Film of the Week

Saturday

Saturday Night Fever, Channel 5, 11pm

If you think highly enough of John Travolta to sit through tonight’s Dancefloor Star, Comeback King, a 90 minute Channel 5 documentary about the American actor’s life and career, then you’ll want to stay on for this screening of the film which made him a dance floor star in the first place – 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, the Brooklyn-set drama centred on the late 1970s disco scene. You know the one: the flashing floor, the Bee Gees soundtrack, the iconic white suit paired with the black shirt open almost to the navel.

Travolta plays Tony Manero who, when we first meet him in the film’s opening scene, is strutting down a New York street carrying a paint can to the strains of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. Tony has a dead-end job in a paint store and still lives at home with his large Italian-American family. He hangs out with his friends – Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J (Paul Pape), Gus (Bruce Ornstein) and Bobby (Barry Miller) – but he lives for the weekends and for the nightlife at 2001 Odyssey, the local disco. When a dance competition is announced there, Tony agrees to team up with neighbourhood friend Annette (Donna Pescow), but soon has his head turned by the flamboyant Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney). He pesters Stephanie and she agrees to partner him in place of Stephanie, who’s distraught. Add music, and off you go.

But if you first saw Saturday Night Fever in a theatrical double bill with Grease then you saw the sanitised PG version. It’s the one which catapulted Travolta onto the Hollywood A-list and gave the Bee Gees three US number ones. This earlier, 18 certificate version is a very different beast and a very dark film indeed, one featuring rape and attempted rape, gang violence and homophobia. Re-assessing it on its 40th anniversary in 2017, Vanity Fair critic Nathan Rabin wrote that if Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle had known how to dance it would be a toss-up as to which film was “the biggest downer”. A feel-good disco movie, this is not.

Its provenance is curious too. The director, John Badham, was born in Luton, it’s based on an article for New York Magazine by British rock writer Nik Cohn (who has subsequently admitted he knew next to nothing about the Brooklyn disco scene and based Tony Manero’s character on a West London Mod he knew) and the script was by Norman Wexler, a Harvard-educated eccentric said to have inspired comedian Andy Kaufman’s foul-mouthed lounge singer alter ego Tony Clifton. Oh, and the producer was Australian music impresario Robert Stigwood, who once managed Cream. But despite those apparent contradictions and tensions – or because of them? – Saturday Night Fever remains a low-budget classic with a killer soundtrack.

Monday

To Die For, Talking Pictures TV, 9pm

After a string of Hollywood roles that failed to make the most of her talents, Nicole Kidman made the critics sit up and take notice with her terrific performance in director Gus Van Sant's dark, satirical comedy. She plays Suzanne Stone, who plans to escape her small town and become a famous TV presenter. A job as a weather girl on a local station seems like the first step to world domination, but when her husband (Matt Dillon) announces he wants them to start a family, it seems like her dreams are going to be put on hold. So, she sets about persuading her teenage lover (another rising star, Joaquin Phoenix) and his friends (Casey Affleck and Alison Folland) to murder him.

Tuesday

Spy, Film 4, 11.30pm

Suave secret agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law) completes some of the CIA's most dangerous missions thanks to the quick-thinking and hi-tech gadgetry of deskbound analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy). When Bradley and other agents are compromised, among them British bruiser Rick Ford (a very funny Jason Statham, gamely sending up his hard-man image), Susan puts herself forward for active duty to infiltrate the inner circle of arms-dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). Spy is a terrifically entertaining comedy caper and McCarthy throws herself into her role with gusto, mixing steeliness with lovability as she battles armed henchmen, speeds after a target on a scooter and tries to stop a bad guy from escaping in his helicopter.

Wednesday

Room, Film 4, 11.40pm

From the moment he was born, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has only known the four walls and skylight of the squalid single room he shares with his Ma (Brie Larson). The boy is blissfully unaware that Ma was abducted as a teenager by a man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who is holding them hostage. Despite her ordeal, Ma protects Jack from the sickening reality as best she can. After years of suffering, Ma concocts a daring plan to get Jack away from Old Nick and hopefully into the arms of her parents Robert (William H Macy) and Nancy (Joan Allen). Based on the book of the same name by Emma Donoghue, Room is a riveting drama that has us biting our nails down to the cuticle. Oscar-winner Larson is sensational as the kidnapped parent, but seven-year-old Tremblay is equally impressive.

Thursday

The Italian Job, ITV4, 9pm

One of the best-loved British films of all time, this action comedy focuses on a group of crooks as they attempt to pull off the ultimate gold bullion robbery in Turin with the help of a fleet of Mini Cooper cars. Michael Caine is superb as lovable anti-hero, Charlie Croker, Noel Coward is delightful as criminal kingpin Mr Bridger, and Benny Hill delivers a deliciously saucy performance as a lecherous professor. Quincy Jones’s soundtrack includes the anthemic Self Preservation Society and ranks among his finest works.

Friday

The Peanut Butter Falcon, BBC One, 10.35pm

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is 22 years old and has Down's Syndrome. He lives in residential care in North Carolina, where kindly nurse Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) keeps a close eye on him along with elderly residents, who don't share Zak's obsession with pro wrestler Salt Water Redbrick (Thomas Haden Church). Zak yearns to escape and to enrol in a wrestling school. With the help of elderly resident Carl (Bruce Dern), Zak slips out of his room and sneaks aboard a boat down by the docks. Fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) steals the craft and when he discovers the stowaway, he initially intends to leave Zak on the shore. However, a tender bond starts to form in this charming, well-acted adventure.

And one to stream …

First Cow, MUBI

Ewen Bremner and Toby Jones feature alongside stars John Magaro and Orion Lee in this latest film from Kelly Reichardt, which won the prestigious Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival and returns the American director to the world of Meek’s Cutoff, her acclaimed feminist western of 2010.

It’s based on the debut novel by Reichardt’s long-time writing partner Jonathan Raymond and once again we’re in the lawless frontier-land of Oregon at the start of the 19th century. This time, however, it’s not a lack of water driving the story but a lack of milk – the title refers to an exotic French cow, the first to be imported into the territory, and one whose teats Cookie (Magaro) and his friend King-Lu (Lee), pictured below, make liberal use of on their way to amassing a small fortune selling deep-fried buttermilk biscuits to sweet-toothed trappers hungry for a change from beaver stew.

“I taste London in this,” says the Chief Factor (Jones), a topper-wearing Englishman who runs the trading post, as he samples the goods. Little does he know it’s his cow which is providing the chief ingredient, stolen by Cookie in the dead of night as King-Lu keeps watch from a treetop. When the penny finally drops, the Chief Factor and his chief factotum Lloyd (Bremner) set out for revenge which, this being the lawless frontier-land of Oregon at the start of the 19th century, doesn’t involve calling the police but does involve setting out into the woods with a cutlass and a couple of muskets. The film opens with a woman in modern-day Oregon finding a pair of skeletons in a shallow grave. Whose are they? We find out eventually, by which point Reichardt’s film has un-spooled over a stately two hours in a series of mannered vignettes you’ll either find stylish and engrossing or drab and yawn-inducing. Note to fans of cult 1990s band Pavement: vocalist Stephen Malkmus appears as a wandering fiddler.

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