I walked out on Inaaritu's 21 Grams.
However, as much as disdain independent film sometimes, I do give independent filmmakers a chance. Not all of them are boring. It's just most of them are. And besides, Babel tells a story of a topic which interests me in a manner which has interested me since watching Syriana.
And, my, I in fact felt the same thing I felt after watching Syriana as I did at the end of this film. In a simplistic sense, if Syriana was about oil, Babel is about languages and misunderstandings ... and this is the really smart part, on the surface, it's not about either.
One feeling I felt very strongly after watching this was a deep hatred for Americans - some of them anyway. Maybe some people will call this anti-Americanism - in this case they deserve it, the fucking assholes. Now, let my clarify the context - not all Americans are assholes, in fact some of the nicest people I've met are in the film school I'm in now. However, here we see a fat asshole continuously demanding to be allowed to go. Sure, he has a point, people are falling ill and fainting in the bus in the heat, I'm not denying that point. Thing is, why are they there in the first place, carrying their fucking ridiculous cameras and big fat asses around and accusing the natives around them of being potential terrorists coz they all look alike and they're all scary. They shouldn't be there ... they should be in Hawaii or something. Then the next argument point would be that, well, people are always accusing Americans of having narrow points of view, how else are they gonna learn if they don't visit other countries? Well, are these people visiting or not? They are carrying their habits along with them. I guess what I'm saying is, if you're not prepared, either physically or with an open enough mind ... don't go. Let Discovery Channel do the talking. I was really rooting for Brad Pitt to live up to his threat to kill that guy. Kudos to Inaaritu for a well written and executed scene.
Even I think the above rant might be slightly unfair ... especially considering the fat ass might actually be British ... I wasn't sure ...
Another example. Bureaucracy, post-9/11 world, immigration problems on the border ... these are the reasons they separate a loving, wonderful Mexican nanny from the kids she is taking care of? Of course, the incessant problems along the border forces the immigration police to become tighter and tighter ... but when it comes to emotions, all that really gets flung out of the window. One thing that might explain my bias is the fact that I had maids throughout my childhood and they became entrenched in my memory ... I used to be very emotionally attached to them, and I often get to feel what they feel, even though I don't necessary understand. Here, the most heartbreaking moment in the film for me is when the ass of an officer mercilessly throws out poor Amelia's plead. She pushes on, with dignity, with a threat to bring this case to court, at which point the officer throws out the rudest response any nation could offer (simply because it also happens to be very efficient) that all that would do is to prolong the whole process, that she should accept her fate anyway.
Yet another incident. A woman is shot and the husband is frantically trying to get help. Yet all the US government is concerned about is how to paint this as a terrorist event. In freaking Morocco. The interesting thing about this movie is that this time we don't see the US goverment directly at all. All we see is a woman bleeding half to death in a quiet little village. The only one to help her is a crinkly old woman and her very hospitable and sympathetic grandson.
Therein lies the brilliant part of Inaaritu's film. I suppose Americans will look at that and say that (I'm guessing, as one example), well, it is sad, but it must done. Some non-Americans will have reactions as adverse as mine. But not all either. Things aren't so simple.
Other than that, what I can say about the film is that the film is relentless. These sort of film never leaves me with a good feeling. All four subplots follow down very dark alleyways, and the lights in the distance seem to be ... just a mirage, it disappears very quickly. And soon one finds that one is in darkness. And one never escapes it. One only finds something that provides temporary relief in the end, for a while anyway. That's how I felt. I suppose that's what makes it a good film.
It is a very sad film. It exposes the worst and sometimes the best of us (though more worst than best). Someone helps and helps and helps and when money is finally pushed towards him he rejects wholeheartedly. Someone needed desperately to reach out that she does just everything possible ... humiliation and embarassment no longer comes into question. Someone tries to compromise in a situation and finds that her world falls apart because of that compromise. Someone gets jealous because the younger brother is better than him at everything. There are a lot of things we each can relate to, some more than others. It is like a platter dish - we select those emotions that are most dear to us, and realise that others have different combinations of emotions they take out of.
Also, I thought the portrayal of the world as experienced by a deaf-mute was pretty good. Honestly, it's something that has been done to death ... for some reason, I think it's done to death by film students. It's probably one of the easiest way to create something different for the audience to experience - just cut off sound. It's not as simple as that here. Well done.
Also, it goes without saying that all performers did consistently well. Seems to be a trend this year, whether ensemble films or not. (I'm thinking, The Queen, The Prestige, etc.)
Just one more thing. They seriously have got to stop taking music from other films ... I heard The Insider playing at the end of the film, composed by Lisa Gerrard (who co-composed Gladiator). And Gustavo Santaolalla is supposed to be an Oscar winner (he so didn't deserve that one last year). Anyways, it took me out of the film.
How Good I Think It Is: 9/10
How Much I Like It: 8/10
At What Point Did I First Look At My Watch: 90 mins
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Adriana Barraza), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay
I hope this wins Best Picture next year. Who gives a flying fuck about The Departed.
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This year's controversial film is actually not that controversial, by virtue of it being extremely well done technically. It is responsible, sophisticated, and intelligent in the sense that it never resorts to exploitation or sensationalism. For the very same reason, it is unfortunately uncompelling.
Look, it's not a bad thing. This sort of docudrama subgenre is something the British thought up, and to be frank, I like it. What filmmakers try to do in this subgenre is to make something fictional feel as real as possible, and usually it has some relevance in today's world. I remember watching The Day Britain Stopped, just flipped onto it by accident, and was hooked (incidentally it was directed by the same director, Gabriel Range). It actually took me some time to realise that it was fictional - when I saw that the dates were like 2006 or something - this was a couple of years back.
The American version is ... The Blair Witch Project. Crude and classless ... but it worked out well for the filmmakers of that I suppose.
Anyways, this sort of docudrama is very hard to do well. One needs to invent a very plausible and realistic series of incidents, one that people will believe and yet disbelieve ever so slightly (the sort of feeling you get when you hear of, say, the Bali bombing or that North Korea has tested nukes ...). And one needs to have a very clear idea on our very unclear and nebulous worldview. I mean, the world is not constant, nor is it certain, yet at any moment you can grab at it and it will be clear for as long as you want ... though any longer and you'd just be deluding yourself. (I'm channeling the Heisenberg Principle here.)
I think the docudrama works because it keeps emotions out of it - the filmmakers' emotions, that is. In the first place it doesn't actually seem like an anti-Bush movie. If Bush had been assassinated and a documentary made about him one of those would feature his aides and bodyguards and you can be sure those people will be enamoured by him. So the first half of the docudrama, which focuses on the events leading up to the assassination, is actually very sympathetic towards Bush. If Bush did get killed, he would probably be forgiven for some (stress some) of the things he did while alive ... you know, cut the poor sod some slack.
Critics were fairly conservative and restrained with their reviews, no downright condemnations or high-heaven praises. One critic said that he didn't like it coz they seem to just be throwing in lots of lame cliches - how they blamed a Muslim and who was unsurprisingly linked to al-Qaeda, how they try to play up the fact that he's Syrian in order to facilitate a potential line of reasoning to go to war with Syria, etc.
Hullo, idiot, isn't that the point? Look at the events that have happened to us since 9/11. Has anything surprised us? After 9/11 we learnt to pay a lot of attention at the media, and I don't mean just watching it but thinking about it the structure of things. We also came up with theories, all of us, subconsciously, about how people will react to the news. And by and large nothing has surprised us. The US will do such and such. In the context of the film, they blamed a Muslim, try to link it to terrorism, a more likely suspect gets buried in the pages, trial is conclusive but public consensus is not (think about Kennedy, same thing), and the US government introduces Patriot Act III. Will all that be surprising? No. It is almost certainly bound to happen that way. And if it happens to be boring because the filmmaker wants to make something serious and believable rather than exploitative - I blame the critic for wanting to see something more dramatic.
Look, this isn't Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow.
I'd like to see an American filmmaker attempt something as sophisticated as this.
What I mean by it being plausible and realistic is the fact that it portrayed the way people view the assassination very well. The thing is, after assassinations, just using the Kennedy one as an example, things are never certain, but in the rush to find a scapegoat or theory or whatever, people (Americans in particular, with their genetic predisposition in conspiracy theories) tend to claim something for certain. Even though it is not, really. In the docudrama, the poor Syrian fellow is sentenced even though publicly everyone kinda (but not quite) knows that he's innocent, whereas the more likely (but not quite) suspect some people think it's him, no question about it. The thing that I'm stressing here is the but not quite bit. That's what you need to get right if you want to do a good docudrama.
I mean, did Lee Harvey Oswald really kill Kennedy? Who were the masterminds? Is it as far-fetched as Oliver Stone suggests in JFK? It's entirely possible. But in all cases, the answer has to be qualified with the phrase 'not certain'.
But, as I said, precisely because it achieved all of that so well, and responsibly (no one's gonna believe that it's that easy to achieve what the sniper apparently achieved in the docudrama, as shown in the CCTV footage it believes is showing the sniper ... but we're not sure) - the film isn't knuckle-white compelling. Perhaps that is the most ultimate expression of a good docudrama.
Another thing - the footages with Bush and all were really realistic. I wasn't sure if they were ALL pulled from existing footages (except for the very short shot where he got shot, that I know was digitally altered). Also, the crowd scenes were unbelievably real ... it really looked like thousands of people protesting against Bush, and it did seem like it turned really ugly. Whatever else Range did right, this is the most significant: that not once did he let it down to their audience that what is happening in front of our eyes is faked.
How Good I Think It Is: 8.5/10
How Much I Like It: 7.5/10
At What Point Did I First Look At My Watch: 30 mins
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Anyway, The Queen is a brilliant movie. I couldn't decide how much of what they portray are true - the reflex action these days when doing a historical pic is to try and research as much as possible about the times and the characters and the settings. To display every emotional tic or idiosyncracy, however known, however subtle, is considered extra points towards making the film a quality film. Oh look, John Nash does those things with his hands, I shall follow it, so says Russell Crowe. Something like that ... which I'm inclined to think is true.
But the sight of the queen driving a four wheel drive, alone, in the middle of hilly, rural Scotland, seemed a bit far-fetched to me - the real queen was much more plump than Helen Mirren.
That, though, isn't the most important thing about the film. I saw it with a bunch of Americans, and truth be told I'd rather have watched it with the British. The Americans laughed at the 'jokes' alright (jokes being any number of scenes which displays how differently the queen and the royal family acts and behaves from the standard norm of human behaviour). As I see it, the Americans see the film as taking pot shots at the queen. Yeah, make fun of her.
Of course the film doesn't believe in that, and I doubt most of the more intelligent audience would believe that either by the end of the film, no matter what their level of experience with British society is. The film in fact speaks to today's British politics. I feel compelled to say that the whole film comes down to this one line that the queen delivers to Tony Blair, that one day the public will turn against him, swiftly and unexpectedly, before he even suspects it.
I think the film is about relationships, how they were redefined following the death of Princess Di - the relationship between the queen and Tony Blair of course, the queen and the public, Tony Blair and his ministers and aides, the queen and the rest of the royal family, and so on. It wasn't something disastrous - it just seems so. On the surface it's about the queen realising that the public has gone ahead and she was left behind ... that she has become old-fashioned, and the she must change because of the mandate given to her by God, not despite of it - for she serves the people. And therein you see a queen who exudes character - for once we are portraying royals as people who can think, who try their best ... that the whole posh accent and mannerisms and pampered lifestyle may be what separates them from us mere mortals, but their decisions are just as human as ours. If only we make an effort to understand. This is why Tony Blair lashed out at his aides towards the end of the film.
The film did a good job at putting us in the queen's shoes. We feel her pain as she reads the cards on the flowers denouncing the royals while praising to high heaven a woman few of them knew. Prince Philip in the film put it best, that the Diana they knew and the Diana the public held in regard were two completely different people. The film taught me to hate the British public for their stupidity and imbecility in embracing Princess Diana as their own - and condemning those who are still alive for not mourning. Why this one person? Everyone keeps saying she has touched everyone's lives - has she? How? Are you sure? The film conveyed the queen's point of view so well it really deserves Best Screenplay honours.
I also noticed something in the editing - they tend to cut off the scenes in mid-sentence or mid-scene. I realised that they get to the very point they want the audience to think about, and they cut off there, because the audience would've already know what the person is saying without finishing that sentence, or what that person would do without finishing the scene. I thought it was interesting that - to just get to the point and cut right through it, no proper finishes, just abrupt transitions.
The acting is great. Helen Mirren is charming as always, and yes, you never once think of her as Helen Mirren, which is the highest compliment an actor can receive (strange to think that to achieve the best they have to lose themselves). Michael Sheen is an actor that I'm fond of, very versatile, from erratic rock star (Laws Of Attraction) to sleazy scumbag (Kingdom Of Heaven) to now playing Tony Blair. Helen McCrory - I'll never forget her performance as the doomed messenger in Charlotte Gray. Here she has more fun playing the crude and opinionated Cherie Blair.
And, gosh, isn't it fun to see Tony Blair wearing his football (that's soccer for you Yanks) jersey and cleaning dishes to escape his wife?
It's a brilliant film, partly because what it does isnt expected. If you think it's about re-enacting the crisis following Princess Di's death, then you only gleamed the surface of it. At the same time, it's a very fun film to watch - the opening sees the queen turning her head and staring right at the audience, cheesy, but nowhere else will that shot work so well.
I actually had tears in my eyes. Not because I was emotional, just joy at finally being able to watch a good film in a long time.
Well done Stephen Frears and gang.
How Good I Think It Is: 9/10
How Much I Like It: 9/10
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design
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I never saw Todd Fields' In The Bedroom ... though I loved the score by Thomas Newman.
This film is probably a great film, most critics say so. I, however, find it difficult to understand the point of the film - apparently critics do. I will say that it seems rather well directed. The actors are all good (certainly Kate Winslet can do no wrong). I say well directed because each scene seems to have a point to it and the camera and everything else reflects that ... even though I don't know what the point is.
The thing is though, the first half was really compelling to me, and then I got tired of it a little as it went on. The story seems to branch out into subplots that seemingly have little to do with the story of the housewife deep in ennui who seems annoyed by the presence of her daughter (which reminds me of Julianne Moore in The Hours) and her affair with the househusband searching for lost innocence. I said seemingly, because the critics saw the whole thing as one.
And why is it compelling? It's because it achieves admirably, when it feels like it wants to, that borderline between drama and comedy, where you laugh or giggle because the scenes are uncomfortable or absurd in ways that would have been scary if it were real. The 'funniest' part probably is the scene where the town pervert makes an excursion to the town pool and starts swimming around until one by one the parents noticed and frantically pulled their children out, radiating in all directions, leaving the poor sod alone in the pool being stared at. The whole episode hints at Jaws. And ah yes, the narrator's lines, mostly in simple vocabulary and grammatical structure, does create some subtle humour as well.
And then the film moves towards terrifying tension in its third act.
I'm never gonna be able to direct this sort of film, nor watch it and enjoy it.
Unfortunately I don't think I can decide objectively which elements deserve Oscars, but I wouldn't be surprised if it gets nominations the director, actress in a leading role, actor in a supporting role, screenplay, and possibly even best picture. We'll see.
How Good The Film Is: 8/10
How Much I Like It: 6/10
At What Point Did I First Look At My Watch: 40 mins
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From Kevin McDonald, the director of Touching The Void.
The most obvious thing to me is the music, composed by Alex Heffes. I'm surprised by how far he has gone. The music here is loud, overbearing, rambunctious. Kinda like the personality of Idi Amin. The overbearing score is helped by overbearing sound mixing. The mess of sound effects really brings the characters' state of mind to the audience - this is how to do 'I can't hear myself think' scenes in films.
The camera moves - yeah it's handheld alright. But for reasons I don't understand yet: the camera often does this stroke when it films Idi Amin - it films his face, then moves downwards to his stomach and his hand gestures, then back to his face. Also, from time to time the transitions are made by random cuts to macro shots of insects. I also don't understand the significance of that. But overall the whole thing works, with a sense of style that isn't annoying or pretentious.
Intense. So much so that sometimes my heart feels heavy watching it.
And oh yeah, it seems that Gillian Anderson is fully Anglicised now. Good for her. For a brief moment when she first appeared, I thought, wow, she's gone quite a ways from Agent Scully.
How Good I Think It Is: 8/10
How Much I Like It: 7/10
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing
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I don't care for what the Coppola family does. No, not even Nicolas Cage. I'm not saying they're bad, just that I don't really care.
Lost In Translation was overhyped. Or at least, I don't see the point.
Now, Marie Antoinette is almost a good film. Instead it became, well, failed. And what caused this huge drop from good to failure? Coppola's choice of music for the score.
Me a Luddite? Hardly. The characters in the film almost all played by Americans, all speak in American accents (perhaps that's why it was booed in Cannes?). That was fine, it didn't take too long to get used to it. The music, however, is another matter entirely - the pop music used creates a total divorce between the image and the sound, and as a viewer I could either listen to the music (most of which is not bad) or watch the image (mostly sumptuous).
And it is a pity because everything else is so good. The story is well told, and it reveals a Marie Antoinette that is a little bit more complex than portrayed before this. Complex doesn't mean that the little cow is a cunning little bitch or anything like that, just that she isn't a stupid girl as past movies like to portray her (to keep her one-dimensional so she doesn't distract from other subplots, say), instead she is just a little girl trapped in the wrong place trying her best to do what is expected of her ... aside from the parties and country house excursions she enjoys.
The actors were great too. Kirsten Dunst gets it just right, while Jason Schwartzman actually doesn't look like Jason Schwartzman, but perfectly captures the Louis XVI that we know so well. The rest of the cast were adequate. The pacing is for the most part right - though I did look at the watch a few times. The costumes were sumptuous, and the sets wonderful. They're real.
Fact is, it could have been touching - the ending of the movie hints at tragedy. But it only hints. The one jarring element is the music - if Coppola had been more conventional with that, the movie would have played wonderfully and I would have been deeply impressed.
Bad move, Sofia.
How Good I Think It Is: 7/10
How Much I Like It: 7/10
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Costume Design
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The thing about Chris Nolan is that people really like to hype up his films. His fans, that is. It's not hyped up to LOTR proportions, of course, but more like, clamouring for attention, calling every one of his movies a masterpiece, a serious filmmaker for a serious, sophisticated audience, that sort of thing.
Well, Batman Begins wasn't THAT good. It was a good film, but not really memorable. Memento went quite high on the IMDb Top 250 and stayed there - but I honestly didn't care that much about the film. His first film, Following, was kind of boring - but I won't hold that against him. It's a calling card film, it announces his style (non-chronological editing) and it makes an important point which many young start-out filmmakers should pay heed to: a movie needs to be just the right length, and no longer.
The Prestige is a good film, though.
At first I didn't really want to watch it. As I said, I felt the attention being paid to it (again, not something loud, but it's like static, you can just about hear it and you can't ignore it) is purely because it was a Nolan film. In fact, I have planned to watch The Last King of Scotland, which stars one of my favourite young uprising actors. But when I arrived at Arclight, The Prestige was the immediate next film to see and I didn't feel like waiting, so I thought, what the heck.
In fact, this is a good place to be. I tend to be able to enjoy films more when I have very neutral expectations of the film, as in I don't know what to think of it really, which can happen if I deliberately avoid reviews and news and whatnots about the film, or if a good film suddenly appears without much prior hype marketing.
And so I did. This is really, the first time I saw a Nolan film and thought, okay, the non-chronological editing worked. This type of editing, at least according to my mind, works because rather than following the story plot thread, it follows something else. It's like playing a little game with the audience on top of telling them a story - you give them something now which will be fleshed out or demystified later, or you withhold something and then give it to them immediately. It forces the audience to pay attention to the film. It can also be confusing and off-putting for some audiences. But I'm a sophisticated, intelligent, poised- (Yeah, whatever.)
Anyways, I've never heard of the editor Lee Smith before but I think Nolan found a good editing partner in him because the editing didn't annoy me at all, rather the story just flowed, the transitions well moulded. Can't say the same about Batman Begins.
Oh, and also, I always wondered how it would work if handheld camera were to be utilised on period films. It works.
Ultimately though, I don't understand the film. It will become clear to the audience by the end of the film that this is one of those that one just has to watch more than once, but then I tend to be slow in understanding the underlying meanings of films.
You see, there is an oft quoted monologue by Michael Caine in the film, starting with the "there are three acts to a trick" thing and then talking about how the audience doesn't see because they aren't really looking, and besides, the audience doesn't really want to know the secret to the trick, they just want to be fooled. Nolan mentioned in an interview somewhere that the film is based on that mantra, the whole way it was structured and all and I was looking out for that, but in the end I guess I missed the point.
The only thing I observed is a subtle device of pairing (not symmetry). A wife is hanged, so is her husband. One of the magicians is seen to be shot, so was his clone. He also harbors another type of clone, and so does the other magician. One pair of clones lose their fingers. Two men lose their wives. Two men get frustrated over each other's achievements. The same man killed two different people in the same manner. Two men are obsessed.
The film is about obssession after all - most critics will happily tell you, as if no other critic mentioned it, which makes them feel like really observant critics, that all Nolan's film has this theme to it.
The bottom line is that it is an intelligent film (because I don't understand it) and it is certainly intriguing, kept me focussed on the story, was engaging.
How Good I Think The Film Is: 8.5/10
How Much I Like The Film: 7/10
Oscar Noms That It Deserves: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Makeup
PS - I didn't even recognise Piper Perabo in the film.
PPS - Suddenly, the significance of Christian Bale inside bars throwing the red ball towards the Fallon fellow hit me.
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Miles upon miles of building blocks, cut so neatly by criss-crossing horizontal boulevards and vertical avenues and streets. It occured to me that this makes it very easy to tell N-S-E-W with a sufficient amount of accuracy without ever consulting a compass - provided you know the boulevards and streets well ... though the mountains on the north side do help. I also noticed - actually I observed it long time ago, thanks to my many visits to Google Earth prior to this trip - how short the buildings were. Except for little pockets such as downtown LA, the rest of the landscape is flat and so are the rooftops.
Only one reason for that, I thought. Seismological disturbances.
These were my first thoughts. Next thing I saw, very briefly, were the words HOLLYWOOD hanging on a corner of the hills - before the plane's wings completely obscured it from my view.
After landing at LAX, I got through immigration and customs easily, much more easily and quickly than I had experienced at Heathrow. Didn't even bother to check through my things. Didn't even ask many questions.
Except for one part. They refused to give me sufficient days in the US to finish my course, just because the basic rules of my visa states that I'm only allowed one year and I had arrived ten days earlier to settle down for a one year course that lasts exactly one year. I tried to explain to them that I am entitled- The officer was confused about what I was saying - maybe he couldn't understand what I was saying? I tried to show them the letter that- The officer cuts in, "Hey, buddy, listen here. You listen here! The key word ... the key here is: one year. One year, that's all you get. That's all you're ever gonna get."
I didn't know what to say to that. My instincts are to just leave and to go to get my bags. I left.
I hesitated about whether I should insist. I continue to hesitate after I got my bags - which arrived barely a minute after I reached the carousel - and at the same time felt angrier and angrier.
Damn Americans. Damn their presumptuousness.
As I waited for my host, an uncle's good friend, to pick me up from the arrivals lounge I kept pondering on what I could have done. I realised then that I could have insisted. This is how things are done - this isn't what I'm used to. In Britain, you do not jump straight into tough-talking stance. You start off with gentle bargaining, then slowly raise the tone as the customer proves himself to be dumber and dumber. That would have been justified. It's as if the Americans saw that and thought, I'm not wasting my time, I'll just go straight to the last line. It works. But it doesn't reduce my tendency to relate to Americans through foreign perceptions of American stereotypes by one bit - if anything the opposite.
At the same time, while calming down, another stream of emotional thought started occupying space in my mind.
Did I make the wrong decision?
I began to think about the fact that, truly, this is the first time I'm responsible. I mean, UK wasn't too difficult. People were generally nice, and life wasn't too complicated. It was easy sailing. My impression of America thus far was more like traversing through the Arctic ice. And shucks, this was the first time I made a seriously expensive decisions. What if I screwed it all up? Apartments, phone bills, taxes, do I need SSN, school, dealing with my fellow students, studying American style, LA's transport system, money, getting mugged, getting conned, getting ripped off, disappointing people back home ...
It took much effort to convince the mind to lay it off.
I haven't started living here.
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