Tag Archives: review

Ladies in Black: #straya in 109mins (movie review)

I’m writing this in the dying hours of Australia Day 2019, hoping against hope that I’ll finish in time for it to qualify as an Australia/Invasion Day post. Because really, what’s more Australian than a celebration of the lively multicultural melting-pot of Sydney in the mid-1950’s?

Ladies in Black also contains traces of early Aussie feminism. If only there were some indigenous characters too… but I digress.

The “ladies in black” become so as they commence their shifts at a large department store in Sydney. The movie opens with one such shift.

From there, the narrative moves effortlessly between five employees and their families. The analyst in me can’t help seeing each of them as an archetype of mid-1900’s Australia:

  • Miss Cartwright, the aging manager (played by Noni Hazlehurst), represents the preceding era of limited opportunities for women.
  • Magda, the “reffo” (affectionate slang for refugee–played by Julia Ormond), represents the skill, colour, and culture brought to Australia by those who needed the safety of our shores. Timely.
  • Patty, the married one (played by Alison McGirr), represents something of a typical Australian struggle for domestic normalcy while being too young to know what you want in life.
  • Fay, the single one (played by Rachael Taylor) represents the struggle to overcome disadvantage–and the merging of multiple cultures.
  • Lisa, the young one (played by Angourie Rice), represents bright-eyed, innocent hope that women could finally take on the world–at least once their fathers can be persuaded to sign their university applications.

I’m being reductive, of course, because the characters who carry these themes are authentic and believable. Their stories overlap and coalesce beautifully, and the supporting cast deliver strong performances too (especially Luke Pegler, who plays Fay’s husband, Frank).

I love that the ‘vibe of the thing’ is so very Australian without being embarrassing. And that it demonstrates the wealth of experience and flavour we add to Australia when we open our hearts–and our borders–to people who aren’t safe in the countries they call home.

A reminder as worthy of our time as remembrance that Australia doesn’t belong to white people, and never has. Especially today yesterday.

4 stars.

The movie worth a thousand memes. Or not.

In the quiet moment between opening the app and scrolling to what I wanted to watch, Netflix pounced. The Bird Box trailer was underway before I even knew what was happening.

It was intriguing enough to earn a place on my watch list, but that’s where it would have stayed if it hadn’t been for all the memes and hype and “Bird Box challenges”.

Instead, Bird Box became the second movie I watched in 2019, and because I’m on a review kick, I’m writing about it.

Well played, Netflix.

Spoiler warning: this movie spoils itself, so I don’t need to provide a spoiler warning. Seriously, the way it flashes back to more people being alive tells you almost everything you’d prefer not to know. Thriller? Not so much.

Horror? Bird Box isn’t a solid performer in this category either. People do some shocking things under the influence of a nefarious “entity” that takes over the world, but there isn’t a great deal of heart-palpitating awfulness beyond the opening scenes.

To manage expectations, this movie really should have been marketed as a drama.

Implausible plot lines and continuity issues aside: big-name actors, lesser-known actors, and brand-new child actors turn in a very solid set of performances that almost redeem an otherwise disappointing production. (The kids are very young and very amazing, especially towards the end of the movie.)

But what is Bird Box supposed to be about? The nature of the “entity” is never fully revealed nor resolved, and the birds (which provide warning when it’s nearby) don’t make a lot of sense of allegorically, so if the movie has an intended meaning, it’s too ambiguous to be constructive.

Unsurprisingly, a quick google for “Bird Box meaning” offers many possibilities but no definitive answers. If it’s about the unknowns of parenting, its message is all but worthless (and you don’t have to look too hard to find psychologists and parent groups condemning this interpretation). If it’s about racism, I can’t see how. If it’s about social media, what are the birds? If it’s about mental health, who are the ‘healthy’ ones? But hey, at least it’s easy to come up with theories and extrapolate from them. (Hello, future high school curricula.)

The best theory I can come up with is that it’s about Trumpism. The “entity” is the unstoppable advance of fake news, fake facts and fake science. When sane people see this for what it is, they want to kill themselves immediately (understandable if a little extreme). When insane people see it, they’re totally accepting and think everyone else should be too (so the infected but non-suicidal people represent Trumplings). And the birds represent fragile truth and the fading hope that it will make a difference.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

3 stars.

The Favourite (movie review)

Queen Anne, I found out after watching this completely accurate and not even slightly absurd historical comedy-drama, knighted my middlenamesake, Sir Isaac Newton, in 1705. True story.

Unfortunately, neither Sir Isaac nor his rumoured gayness feature in The Favourite. Queen Anne and her rumoured lesbianism feature prominently, however. Because there’s nothing like a same-sex love triangle to spice up an already fiendishly intriguing chapter in the English monarchy, amirite?

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are as excellent as you’d expect (especially Rachel as the rather badass Sarah Churchill), but Olivia Colman, who I’d only seen in a few “meh”-grade comedy roles until this movie, delivers a profoundly deep, complex and compelling Queen Anne. As the Queen’s backstory unfolds while her health and relationships unravel, Colman’s adept transitions between the comical and the pathetic are flawless. I suspect various upcoming awards panels will agree.

I loved the collective girl-power of the three leading women, especially their brilliantly written, perfectly delivered patriarchy-smashing humour. Your mileage may vary, unless you’re a feminist, which everybody should be, so… shrug

Interestingly, the movie was directed by a man. It’s excellent to see increasing representation of powerful women in popular culture (MOAR PLZ), but I can’t help thinking that it would be even better if women were directing more of it. (At least the original writer, Deborah Davis, is a woman. I’m looking forward to hearing more about how her late-90s script finally came to fruition.)

The Favourite‘s soundtrack is unusual and contributes significantly to the unsettling dissonance that permeates much of the film. Repeating beats, for example, continue between scenes where you instinctively expect the music to resolve or shift. It’s weird.

Then there are the dizzying ultra-wide-angle shots (including several fisheye sequences), which do a marvellous job of showing off the intricate set design but might give you a headache. The photographer in me enjoyed these immensely–it’s difficult to manage such a wide field of view effectively, and the DOP composed each shot masterfully–but the tracking speed, distortion and sheer number of wide-angle scenes were a bit off-putting overall. Or maybe I was just too close to the screen.

Historically, with the possible exception of the lesbianism, the arc of the story is remarkably accurate. You’ll find yourself googling things afterwards and being pleasantly surprised by the writers’ attention to detail. (You might not be pleasantly surprised by the way the movie ends, though. I wasn’t.)

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of gleeful anachronisms. My personal favourite: the integration of “f##k” and “c##t” into the vernacular of early 1700s English aristocrats. Winning.

You’ll love The Favourite if you have a high tolerance for absurd humour and mild arthouse-ishness while enjoying uncouth swearing, white historical drama, and comedic social commentary.

4.5 stars.

Just write. (With an AlphaSmart NEO. Maybe. If it helps.)

Have you been shaking your head at ads for these crippled laptops, with their tiny screens and their weird design and their breathtaking prices?

Well, it turns out they’re useful for something (the ads, that is): in the comments, ignorant people like me can learn about distraction-free writing devices like these, which apparently have a “cult following” among writers and have been around for the better part of two decades (only discontinued in 2013, still supported, and still available for cheap on eBay).

It won’t surprise you that after learning about these cute li’l word processors and telling myself I didn’t need one, I promptly ordered two and am typing this review on one (Susan might eventually try the other, when she’s done laughing at me).

I had been considering setting up a “writing laptop”–without access to any of my work laptop’s unfettered distractions–but the AlphaSmart NEO is much cheaper, and (probably) much better.

Much like a mechanical typewriter, it only displays a few lines of text at any one time, and editing is painful. This is a good thing. It forces you to keep writing. It saves you from the distraction of editing your first draft before it’s even finished.

The software is dead-easy to use, but offers enough features and settings to make the NEO adaptable to your personality and/or eyesight without getting confusing. If you’re a nerd, “NEO Manager” still runs on current Mac and PC operating systems, providing access to firmware updates and extra settings.

Because I’m a nerd, I used this to enable two-button powering on, to prevent accidental startup when the device is kicking around in my bag.

Speaking of which, the NEO starts up almost instantly, has a better-than-average close-enough-to-full-size keyboard and a solid build, and sits nicely on my lap (the stealth bomber design isn’t as strange as it looks in photos). Plus, I’ve heard it’s not unusual to get 12 months out of its AA batteries.

The only aspects I don’t rate are the green colour, the lack of an undo button (although I suppose this helps with Just Getting The Words Out), and the fact that it’s not manufactured anymore.

I’ll go ahead and seek help for my compulsion to join “cult followings” of niche tech now. (No I won’t.)

Ali’s Wedding vs. The Big Sick

Without realising the parallels between them, nor the fact that both movies were biopics written by their male stars about themselves, I added Ali’s Wedding and The Big Sick to my DVD collection in one 3-for-the-price-of-2 transaction. After watching The Big Sick a couple of months ago, Susan and I were finally in the mood for another rom-com recently, and despite the lingering sense of déjà vu, I think it’s safe to say Ali’s Wedding far exceeded our expectations.

Comparing these movies isn’t really fair, except that they were both:

  • autobiographical;
  • released in 2017;
  • written and performed by comedians whose parents emigrated from Asia to western countries;
  • preoccupied with the highs and lows of forbidden (or strongly discouraged) love.

Where Ali’s Wedding stands alone (aside from being set and produced in Australia rather than the USA, obviously) is the depth of its portrayal of an Australian Muslim family. According to Osamah Sami (who wrote and starred), it’s “the first Muslim rom-com”.

From the gently corrected misogyny of the men who came to his father for advice (his dad was the leader at their local mosque), to the community-wide gender roles and segregation (and the ways these are both challenged and respected), to the lewd but somehow endearing elderly polygamist (“temporary marriage”, anyone?), to the flashbacks to the horrors of Iraq and Iran, the bar has been set pretty high for this new genre of romantic comedy. It’s hilarious, warm, believable, honest, memorable, and… different. Unusual. Nice.

4 stars, and may there be many more dramas with this cultural backdrop.

Not an actual review: “The Glass Castle”

Content note: this post includes references to domestic violence and emotional abuse.

Alcohol abuse and homelessness weren’t part of my childhood. As far as I know, my father’s violence wasn’t substance-related, and the austerity he subjected us to never resulted in skipped meals or malnutrition.

In countless other ways, though, my therapist was right. It wasn’t difficult to find parallels between Jeannette Walls’ childhood and my own, and watching the movie based on her memoir was, indeed, cathartic. Eventually. After I worked through the seething mass of memories it laid bare.

This is not a cinematic review of The Glass Castle. It’s a guided tour of how it has affected me. It’s an attempt to articulate the catharsis of processing repressed memories. It’s been written to help me, and shared in the hope that it will help you.

The mother

Unsurprisingly, Jeanette’s father (Rex, played by Woody Harrelson) is the central figure in this story of family dysfunction. He is unambiguously portrayed as responsible for most of the distress that plays out for everyone else. But there are moments that highlight the complicity of the mother (Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts) in creating a traumatic, hostile environment for the children (and I’m not just referring to the opening scene, where Jeanette suffers burns due to her mother’s negligence).

The dynamic between my parents was similar, and it remains impossible, to this day, to determine how much of Mum’s role in my toxic childhood stemmed from being a victim of Dad’s abuse herself, and how much was a willing, conscious choice. The Glass Castle is similarly inconclusive about Rose Mary’s contribution to the Walls family dynamic.

My situation affords a little more insight, because despite leaving Dad 16-odd years ago, Mum’s abusive behaviour towards me has steadily escalated as the chasm between her values and my choices has deepened. Also, contact with her currently triggers far more significant post-trauma responses in me than contact with Dad does.

I mention this at the outset because Rose Mary’s abuse of her children isn’t necessarily obvious. She elicits sympathy as her husband’s victim, and the ways she enables and perpetuates Rex’s stranglehold on the family aren’t even noticed by the children (they’re too busy reacting to their father). But who could blame them? At 35, I’ve only just started to recognise these behaviours in my own mother.

The darkness

The setting and the specifics were different, but the oppressive darkness that settled over the family home during Jeanette’s teenage years felt uncomfortably familiar.

It was the unpredictability. No-one knew what would trigger Rex’s next outburst, who would be targeted, what sort of assault or destruction there might be. For Jeanette and her siblings, their father’s drinking was a determining factor; in my home (where drinking was seen as a deadly sin), Dad would lose his shit totally sober. Alcohol wasn’t necessary for him to snap without provocation, to crush us with broken glass and cruel words.

Not knowing how or when your father will next unleash hell–knowing only that he will, and that it won’t make sense, and that there might not be any warning–means your home is unrelentlingly, inescapably hostile. Starved of love. Desperately unsafe. Remembering those years, I can almost see the pall of blackness hanging over the house. I don’t think it was just the dark wallpaper and awful carpet.

School was Jeanette’s escape, and it was mine too. Whenever I could, I would stay in the library until it closed and catch the last bus home. Facing consequences for getting home late was better than spending those hours near my father, who was unemployed at the time. He would usually be hidden away in his tiny, cluttered study, obsessing over his latest theory or grand plan (not unlike Rex’s ‘glass castle’), but I never knew when he would emerge or what to expect when he did. Avoidance, occasionally disrupted by the naive belief that I could somehow be perfect enough to make things better, was how I survived.

As in The Glass Castle, there were moments of light, too. Acts of generosity and care from a man who was usually the opposite. Just enough goodness to ignite a feeble flame of hope that things were about to get better (they never did). Eventually I could see that even these rare moments of kindness were designed to help him get what he wanted.

The exceptionalism

Just like Rex, my dad was anti-establishment, anti-government, and pro-conspiracy.

Unlike Rex, Dad’s rejection of conventional wisdom was entangled with his particular brand of Christianity–a veritable Frankenstein of evangelicalism, pentecostalism, and seventh-day-adventism–none of which passed muster in their own right, due to glaring deficiencies only he could see.

Differences aside, Rex and my father were both deluded about how unique they were, and they both tried to assert their exceptionalism through their families.

They both homeschooled their children, because schools couldn’t be trusted to teach you what you really needed to know. (My siblings were spared this privilege. As the youngest, I represented Dad’s final opportunity to create a less disappointing version of himself, so he pulled out all the stops.)

They both made grandiose plans that never materialised, and promises that were never kept. The most obvious one in The Glass Castle is the actual glass castle–the solar-powered home that never progressed beyond a hole in the yard. My dad’s schemes weren’t usually so tangible (although he was briefly obsessed with a stock market hack that was supposed to net us a heap of money); instead, there was the constant promise of a happier future, when he’d be done with his countless projects (like his system for organising all human knowledge), and done with the mountains of newspapers that couldn’t be thrown out until they had served their purpose (the unlocking of his exceptional theories).

As far as I know, he still has most of those newspapers. (It’s like those scenes in A Beautiful Mind, except the secret messages embedded in The Australian in 1995 remain uninvestigated.)

Jeanette’s parents, and mine, didn’t believe in doctors. With very few exceptions, to this day, it’s self-healing or death, because rushing off to a doctor at the first (or tenth) sign of illness is what everyone else does–and we’re better than that.

Jeanette’s parents removed her from hospital before she had recovered from her burns. Mine refused to take me to a doctor despite years of debilitating cystic acne on my back and face. I’m still covered with slowly fading keloid scars, but memories of high school change rooms and the struggle to conceal fresh blood stains on my shirts are just as indelible.

Both Rex and my father wanted their children to believe they were exceptional–as long as they could define what it meant. In The Glass Castle, Jeanette copped it for merely being a gossip columnist, and her choice of husband was similarly condemned: “you’re better than this” (or words to that effect). I could hear Dad (and Mum) in Rex and Rose Mary’s cutting words.

Ironically, it’s fair to say that there have been some unfortunate choices in both Jeanette’s life and my own. Finding your way takes longer when you’re unknowingly carrying your parents’ delusional expectations and unhinged judgements.

The austerity

In The Glass Castle, it’s striking that Rex always has a cigarette in his mouth, and a hip flask in his pocket. The children might not have eaten for three days, but their father’s addictions are always fed.

My father wasn’t addicted to alcohol or tobacco, but his obsessions were expensive, and the rest of us had to help him fund them.

We had to use a bucket to collect cold water from the shower while we waited for hot water to come through (it would then be used to fill Dad’s obsessively managed drinking water filtration system). Dishes had to be thoroughly rinsed in an ice cream container (without replacing the water until it was basically solid), so they could then be washed in just one sinkful of hot water. We owned a car, but to save money, it was almost never used; Dad had to charge the battery overnight before it would even start. Sometimes, it still wouldn’t. Water, gas and electricity meters were read weekly and tracked over time. There were “consequences” if readings were higher than they should have been, or if our water handling was too wasteful, or if the dishes were too dirty, or if we requested transportation by car.

The penny-pinching was ruthless and never-ending, but somehow there was always enough money for Dad’s computers and encyclopedias.

The youngest

Jeanette is the second-oldest of four children. Maureen is the youngest. The movie includes a reference to Jeanette’s regret over leaving her little sister alone with Rex and Rose Mary after she escapes to New York, but Maureen’s experience as the youngest of the Walls children doesn’t feature prominently otherwise–The Glass Castle is, after all, Jeanette’s story. But as the youngest of three myself, I couldn’t help noticing a few hints that Maureen’s life was probably even more challenging than Jeanette’s.

There’s a seven year gap between me and my brother. He’s a year younger than my sister. Even now, they both comment that I had the better deal. We moved house less frequently after I was born. Dad was, apparently, less violent with me than he had been with them. And it seemed to both of them that I benefited from being the “only child” as they finished school–especially given my interests were similar to Dad’s, and were better supported than theirs had been.

But they were largely absent while I received Mum and Dad’s undivided attention. They couldn’t see that Dad’s enthusiasm for providing me with access to technology wasn’t about him “spoiling” me; it was him attempting to succeed where he had failed, by living vicariously through me. At 35, I am only just beginning to recover from his sustained efforts to control and manipulate me into being the person he wanted himself to be.

This wasn’t my siblings’ lived experience, so they get a bit eye-rolly when I describe it as abuse (especially when I refuse to let Mum off the hook for her role in letting it all happen). Each of the siblings in The Glass Castle responds differently to their parents, too; Jeanette’s brother, for example, seems content to remember the good things Rex had done while Jeanette is feeling uncertain about reconnecting with him before he dies.

Different children can have different childhoods despite having the same parents, apparently. Just ask the youngest child in a dysfunctional family.

The nickname

“Mountain goat.” It’s an endearing nickname for a child, but Jeanette is done with it by adulthood, and she says so. Rex ignores her, and the unwelcome moniker lives on. There’s a poignant moment in The Glass Castle where he tries to use it to connect with her as she tries to pull away from him. (He fails.)

It might seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. My father calls me “teddy bear,” or TB for short. I hate it. Every time he uses that childhood nickname feels like an attempt to assert control over my identity, to wash away all of his inadequacies and replace them with fond memories of a happy past that only exists in his head.

Pro tip: if you love someone, don’t use nicknames they hate.

The first marriage

Jeanette’s first marriage proves to be almost as dysfunctional as her childhood.

At first, her husband appears to be the opposite of her family. He’s calm and understanding; he’s successful and well-respected; violence and aggression doesn’t seem to be in his nature. In time, however, it becomes clear that his benevolence has strings attached; that he’s just as controlling as Jeanette’s father; that when he stops getting what he wants, the tables will turn.

Let’s just say that I can relate.

The ending

I’m not sure what to make of The Glass Castle‘s ending just yet.

It’s unsettling that Jeanette seems willing to overlook decades of abuse in order to remember her father as a hurting, misunderstood genius-hero, rather than the destructive force he actually was. Hopefully the book will shed some light on her thought process, but for now, I’m struggling to understand her apparent reluctance to reckon with the reality of Rex’s overwhelmingly toxic impact on his family.

As a society, we’re programmed to make excuses for male abusers. We believe that men who are capable of murdering their families can be “good blokes“, and we can’t see that by perpetuating this myth, we’re quietly endorsing every other “good bloke” who is a piece of shit behind closed doors.

So while it’s not surprising that Jeanette could be willing, and able, to remember Rex so fondly, I can’t help wondering if we’d be more likely to break the cycle of intergenerational abuse if we weren’t so busy suppressing our memories of it.

Fujifilm X70: still not a Ricoh GR

Last October, I wrote:

The Ricoh GR is my favourite pocket camera so far, but that’s mostly because it actually fits in my pocket. Ricoh’s cleverness with its controls and custom options is a nice bonus, but a similarly compact and inexpensive offering from Fujifilm would be difficult to resist. I certainly won’t be breaking up with my Fujifilm X-T1’s and Fujinon lenses anytime soon, but for now they’ll be paired with a very capable little Ricoh.

Imagine my surprise when a few days ago, Fujifilm announced the upcoming FUJIFILM X70, a new breed of fixed-lens camera that matches the Ricoh GR II spec-for-spec (if you exclude the X70’s flip screen, aesthetic appeal, and Fujifilm processing engine).

It’s great to see Fujifilm work towards a more pocketable big-sensor-fast-lens camera, but I still prefer the Ricoh GR. Here’s why:

  • The X70 is still too big. Side-by-side comparison photos are few and far between, but from what I’ve seen, the X70 is significantly wider and higher than the GR, and MUCH deeper (even before you account for the non-retractable lens). This is understandable given Fujifilm’s commitment to X-series dials and flip screens, but for me, it represents the difference between a “pocket camera” and a “can’t-be-bothered-taking-it-with-me camera”.
  • The Ricoh has snap focus. See my earlier review for details.
  • The GR II is significantly cheaper (USD$560 vs. USD$700). Not that this alone would tip the scales–I’d expect to pay more for a Fujifilm on its brand alone–but it’s a factor.

The GR has other advantages too–e.g. native DNG shooting–but neither this nor the X70’s superior autofocus have any bearing on pocketability (or image quality). Hopefully Fujifilm will eventually release (yet another) X-series camera with a retractable lens, fewer dials and a smaller footprint.

Meanwhile, thank goodness for Ricoh!

Jessica Jones

Krysten Ritter has come a long way since playing Rory’s weird college friend in Gilmore Girls (not that I’m admitting to watching every episode of Gilmore Girls, or even knowing who Rory is).

I’m 3 episodes away from the finale of Jessica Jones (thank you Netflix), and to say its considerable powers have drawn me into the Marvel universe against my will would be an understatement. Or an overstatement, depending on how you look at it (and your proximity to Killgrave).

Superheroes and science fiction have always been a hard sell to me (I’m 32 and have only recently started watching Star Wars), but Jessica Jones has won me over. Jessica herself is a mess (she can’t even think of a decent superhero name for herself, much less stop drinking), but she also totally kicks ass, genuinely cares about the people she helps (or can’t help), and is ruthlessly independent. She’s everything a semi-plausible superhero should be, and the feminist in me loves that her gender is never a limitation.

Of course the backstory to her messy life is, ah, complicated, mostly because of the nefarious Killgrave, apparently. Through him, the writers experiment relentlessly with just how deadly a world inhabited by mind-controlling psychopaths could be. David Tennant’s alternately charming, hilarious, diabolical, and maniacal character is infuriatingly irresistible, even without the mind control (which thankfully doesn’t work through soundproofing or television screens).

Two Australian actors star, too, so that’s a bonus. If you’ve seen Red Dog or All Saints, you might even recognise them. STRAYA.

I’ll spare you any further spoilers, but if you’re in the market for a TV show that’s smart, fast, unpredictable, intense, beautifully filmed, mildly disturbing (don’t worry, there are just enough likeable characters), and generally brilliant, get on it. Fair warning, though: there are a few very gory bits and some heavy sexual themes (but not many visuals).

Next stop: the rest of the Marvel empire universe.

This is the 7th post in my November/December writing challenge series.

Ricoh GR vs. Fujifilm X100S (or, why I’m cheating on Fujifilm with Ricoh)

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because I had no idea that Ricoh’s GR series of cameras had a “cult following.” None of my photographer friends had mentioned them, I’d never seen one in the wild, and I’d been unwaveringly faithful to Fujifilm’s X100 series since it launched in 2011. It was unthinkable to cheat on Fuji with Leica or Sony, much less Ricoh.

But then a random Facebook discussion introduced me to the GR / GR II–and some of its biggest fans had previously used X100’s.

You can guess the rest. After reading a bunch of reviews and looking at dozens of photos, my torrid affair with Ricoh was underway. Within weeks, I’d broken up with my X100S. Now it’s on eBay.

Well, that escalated quickly.

The X100S is better, but…

If you’ve been following compact cameras with big sensors and fast lenses for a while, you already know that the X100S is superior to the GR. It has a faster lens (f/2 vs. f/2.8). Its hybrid viewfinder is amazing (the GR has no viewfinder at all). Its autofocus system is better. It’s easier to control (mostly) and its retro styling is much sexier than the GR’s bland blackness.

The GR trumps the X100S in only one significant way: pocketability.

As you can see, the size difference is, well, significant.

The original X100 was a game-changer for my personal photography, but the only pockets big enough for it were on baggy cargo pants (that do nothing for my figure) and bulky coats (that are mostly unnecessary where I live). More often than I’d like to admit, this meant reaching for my iPhone rather than a “real” camera–because my X100S was at home or in the car.

My GR, on the other hand, lives in my pocket. Because it actually fits.

My non-negotiables: big sensor, fast lens

For reasons I might explain another day, APS-C is the smallest sensor size I accept in a “serious camera”, and fast, wide primes are my favourite. (Why else would this Pocket Camera Battle be Ricoh GR vs. Fujifilm X100S?)

On paper, the GR’s 16.2MP APS-C sensor is on par with the X100S’s 16.3MP APS-C sensor. Neither have low-pass filters (much sharp, many moiré). Both perform well at ISO1600, adequately at ISO3200 and less adequately at ISO6400. The GR shoots RAW at ISO100, which is a plus (the X100S starts at ISO200), but otherwise these sensors are very similar–on paper AND in practice, not that my testing has been very scientific.

ISO800 is so clean I had to add grain to this one.
ISO800 is so clean I had to add grain to this one.

Ricoh’s colour handling is different to Fujifilm’s, but I wouldn’t say it’s worse. My Fuji RAWs sometimes need to be desaturated slightly; so far that hasn’t been necessary with my Ricoh RAWs. And not that it’s directly related to sensor performance, but the GR’s multi-point auto-white-balance works pretty well.

I exposed for the trucks and recovered detail in the sky with a Lightroom mask. There was plenty of detail to recover.
I exposed for the trucks and recovered detail in the sky with a Lightroom mask. There was plenty of detail to recover.

As for the lens: 28mm has a different feel to 35mm, but I’d been starting to wish the X100S was a tad wider, so I’m not regretting the change so far. If I ever do, the GR offers a 35mm mode, which seamlessly crops the LCD preview to a 35mm-equivalent field of view and records a cropped file (roughly 10MP). Even RAWs are cropped. Nice.

I thought I’d miss f/2, but I haven’t yet. The lens on my X100S was a bit soft at f/2, so I’d usually stop it down anyway. The GR’s lens is razor sharp, edge to edge, wide open at f/2.8, and I’ve been impressed with its flare control, bokeh and (lack of) distortion too. I’d love it to be faster, but I also love fitting it into my pocket. You can’t have everything.

ISO3200. Eat your heart out.
ISO3200. Eat your heart out.

There is no silver version

The GR isn’t much to look at–it could easily be mistaken for a typical point and shoot camera–but that’s an upside if you’re trying to avoid attention. At least it compensates for its boring looks with great build quality. And grippy texture. In all the right places. IYKWIM.

Aesthetics aside, I was initially concerned about being able to change settings quickly with so few buttons and dials (I shoot in M, because M is for Master). I needn’t have worried.

There’s a dial in front of the shutter release button. By default it adjusts aperture, but mine is configured to adjust shutter speed. There’s a horizontal rocker on the back, within easy reach of your thumb. Mine is configured to adjust aperture. Pressing it inwards gives access to ISO and other settings. There’s also a vertical rocker on the back. It’s less configurable, but in M mode you can use it to quickly set your shutter speed for correct exposure–handy if you need to move from, say, 1/4000 to 1/30 in a hurry.

There’s an AEL/AFL button that allows focus and exposure to be controlled separately. It can even be switched to C-AF as needed. Nice.

Most other buttons are configurable too. For now, my side-mounted EFFECT button enables and disables the built-in ND filter, FN1 brings up AF controls, and FN2 provides quick access to ISO.

There's even a macro button! Nothing special about this photo (obvs), but the GR focuses close enough for non-serious macro experimentation.
There’s even a macro button! Nothing special about this photo (obvs), but the GR focuses close enough for non-serious macro experimentation.

Importantly, the main mode dial has a locking mechanism that makes it impossible to accidentally move from M to Tv at the worst possible moment. I can’t overstate how useful this is.

Speaking of AF controls

I’ll spare you the setup instructions, but the GR’s focussing system is, for my purposes, only slightly inferior to the focussing system on the X100S. Similar options are available on both cameras (including peak highlighting for MF assistance), but autofocus is a tad slower on the GR. In broad daylight, the difference is barely noticeable, but in low light scenarios, the performance gap becomes more pronounced.

The GR shines if you like to shoot from the hip, though. Preset your shooting distance, enable “snap” AF, turn off your LCD and get clicking. (You can even disable the power LED for maximum stealth.) The X100S has no equivalent to this feature.

Snap focus is great for scenarios like this (once you've mastered the art of judging distance). Or you can prefocus like I did here.
Snap focus is great for scenarios like this (once you’ve mastered the art of judging distance). Or you can prefocus like I did here.

So, Ricoh wins?

Yes and no. The Ricoh GR is my favourite pocket camera so far, but that’s mostly because it actually fits in my pocket. Ricoh’s cleverness with its controls and custom options is a nice bonus, but a similarly compact and inexpensive offering from Fujifilm would be difficult to resist. I certainly won’t be breaking up with my Fujifilm X-T1’s and Fujinon lenses anytime soon, but for now they’ll be paired with a very capable little Ricoh.

PS: Ricoh, if you’re reading this, how about including a dedicated battery charger with the GR? Plugging the whole camera into a USB cable for charging is totes overrated.