The ChickFlickGuide Blog

The blog from Sam Cook, author of The Rough Guide to Chick Flicks

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Name: Samantha Cook
Location: London, United Kingdom

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Nun so brave: the strange world of the movie nun

Everyone loves a movie nun. And even if countless films, from Ken Russell’s histrionic The Devils (1971) to the lame comedy Nuns On The Run (1990), play on the skewed notion that those heavy habits are simply a cover up for lacy scanties and innate nymphomania, the best nun films are chick flicks par excellence.

It would take a pretty special man to beat Jesus in a Sister’s affection, and movie nuns have faced temptation beyond belief – Elvis Presley, Robert Mitchum, Peter Finch to name but three – leading to some seriously gripping moral grapplings. On the other hand, while romance in nun movies is invariably bubbling under the surface, a Bride of Christ is, unlike many female protagonists, actually able to form deep relationships with men based on more than just sex. Freed from the world’s demand to display their bodies, free of make-up and ornament, nuns can be independent and heroic.

In the closed orders, nuns get to be in a secret, very important club, free from bother from men; if working in the community, on the other hand, they can have worldly adventures unconstrained by the ties of marriage or child-rearing. And as jobs go, you can’t get much better than being God’s representative on Earth.

At the same time, wimples do frame the face rather exquisitely . . . (Movie nuns tend to be very striking, and invariably have soulful eyes).

Here's a selective list of the best nun movies available for rent.

Black Narcissus
dir Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946, UK, 100m
Genius directors Powell and Pressburger created a vivid, dreamlike and captivating movie, based on the novel by Rumer Godden, that uses a remote Himalayan convent as the setting for all sorts of derring do. With a dashing Brit hero gone native (David Farrar, wearing very short shorts), a blacked up Jean Seymour pouting and gyrating as a mute "beggar maid", and a feral, wild-eyed Kathleen Byron as the nun driven mad, this is highly charged – and exquisitely beautiful – stuff. Poor old Deborah Kerr, as the conflicted Sister Clodagh, struggles to keep things in order.

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison
dir John Huston, 1957, US, 105m
A bittersweet two-hander set during World War II, in which a nun (Deborah Kerr, again) and a marine (Robert Mitchum) form a decorous, mutually respectful friendship while hiding out from the dastardly Japanese on a remote desert island. Delicate, nuanced performances, fine direction from Huston, and a lump-in-the-throat finale – simply lovely.

The Nun’s Story
dir Fred Zinnemann, 1959, US, 149m
An uncharacteristically dressed down Audrey Hepburn – open face and expressive eyes framed beautifully by her wimple – shows her range with this mature performance as Sister Luke, a Belgian nun struggling valiantly with her faith. Peter Finch offers brusque potential love interest. (Hepburn took to the habit once more in 1976 with the bittersweet Robin And Marian, another great nun's tale, in which she and Sean Connery come to terms with the inevitable poignancy of ageing.)

Change Of Habit
dir William A. Graham, 1969, US, 93m
Elvis’s last film is a very watchable curiosity, trotting out Black Power, rage reduction therapy and rape among other gritty social issues. Elvis is the plain-speaking doctor in a tough area of New York, Mary Tyler Moore one of three nuns who come to work with him. Spreading the word of the Lord on these mean streets entails shedding their habits and donning fetching mini-dresses, thus awakening all sorts of impulses. Groovy.

Dark Habits (Entre Tinieblas)
dir Pedro Almodóvar, 1983, Sp, 116m
Typically crazy early Almodóvar, in which a junkie (Cristina Pascual) takes refuge in the Convent of Humble Redeemers. The sisters here – including Sister Rat (Chus Lampreave) and Sister Sin (Carmen Maura) – are certainly doing it for themselves in this utterly blasphemous romp.

Agnes Of God
dir Norman Jewison, 1985, US, 98m
Meg Tilly is Agnes, the young nun who, after being discovered in her cell with a murdered newborn baby, undergoes a series of intense investigations by tough-talking psychologist Jane Fonda. Somewhat portentous, but the performances, including Anne Bancroft as the Mother Superior with something to hide, keep it afloat.

The Song Of Bernadette
dir Henry King, 1943, US, 156m, b/w
Jennifer Jones spends the full two and a half hours either smiling beatifically or weeping nobly in this laborious, but hugely popular, account of the miracle of Lourdes. Romantic temptation is tossed aside in order to hammer the point home about Bernadette’s purity of spirit and her seemingly endless suffering.

I, The Worst Of All (Yo, la peor de todas)
dir María Luisa Bemberg, 1990, Arg, 105m
This true story of seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz makes an intense and harrowing movie. Entering the convent so she can study and write, Juana (Assumpta Serna) is the idealistic young woman who becomes embroiled in increasingly distressing politicking and betrayals.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sweet nothings: a quiz

It’s that time of year again … all the local restaurants are booked solid for next Wednesday night and the multiplexes are groaning with a veritable feast of rom-coms and weepies to sigh and sob over.

So, to join in the Valentine’s Day frenzy, here’s a quick quiz. Everyone has a favourite romantic chick flick quote. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan and Rosie O'Donnell snuffle into their tissues together over the closing dialogue in the 1950s classic An Affair to Remember. Others can’t hear the word “ditto” without welling up. Some of the much-loved quotes below are poetry, while some, despite their power on screen, seem downright corny on the page. See how many you recognize. A clue: nearly all are taken from their film’s closing moments (often accompanied by a grand swell of iconic music), when the hard-fought battle for love is either lost forever or at long last won. The answers come at the bottom.

1/ “I can’t let him go. I can’t! There must be some way to bring him back. Oh, I can’t think about this now! I’ll go crazy if I do! I’ll think about it tomorrow. But I must think about it. I must think about it. What is there to do? What is there that matters? … Tara! … Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!”

2/ “ButI’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now,now… Here’s looking at you kid.”

3/“This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this any more, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was ... No, no! I don’t want that time to come, ever! I want to remember every minute,always, always to the end of my days!”

4/“OK, life’s a fact. People do fall in love, people do belong to each other – because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.”

5/ “I’m not letting you get rid of me … I love you. You complete me.”

“Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at hello.”

6/“I might be the only person on the face of the earth who knows you’re the greatest woman on earth. I might be the only one who appreciates how amazing you are in every single thing that you do, and how you are with Spencer – Spence – and in every single thought that you have, and in how you say what you mean and how you almost always mean something that’s all about being straight and good – I think most people miss that about you. And I watch them, wondering how they can watch you bring their food and clear their tables and never get that they just met the greatest woman alive. And the fact that I get it makes me feel good. About me. Is that something that’s bad for you to be around, for you?”

7/ “I want to tell you with my last breath … I have always loved you. I would rather be a ghost, drifting by your side as a condemned soul, than enter heaven without you. Because of your love … I will never be a lonely spirit.”

1/Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) in Gone With The Wind (1939), just after Rhett (Clark Gable) has stormed out, curling his lip with the immortal words “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

2/Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) saying goodbye at the airport in Casablanca (1942).

3/ Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) trying to forget in Brief Encounter (1945).

4/ A raindrenched Paul (George Peppard) to Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961).

5/ Jerry (Tom Cruise) and Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in Jerry Maguire (1996).

6/Melvin (Jack Nicholson) paying Carol (Helen Hunt) what he calls "a compliment" in As Good As It Gets (1997).

7/Li (Chow Yun-Fat) to Yu (Michelle Yeoh) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Be My Baby: Dirty Dancing hits twenty

Hard to believe that Dirty Dancing is twenty years old. Following the highly successful stage show, which opened in London last winter, this classic dance movie has been re-released in time for Valentine's Day, sparring with another re-release,Casablanca, for the title of "Most romantic movie ever."

Though I’m beside myself at the prospect of seeing Baby and Swayze dryhumping on the big screen once more, I’m not sure that Dirty Dancing should be dressed up as a date movie for Valentine’s Day. Date movies – if we’re talking about heterosexual dates,that is – are, by their very nature, dependent on fifty percent of their audience being composed of heterosexual men. And if one criteria of a chick flick were to be the resistance of heterosexual male audiences to come withina mile of them, then Dirty Dancing would surely be the chickiest flick ofthem all. Has anyone ever met a chap who will admit to liking it?

Even the most macho of men can find it in themselves to confess a grudging soft spot for certain two-hankie weepies – the odd Bette Davis movie, say, or Terms of Endearment, or Bridges of Madison County – but will become grim-faced at the prospect of Dirty Dancing. Not only is it an unabashed teen girl fantasy, but also it spends a lot of time lingering on Patrick Swayze's unfeasibly toned pecs. Far too much for the average Joe to bear, this one is definitely best enjoyed on a girls' night in.

Personally,I missed Dirty Dancing the first time round. I was turned off by the corny 1980s-lite theme tune, and, in my last year at university, believed myself to be too mature, and too cool,for mainstream dance movies. Then I caught it on TV a few years ago, and was hooked, from the moment the opening credits – the Ronettes’ Be My Baby booming over some steamy slow-motion gyrating – began. Now, to make up for my youthful ignorance, I've paid homage by putting Dirty Dancing in my Top Fifty in
Rough Guide to Chick Flicks, and to celebrate its anniversary I’m reprinting it here.

dir Emile Ardolino, 1987, US, 100m
cast Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes, Jack Weston, Jane Bruckner
cin Jeff Jur
m John Morris

Although the massive sleeper hit Dirty Dancing has become something of a joke – “No one puts Baby in the corner!” – it is a fond joke, and the movie holds such a treasured place in so many women’s hearts that it has earned itself the proud status of not only blockbuster, but also cult classic.

It’s the summerof 1963, and, just as they have done for years, a host of middle-class Jewish families are descending on a Catskills holiday camp. Jennifer Grey plays Baby,a 17-year-old Plain Jane who adores her daddy, gets good grades and dreams only of joining the Peace Corps. That is until she meets Johnny (Patrick Swayze),the camp’s bad-boy dance teacher, and, under his close instruction, learns a few of his moves. Clad in a tight T-shirt, Cuban heels and shades, and with the acting ability of a plank, Swayze could be faintly ridiculous were it not for his graceful, dynamic and yes, dirty, dancing. Snake-hipped and broad-shouldered,he has an undeniably commanding physical presence, and after ninety minutes lingering upon his rippling torso you really do start to understand what Baby sees in him.

However, when she first catches sight of him, grinding with his glamorous partner on the dance floor, Baby is as excited by their abandon as she is by Johnny himself. Although they have to put a lid on their natural instincts when entertaining the holidaymakers, the wrong-side-of-the-tracks entertainment staff really let rip back at the staff quarters (which, although they are out of bounds,Baby manages to wander around freely), black and white bumping and grinding in ways that this particular nice Jewish girl has barely dreamed of. Before she knows it,the truculent Johnny has defiantly swept her onto the dancefloor and, though clumsy at first, she soon warms up, finishing the number knock-kneed and triumphant. Within moments, it seems, she finds herself with just a few daysto rehearse in order to take the place of Johnny’s partner at an important show.

If Swayze knows how to dance, Emile Ardolino,who died in 1993,certainly knew how to direct dance scenes. Even Baby and Johnny’s “dancingon a log” sequence (after which, prancing around in a lake,they practise a particularly tricky balancing-above-the-head move), daft asit is, works. Each dance cranks up the sexual tension to such a pitch that when they do eventually sleep together the release is palpable. The music,too, is exceptional. While the movie’s Oscar-winning theme song – “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” – has long since passed its sell-by date, the rest of the soundtrack is extremely classy,studded with steamy soul numbers from the likes of Otis Redding and Solomon Burke.

Transformed from goody two-shoes into hotpants-clad sex kitten, Baby is a great heroine. Fearless and unashamed, off the dancefloor she is in control – partly through her money and class, but also through sheer feistiness. Because of her, Johnny can finally find the courage to demand the creative control he longs for, and can even stop acting as a gigolo for the older female guests. But can their forbidden love ever be?

The finale, when Johnny, who has previously walked out, storms back into the camp during its last night show, hisses the immortal line, “No one puts Baby in thecorner!”,and whisks her onto the stage, is as corny as you like. The metaphor for a nation on the brink of change, about to be blown apart by the youth revolution and civil rights movement, may be heavy-handed, but as a joyously sexy coming of age story Dirty Dancing can’t be beat.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Feeling hungry ... foodie chick flicks

Food is a powerful force. And nowhere more so than in the movies, where the preparation and eating of a meal can unleash anything from desperate yearning through erotic ecstasy to horrified revulsion. Movies show food as romantic, nurturing, and sometimes even threatening; gathered around the dinner table, or bustling around the kitchen, characters bond, reveal secrets, change and grow.

Many movies celebrate the particular relationship between women and food. Preparing a feast can give a female character a welcome form of personal expression – and sometimes even magical powers – and the meals that she cooks will invariably be far more than simply something to eat. Food is a life force, and making a glorious meal is a metaphor for living life to the full. Foodie chick flicks also tend to equate food with female sensuality and subversive power, while movie men who can cook generally turn out to be the good guys. (There are exceptions, naturally; Hannibal Lecter, with his fried liver and glass of Chablis, comes to mind.)

Below, I’ve chosen a handful of the most tempting foodie chick flicks ever made, perfect for long winter nights. So curl up on the sofa, grab a little bit of whatever you fancy to munch on, and let a foodie movie feed your soul.

Babette’s Feast, 1987
This Danish classic is a wonderfully celebratory treat, following the transformative powers of a sumptuous banquet cooked by Babette, a French woman, on the household of two withdrawn and duty-bound sisters. From a short story by Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym adopted by Karen Blixen), who also wrote Out of Africa.

Like Water For Chocolate, 1991
Based on the bestselling magical realism novel by Laura Esquivel, this delightful film is suffused with Mexican culture; a culture in which the struggle between duty, tradition, family and passion looms large. A twenty-year-long domestic saga – taking in revolution, long-held secrets, erotic obsession, curses and ghosts – it features a rich array of beautifully drawn female characters, with the intensely emotional power of food, and the magic that can occur in the kitchen, always to the fore.

Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994
Before Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee came up with this gentle family drama about a Taiwanese master chef and his three unmarried daughters, who play out their latest dramas and crises over the weekly ritual of an elaborate Sunday meal.

Soul Food, 1997
This time the family is African American, and the chef is the formidable matriarch Mama Joe, who has cooked a soul food feast for her family every Sunday for forty years. When she’s hospitalized with diabetes, the family seems set to fall apart – until Joe’s grandson hatches a cunning plot.

Chocolat, 2000
Though fans of Joanne Harris’ book may be disappointed to find that the movie diverges from the novel, this is another feat of glorious magical realism, with Juliette Binoche appealing as the mysterious young mother who turns a repressed French town upside-down with her sensuous chocolates. Visually, it’s gorgeous – Binoche’s outfits are as stunning as the confections she prepares, and Johnny Depp makes a welcome appearance as the wildly romantic gypsy, Roux.

What’s Cooking?, 2000
Director Gurinder Chadha (who also brought us Bend It Like Beckham) transports her knack for domestic drama to LA with this deft saga of secrets, lies and family feuds played out around the kitchen and the dining room tables. The strong female cast – including ER’s Julianna Margulies as a feisty lesbian daughter and the always-watchable Alfre Woodard as the career woman battling her traditional mother-in-law – is superb.

Pieces Of April, 2003
Katie Holmes, in between playing the too good-to-be-true Joey in TV teen soap Dawson’s Creek and hooking up with Tom Cruise, puts in a fantastic performance in this sharp, poignant indie comedy. She shines as stroppy punk April, who invites her estranged family – including her difficult, dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) – to Thanksgiving dinner in her grimy New York apartment, and faces an increasingly frantic race against time when her oven packs in.

Marie Antoinette, 2006
For anyone who appreciates the sheer aesthetic beauty of Ladurée macaroons, exquisite fruit tarts, and sumptuous cream cakes, Sofia Coppola’s stylish, ultra-feminine movie provides a heavenly, candy-coated all-you-can eat fantasy.

NB This article was written originally for the newsletter of Beyond Chocolate, a series of inspiring workshops that offer a few simple principles to support women to form a healthy relationship both with food and their own bodies.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Page Turner: French chicks get nasty

Not a page turner as such, this delicately slow and quietly nasty fable of jealousy and obsession has a certain French frostiness, with a touch of knowing sub-Hitchcock camp, and is entirely based on the premise that the female is deadler than the male. Lots to relish there, then.

The simple story of two women – one young, one older; one successful, the other whose ambitions have been thwarted; both yearning, in their way, for something that cannot be named – it's a film whose violence is deadly silent (except for one deliciously vicious and utterly warranted physical moment) and whose power depents entirely on the controlled, understated performances of its two female leads. For any woman who has been jealous, competitive, dependent, spiteful, it will ring a bell. Whether it's a chick flick – that is, whether it speaks more to women than men, by accident or design –is debatable.

It's nothing if not subtle. Perhaps too subtle. Give me Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – another classic of female jealousy and sado-masochism – any day.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Notting Hill: Just say no

I didn't waste space in my book writing about chick flick turkeys. It was far more gratifying to spend time on all the great movies out there. There's enough critical snobbery about the genre as it is, and I was more interested in celebrating than sneering.

I did permit myself just one short rant, however, on the subject of what I believe to be the most over-rated chick flick ever. Written more out of exasperation than anything else (I expected so much more from the people who gave us Four Weddings and Bridget Jones – and there are *four* Julia Roberts movies in my top fifty), this is what I said...

Five years after the phenomenal success of Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), Working Title came up with this cynical return to formula. Scripted by Richard Curtis, who knows a thing or two about people-pleasing, Notting Hill should, by rights, be far funnier, fresher and more romantic than it is. Hugh Grant, who proved in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and About A Boy (2002) – both of which also came from the Working Title stable – that he could do so much better, bumbles and bores as William, a book shop owner. The usually effervescent Julia Roberts, meanwhile, here all lank straightened hair and sulkily jutting jaw, gracelessly plays “the most famous film starin the world” as if she’s having a really, really bad day.

And as for her big line, the one that is supposedly set to get us all weeping – “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her” – words simply fail. Girl? Boy? The two of them have as much chemistry as a couple of dead fish.

Bella (Gina McKee), the token wheelchair-user – who is also infertile (the revelation of which is passed over and forgotten in seconds) – and Honey (Emma Chambers), Will’s “kooky” sister, are woefully underwritten, while Rhys Ifans provides unbelievably annoying support as Spike, Will’s supposedly hilarious friend. All in all, Notting Hill is a sad waste of talent, money and time.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The alternative chick flick playlist . . . .

Not much chick flick viewing this week. I’ve been on the road. Listening to a lot of music in the car. Which brings me neatly onto an ongoing project of mine: the alternative chick flicks playlist. Time to drag these classic tunes out of the closet and show the world that there’s more to chick flick soundtracks than “I've Had the Time of My Life”. This could grow and grow, and is in no particular order.

Any additions gratefully received!

“Do Your Thing” Basement Jaxx
Bend It Like Beckham
This movie's soundtrack is consistently fresh and original (including a couple of sneaky tracks from Victoria Beckham). I've chosen the impossibly infectious dance tune – with the immortal refrain “And a boom boom boom and a bang bang bang (boom, bang, boom, bang bang)” – from Brixton’s finest house music outfit.

“Moon River” Danny Williams
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Henry Mancini’s small, sweet and perfectly formed song won an Oscar – and though no one knows for sure what it is, a “huckleberry friend” sounds like a delightful thing to have. Inextricably linked with the image of Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, sitting on the windowsill in sweatshirt and jeans, looking vulnerable as she strums her guitar and plaintively sings into the night.

“All By Myself” Jamie O’Neal
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Who hasn’t bellowed along to this one, eyes screwed shut, in a frenzy of self-pity after a glass too many?

“Respect” Aretha Franklin
Bridget Jones’s Diary
And who hasn’t snapped out of it with a feisty rendition of this? (As also performed in Thelma & Louise, a version which comes a close second, for moody visuals and lump-in-the-throat context at the very least.) Aretha Franklin is the chick flick soundtrack queen.

“Just Blew In From The Windy City” Doris Day
Calamity Jane
While it was the film’s wistful “Secret Love” that won the Oscar, this rambunctious singalong has the wonderful Day giving it a little less yearning and rather more oomph – at her gutsy thigh-slapping best with every throaty “no, sir-eee!”.

“As Time Goes By” Dooley Wilson
“You must remember this…” – who could ever forget? Could this be the most romantic movie song ever?

“Kids In America” The Muffs
Kim Wilde’s lo-fi mid-1980s original (cue nostalgic memories of my copycat, home-shorn short-top long-back hairdo – am horrified to find myself wondering if it was in fact a mullet?) revisited a decade later by this Californian garage-punk outfit.

“These Arms Of Mine” Otis Redding
Dirty Dancing
Nobody in the world sings about love like the Love Man himself. Wrap yourself up in his magnificent voice and swoon. (This was the first dance at my wedding,so I have a particular soft spot.)

“You Don’t Own Me” The Blow Monkeys
Dirty Dancing
This campy version of Lesley Gore’s powerful pre-Girl Power proclamation – also immortalized by Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton and Bette Midler in The First Wives Club – sneaks onto this list as a shameless excuse to plug the 1960s original. Female defiance has never been sexier or more stylish.

“I Want Candy” Bow Wow Wow
Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola takes us deftly back to the New Romantic 80s with this pouting, posturing,joyful tirade – also featured in the splendid nostalgia-fest Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

“Unchained Melody” The Righteous Brothers
Grand Guignol meets blue-eyed soul. You may snigger at those potter’s wheel antics,but just try and hit that high note while choking back the lump in your throat.

“Angkor Wat Theme II” Michael Galasso
In The Mood For Love
A heartbreakingly delicate string arrangement that weeps with remorse and regret.

“I Say A Little Prayer” The cast
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Penned by Burt Bacharach, this is probably the best feelgood love song ever recorded.Root out Aretha Franklin’s definitive version, grab your favourite karaoke hairbrush, and let rip.

“The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan” Marianne Faithfull
Thelma & Louise
For any woman who, at the age of 37, realized she would never drive – to Paris – in a sports car – with the warm wind in her hay-ayr…
(Best wishes to the iconic Faithfull, who is currently being treated for breast cancer, and, it is said, is doing well.)

“Playground Love” Air
The Virgin Suicides
Chick flicks come over all woozy with help from the psychedelic Gallic electronica twosome. (Try saying that with a mouthful of chocolate raisins.)

“The Way We Were” Barbra Streisand
The Way We Were
Babs at her divaesque best with this bittersweet torch song to nostalgia and loss.

And finally ...

“I Will Always Love You” Whitney Houston
The Bodyguard
...Because every playlist has to feature a guilty pleasure. (I’m talking about the song here, not the film, throughout which I slept like a baby.)