Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
SFIFF ’16: Very Big Shot
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Labels: Lebanese cinema, SFIFF '16