Review: 'Branded', starring Ed Stoppard and Leelee Sobieski
There's no doubt that writers/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn have their hearts in the right place when it comes to their directorial debut, the sci-fi film Branded. Both come from the shady world of advertising, and clearly their hope was to take a sharp skewer to the life they left behind by exposing it for the danger they perceive it to be. There's just one little problem...ok, a really big problem, and it's that Branded is a terrible movie that fails on so many levels that any message they hoped to pass along will go completely unheard.
The worst part about it is that the directors clearly think they're making something really smart and artsy, with camerawork ripped from every film school student who received a failing grade. Each scene unfolds from confounding angles, and the camera lingers for a hair...two hairs...three hairs too long so often you wonder if someone stepped out for lunch and forgot to power it down. Technical demerits aside, it's unlikely anyone could have helped this make a lick of sense. It wants so desperately to be satirical, but lacks the intelligence to be an effective "smart ass", and instead turns out just to be the latter part of the equation.
There are a couple of nice ideas that the filmmakers prove freakishly inept at pulling off. Set in Russia, Ed Stoppard does his worst Bruce Campbell riff as Misha, who as a young boy is mysteriously struck by lightning and prophesied to have an unusual life. He grows up to become a marketing spy for an American businessman(Jeffrey Tambor), for reasons that are too complicated and nonsensical to explain. The legendary Max von Sydow turns up for a hot second as a renowned marketing genius trying to save the flagging fast food industry, and he comes up with a novel idea to simply change the way people perceive fat. Fat people are presented as the most desirable and glamorous people in the world, and so the market shifts enough that consumers are again comfortable with eating junky food. It's actually quite a clever bit that could only come from someone who has been on the inside of the advertising biz and seen these types of plots unfold.
Leelee Sobieski, who once was a promising young actress, turns up as Misha's love interest, Abby. To say her performance lacks emotional modulation is to be quite generous. She's either giddy as a helium addicted schoolgirl or totally emotionless, and never at a time when they'd be appropriate. Abby and Misha hatch a crazy TV show called Extreme Cosmetics, but it's crushed by the new fat-loving paradigm. Driven apart for six years by their failure, Misha becomes a loner who is convinced by an alien presence to build a gigantic temple spire, slaughter a red calf, then bathe in its blood. The result grants him the power to see that advertising has literally taken over Russia in the form of little alien creatures that look like parade balloon versions of popular marketing icons.
It gets even weirder, if you can believe it, as Misha tries to convince Abby that he's not a lunatic. In the time they've been apart she's birthed his child, who happens to be a fat kid addicted to The Burger, the most popular fast food chain in the country Misha embarks on a convoluted mission to subvert marketing's influence by forcing all the parasitic creatures to turn against one another. It makes absolutely no sense, but it's admittedly cool when a gargantuan Coca-Cola monster scales a skyscraper like King Kong.
All of this strangeness flies in the face of the approach we see in the first half of the film, which is presented almost like a documentary of Misha's exploits, narrated flatly by an alien cow(!!!) no less. We get a lot of rather boring exposition about the origins and history of marketing, most of which might have been interesting in another movie. It's not even enough fun to be worthy of public mockery.
But perhaps the funniest thing about Branded is how it was marketed to us. The filmmakers used some inventive Internet viral marketing to gather a significant buzz. The trailers were embedded with literally dozens of QR codes that took you to some additional materials fleshing out the Branded world. Rather dishonestly, the film is presented as something of a spiritual cousin to John Carpenter's anti-consumerism horror/comedy, They Live, but that is not at all what Branded turns out to be. Whether the deception is part of a larger point Bradshaw and Dulerayn are trying to make is unclear, and it really doesn't matter. As Hollywood directors they've got a bright future ahead of them as marketing execs.