It's not often that an e-mail actually makes me want to review a film, but that's exactly what happened when Dan Mirvish's e-mail landed across my desk only a few days before the Christmas holiday and nearly smack dab in the middle of my awards season viewing. With unbridled enthusiasm and confidence that was more contagious than conceited, Mirvish's cinematic lowdown on 18 1/2 convinced me that I needed to make time during my four-day holiday weekend to check out his latest indie effort and the tune that both IndieWire and GoldDerby proclaimed an Oscar® contender, Brasilia Bella.
Sadly, and unjustly in this critic's opinion, by the time I got around to watching 18 1/2 the Oscar® shortlist for original song was announced and this quite wonderful song was nowhere to be found. A poor choice, for sure, but not particularly surprising given the Academy's deference to more mainstream pop fare.
Regardless, 18 1/2 is still a film you should see.
With over two dozen prizes throughout its global fest run, 18 1/2 has proven to be both a commercial and critical success. It's now several months into a theatrical run, a real grassroots work of wonder that shouldn't come as much of a surprise given Mirvish's inspired gifts for both indie filmmaking and promotion. The co-founder of Slamdance, Mirvish has assembled some of contemporary cinema's finer character actors and created a film that is fiercely entertaining and quietly exuberant.
18 1/2 centers itself around, in case it's not obvious, what happened to those missing 18 1/2 minutes of the Nixon Watergate tapes. We don't need another Nixon Watergate film, you say? Think again.
Connie (Willa Fitzgerald) is a transcriptionist who stumbles across a recording of Nixon (voiced by Bruce Campbell), H.L. Haldeman (voiced by Jon Cryer), and Alexander Haig (voiced by Ted Raimi) listening to this section of tape that they decide to erase not realizing that they very room they happen to be in is one of the rooms of the White House where everything gets recorded. Determined to do something with it, Connie contacts Paul (John Magaro), a New York Times reporter trying to make a name for himself.
Before long, Connie and Paul are posing as a married couple at the nearby Silver Springs motel so that Paul can listen to the tape ... if they can find a reel-to-reel that will work. Doing so involves an increasily unusual encounter with another married couple, Lena (Catherine Curtin) and Samuel (Vondie Curtis-Hall), along with the motel clerk (Richard Kind), who has more than a few eccentricities himself.
To say much else about the plot of 18 1/2 would be unjust. 18 1/2 is a film best experienced with a freshness by those willing to go with Mirvish's occasionally off-kilter, occasionally quite suspenseful vibe. 18 1/2 has the look and feel for the time in which it is set, Elle Schneider's lensing for the film immersing us in this washed out world of conspiracy and intrigue while Luis Guerra's original music completely and utterly captivates. The intrigue here is rather low-key. 18 1/2 is as much a character study as it is a thriller and there are moments in the film are simply downright funny.
Quite honestly, it's amazing that Mirvish holds this all together so incredibly well. There are multiple threads that play alongside each other, though each character feels surprisingly well-developed and an integral part of the whole picture. At just under 90 minutes, 18 1/2 occasionally lags a bit but it's far more thoughtful than bothersome.
Magaro, perhaps best known for Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, is absolutely spot-on as Paul and works beautifully alongside the wonderful Willa Fitzgerald. Both Catherine Curtin and Vondie Curtis-Hall serve up inspired work here and, quite honestly, Richard Kind practically snags the spotlight in any scene he's in.
Nearly any credible filmmaker or A-lister will preach about the essential nature of quality character actors. So, you can imagine the joy of a film like 18 1/2 that includes some of the finest character actors working together as one terrific ensemble.
Quite simply, the result is one of the year's true indie gems and most under-appreciated films.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic