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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE (2017) review

November 30, 2017

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written by: Michael Glover Smith
produced by: Kevin W. Wright, Michael Glover Smith and Shane Simmons
directed by: Michael Glover Smith
rated: not rated
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: November 29, 2017 (Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival)

 

Two years ago, Michael Glover Smith established himself as a knowledgeble, intuitive and passionate filmmaker. That’s exactly how I described the Chicago-based writer/director in my review of “Cool Apocalypse” and as it turns out, his feature-length debut which revolved around two couples, one just starting and one unraveling, was a primer for his sophomore effort, “Mercury in Retrograde”. His new film delves a bit deeper, this time focusing on three couples at varying stages in their relationships and in doing so presents his audience with a look at both the similarities and differences between men and women, how they are together and who they are apart. It’s a fascinating and intriguing examination, filled with engaging and nuanced performances, but most of all it’s a film that will resonate in unique and specific ways for viewers.

In a departure from “Cool Apocalypse”, Smith sets his story outside of Chicago, taking his audience on a weekend getaway excursion to southwest Michigan along with his characters he’s introducing, just as they’re settling on a long weekend excursion to southwest Michigan. Getting all three couples into one vehicle, after some brief introductions, is a natural way to focus our attention on who these people are while getting an idea what their relationship dynamics are like. Subtle dispositions and mannerisms are hinted at in this car ride that will be gradually  as the film unfolds.

Our unofficial guide on this trip is Peggy (Najarra Townsend “Contracted”), the one person new to the group, who has a relatively new dating relationship with Wyatt (Shane Simmons “Party Time Party Time”) that seems both optimistic and uncertain. Peggy provides her won reflective narration that can be heard at the beginning and end of the film (thankfully without overdoing it with obvious explanations). They are accompanied by Isabelle (Roxane Mesquida “Despite the Night”) and Richard (Kevin Wehby “Cool Apocalypse”), a couple who’ve been dating a while yet seem disconnected and unhappy and the four of them are being driven by the sole married couple, Jack (Jack C. Newell “Open Tables”) and Golda (Alana Arenas, ensemble player with the Steppenwolf Theater Company), are noticeably stable and comfortable, although they’ve had bad luck at their attempts to conceive a child. All three couples converge over the course of a long weekend trip to Jack’s father’s (Andrew Sensenig “Upstream Color”) lakeside cabin for some fun and relaxation. As feelings are aired and secrets revealed, each couple will find themselves experiencing some raw and revealing turns they’re not quite expecting.

 

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There is a relaxed and alluring tone to the overall story in “Mercury in Retrograde”, populated by some genuine laughs and recognizable camaraderie on display, but there’s something else too. It’s an unplaceable foreboding feeling that simmers underneath in transition scenes and establishing shots; almost to hint at a genre thriller, just enough to leave you guessing. It’s so subtle that it may be missed by some viewers, but eventually it manifests itself in the truths that surface, especially with the female characters. Playing off the known fact that women are typically more open than men, Smith has also written opportunities for the three men to reveal who they are in a natural manner.

Throughout the film, Smith gives expected screen time for each couple, yet it’s in how he separates the men and women that will subvert viewer expectations. There is relaxing yoga in the woods for the women and a comedic round of disc golf for the men, but more is revealed when the girls go out for coffee in the local town. This paves the way for the film’s climactic and most impacting sequence during an evening when the men stay at the cabin to discuss Dashiell Hammet’s crime novel The Glass Key for a Book Club, while the women settle in at local bar for an unexpected emotional confession that confirms Townsend and Arenas are indeed the MVPs of “Mercury in Retrograde”. By the time the film ends these two actresses have stuck the landing and dropped the mic.

Cinematographer Jason Chiu (“Henry Gamble’s Birthday”) utilizes the natural environment to accentuate a tone that is typically associated with a place where time tends to stand still, such is often the case when we’re away from our usual surroundings. Like the film’s title, there is a sense throughout the film that time has indeed stopped, allowing moments for characters to look back and access what is transpiring within them. Chiu is mindful to provide an atmosphere as observant as the characterization here, providing a concurrent visual language that deftly matches the expressive performances that bring Smith’s acute screenplay to life. Chiu is a prolific talent and his collaboration here with Smith left me hoping these two can find time to reunite in the future. Another local Chicagoan, Frank V. Ross lends his editing skills to the film, which prove to be integral in supporting the film’s visual language while accentuating the personalities in each scene.

 

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The production values in “Mercury in Retrograde” indeed elevate the material, but it’s the film’s performances that prove to be the most memorable aspects of the film. The inviting atmosphere is effortlessly grounded by the warm and open performances from Newell and Arenas, both of whom are an absolute joy to watch. As Jack and Golda, respectively, the two actors provide a easy-going safe place for the other two couples who lack the level of maturity and experience they have. When we see them in bed together, they convey a couple who genuinely care for one another and have long accepted each other, flaws and all. Their characters are definitely needed, since they counter the other couples with a needed stability, which allows the other personalities to stand out.

The more time we spend with all of them, the more obvious it is where these couples are at and where they’re going. It becomes clear that Mesquida’s Isabelle has a dissatisfied resentment in her relationship with Wehby’s Richard, yet she also nurses a wounded defensive and judgmental nature when she’s around the other women – she houses hostility toward Golda that eludes to an unsettled past and is openly unaccepting of Peggy, the new girl in the group. Yet, it’s during a scene when Isabelle is alone in a bedroom where we gather that the person she is most at odds with is herself. Out of all the characters in “Mercury in Retrograde”, Isabelle has the greatest opportunity (perhaps need) for a rich character arc, but that unfortunately never comes and in the film’s third act, Mesquida kind of fades away, leaving her issues unresolved. That’s okay, I suppose, since not every character can have a resolving arc by (and in real life, it takes even longer), but I was left wanting more from her character.

I’ve seen “Mercury in Retrograde” twice now and like most second viewings, I noticed a few things I didn’t pick up upon my initial viewing. As a matter of fact, it became evident during the second viewing experience that I was in a very different place during that first viewing and I found myself much more in tune with what is going on this time. Such inventory reminded me of the characters Smith offers here and how you can start off on a weekend getaway with one set of intentions and yet look back on a completely experience once you come out on the flip side.

While it has similarities to Smith’s last film, with its focus on relationships, “Mercury in Retrograde” is a decidedly different film. Without a doubt, it solidifies that Smith is a writer and director to follow. “Mercury in Retrograde” reminded me how easy it is to sum people up by what what we think of them based on what they say and how they carry themselves, but that’s typically a small percentage of who we truly are. After all, we never truly divulge who we are to those around us, even if they are our friends or our spouse. There’s always so much more under the surface, which this intuitive and observant film consistently shows.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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You can check out the film today at 2:00pm for free at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in Des Plaines, Illinois, followed by a Q&A with director Michael Smith and cast members Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons, Najarra Townsend and Kevin Wehby, moderated by local film critic, Pamela Powell.  And if you can’t make it, keep the film on your radar for upcoming screenings.

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