Our religion, the way of life that is Islam, is not based on guess work, it is based on the words of God and the authentic teachings of His messenger Prophet Muhammad. Islam is the religion of informed knowledge, not blind faith…
I recently read a fantastic poem on the Muslimah blog called “Don’t Ever Forget”. Two lines in particular stood out to me:
Nothing wastes more energy, than worrying.
The longer one carries a problem, the heavier it gets.
Its advice we hear very often, but rarely take to heart. Worrying is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
It’s comforting to know that even though animation is trending toward cutting-edge computer animation, hand-drawn wonders such as The Secret World of Arrietty will still grace our theatre screens.
“For those of you grandiose schemers out there that think world domination through politics is for chumps, here is some good news. You could (theoretically) have your very own, fully operational Death Star straight out of the Star Wars movie franchise to enable your plans of setting up a new galactic empire…”
It’s rare for Muslims to be portrayed positively in movies; even more so to base an entire film on them. For the most part, Muslims portrayed in film are characterised by what they do: pray five times a day, fast in Ramadan, perform Hajj—or, as is the stereotype, kidnap hostages and bomb buildings. But few films characterise Muslims by who they are.
But Qasim Basir’s debut film Mooz-Lum does exactly that.
The film centers on Tariq Mahdi, a University student who is troubled by his past and confused by his faith. Through flashbacks we see Tariq’s childhood, and how the events in his past shaped his character and outlook on life. His identity is something he constantly struggles with, having been raised in a strict Islamic upbringing by his father, and thrust into a society that distrusts Muslims. “Call me T,” he says several times, refusing to use his name. Because of a (spoiler-free) incident at school during his childhood, Tariq has faded into the background and shut himself off from the world. But Tariq’s struggle for identity is also mirrored by his struggle for faith. When invited to a dinner for the Muslim Student’s Association, he uncomfortably declines, saying he’s not into it. Yet Basir handles this very well, and there’s never a moment where Tariq suddenly “sees the light,” as he puts it. Instead, we merely see Tariq coming out of his shell, taking the first steps to reconciling his past and understanding his faith—sometimes painfully.
Basir’s talent is letting an actor’s performance speak more than their words, and this is very rare in the film industry these days. Most directors feel their characters should explain how they feel, rather than express it. Basir shows he capable of the exact opposite from the opening scene, where Tariq’s father gives him an awkward (but heartfelt) farewell. After that, you can feel the uncomfortable tension between Tariq’s parents when his mother demands a divorce; you can almost see Tariq battling his inner-self through his stiff posture and slight panic in his eye when he is peer pressured into drinking, but he reluctantly does it anyway. Basir manages to channel the energy of each character and make them stand out.
The performances are good all around, with the stand-outs being Evan Ross as Tariq and Nia Long as his mother, Safiyah. Ross manages to make Tariq a very believable character through his emotional turmoil, while Safiyah is the embodiment of a woman taking control of her life, smashing all sorts of stereotypes of Muslim women along the way. Though Danny Glover’s name is featured prominently on the poster and the trailer, don’t expect Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. Instead, he’s the cold and condescending dean of the University, constantly belittling one of Tariq’s professors because of his approach to teaching—and, secretly, because said professor is a Muslim.
The film is paced quite well, transitioning at appropriate times back and forth between Tariq as a child and in University. My only problem was that each transition is accompanied by this bright, solarising lens flare that feels like it was lifted from a direct-to-TV movie. Again, this betrays Basir’s talent of showing rather than telling; we don’t need a special effect for a flashback, because we can tell the difference between young Tariq and adult Tariq.
[Spoiler] The strongest moment of the film was, by far, Basir’s handling of 9/11. Before it happens, he never shoehorns a date that even hints that the film is taking place around that time, but when it happens it punches you in the gut. It serves as a catalyst for the darkest moments in the film, where Tariq’s friends and family are persecuted because of the openness of their faith, while he remains on the periphery, unsure where he stands. [Spoiler End]
Unfortunately, the part of the film that felt the weakest was the climax, where Tariq defends his sister and her friend from a mob of students out to get revenge on the “terrorists”. It’s the only part of the film that feels like it’s trying too hard, with one of the mob member’s suddenly learning the error of his ways and defending Tariq. The climax carries over to Tariq questioning his faith in light of recent events, and his sister, Taqwa, telling him not to judge an entire faith on the actions of a few individuals. Without a doubt the sentiment is there, but the dialogue sounds like it was written directly for the audience, not the characters. Taqwa could have stared directly into the camera and delivered the same line in the same manner and it would have the same effect. Thankfully, the real emotional punch comes when Tariq’s parents see the scars his childhood has left him, and finally realize just how much they have affected him as an adult.
For a directorial debut, Qasim Basir manages to make his talents known. His focus on his characters (and the actors portraying them) helps to overshadow weaker moments in the plot. In any case, Mooz-Lum is a huge step forward as the media slowly walks toward the day when Muslims will be characterized by who they are, rather than what they do.
The Muslim Take: Of course most of the film is spot-on when it comes to Muslims, because the director is one. The only part that had me scratching my head was that Tariq’s mother and sister are always shown wearing a hijab, or headscarf, even at home and when they are only with Tariq. It was obviously a conscious choice on the part of the director, but the hijab isn’t necessary around family members.
“George Lucas dreamed up planets with two suns and cloud cities, and Gene Roddenberry invented dozens of worlds that were all suspiciously similar to the Southern California desert. But as actual space exploration advances and we start to learn what’s really on the surface of those distant worlds, it becomes increasingly clear that our imagination has no chance of competing with the jaw-dropping, pants-peeing craziness outer space is capable of cooking up…”
If you were to make a movie about my life, or at least the part of my life that would garner audiences and maybe a few Academy Awards (provided you’re a competent director), you would probably start in High School.
You would probably start with Kathleen.
It would be a three hour long movie of love, faith, and life. In the first hour, you would charter our journey as a couple through High School, weaving through the various scuffles of high school drama, and you would hint at the small details where things between us began to go wrong. Then an hour into the movie, that’s where things start to turn sour. This is where the Oscar-bait comes in: tears, shouting, drama, long and uncomfortable silences; the very essence of relationship hell. Halfway through the movie is where you turn it all on its head by introducing a fix-it-all solution: faith. Now, if you were a bold and respectful enough director to stay true to the source material, it would be my faith: Islam. But if you only cared about the number of tickets sold, you would change it to Christianity so it can relate to the general population, and I would hate you forever and demand the movie rights be ripped out of your hands and beaten over your head.
This is the part of the movie that makes the audience feel good and gives them hope. Everything that came before would tie together, and there would probably be some well written lines about destiny, and how everything that happened before in my life was leading up to this, or something to that effect. It would be hinted at previously, with Kathleen bringing home books that her boss, Ali, gave her in order to learn about Islam. In one scene, she passes a book to me—small, roughly 50 pages or so—called “A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam”. It sits on the coffee table for a few nights, and I only give it a few passing glances, but eventually I pick up the book and read it; and, true to the book’s title, I understand Islam. But it becomes far more than that; as I read it, it makes sense. It is everything I believed in already, but refined and concrete. It is faith based not on blind faith, but reason and proof. Unexpectedly, I find myself drawn towards this religion that, mere months ago, belonged solely in the domain of turban-wearing Arabs.
Then you, the director, would copy everything from the night Kathleen and I became accepted Islam and became Muslims. It would go something like this: we are invited over to her boss’s house for supper— lasagne, to my surprise (after all, who would expect a Muslim family to eat lasagne? Don’t they just eat goat, humus and pita bread or something?). The dinner is good, and we get to know Ali and his family. Then afterward, we sit in the living room with his entire family, discussing Islam. And here it is, the moment where our lives changed forever. Kathleen goes first; she says her testimony of faith, her shahada, to the joys of everyone around us. Then Ali’s father, Yusuf, says that perhaps one day I will be ready to say it to. The camera pans slowly in on my face; you can see it in my eyes, the eagerness, the uncertainty, my pupils a whirlpool of emotions. The audience holds their breath; will he do it? I take a leap of faith –literally. I say my shahada: Ashadu Allah-ilaha ilallah, wa-ashadu anna Mohammadan rasoolallah; I bear witness that there is no God but God, and Mohammad is His messenger. Hopefully the actor portraying me can pronounce it in Arabic better than I did, because I sort of botched it. Yusuf is nearly in tears as everyone is congratulating us. “God willing, we will walk in Paradise together,” he says to me. That day we left my parent’s house as an ordinary, dysfunctional young-adult couple; we came back as Muslims.
In the following days we drop two M-bombs on our families: first, that we are Muslims, and secondly, that we are getting married. From there, you would document our struggle as we learn to become Muslims, and deal with our families’ reactions. You would contrast how my parents were fine with our faith, but against us getting married, and how Kathleen’s parents were against our faith, but fine with us getting married. “The world is against us,” she says, and I reply, “The world doesn’t matter when you have God on your side.” You would show all the things we had to give up: fast food, alcohol, ham, and more, and yet show how all of that brought us closer to our faith. And finally, at the end of it all, the last twenty minutes would be our wedding; a perfect cap to the story of a relationship made, lost, and then found again. A story of holding on, of faith, of putting your trust in God—themes you hardly see in cinema anymore. Your last shot would be us sitting at the table, holding hands, and I turn my head to Kathleen and say, “We made it.” Cue moving instrumental score by Thomas Newman or James Newton Howard. Fade to black. Credits roll. Audience leaves all weepy and uplifted.
Now, if you were to make a sequel that would be a different movie entirely. If the first film was a story about holding fast to that which you love, then the second film would be one of letting go, of sacrifice, of moving on. It, too, would probably be three hours long. The first half hour would be married life and how sunny and peachy everything is. Hopefully, you would have stayed true to the source material, because from here on, Islam becomes integral to how my life pans out. It shapes who I am, the decisions I make, and how I manage to get it through it all. More importantly, this would be a movie about contrasts; how my faith strengthened and Kathleen’s disintegrated, how I viewed our marriage and how she did (or didn’t), how I moved on my life and she, at least for the duration of the film, remained stagnant.
Things get crappy after the first half hour of the movie. Our relationship begins to deteriorate; another man, my old friend, comes into the picture and the two begin to fall for each other. I try my best to keep it all together, both emotionally and martially. We move into three new places within a few months, hoping that each new place would be a fresh start. We struggle with bills, debt, and food. I struggle to keep both my faith and hers strong. I sense it is all beginning to go wrong is when she tells me she doesn’t want to wear the hijab, the headscarf, anymore—something only a few months ago she championed and wore proudly—and then is compounded when she tells me she has stopped her prayers. This part would probably last longer than in the previous movie; it probably would not be until the two-and-a-half hour mark things start to get better, but a lot happens before that. The long, silent nights; the fear of simply saying “I love you”; the forced smiles and hollow laughs; eventually we get separate rooms—and when her sister asks why, we both change the topic.
There would be, however, a brief reprieve in all this heavy, sensitive material; on the DVD this chapter would be called “The Last Perfect Day”—our anniversary. It would be a montage: breakfast in bed; shopping at Ikea for furniture; buying food for a poor person; eating dinner at Joey’s Only; and then going home and watching a movie, cuddled together on the couch. It would be ambiguous as to whether Kathleen was truly happy that day, or just pretending for my sake, but I know that I definitely was.
However, this reprieve is brief; things dive right back down. I’m sitting alone on my bed when she walks in and sits beside me; for a moment we are quiet, but we both know where this is going; you would probably make the camera shake slightly as it pans in on us, signifying the tremors beneath the surface of our silence. We decide it’s best for us to get a divorce and we separate. She tells me that she loves him, not me, but that we’ll always be friends. I move home, and her boyfriend immediately takes my place. The nature of our divorce was very atypical, especially with Hollywood’s view of divorce: though sad and tearful, it was mutual, and very anti-climactic. I doubt anyone in the audience could understand why I didn’t lash out or hate them both for the rest of my life and imagine getting revenge, because quite frankly I don’t understand it either. I simply accepted it; I believed that if that was what she wanted and what would make her happy, then so be it. I suppose I could forgive you, the director, if you decided to spice it up by throwing in a few projectile dishes, torn up pictures, and burning mementos. Here, I’ll even give you a song to play during it all—our song: “Written In The Stars,” featuring Elton John and LeAnn Rimes. You’re welcome.
From hour two to two-and-a-half (add fifteen minutes for the director’s cut) it would document our lives separate from each other. I can only speak for my side; whatever happened between her and her boyfriend I only know of on surface level, so the screenwriter would have to fill in those blanks. This is where things begin to become the “uplifting, sensationally acted film!”(-Roger Ebert) the first one was critically acclaimed for. I reconnect with my family and also my friends, whom I had distanced myself from when I was married. I start taking care of myself, eating healthier, going to the gym and working out more (though the movie version of me is way, way too ripped and sexy compared to the real me; this scene is in practically every trailer to draw the ladies in). My faith becomes stronger, and my friend—and boss—Ali tells me how I was tested and made it through; “When one door closes, another opens,” he says.
The climax of the film is what everyone remembers: it is August, I’ve just been accepted to University, and I’m busy at work on a rainy Wednesday afternoon when I get a call from a tearful, hysterical Kathleen. She’s begging me to give us a second chance, that she made a mistake leaving me, that she gave us so many second chances, that she can’t live without me.
And I say no.
Well, ok, I say I’d rather jump off a bridge than get back together with her; but for the first time in my life, I’m standing my ground. I don’t give in. I refuse to make the same mistake twice. I have realized how much stronger and happier I’ve become by being on my own, and just how sour our relationship always was underneath the surface, even years before the marriage. Eventually, we simply stop speaking to each other for a long while. The film ends in January, shortly after New Years (symbolism!) and I am attending school. Everything is bright and in slow motion as I make my way to my first class in University, a place only a year ago I thought I would never be. I sit down in Introductory Psychology and the teacher walks in. The camera slowly pans in on my face; the teacher asks, “Are we ready to begin?” I smile; cut to black; credits; reprise.
Now assuming the audience responds well to this drastic change in tone, I’m quite sure Hollywood’s love of trilogies would ensure that another movie is made. This would be a far more light-hearted movie, for sure. It would document my time in school, the revival of my love of writing (probably changed to photography for the film because it is much more interesting watching a photographer work onscreen than a writer), my role as Vice-President of the Muslim Student’s Organization at school, meeting new friends, learning new things and general feel-good stuff. On Kathleen’s side, her relationship with her boyfriend eventually turns disastrous due to some off-screen incident, and they separate. She and I begin to reconcile, but only as distant friends. We both understand we are far too different now to ever be together; perhaps that’s the way we were all along. On my side, there are several offers to ‘get to know’ some girls, but I decline them; I’m not in any rush right now. I’m looking forward to the future, to a career doing what I love, and keeping myself and my faith strong. That’s pretty short, but it’s all I got right now. As for the rest of the plot?
I’m working on it.
I used to hate anime.
Whenever I even heard the word I immediately associated it with barely dressed girls, androgynous boys, cute talking critters, cheap animation, awful dialogue, outlandish plots usually involving time/space/inter-dimensional travel, and gigantic robots. The only anime I acknowledged I liked was Pokemon, because I was ten years old and completely enamored by the video games. Whenever my friends would bring up Naruto or One Piece I’d silently gag while they chatted about ninja’s and spells and what not. To me, anime was empty and ridiculous.
Then I watched an episode of Fullmetal Alchemist.
I still hated it.
As I later learned it was actually one of the last episodes in the series, hence my inability to figure out just what was going on and what the numerous characters were even talking about. Philosopher’s Stone? Homunculi? Transmutation? Wha-? I discarded Fullmetal Alchemist as just another inane anime. It wasn’t until a few months later, at the behest of my friend, that I finally (reluctantly) agreed to sit down and watch at least the first three episodes.
To this day it’s the only anime I’ve watched from start-to-finish twice.
I might as well put this as simply as I can: Fullmetal Alchemist completely changed my view of anime. It was like that polarity switch scientists keep saying will happen to the earth, only it happened to my brain. From then on it was the first anime I had ever watched from start to finish, and furthermore, it was the first anime that made me realise exactly what anime is. It isn’t just a cartoon or a medium with which to tell outlandish stories: it is freaking art, and it is beautiful. What still amazes me still is that anime isn’t tied to the casual conventions we in the West have about animated shows. It isn’t afraid to be bloody and brash, but more importantly, it isn’t afraid to deal with complex and mature themes.
It isn’t afraid to make us think.
Now what made Fullmetal Alchemist so great wasn’t the dialogue, the animation, the plot, or even the characters. What made it stand out was its exploration of all those things. The dialogue wasn’t just sharp, it was thoughtful; almost every exchange between characters, down to their individual dialogue, was layered and, at times, profound. Along with that is some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in an animated feature, cartoon or otherwise.
The animation wasn’t just good, it was incredible; it wasn’t just about making a character walk from point A to point B while talking. It was about making a character that actually had a personality through body language. Everyone had their own mannerisms which became ingrained into their personality. That freaking suite of armour wasn’t just an empty shell: it was a person, a boy, in fact, trapped within its very metal, trying to find a way to become human again. And while the action scenes in some anime seem cheap, those in Fullmetal Alchemist were fast, fluid, and exciting, even from the very first episode. The plot not only got thicker, it got denser, sometimes bearing down on you like a collapsed star. What really hit me was just how deep this show became, effectively commenting on everything from genocide to military regimes to religion to what it means to have a soul. In fact, Fullmetal Alchemist did this to such an extent that I have yet to find a show that fuses so many epic themes into a single package so expertly and successfully, while at the same time never becoming preachy or tiresome. The show was constantly soaked in tragedy, but never to the point that it became bleak and hopeless. Humour was cleverly peppered throughout the show, and never once did it feel forced. Characters are beaten, killed, and broken, but never once do you give up hope in them. And that leads to what I believe is the greatest exploration Fullmetal Alchemist embarks on: its characters.
Amidst the heavy plot and mature themes is essentially a story about love, and what extents and sacrifices we are willing to make for it; about trying to remain human amidst inhumanity; about dealing with the sacrifice and loss of innocence that comes from forces beyond our control; and, in the end, the cost of redemption. It is a character piece that gradually adds more layers of complexity. The line between good and evil is never fully drawn, and the gray haze between the two constantly shifts. There are really no villains in Fullmetal Alchemist; just people doing what they believe is right, and by the end of it all you are more apt to understand them than to hate them. And while you hope that the Elric Brothers can find a way to ultimately restore their bodies, you always know that there will be a price to pay every step of the way. You keep watching, expecting characters to break, only to feel excitement and glee when they prevail.
Ultimately, Fullmetal Alchemist not only made me respect anime, it showed me that it can be more than just skimpy girls, feminine guys, cutesy creatures, and giant fighting robots. It showed me that you animated characters can have more heart to them than most real-life actors. But most importantly, it showed me that you can tell a mature story through an animated medium.
To me, Fullmetal Alchemist is the perfect anime.
Fighting games were the FPS’s of the 16 and 32-bit eras. Every year there would be a new iteration of at least one popular franchise, as well as some obscure one-time imitators trying to catch the fighting game fire. Though many have fallen into obscurity (sorry Virtua Fighter) a few have managed to stay relevant by basically reinventing themselves. Last year’s Mortal Kombat, and before that Street Fighter IV, demonstrated that fighting games still have some kick left in them (har har). So does Soul Calibur V fit into that group of battle-hardened elders?
Oh, it tries so hard to do so.
Soul Calibur V feels like Namco’s attempt at rebooting the franchise, with new faces and new playing mechanics. In doing so, however, they’ve stripped the game down past the muscle and straight to the bone, placing heavy emphasis on online multiplayer than single player experience.
As always, the gameplay mechanics are sharp and responsive. What has always drawn me to Soul Calibur is that it’s very accessible; you can get away with button mashing and still have fun, but you’ll do much better if you take the time to learn a few favourite characters and master their moves. Guard repels and parries have been removed for the sake of simplicity. The controversial Critical Finishes have been replaced with Critical Edge moves that dish out a hefty amount of damage, but not instant kills. It’s a very easy game to just pick up and play, and not as crazy in-depth as Street Fighter IV.
The most exciting thing about the game is the new character roster, and for the most part it’s very impressive. I’ll commend them for having the guts to axe series mainstays like Taki and replace them with, essentially, a younger generation of characters (except for Mitsurugi; no one touches Mitsurugi). New characters like Z.W.E.I. and Viola bring unique fighting styles to the mix, and guest character Ezio from Assassin’s Creed is a vast improvement over SCIV’s Darth Vader and Yoda. And, of course, there’s Character Creation mode which has been revamped to include some very cool features, like patterns and accessories (though I feel that the PSP Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny still has the best CC mode in the series). But with these new characters comes the biggest criticism, one that was almost a deal breaker for me: why are they here?
Now, I’ll admit, fighting games have never been one for literary masterpieces when it comes to their story. Much like FPS’s, it’s get from point A to point B and kill everything in between. Simple, easy to remember. But even Street Fighter II had a victory screen with your character giving one last remark to M. Bison’s bloody face. Individual stories are completely absent in SCV. I played through Arcade mode, and didn’t even get so much as a congratulations; just a pop-up menu that said “restart” or “return to main menu”. And when you start axing characters and bringing in new ones, people are going to want to know why. We shouldn’t have to go on the internet just to find out the back story of these fighters—which is honestly the only way to find it out.
That said, there is a story mode in SCV, but it mode focuses solely on newcomers Patroklos and Pyrrha, offspring of series mainstay Sophitia. It’s short, and can easily be completed within 3 hours. The plot was interesting, but the majority of cutscenes are shown via illustrations and storyboards; there were only about 7 or 8 fully animated CGI scenes, and in a series known for its impressive graphics, this felt like a major cop-out. And once you’ve finished story mode, there isn’t much incentive for playing anymore; you’ll never know what happened to old characters, where the new ones came from, or why they’re fighting. Hope you have a good imagination, because that’s all you’ll have to rely on for this one.
The previous three Soul Calibur games have had a second single-player mode, usually designed for unlocking extra weapons, characters, or clothing; SCII had a straight-forward Weapon Master mode, SCIII dabbled in Real Time Strategy with Chronicles of the Sword, and SCIV had the Tower of Lost Souls where players defeated enemies under specific conditions. SCV has Quick Battle. And it’s exactly as it sounds: a quick one-on-one match with a computer to gain a special title for online mode.
Speaking of online mode (segue!), you can definitely see this is where Namco directed most of their efforts. There’s the usual Player and Ranked matches, but there’s also the Global Colosseo mode, where you meet with other players in a lobby and arrange battles with each other or participate in tournaments. Online games play well with little to no lag, which is impressive for a fighting game. Also, there’s something satisfying about hearing your opponent laugh in their headset when they first see your custom FatNinja character. However, a strong online mode isn’t enough to justify a full-priced game, and the single player modes come off feeling rushed.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Despite a strong online mode and great roster, the dearth of offline modes and weak story mode are a major disappointment, and unfortunately we won’t see another Soul Calibur until the next generation, so we’ll have to wait and see what route Namco takes for the series.
The Muslim Take: Soul Calibur has always been known for its… mammary physics. Thankfully, if you feel a character is showing too much skin—Ivy, as always—Character Creation lets you customize them however you like. I’ve made a few awesome sets of alternate outfits for my favourites. Also, there’s no blood and no fatalities if that bothers you; the most you can do is keep kicking your opponent’s body when they’re knocked out, which is always fun.
2 Cents: SCIII is, in my opinion, the best of the series. It had a phenomenal story mode, with each character having branching paths and multiple endings, and The Chronicles of the Sword mode kept me going for hours. It had the largest roster (including special characters you could unlock) and introduced some of the series’ most unique characters like Tira and Zasalamel. It was the first to introduce Character Creation, even though the custom fighting styles were hilariously unbalanced.
A truly persuasive public discourse relies not only on the sense of hearing, but on the effective and simultaneous engagement of all of the senses. An old Chinese proverb goes: “If you tell me something, I’ll forget it. Show it to me, I might recall it. Let me join in the experience, and I will remember it forever.”…