee Chang-dong won numerous awards for this tantalising 2018 thriller expanded from Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning. Aspiring writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) meets former classmate Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and they reminisce about the past over dinner before she leaves for a trip to Africa. Jong-su kindly agrees to take care of her cat in her absence and when Hae-mi returns, Jong-su is disappointed to discover that she has acquired a wealthy and self-confident companion called Ben (Steven Yeun). This potential suitor is an enigma. Jong-su snoops around Ben’s apartment and discovers trinkets belonging to other women in a bathroom cabinet. When Hae-mi subsequently vanishes, jealous Jong-su becomes convinced that Ben is responsible.

Sunday

Steel Magnolias, Channel 5, 2.05pm

At the time this story about female friendship and solidarity was released in 1989 its youngest stars – Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah – were two of the fastest rising names in Hollywood. Both went on to achieve major success which makes this adaptation of Robert Harling’s 1987 play all the more remarkable because the other cast members are Shirley MacLaine, Sally Field, country music legend Dolly Parton and the great Olympia Dukakis. What a line up. For that reason alone it would be worth watching, but it’s the emotional weight of the story which gives the film its heft. In short, we’re in a small Louisiana town where a tight-knit community of women comes together when one of their number falls ill.

A Million Little Pieces, BBC Two, 10pm

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson brings author James Frey’s controversial memoir to the screen in her ambitious film, co-written by her husband and lead actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson. James (Taylor-Johnson in a fearless performances) agrees to check into a six-week rehabilitation programme at the behest of his brother Bob (Charlie Hunnam). He must bare his soul in group therapy sessions and avoid contact with female patients or risk expulsion. Lingering glances across the cafeteria from Lilly (Odessa Young) test James’s resolve as he clashes with clarinet-playing roommate Miles Davis (Charles Parnell) and rejects the touchy-feely approach of staff psychologist Joanne (Juliette Lewis).

Monday

The Elephant Man, BBC Two, 12.15am

John Merrick is a hideously disfigured man working as a fairground freak until ambitious surgeon Frederick Treves spots him. The medic initially believes the unfortunate fellow is an idiot and wants to use him to further his own career – until he realises that beneath the ugly exterior is a beautiful, intelligent and sympathetic person. John Hurt is superb as the title character, but it’s Anthony Hopkins who provides the movie’s heart as Treves, the man changed for ever by his meeting with Merrick. Freddie Jones deserves a mention too for his suitably creepy turn as the villain of the piece and the film marks David Lynch’s debut as a mainstream director following his success with cult favourite, Eraserhead.

Tuesday

Educating Rita, BBC Two, 11.15pm

Bored Liverpool hairdresser Rita (Julie Walters) enrols in an Open University English course. Her tutor is Frank (Michael Caine), a hard-drinking poet who is initially sceptical, but comes to see his new pupil’s frank opinions and natural intelligence as a breath of fresh air. She’s slightly in awe of him, but as she finds her feet and starts mixing with other pupils, the dynamics of their relationship change. Although Willie Russell’s play, which was written as a two-hander, has been opened out for the screen, the 1983 film ultimately depends on the relationship between Frank and Rita. Fortunately, Walters and Caine, who were both deservedly nominated for Oscars, are perfect in their roles, making the growing friendship completely believable. The result is a smart, funny and very touching comedy drama.

Wednesday

Jaws, ITV4, 9pm

It’s now nearly 47 years old, but Steven Spielberg’s first blockbuster has lost none of its bite (sorry). Roy Scheider heads the cast as Brody, a police chief on New England’s Amity Island whose relatively idyllic existence is turned upside down when a great white shark starts snacking on the locals. The mayor is reluctant to close the beaches in case it scares off the tourists, so with the aid of a wealthy expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and salty old sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), Brody heads off to find and kill the beast. It’s a masterpiece of direction which combines genuine thrills with three-dimensional characters, and although the shark itself is a bit of a let-down we’re having too much fun to care by the time we finally have a good look at it. John Williams’ iconic score just adds to the tension.

Thursday

Green Book, BBC Four, 9pm

Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in 1962 New York City. During the winter, the club is closed for renovations, so Tony accepts an offer from refined pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to chauffeur him on an eight-week tour that will take in Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee. Tony and Don initially clash but as the tour gathers momentum, they learn valuable life lessons from each other. Inspired by a real-life friendship, Green Book is a life-affirming comedy drama which follows the tyre prints of Driving Miss Daisy to spark mutual appreciation between a chauffeur and his employer. Peter Farrelly’s Oscar-winning picture makes exceedingly light work of a 129-minute running time, deftly juggling heart-tugging drama and culture-clash comedy.

Friday

County Lines, BBC Three, 10pm

Writer-director Henry Blake, who has been a youth worker for 11 years, draws on his own experience for a topical 2019 drama about the exploitation of vulnerable children by drugs gangs. Struggling single mother mum Toni (Ashley Madekwe) works night shifts to make ends meet. She leaves her 14-year-old son Tyler (Conrad Khan) to bear the responsibility for getting his younger sister Aliyah (Tabitha Milne-Price) to school and feeding her before bed. Tyler is bullied mercilessly and feels alienated from everyone until a stranger, Simon (Harris Dickinson), steps in to save him from a beating. For the first time in years, someone lavishes Tyler with kindness and the teenager gravitates towards Simon. The older man grooms Tyler to become a drug mule, carrying packages from east London to the coast.