BRANDED (2012)
Starring Ed Stoppard, Jeffrey Tambor, Max von Sydow & Leelee Sobieski
Directed by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Written by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Produced by Jamie Bradshaw & Alexsandr Dulerayn
Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers
Music by Edward Artemyev
Edited by Michael Blackburn

And you thought being a marketing executive would be a nice little boring desk job, didn’t you? Bet you didn’t even know the gun and axe are standard issue, punk.

   In all honesty, I didn’t even know this movie existed until about 5 days before it was released. It’s actually kind of strange, because it seems to have literally come out of nowhere. I’m usually very good at keeping up with what coming attractions are gonna be popping up within the upcoming months, and I go to movie sites and read about movies all the damn time…so I’m not really sure how or why this movie seemed to slip past my radar. ESPECIALLY since the premise of this movie is not only incredibly topical in this modern day world of corporate economics, but incredibly ridiculous and outlandish as well. It’s not even being advertised extremely well…I mean, I saw a commercial for it on TV which made me aware of its existence, but it’s definitely not in the mass public consciousness regarding films. As of this writing (the day it was released), it doesn’t even have any ratings at all over at rottentomatoes.com. So what the fuck is the deal? What the hell is the story with this movie?

  That, my friends, is what I’m here to try and clear up. For when I first saw the TV commercial for the movie Branded, I was not quite sure what to make of it. At first, I thought it was a regular commercial done up in a mock-movie trailer style, and it was about to sell me some stupid product. But as I kept watching I was shocked to see established actors and VERY strange footage, coupled with equally strange dialogue about corporate brands being alive. I kept asking my friends I was with – “IS THIS MOVIE REAL?!” Because ladies and gentlemen, the premise of this film is that a corporate conspiracy is actively participating in some kind of scheme involving living, conscious, largely invisible  life-sucking creatures that live in the brands of the biggest, most successful corporations. I was absolutely stunned at the footage – and not necessarily in a good way. I just couldnt’t believe that this is an actual fuckin’ movie!

Seriously, I can’t believe this is an actual fuckin’ movie.

   However, I have to say, I was genuinely intrigued. The footage from the film looked absolutely ridiculous, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. I found the premise, and its thinly-veiled parody on corporate excess, to be flimsy at best, but it was still at least interesting. It’s an original idea at least, and in a market such as today’s, where anything that has been in the public consciousness at some point before can and will be exploited for a quick buck, an original idea is HIGHLY appreciated. So, I made the decision to see this strange, out-of-the-blue film I had never heard of before. And the results are, eh…..a bit underwhelming.

   So, before I get a little deeper, I just want to emphasize that I figured this movie would probably be a little bit less than wonderful. To me it was worth the price of admission alone just to see how anyone could even try pull off such a wacky, perplexingly absurd idea in a coherent and cinematically pleasing way. Did they achieve it? Well…….not really. In all honesty, Branded is a pretty forgettable film all around. But it’s not for a lack of trying! There are some genuinely interesting ideas in this movie, and a couple cool moments that I’ve definitely never seen in a movie before. But, unfortunately, the overbearing flaws in the script and the on-again/off-again performances from all of the actors involved makes Branded a pretty trite and confused experience. Not confusing, in that it’s hard to follow what’s going on, but confused in that the movie just doesn’t seem to know how to stick all its contorted notions together and ends up seeming boneheaded because of it. It’s a prime example of a movie simply overstating its case to a point of unfortunate detriment.

   So this trippy-ass flick starts out in Russia in the early 1980’s. A little kid is lying on his back looking up at the night sky, and for a moment he seems to catch a glimpse of a moving cow head constellation in the night sky when his number is called for….something. Maybe I’m a little behind in my Russia history lessons, so I’m gonna give this scene the benefit of the doubt, but for some reason there’s a whole bunch of people standing in line for something and somebody calling out numbers. I’m sure there’s some factual reason for this, but I don’t know what it is and the movie just doesn’t clarify it for us in the slightest. The boy hears his number, and comes running up the line to claim…something…when suddenly, HE GETS STRUCK BY FRIGGIN’ LIGHTNING!!!! But, it seems in Moscow in the early 1980’s people get struck by lightning with relatively abundant frequency since NOBODY even flinches or acts surprised when the kid gets struck down! A few people do crowd around, and one woman goes over to check on the boy, who is frazzled but otherwise unharmed. She asks the boy if he’s alright, and when he replies she tells him that he is “going to have a very strange life.” BOY, YOU SAID IT LADY! That’s when the title of the film pops up and I guess our story is underway.

Ed Stoppard ponders if it really is all about the burger.

   Soooo, this opening scene already has problems out the ass. Why are all these people waiting in line, and why are numbers being called off for something? Like I said, I’m sure there’s some legitimate reason, but the fact is it’s never made clear why. It doesn’t really matter cuz it doesn’t have any bearing on the rest of the plot whatsoever, but I still don’t like it when events aren’t explained to us – especially when it’s at the beginning of a film, and the main character is actively participating in said events. The little boy is excited and obviously intent on getting whatever his number has been called for, so it DOES have bearing on the scene…anyway, he inexplicably gets struck by lightning, and seriously, NO ONE REACTS! It’s pretty mind-boggling, actually…again, this is nitpicky territory, but c’mon, everything that happens in the frame is important when you’re making a movie. If you don’t have people react to something as intense as witnessing someone getting struck by lightning, it just seems jarring and unrealistic! This is ESPECIALLY bad at the very beginning of a movie, when everything is being set up and the audience is getting a feel for what the rest of the movie’s gonna be like.

   But it seems that weird, unemotional and unresponsive people really is what the movie’s about, so I guess it makes a little sense in that regard. Seriously, the characters in this movie are appallingly bland, and their reactions and choices throughout the movie are downright befuddling! I’ll get into it more in a little bit, but watching the normally great Max von Sydow cliché his way through an establishing board meeting scene and the tepid responses from other people in it really sets an awkward tone for the movie. Max von Sydow plays a sort of corporate head honcho, this dude who is calling all the shots of the plot. Pretty much instantly we’re told what the big plan is: to make sales better for fast food companies, the powers that be are going to orchestrate the public re-acceptance of being fat. That’s right, the plot of the first half of this movie is making the public think that being fat is cool, so that everyone will go to fast food chains more and fill their guts up. How will they accomplish this, you ask? Through incredibly contrived and conspiratorial actions, that’s how! This is where our protagonist comes into play: Misha Galkin, portrayed by Ed Stoppard, is that lightning-struck little boy all grown up and now a very talented marketing executive. Misha has just won a high-profile marketing award, which is jointly accepted by his boss Bob Gibbons (portrayed surprisingly hollowly by Jeffrey Tambor…I don’t really blame him though, his whole character is pretty damn hollow), and because of this, he lands a great gig producing a new reality show in the style of Extreme Makeover. Along for the ride on this show is Abby, the bangin’ American neice of Bob Gibbons played by Leelee Sobieski. Abby and Misha strike up a close friendship which quickly grows into a full-blown relationship, and Misha’s boss Bob ain’t too happy about it. In one of the film’s funnier yet highly inexplicable scenes, Misha and Abby are gettin’ down and dirty in the middle of stagnant traffic. We cut to the interior of Bob’s car, also stuck in traffic, as he makes a phone call to Misha. Too busy with sex to answer, Misha ignores the call, and then Bob feels the need to roll down his window to find….you guessed it!…Misha and Abby having sex in the very car next to him.  Hilarity then ensues, and it is a pretty humorous scene, but it’s one of the many moments in the film that just feels a bit lazy and a little rushed. Seriously, he’s sitting in the car next to them? Don’t get me wrong, while it’s a perfectly plausible scenario, I just find it to be a little convenient and squeezed in…like they needed Tambor’s character to find out what was going on, so they conjured up this entirely circumstantial traffic encounter. It doesn’t feel clever to me, it just feels a bit…lazy.

One way to motivate yourself at work is to hang a bunch of fake & terrible corporation names behind your desk. The desire to not suck so hard increases your output nearly 80%!

   Anyway, on to conspiracies and whatnot. So the idea of this Extreme Makeover-ish show is to take a fat person and surgically “fix” them to become a skinny person. Misha and his team go through the process of picking the perfect, most loveable fatty woman to play guinea pig for the entertainment of millions. How does this play into Max von Sydow’s brilliant scheme of convincing everyone to become fatasses? Reverse psychology, my friends – the show becomes an instant hit, and all of Moscow loves the fat woman (whose name I can’t recall) who will soon be lipo’d. But, the day of her surgery comes, and after it’s complete, Newly-Skinny Woman doesn’t wake up – she’s in a coma. The public, outraged by this turn of events, turns on the network executives who put her in her unfortunate position, demanding that those responsible be brought to justice…leading to the arrests of both Misha and Abby.

   You noticing anything strange about plot here? Mainly, how it’s all completely circumstantial and blatantly manufactured to get to the next plot point? Now seriously, I know the whole point of this movie is to emphasize the effect marketing and advertising has on public consciousness, but do they really want us to suspend disbelief enough to accept that people in the public would be this stupid? I know that’s kind of an iffy question, since this shit does happen in real life, but C’MON! Everything is hinged on the public accepting this shitty reality show that Misha is the producer of – what if nobody fuckin’ liked it? And then people get morally outraged when the star goes into a coma – something that is ostensibly beyond anyone’s real control? It’s kind of ridiculous to think that the public would be so outraged and willing to say things like “what was wrong with her in the first place?” (something actually said in the movie) when they were the very ones supporting her body-altering surgeries by loving the show so damn much. That’s the one thing that really bugs me about this movie – the public are portrayed as complete morons, incapable of one critical thought of any kind. Now, again, I know some of you reading this may find that this idea hits pretty close to home in the world, but the way this movie portrays people makes it feel like some cold, barely relatable universe. Public opinion is swayed on a whim simply to benefit the story – things keep happening, and the public just goes along with it, because if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any damn plot. This isn’t considered to be great writing – things move along simply to serve the plot, rather than serving the characters.

   And wow, the CHARACTERS – here’s another sore point in the movie. This is purely a plot-driven movie, not a character-driven one. Sometimes, when done correctly, this is a good thing, but this movie tries to make us feel like it’s a movie about people when really it’s a movie about ideas with a plot there to tie them all together. Every character in this movie is pretty flat and one-dimensional, simply there to do their part in the story rather than being fleshed out as real-feeling human beings. It’s definitely a big detracting factor in a film that is hypothetically about real-world scenarios and situations…or at least, trying to comment on real world scenarios and situations. You see, it’s much easier and effective to get these anti-corporate ideals across when the people being affected by what’s going on feel like real people, but we’re forced to endure this sort of distant-feeling universe full of raving idiots. Seriously, the only thing more unbelievable than this convoluted scheme is the fact that it actually works.

   So Misha is released from jail because it’s determined by the media that being induced into a coma has nothing to do with the people who put on the show (no fuckin’ shit) and he confronts Bob in his office. Bob tells him that the only reason he’s out of prison is because it was the only way he could get his niece to leave peacefully. Then for some reason they go to a bar or something and have drinks, and Misha tells Bob he’s out of the ad game. Then Bob has a heart attack or some kind of shit, and drops dead on the ground. Ummm…okay? Now that that character has been effectively written out of the story we can focus on Misha, who evacuates the increasingly fat-obsessed populace of Moscow to be a cow herder in the countryside (no, really). Abby tracks him down and tries to get him to come back, but he’s not having any of it, convinced his “talent for marketing” is nothing but evil. She leaves, but not before Misha has a dream-within-a-dream which tells him to carry out some act we slowly begin to see. This would probably be a good time to mention the Narrator, who is voiced by some robotic-sounding woman and who tells us all kinds of information as we see it happening onscreen. Seriously, there’s nothing I hate more in a movie than a useless narrator, and this one definitely qualifies. Why don’t you just TELL us the entire movie while it’s happening? Yeah, that’ll make us care more about this illogical plot.

Max von Sydow toasts to the 1-2 days he worked on this flick and the nice paycheck he’ll be receiving later in the week. The man’s a professional after all, people.

   So Misha builds this sacrificial pyre and somehow turns a cow red through voodoo magic or something, then brutally murders it with an axe before setting the entire pyre on fire and mixing the ashes in a jug of water to pour upon his naked body. I shit you not, this is what he actually does in the movie. Then he passes out in the field, and suddenly he wakes up in the back of Abby’s car…apparently, she “couldn’t leave him out there”, so she went and found his naked body in a field, picked him up and drove him back to Moscow so the plot could move forward. BUT! Something is not right upon this return to Moscow…apart from the fact that everybody is fat and every advertisement exclusively features fat people, Misha can now see hideous and amorphous creatures attached to everybody. What’s more, these strange creatures sit atop the headquarters of massive corporations, and seem to live off the life energy that people give by purchasing fast food and other manufactured goods.

   So NOW, about an hour into this thing, we’ve finally arrived at the selling point for the whole flick – brands are actually monsters themselves, and are involved in some kind of strange symbiotic relationship with all of mankind. And who’s the only one who can do anything about it?!…well it’s Misha, because he’s apparently the only one who can see them. Indeed, no one else can see or hear these creatures who are living off of them. Misha tries to tell Abby, but she of course doesn’t believe him. She’s also busy introducing Misha to his…SON?! Yeah so apparently Misha has a son that’s never met named Robert, and he’s a spoiled little fat kid with no manners. Robert tells his newfound daddy that he doesn’t like him in what may be one of the most rushed and awkward-feeling father-son meetings in cinematic history. They kind of just look at each other, acknowledge their existences, and then get on with things. This movie’s TOO BUSY for things like character development or meaningful connections!

That burger monster sure knows how to make a meaningful connection, YA KNOW WHAT I MEAN? Ahahahaha! Oh man, I kill me.

   So Misha tries to live life normally, pretending that these creatures don’t exist, but he finds it impossible. He repeatedly tries to tell Abby that the creatures are real and they’re part of some huge conspiracy to make people fat and stuff, but she’s not really feeling it. She asks him what he’s gonna do about it, and after a very awkward scene that ends with Misha pushing Abby over in the street because he was trying to shoo a creature attached to her, she takes Little Boy Plot Point and ditches Misha. That’s pretty cold, lady. So it’s at this point that Misha joins forces with an Asian health food company and begins to enact a conspiracy of his own to do away with these evil companies and their literally life-sucking forces.

   I’m not gonna ruin how it ends, but at this point you’ve already decided if this movie’s for you, I think. Frankly, this flick is a big damn mess. While the plot does chug along at a relatively brisk pace, we’re constantly being thrust ahead into the next plot point to further the action. There’s very little explanation for things, and we’re expected to take a lot of stuff for granted as the plot keeps throwing ideas at us. It’s kind of like The Dark Knight Rises if everything sucked a whole lot more. And what’s more, the characters’ choices and actions are pretty mind-boggling at some points. This is mainly because the characters aren’t there to serve any real purpose, they exist to further the ideas the plot is trying to convey. And while there are certainly many cool ideas in this movie, the script doesn’t do a very good job of keeping them all together.

   All right, so I’m going to talk about the only big selling point this movie has, and that’s the brand-name hidden monsters floating around everywhere. Quite frankly, apart from being a visual metaphor and a pretty cool looking special effect, I have no idea what purpose they serve in the story. It’s established that these monsters are living off the energy provided by people consuming the goods these companies sell, but literally the only person we’re shown to even be aware of it is Misha! It’s never mentioned or even remotely addressed what role the creatures play in the plans of the corporations – or if the corporations are even aware of their existence. We never learn WHERE they came from, WHY they’re doing this, or WHO even benefits from their existence. So this logically could mean that Misha is just hallucinating, or making it all up in his head, right? Well, I have a tough time buying that because there seems to be this whole divine intervention theme going on throughout the entire movie – Misha is struck by lightning at the very beginning of the movie. He has a dream that tells him to sacrifice a red cow, and after said ritual, he’s able to see these terrible creatures. And THEN there’s a scene Misha even looks up the “Red Cow Ritual” online, where he finds all kinds of information about this seemingly ancient ritual which cleanses the spirit of the Sin of the Golden Calf, meaning that the person carrying out the ritual can see things other people cannot. Judging by the scene alone there’s all kinds of information documenting this ritual, which means that other people on the planet should be aware of these monsters in SOME form, right? Well, maybe – again, Misha is the only one who is shown to know of the monsters in any way. So, what purpose do the monsters serve in the grand scheme of everything? WHY are they even there?!?!

The towering pillar of invisible ooze-beast wants to pilfer your capital gains. And EAT YOUR BRAIN.

   I’m pointing this out because this whole idea of brands being alive – which is a genuinely interesting idea that separates this movie from any other and is the primary focus of the ad campaign – is a pretty inconsequential addition to the film overall. The big conspirators, the corporations behind all the bad shit in the movie…they don’t even seem to be AWARE of these creatures’ existences! So that begs the question, WHERE did these monsters COME from?! What came first, the monster or the corporation? Now, I’ll tell you what I expected going into the movie – I expected Max von Sydow to be the top conspirator dude running everything (which he was) and that at the end of the movie Misha, after working his way up the ranks, would finally confront him and learn the truth about these unusual beasts. Instead, von Sydow’s character inexplicably disappears from the film about 20 minutes before it ends in one of the strangest scenes I’ve seen in a long time and we’re left to just ponder what the hell the monsters are doing there. Are they real? Are they a hallucination? Quite frankly, I don’t think the filmmakers even thought about it that much. I don’t think it’s supposed to be left open-ended for audience interpretation or whatever, I just think that shit wasn’t properly explained. There are a couple redeeming factors here and there that tie the creatures to the plot a bit more substantially – at one point, Misha is able to create a new monster that flies out and kills another corporation monster, specifically of a chain called “The Burger”. This drives the stocks of “The Burger” down and eventually they go bankrupt. So…I guess if you kill the monster, that frees people from their desire to consume at its corporation, therefore leading to shitty sales and bankruptcy? Or maybe the monsters themselves are linked to the stocks somehow…? You see, things just happen in this movie but they’re never properly explained…how the fuck are we supposed to know what purpose these creatures serve if nobody ever tells us?

   And hey, speaking of the actual brands in the movie, let’s talk about that shit for a second. One important thing to note is that no real-world companies have lent their names to this flick…and I really don’t blame them in the slightest. I mean, it’s a movie about giant corporate monsters sucking the life force out of people’s skulls, I really don’t think any company would want to be associated with that. So because of this hangup, the filmmakers are forced to come up with hilariously sub-par impersonations of name brands we know and love – “Apple” becomes “Yepple”, every burger joint ever gets condensed into “The Burger” (gee, what a creative name), there’s “Soda Soda” which is obviously modeled after Coca-Cola…I’m gonna stop here because these replacement names are starting to hurt my brain. You get the idea anyway, there ain’t any real name brands in the picture, aside from one scene where Misha talks on the phone to some guy about Paramount not liking a commercial they’ve made…I’m pretty sure that’s the only real company mentioned in the entire movie, and only at one fleeting moment. I don’t know about you, but I think it kind of takes away from the biting satire the filmmakers are obviously striving for when you replace all the names you wanted to use with cheap, barely-creative imitation brands. What’s more, it distances the events of the film from our universe even more, making everything seem like some make-believe version of Earth when it’s supposed to be directly commenting on stuff happening in the real world. I know it’s all supposed to be a metaphor or whatever, but I just feel like that’s an excuse for not being able to get real-life name brands to back your obviously anti-corporate film, and it alienates the already disconnected audience that much more.

Subtlety, we hardly knew ye.

   Branded is a confused movie – one that wants to slap you in the face with a political message while at the same time trying to masquerade as an entertaining sci-fi flick. Unfortunately, neither of these goals really work effectively. The fact is, we get the whole anti-corporation thing pretty much from the get-go. We’re instantly shown that the corporations are conspiring against the public, making them instantly bad to us, and we’re shown the effects they have on the community as a whole. We just keep being fed things we’re already aware of. And THEN an hour into the movie they decide to kick in this half-assed sci-fi/horror angle with the corporation creatures to visually show what these corporations do, but they serve no real purpose. The nature of their existence is never fully explained, their effect on the public is only perceived by one person, and their influence on the plot as a whole is trivial at best. It’s really not a good thing when the whole selling point of your movie has no real influence on its story other than an elaborate visual metaphor. The characters are cardboard, and the actors try their best to fill their roles with some kind of depth, but the script they’re forced to recite keeps pulling the rug out from under them. It’s a damn shame because I feel like this movie could have been SO much more – there’s a lot of fertile ground here idea-wise, and maybe in the hands of more competent filmmakers it would have been something more memorable. The movie is a joint Russian/American production, and has two directors and writers…perhaps this is a reason why the movie feels disjointed and lacking a solid core. Directors duos only work when a vision is agreed upon and shared, and usually when the directors are related. This movie feels like the ideas of a bunch of people were thrown in and strung together by some kind of meandering corporate plot. It just don’t work, people.

   So final thoughts? Branded is a pretty forgettable film, sorry to say. It has a lot of visual imagination, which earns it some points, and I can definitely say that there’s never been a movie like it before…which is both a good and a bad thing. Despite all the bad things I’ve said about it, I’d still recommend it to someone looking for something visually stimulating and generally original…just don’t make the same mistake I made of shelling out a full ticket price at the theater. I’d say wait until it’s on Netflix or something before checking this one out. It’s a simple-minded movie trying to masquerade as an intelligent satire with a sci-fi edge, but it’s so disjointed and poorly thought out that it just comes across as incompetent. The movie swiftly changes in tone halfway through from a corporate thriller to a special-effects laden sci-fi satire that doesn’t really gel properly. But hey, I certainly appreciate at least the effort to produce an original idea. I just hope its failure in execution doesn’t scare investors away from other original ideas in the future….or maybe it’s all a conspiracy to sell the public more thoughtless remakes and rehashes!!! OMG I FIGURED IT OUT!

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