CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: BRANDED (2012)
By L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: L.L. SOARES is walking down a street in Moscow, when he sees a bunch of people running)
LS: What are you running from!
PEOPLE (speaking in Russian): Brand Names are trying to kill us.
(They are pursued by giant signs for MCDONALD’S and COCA-COLA. Watching this, LS scratches his head)
LS: Well folks, this is going to be a weird one.
I left the theater after seeing the new movie BRANDED, and I was scratching my head then, too. I am going to try to explain this one, but it’s not going to be easy. I am also going to have two ratings this time around. One for mainstream, normal audiences, and another for people who like movies that are especially…weird. Because BRANDED is not going to appeal to everyone. I’m still not even sure what I think of it.
First off, when I saw the trailer for BRANDED, I thought it was a science fiction movie where weird aliens were using brand name products and advertising to control and feed off us. I went in expecting scary flick set in a future where everything is out of control. (See the BRANDED trailer, here).
But, sitting through the first 45 minutes or so, I thought I walked into the wrong movie. Because nothing horrific happens; nothing bizarre takes place. Instead, we get a pretty standard story about an advertising firm in Moscow. Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) gets out of the debt of a failed advertising agency when an American businessman named Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor) buys him out and hires him for his new firm. In return, Bob asks Misha to record everything he sees when dealing with their clients. As Misha describes it, he’s kind of an “advertising spy,” and the whole thing is a little odd to him. But he’s doing well. He’s winning advertising awards, making lots of money, and hovering near a promotion. The one thing Bob insists is that Misha not get involved with his daughter, Abby (Leelee Sobieski), who has an eye for him. Misha says he won’t, but of course, he dives headlong into a passionate love affair with her. Bob goes nuts and fires him.
Meanwhile, a group of fast food CEOs are at a conference table in some kind of mountain retreat to see a kind of advertising demigod, called the Marketing Guru here (and played by Max Von Sydow), complaining that their profits are dwindling and people don’t seem to want fast food anymore. The Guru tells them he has a plan to turn their fortunes around. Instead of their changing to meet the needs of the world, the world will change to become more reliant on their products. They will make it “cool” to be fat, and burger joints will become desirable again. It sounds far-fetched, but it begins to work. They start out in three “third world” markets to test it out. One of these is Russia, where Misha is.
Fired from his job, Misha becomes the producer of a reality show Abby is putting on Russian television. It involves finding an overweight girl and having her undergo a series of surgeries to become thin. But something goes wrong, and she falls into a coma during the procedure. Public outcry causes the police to arrest Abby and Misha for a while.
After he gets out of jail, Misha decides to leave the city and herd cows for a living. Several years pass.
Eventually, Abby finds him again, but he has changed. After trying to convince him to come back with her to the city, and failing, she leaves.
It is up to this point that I was very puzzled about BRANDED. Just what kind of movie was this? Where were the strange monsters/aliens from the trailer? Was this just a straight-forward drama about advertising and disillusionment?
Misha has a dream. In this dream, he is told how to build a bizarre platform/altar to perform an ancient pagan ritual that involves the slaughter of a red cow. When he does it for real, he is overwhelmed by the power of the ritual and passes out. Abby comes back for him and brings him home to Moscow with her.
It is in this part of the movie that things start to change from normal to just plain weird.
Because of the ritual, Misha can now see “the truth” that no one else sees. And what he sees is living brand names that are controlling our lives and desires. Misha finds a very different world than the one he left. A fast food franchise called The Burger dominates the world. A majority of the planet’s inhabitants are now extremely obese (of course, Misha and Abby are still thin and attractive). Misha even finds out that Abby gave birth to a son he didn’t know he had – a dim-witted, obese little boy who is always asking for money for hamburgers.
Misha begins to freak out because he sees the “living brands” everywhere. They are horrible, gigantic monsters that attach themselves to every human being, and hover like behemoths above the city. Misha thinks he is going insane and almost kills himself. Abby and his son leave him. But then he has a change of heart and goes back into advertising, intent on using his newfound knowledge of living, breathing brand names—the monsters —to start a war between the monsters. He begins by taking on a vegetarian Chinese food chain as a client, and taking aim at the creatures behind The Burger.
From here, the movie just gets stranger.
There are some interesting images in BRANDED. From that strange cow-slaughtering ritual (that seems like something out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film) to the huge, balloon-like CGI monsters that Misha sees, sitting on the roofs of all the tall buildings in Moscow. There’s a weird scene where Misha walks out on a balcony during a rainstorm and just starts screaming all of a sudden. And there’s another strange scene where all of the advertising in Moscow disappears, making it look like an ancient city again.
Needless to say, BRANDED is not for everyone. It is not a conventional, normal narrative film. There is a narrator who pops up every once awhile to give us voice-over explanations of what is going on (the voice of Mariya Ignatova). And I think it’s trying to be more of a satire on the advertising business than a literal science fiction/horror film.
There weren’t a lot of people at the showing of BRANDED I went to. It hasn’t had a very strong promotional campaign—and after seeing the movie, I can see why. Several people in the audience I saw BRANDED with walked out half-way through. Many of the people who stayed were shouting at the screen by the end.
But I can’t say I didn’t like BRANDED. I’m a big fan of strange cinema, from the movies of David Lynch and Jodorowsky, to surreal odysseys like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW (2010), to oddities like Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM (2003). So BRANDED struck a chord in me. I’m actually surprised a movie this quirky got a fairly wide release in movie theaters.
The acting, for the most part, is pretty good. I like Jeffrey Tambor (probably best known for his roles on the TV shows ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW), and Leelee Sobieski (previously in JOY RIDE, 2001, and the awful remake of THE WICKER MAN, 2006) is pretty good in this one (didn’t she seem to disappear from acting for a while?). Ed Stoppard (also in THE LITTLE VAMPIRE, 2000, and NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS, 2010) as Misha is the heart of the movie, and keeps you watching throughout. And how can you not love an appearance by the legendary Max Von Sydow? The script and the direction on the other hand are very strange. It took two people to direct this one – Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain in their English feature film debut – and they both wrote the script as well. The production values are a little stilted at times. The CGI monsters are so unreal and weird looking, that it makes them look both very fake and sort of disturbing.
It’s rated R, but aside from a few f-bombs, there’s no real reason for the rating. Even during the movie’s most passionate sex scene, Stoppard and Sobieski keep their clothes on.
For mainstream audiences, I give this movie one and a half knives. I don’t think most people will like it. It’s just too strange. And I wasn’t even sure if I liked it at first.
For people who dig really weird movies, I’d give it three and a half knives. Just because it’s so off the map. A movie so far removed from the kinds of films Hollywood is doing that it deserves a look as a curiosity. Like going to an old fashioned freak show.
Personally, I think I liked it. But like BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, which I saw earlier this year, I can’t tell if it’s a bad movie made by inept directors, or a low-budget masterpiece that simply didn’t have the money to match its big ambitions. And therefore, it kind of ends up somewhere between the two extremes of bad and good.
I guess you can tell, based on this description of the film, whether or not it sounds intriguing to you. So it’s up to you whether you’ll be seeking this one out on Netflix when the time comes.
(LS’s cell phone rings)
MICHAEL ARRUDA: It’s Michael. Where are you?
LS: I’m in Moscow. Where are you?
LS: So I guess it’s an International Monday here at Cinema Knife Fight.
MA: So how is it there?
LS: A little weird. I’m reviewing the movie BRANDED. But, aside from a Coca-Cola sign ripping some people to shreds, it’s pretty quiet.
MA: Okay, meet you back at headquarters. See you next week.
(The camera follows LS as he continues to walk down the city street. He suddenly raises an umbrella and opens it up, just in time to protect himself from a downpour of blood as a giant monstrous BURGER KING devours some customers)
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares
For Normal Audiences, LL Soares gives BRANDED ~ one and a half knives.
For assorted weirdos and people who appreciate strange films, LL Soares gives BRANDED ~three and a half knives.