Wednesday, June 15

Film: Top Gun: Maverick

Although I enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick, it didn't manage to reach the dizzy heights that it promised it would. In many ways it was Top Gun: The Movie, the film the original would have been given the technology (and budget) of a 2022 blockbuster.

Top Cruise was Tom Cruise, although matching him with Jennifer Connelly did produce a level of cheesy chemistry not see since... well the 80s. Where it failed me was with the excess of dead air, and predictable hero placement. The final act more than made up for the flaws though.

So no the best film, but certainly good enough.

Thursday, June 9

Edmonton 2022

Aaaaaah. I'll offer you a peek behind the curtain now, just to make the point: I write this predated post a week after returning from our trip to Canada and am still thinking and smiling about this trip. For sure, our trips to Edmonton have always been fun and memorable... but this trip was something else.

Was it that there was family there? Or that we went to attend a wedding? Well of course both those things and I've always said that my best travel memories have involved local family or nuptials. But we were here for a wedding back in 2009 too. What else was different?

Well I'm older for one, as is my family, and in particular my cousins. With age comes maturity, character and a general sense of ease - many a honest conversation and edgier laughs were had this trip. Further, this was the first time just the three of us (comprising of my parents and me) had travelled here, and although that alone makes logistics simpler, it would be churlish of me to deny that I didn't enjoy the special attention I received.

Winnipeg was also new, and as a destination wedding within a destination wedding the usual welcoming party and being looked after vibes were found everywhere. We partied, we sightsee'd (sightsaw?), we chilled and had one on ones. Those four days alone were pretty special.

Back in Edmonton I enjoyed BBQs, boardgame cafes, card games over dessert, arcades and even escape rooms. But fun times were also had domestically too, from watching the Champion's League Final with an expat friend from London to bonding with a cousin via the magic of the latest Harry Potter movie (it sucked). But what was possibly the highlight of my trip was a lazy Sunday "brunch" that lasted 14 hours or so. The gupshupping had there was something else. Thankfully there were no trips to Jasper or Banff.

When we first booked this trip I was certain three weeks would be too much, and in total cliched fashion in many ways it wasn't enough. I'm definitely going to make that effort to visit more often (this was a COVID postponed trip from 2020, which would have been four years since the last instead of six), particularly as I feel I now have new familial connections to lean on. Heck I'd even say that after this trip Edmonton may have gone up a few places on my list of places to go once they kick us out of the UK... although I am yet to experience the winters there so maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Saturday, May 21

Aisha and Suhabe

The following is the transcript of a speech I gave at the wedding.

Alhamdulillahi rabbil aalameen, wassalaatu wassalaam alaa rasoolillahi wa alaa aalehee wa sahbihee ajmaeen.

I've been given the distinguished honour of saying a few words, although I fully realise Aisha only asked me for my accent. That doesn't come free so I'll keep this short.

My name is Shakil, or Shak for short, and I'm Aisha's hot single cousin from across the pond. All enquiries to my mum please.

Of course I'll start by thanking Mohammad Chacha for having us and once again keeping us here in this wonderful town of Edmonton. A big thank you to all who have travelled here to attend - it's looking to be a great event.

Aisha and our fathers are brothers, and for a long time visiting Pakistan meant visiting Chacha, who quickly became, and still is, the closest of the 5 chachus I had the pleasure of meeting while growing up.

As such I've known Aisha pretty much since she was born. Of course I only saw her a few times every decade, but that hasn't stopped us becoming close despite the distances involved. I don't think it's unfair to say if we hadn't been divided by continents and oceans both Aisha and her sister Rabiya would have quickly become the sisters I've never had. Whether or not that's mutual, I can't say - I'm sure they already had their hands full with their siblings.

And as the slightly darker sheep of the Atal clan, the marriage search has been a bit of a shared journey for Aisha and me. We've swapped notes, given and received advice, and even been on speed dating together (I think the embargo on that has been lifted by now). Aisha and her family have dragged us across Europe and we once even shared a terribly unromantic family trip to Paris. The great city of love, wasted on losers like us.

Which I guess is a decent segue to the reason why we're all here today. Love. Now I know this is a terribly awkward topic, but I'm British and foreign so should be able to get away with it. If it makes things less awkward just remember - love comes in many forms from familial to friendship as well as the more romantic in nature.

So during my "research" there have been two important things I've learned about love. I'll cover them in reverse.

The second most important thing I've learned is that love is hard. It's challenging, complicated, awkward and hurts. And for many of us, it's like learning how to walk over and over again - and that's even when the people involved don't change. It's an ongoing, transient thing that will, and frankly should, always surprise us.

But the most important thing that I've learned is that love is easy. It's a choice. It's a choice to trust, to care, to be open and to communicate. When it's there, it's chilled and comfortable and healing. The challenges are still there for sure - but so are the solutions and answers. Success often comes to those who realise just how accessible those solutions are.

And Aisha is someone who finds it easy to make that choice, to love. She gives it freely to her family and friends, and I have no doubt it will be the same during this next chapter in her life. But just as its hard, and easy for her to give, its also hard, and easy to receive, and I pray that God makes it easy here.

Now I've been handed the gauntlet to make at least one person cry today, but to be honest it's not going to be much of a challenge. As her new life begins, so does Aisha leave her city of almost 25 years and her family of even longer. As someone who - proudly - has always lived with family I can somewhat relate to what that means for her, as well as those she's leaving behind. I won't name and shame - I'm not that cruel *cough* Rabiya. These are the hard, and easy choices we make to love and although there's no doubt that we all support Aisha, there's also no doubt that she will be missed by those she leaves behind.

I've only briefly met Suhabe today but it's clear that all of the good things Aisha told me about him are true. He won't need much advice from a guy like me. But to him the message is simple. Act first. Reconcile first, be first to speak during silence, first to take action when you're both bored, the first to appreciate when you both forget. Take that role and own it. It'll only come to pay dividends.

So I'm done and all that's left is to wish the happy couple all the love and peace in the world, and nothing but good times during their journey ahead.

Thank you.

Wednesday, May 18

Book: Mind MGMT, Matt Kindt Click for more info

My second try at the comic book thing was off the back of the Mind MGMT board game, said to have lots of in-jokes and references to the source material. The promise was to have a clever, fourth wall breaking self referential story and as excited as I was to begin the series... I couldn't help but feel disappointed by the end of it.

Mind MGMT is just another superhero story. It has good guys and bad buys, magic and powers, ups and downs. Sometimes it manages to be more, but not often enough.

I suspect my reading of the story has suffered slightly from having access to it all on demand - I can imagine enjoying the story month on month would have added its own sense of pacing that would help with the storytelling.

The art was nice in its rough and watercolour style that suited the subject matter, and the dialogue and characters were decent, if a bit confusing at times. My suspicion is that the story fell foul of what is clearly my distaste for the comic book medium, but ultimately I didn't consider this of the genius promised.

Friday, May 6

Film: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Click for more info

After the slight disappointment that was the last MCU multiverse film, I approached the latest Strange movie with a little trepidation. Would it just be another canon breaking gimmick movie? Well I'm glad to say that it wasn't, and might even be my favourite MCU film this side of Infinity War.

It still has that strange Phase 4 irreverence (irrelevance?) which can be forgiven given the first decade of the MCU, but nevertheless manages to tell a story larger than its own runtime. Doctor Strange is great and plays the senior well, while the main antagonist does the job well.

Otherwise it has all the action, fireworks, and feel good vibes you would want from an MCU film. Recommended.

Monday, March 14

Book: White Sand Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, Rik Hoskin, Julius Gopez, Fritz Casas Click for more info

Even though I was somewhat satisfied by the rough draft prose version of this story, I made it a point to revisit/continue the graphic novel both for completionist and canonical reasons. The barrier for entry wasn't too bad[1] - it turns out that a graphic novel reads much faster than prose.

The good news is that, yes, having read the prose made these three volumes far easier to digest. The bad news is that White Sand still wasn't that enjoyable for me - but since it's the first comic I've been reading electronically I don't know if that's due to the device, the medium or the novel itself. I do plan to read another graphic novel in the same way so I hope to have an answer eventually, but as it stands White Sand remains one of the weakest links in the Cosmere.

[1] Although this statement doesn't consider the time spent in setting up a suitable reading device. But hey, at least I now have a Linux tablet in my toolbox.

Tuesday, March 8

Film: The Batman Click for more info

Another year, another Batman. But what's this? One that actually looks to improve on the many iterations (some of which were already top notch)? Well. Let's see.

First of all: Patterson is awful. He tries his best (bless) but really isn't able to pull off much more than a mediocre Bruce Wayne. What he can do, however, is Batman, and thankfully he keeps his mask on in this film.

The movie itself is very well put together. It flows and weaves, and everything is clear and accessible, which is quite the achievement for what needed to be a dark film. That said, there did seem to be a recurring feeling of laboured and abstract drama, as if they were about to sell the audience some designer perfume. It was jarring at first but I got used to it.

Which brings us to the plot. It wasn't great. In fact, most of the movie was just window dressing. Although it wasn't bad enough to wreck the film, it did knock off a fair few points. It could have been a classic with a bit more finesse.

So no, for me Dark Knight remains unsurpassed, but the ingredients are there for a true classic to be borne out of the Patterson era. And hopefully they'll pull it off.

Tuesday, March 1

Twenty Years of Jummah

I can't exactly remember when, but there came a point in sixth form (so aged around 16-17) where I fell into an almost obsessive pattern to attend Jummah, the weekly Friday congregational prayer that Muslims are strongly encouraged to attend. Now, I'd be the first to say that however strong the recommendation is, it's not a matter of life or death, and no one will go to hell for missing a week. It was just one of those streaks which, as it got longer, became harder to break.

I managed to keep it up all through my academic studies, and past my graduation in the autumn of 2001. That five year (or so) streak was already pretty decent, so it was upsetting when it finally broke - ironically because my flight to Saudi for Hajj was leaving just after noon on a Friday. If there was ever a reason, that was probably it, although in hindsight I think it would have been more than possible to arrange an ad-hoc congregation at the gate or whatever. The following week's Jummah was also missed, as we were in transit to Arafat. That wasn't too bad as my streak was technically zero anyway.

Despite having to start again, my zeal to attend Jummah hadn't diminished - if anything it had gotten stronger. And so it started again, the first Friday after Arafat, which by my calculations fell on the 1st of March. Praise be to God and with his help, I have been able to attend Jummah every week since.

That's not to say it hasn't been precarious. Multi-night hospitalisations came and went, mercifully falling between Fridays. Most recently, COVID lockdowns had been a massive scare, mitigated only by kind neighbours humouring me with socially distanced prayers and blessedly dry weather. Its probably the closest I've come to having this streak broken.

The most consistent inconsistency however has been during travel. Two which spring to mind are during a skiing trip to Courchevel and a week away in Santorini. The former was simply done DIY, as there were enough on the trip to make a congregation. The latter was a little more tricky as there were only two interested parties on the trip - however after making friends with a dodgy DVD street selling Afghani, we managed to whip up a posse, proving once again how doors will be opened for you if you search them out.

It's not just academic stubbornness that drives me to seek out Jummah. Meeting fellow Muslims itself is a culturally valuable exercise - particularly abroad. Seoul, Ambodifototra (on the island of Nosy Boraha, off the coast of Madagascar main), Bali, Phnom Penh and Arequipa are all congregations that I have very fond and exciting memories of - some have been practical too when I had been lucky enough to have been fed on multiple occasions, usually in the places where Muslims made a tiny minority. Isfahan gave me the opportunity to join a state congregation in majority Shia Iran. The mosque in Rio was found at the end of a massive mystery. Warsaw and Split were both tiny self-conscious affairs, Las Vegas hilarious just for the contrast.

There's plenty more, from China, to the obvious picks in the Middle East and even those more vanilla ones in Pakistan (both Karachi and further afield) and here in the UK. An awareness of Jummah and it's facilitation is now an embedded part of any planning process I have, regardless of the scope - amusingly I will only visit the Galapogas and other far flung islands in a troupe of other Muslims, only to ensure I have a congregation on tap. If anyone is interested, let me know.

So yes, twenty years and over 400 Jummahs later I'm left wondering what the future holds. A part of me was aiming to relax a bit and stop counting after hitting such an arbitrary landmark, but I already know that's not going to happen.

Of course ultimately every opportunity to offer Jummah is a blessing, and those are for which I give thanks rather than take credit. I can only pray that those blessings continue till the end.

Thursday, February 24

Book: White Sand (Prose), Brandon Sanderson

In what turned out to be a bit of a back track, I realised that I was sufficiently dissatisfied by my reading of White Sand, the graphic novel, to give the original draft prose a go. Although largely redundant (I plan to finish off the comic), I felt that I wasn't able to quite follow and engage with the story set in Taldain, and hoped that reading the prose would allow me to continue reading the adaptation with a bit more comfort. Of course, it remains to be seen whether reading a non-canon version of a story will help or hinder.

Otherwise the book was clearly a draft, and very rough around the edges, particularly as it went on. As such, it wasn't quite as rigorous as the other books in the Cosmere, in the magic system, plot or character development. Still it was fun, and as I wanted, more accessible than its comic counterpart. I appreciated the insight and context that the written word was able to provide.

There are a few "non-canon" artefacts in the Cosmere, but I don't envisage approaching those. White Sand was therefore less optional for me than its draft status implies. I don't think I can recommend its reading to even a completionist though, unless like me you found the graphic novel to be a bit labouring.

Wednesday, February 23

Film: Uncharted Click for more info

A movie based on not just any videogame, but one of the best franchises in the past decade or so? Using actors who look waaaay too young in comparison to their original counterparts? Was this ever going to be anything but an abject failure?

Well... apparently it can. Now, no, Uncharted is no classic homage to a classic videogame, but despite it really shouldn't working, it actually wasn't bad. In fact it was rather good.

What it managed to nail was the fun factor I suppose. It plays from a very solid playbook, doesn't try anything too brave and makes few mistakes. The action is just as inspired as the source material (in some cases lifting them wholesale). And of course the music was spot on.

So not terrible then and I guess... recommended.

Wednesday, February 16

Film: Moonfall Click for more info

I mean, I don't know what I was expecting while waiting for this film to start. No wait - that's a lie, I did. I was ready to hate it, merely doing my bit as a responsible adult humouring the whims of a friend's kid who was joining us on this visit. Just taking one for the next generation etc.

And so sure enough, I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it's a kind of secret shame to admit that I actually enjoyed it at times, proof positive that these things are not objective and that anything can be great if you put your (positive) mind to it.

Please note: this is not to say that Moonfall was a good film. It wasn't. It wasn't even "so bad it was good". This was a ridiculous film that shouldn't have been made, and shouldn't be seen by anyone. Unless you're being forced to by a young child.

Wednesday, February 9

Food: Kate's Cafe

Discovery can be a funny thing. We initially found Kate's Cafe on Tiktok - a Ghanian restaurant recommended by someone we didn't know, brought to our attention by an algorithm. It looked so good, so alluring, so essential. And so off we went.

Of course reality is never as shiny as social media, and so we left disappointed, even though the place wasn't that bad. We went for the kebabs, Jollof Rice with chicken and the novelty Kontomire with the dough like Fufu. Everything was... adequate.

Otherwise Kate's Cafe was clean, the service was great, and the place quiet and a decent place to try something new. I did find the bill of £15 per head a bit on the pricey side, but I suspect I will need to recalibrate my price expectations as a separate exercise anyway.

So overall, even thought I have no regrets visiting Kate's Cafe this time, I don't envisage going back in the near future.

Thursday, January 27

The Book Of Mormon Click for more info

Firstly, I honestly can't remember the last time I went to see a production in the theatre. I'd blame covid, but according to these very pages the drought began at least a year before the virus did.

Secondly, and perhaps following from the above, I wish I had seen The Book Of Mormon sooner. This isn't because its amazing, but more because it doesn't seem to have dated well. Humour is always a transient thing, but when a show relies on edgy comedy it's subject to that edge moving... and for me the shock value just wasn't there any more. It may have been ten years ago.

And unfortunately once the laughs have gone, what's left is pretty normal. The production was alright, the acting okay, the music and singing decent. Altogether though it was all very middling.

So a victim of the passage of time, and perhaps my own high expectations, The Book Of Mormon wasn't as essential as I hoped it would be. And so Avenue Q remains top of the pile when it comes to belly aching comedy theatre - although now I'm wondering if I need to revisit that to see how well, if at all, that has aged.

Thursday, January 13

Book: Oathbringer, Brandon Sanderson Click for more info

I only found out now that the latest publication of Oathbringer splits the novel into two, and yet I'm not surprised. It's probably the longest book I've read past War & Peace, and most certainly felt it.

It's actually quite difficult to write about this book, given I started it almost five months ago. I think there were some battles, some romance, some comedy... but it's all a bit of a blur to be honest.

That said, there was a distinct feeling of disclosure in this book - more threads were closed than opened and as a result it felt more rewarding than frustrating to read. Of particular note was the openings to the wider Cosmere, and I'm glad I'm catching up with the wider saga as things start turning there.

I did have some issue with the pacing of the book: the main set pieces were relatively brisk and therefore fell short of the payoffs that the volume implicitly promised the reader by virtue of its size.

As such, The Stormlight Archive remain my least favourite part of the Cosmere, albeit a still essential one.