Branded is a fascinating case study in filmmaking ambition gone wrong. It is full of passion that’s totally misguided, satire with no understanding of how metaphor works, and a message that would be profound if it were based on how its subject actually functions. Spoiler warning, because I’m going to have to go through at least an hour of plot to fully encapsulate just how insane Branded is.
Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) is some kind of marketing genius. He’s helping his boss (Jeffrey Tambor)’s daughter Abby (Leelee Sobieski) sell an extreme makeover reality show where they’ll give a heavy lady 12 surgeries to make her thin. But, unnamed Marketing Guru (Max von Sydow) presides over a meeting in some Clash of the Titans sky tower on a “Private Polynesian Island” masterminding a plan to make the world think fat is beautiful.
Okay, writers/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksander Dulerayn may be onto something here. That media god motif is a bit on the nose but they clearly have something to say, and for 30-40 minutes you might just think Branded is a sloppy but well-meaning polemic.
It turns out Misha’s marketing skills have the power to kill. That’s not a metaphor, he actually markets people to death. Twice. He markets people to death and decides he has to get out, so he moves out of the world of advertising and corporate dominance to a farm in the middle of nowhere. On the farm he burns a red cow. He’s burning a sacred cow, folks. Later the movie’s narrator even explains the symbolism of the red cow, but we got it. Sacred cows.
Abby finds Misha and brings him back to the world to meet the son he never knew he fathered. Melodrama aside, what’s really crazy is that when Misha returns to a world where Zeus von Sydow succeeded in making everyone want to be fat, Misha can now see the physical manifestations of advertising brands. As in, CGI monsters are crawling all over people forcing them to eat hamburgers and buy other fattening products, but only Misha can see them. And since these are all fake corporate logos, they’re not any kind of mascot we recognize from our world, so they just look like cut rate CGI nonsense.
And then there’s another good 40 minutes or so where Misha uses marketing to get revenge on the advertising and save the world from branding. Clearly this is a mess, but it’s never boring. It sort of squanders an interesting sci-fi premise, but I guess we already have Idiocracy, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Demolition Man and that “Simpsons” episode where all the billboard icons came to life.
You can tell Bradshaw and Dulerayn have some feelings about advertising and want to make a statement in a creative way. They just don’t seem to understand how it works. Yes, the media influences our images of beauty and uses manipulative tactics to suggestive sell to us. You don’t explore that by making “marketing” some magic power that can both murder people and unleash animated creatures. That doesn’t speak to the ethics of advertising.
Satirically speaking, you can recognize a few of the fake brands. Obviously The Burger is McDonalds, but their corresponding logo in no way mimics Ronald McDonald so you can’t tell it’s connected to the fictional restaurant. Yepple is Apple, Ooogle is Google, but there’s no commentary on the products themselves. I did get a kick out of seeing a movie poster for Resident Devil: Restitution, with a curvy outline of full figured Milla Jovovich type, but that’s in the background. It doesn’t factor into the plot except to show how fat has become accepted thanks to the kraken of advertising von Sydow’s character unleashed.
What’s most interesting to me is they had just enough resources to make Branded look like a legitimate movie. I’m guessing Russian financing, since the whole film is set in Russia. If you just watch the first 40 minutes or so, you’d think Branded was a studio movie with some actors you’d recognize, maybe not high drama but no worse than the latest Katherine Heigl joint. Then in that setting, you have unrecognizable corporate logo monsters flying around the city like a pre-vis sequence from D-War.
Sobieski actually gives Abby the heart and soul we remember her for in her spate of starring vehicles from just over a decade ago. Tambor plays a one note corporate shill with dignity and von Sydow knows what’s required of him. Stoppard has the most heavy lifting to do and I can only sympathize with the material he has to make believable.
The movie looks great on Blu-ray. Those shots of Russia are perfectly clear and gritty with the cool blue tint. The CGI effects are highlighted in all their cheap glory, not even existing on the same plane as the filmed elements. As Blu-rays go though, it’s on the high end of studio standards, which makes Branded blend in with the normal, sense-making movies. That may be part of the marketing.
Aside from a few trailers, the only bonus feature is a commentary by the writers/directors, so you know I had to find out what they were thinking. Bradshaw and Dulerayn actually sound very reasonable. Dulerayn does speak with a very thick Russian accent, but they’re just guys who wanted to make a movie. They did work in marketing so they know what they’re talking about. It just doesn’t come across clearly, but I can’t imagine it works as an inside baseball kind of treatise either. Perhaps in presenting their point of view in an artistic metaphor, they overthought it and made it ridiculous.
As far as the wild story tangents go, they were intentional. Bradshaw expresses a desire to rebel against the standard movie formula, and that is a noble ambition. They have an interesting set of rules for the creatures that appear upon Misha’s return to society. It sort of explains why they don’t ultimately work. They get a bit delusional when evaluating their film festival rejections, but hey, I’ve definitely seen worse at Sundance.
Branded is so crazy I cannot believe it exists. Under any traditional system, this would have been stopped or watered down at some point in the process. The fact that it wasn’t makes it some kind of miracle. I feel it must be seen and shared. That’s why I bothered to review a Blu-ray of a movie no one’s heard of.
Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.