J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 25, 2016

SFIFF ’16: Very Big Shot

We all realize there is no shortage of narcotics in Hollywood, but the Lebanese film business is a different matter. Yet, the film Ziad is producing would not exist without illicit drugs. Technically, it still doesn’t exist, strictly speaking, but a lot of people will get worked up over it. It is all about those cans of film that get waved through customs unopened in Mir-Jen Bou Chaaya’s Very Big Shot (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

At Ziad’s pizzeria, the “special” comes with a bonus topping on the side: cocaine. He is the oldest of three brothers and also the most ambitious and temperamental. When Ziad accidently caps a rival in a drug-related scuffle, the youngest brother Jad takes the fall, knowing he will get a shorter sentence as a minor. When he is released, Ziad has a surprise for him: a major shipment of designer amphetamines. He was supposed to deliver them to his contact in Syria, who was then supposed to eliminate Ziad, but the pizza baker rather violently side-stepped the trap. Naturally, he took their shipment for his troubles—and no, this will not sit well with his former employers.

Regardless, Ziad and Jad are determined to make a big score. They just need to get the pills out of the country. Inspiration arrives from the unlikeliest source: Charbel, a deadbeat customer who fancies himself an independent filmmaker. In Charbel’s current documentary, Georges Nasser (the first Lebanese filmmaker accepted at the Cannes Film Festival and a consultant on VBS) explains how an Italian movie crew once tried to smuggle drugs out of Lebanon in film canisters. They just attracted suspicion because they were never seen shooting any film. Ziad will not repeat that mistake.

Bou Chaaya and co-writer-co-star Alain Saadeh start with a solid, potentially madcap premise, but they bury it under awkward tonal shifts and what feel-like local in-jokes that can’t possibly be expected to travel. Subplots, like middle brother Joe’s affair with Charbel’s pretty actress-wife Alia wither on the vine. It also seems like the Lebanese mafia is unusually patient when a significant drug shipment goes astray.

Still, there is no question Saadeh has real starpower and impressive range. As Ziad, he turns on a dime from gritty action scenes to deadpan comedy. It would not be surprising if he started popping up in French films, given VBS’s already considerable festival play. Alexandra Kahwagi is also terrifically tart and droll as Alia. Wissam Fares and Tarek Yaacoub are both fine as Jad and Joe, but the latter really gets lost in the shuffle.

VBS is inconsistent in almost all respects, but it has been a hit throughout the region, so it seems like an early favorite for Lebanon to submit to the Academy Awards. There is also something intriguing about its rough edges and erratic demeanor. Mostly recommended for those who follow Middle Eastern cinema, Very Big Shot screens again this coming Friday (4/29) and Sunday (5/1), as part of the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.

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