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Our review of Branded (1950), published March 14th, 2006, is also available.
The invasion has already begun.
"No one can hear her scream."
Facts of the Case
Our story begins in Russia at some point in the near future. Misha (Ed Stoppard, Zen) is a highly-regarded advertising consultant who's done acclaimed work in a wide variety of fields. His latest project is a weight loss-themed reality show that was pitched to him by Abby (Leelee Sobieski, 88 Minutes), the attractive daughter of Misha's cantankerous employer Bob (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development). Alas, when Misha's show is sabotaged by an evil marketing guru (Max Von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) with a wicked scheme, the young consultant's life goes into a tailspin. Will Misha be able to conquer his inner demons?
I've always had a certain affection for films that recklessly swing for the fences, even if they miss. I'd much rather sit through an ambitious dud like 1941 than a run-of-the-mill dud like Failure to Launch. There's something appealing about a movie that is willing to follow its wild vision even if it means potentially alienating a great deal of the audience. You have to hand it to the makers of Branded: they've made a unique film. Yes, they've made a uniquely terrible film, but it's a unique film nonetheless.
It's clear from the opening moments that the movie is biting off a bit more than it can chew. The film begins by tossing out the names of great thinkers from Galileo to Albert Einstein, then informs us that these are all men who had the ability to see the future because they saw the world in a different light. We then cut to a young Russian boy looking at the stars—he looks closely and sees a constellation that transforms into a rotating cow's head. Then we cut to the present, as this young boy has grown up into an advertising whiz. As evidence of Misha's powers in his field, we see a trailer for a grisly horror flick shown to a group of potential moviegoers. "How many of you would buy a ticket to see this movie?" the focus group leader asks. Every person in the room raises their hand, despite the fact that the trailer footage looks like it was taken from one of Roger Corman's most lazily-assembled efforts.
It's a shaky start, and things slowly get worse from there. First, there's an inexplicably awful scene in which an angry Bob witnesses Misha and Abby having sex in Misha's car in the middle of rush hour traffic. What? Then we're introduced to the redonkulous scheme of Max Von Sydow's evil marketing guru: he plans to place one of the overweight contestants on Misha's reality show into a coma, thus generating sympathy for overweight people and beginning a chain of events that will ultimately make obesity wildly popular. The motivation for this wackadoo plot? The fast food industry is struggling, and Von Sydow has been tasked with reigniting the public's interest in junk food. Again, what?
At least the first hour or so of the film kinda-sorta makes sense. Things go off the deep end midway through when Misha decides to go into solitude, establishing a new identity for himself as a lonely shepherd who finds himself driven to participate in an ancient ritual that requires him to slaughter a cow and dump buckets of water on his head. Eventually, our hero returns to the world of advertising and finds himself plagued with dark visions. Goofy-looking CGI balloon monsters intended to represent the assorted corporations of the world start doing savage battle with each other, and…well, I won't spoil the rest. Suffice it to say that I was shaking my head in dismay by the time the credits rolled.
The movie certainly isn't formulaic, and seems to be interested in making some larger points about capitalism in a unique way. But the fact of the matter is the filmmakers aren't nearly talented enough to bring their vision to life in a satisfying way. So much of the film feels so amateurish, as if a handful of college sophomores midway through courses in philosophy and economics stayed up too late, watched a marathon of Terry Gilliam flicks, plowed through 48 cans of Mountain Dew and then hastily shot their own movie. At a couple of points in the movie, Misha tosses off some tagline suggestions for the horror flick he's promoting. I'd like to offer a tagline for Branded: "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
The cast is comprised of reasonably talented folks, but none of the actors can overcome the material. The typically wonderful Jeffrey Tambor seems lost at times, as if he's uncertain of where to take his underwritten character. Ed Stoppard's performance consists almost entirely of the actor making a face that suggests that he has no idea what is happening. Max Von Sydow is always a pleasure to see, but it pained me to hear him utter lines like, "We're going to make fat the new fabulous!" Leelee Sobieski fares best by simply doing her best to play her role with a natural, low-key warmth regardless of whatever crazy things are happening around her.
Branded has received a 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that actually suffers from some significant problems. Banding is a very prominent problem throughout; it's considerably more aggressive than what you'll usually see on a hi-def release of a brand-new film. Detail is also middling at times, lacking the sharpness and clarity that one typically expects. It's not horrible, but this looks like the sort of Blu-ray release the film might have received in the earliest days of the format. The hi-def transfer also accentuates just how terrible the CGI is, too—seriously, there are many moments in which this one looks like it could have been made by The Asylum. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is better, though there are volume issues that prove problematic. The (remarkably awkward) voiceover narration has a distracting echo effect, and the disconnect between the dialogue and the rest of the sound design will likely cause you to adjust the volume on multiple occasions. Supplements include a commentary with writer/directors Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulerain (who honestly don't seem all too sure of what they were trying to accomplish) and a pair of theatrical trailers.
Branded has a surplus of ambition, but its ideas are shaky and its execution is awful. Too bad.
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