Sunday, October 21, 2012


In continuing with my routine of reviewing obscure movies, here's "Branded".  Last month "Branded" appeared out of virtually nowhere, summoned as if from cinematic aether itself.  The writers, directors, editor, production company - they've all come either out of Russian television or have never worked in film before.  It came with an amazing trailer, that appeared to be a recreation of John Carpenter's "The Thing" mixed in with a little bit of "Inception"-style epic surrealist insanity.  We have Asian dudes with tentacles growing out of their heads, big disgusting tumor-like clown creatures growing out of buildings, and a Coca-Cola Spider.  The advertisements are alive and they're angry!

However, in most delectable irony, "Branded" itself is a result of the very worst kind of crass false advertising.  For a movie focused entirely about how evil advertising is - and I'll get to how stupid that idea is in a moment - it sure took advantage of using all five minutes of interesting visuals to sell a dull, turgid, and painfully stupid movie.  The ads talk about a "code" that controls our minds, there is no such thing in "Branded".  All those visuals of giant ad monsters fighting in Moscow's skies?  Well, they're all hallucinations.  In that poster the hero has an ax, ready to fight this twisted Dr. Seuss land of advertising icons on the rampage, nothing of the kind ever occurs.  You also see Max von Sydow in the trailers, and he's in the movie, but literally not for a second longer in the final product.  This is no movie of mindbending existential threats, its a movie about how evil fast food is... or something.

"Branded" is production made by Russians and American companies, which is actually something of an inspired step for a movie dealing with the excesses of raw capitalism.  Moscow once was the center of the Communist war against Capitalism, and now is the midsts of its own Westernizing experiment, so its a good place to stage a commentary on modern economics and globalization.  Unfortunately, the conclusion here is so single-minded and simplistic as to be laughably bad.  "They Live" was subversive social commentary on the controlling forces of Reagan's America to completely control our minds, using an alien conspiracy as the symbol.  It also was a really fun movie.  "Branded" instead is no fun at all, so right there it fails, but it also has a far dumber message:  advertising is bad.  WHAT?

The star of "Branded" is Ed Stoppard, the son of playwright and writer Tom Stoppard.  That's probably the most interesting bit of trivia about this entire sorry affair.  Stoppard and the rest of his cast fail completely to bring any bit of humanity out of this movie, with varying levels of success.  Our hero spends most of the movie acting like he is completely insane, often bursting into unintentionally hilarious outbursts of violence against his own family.  Max von Sydow walked onto set for five minutes, said all his lines with an ironic smirk, and went right on home.  Jeffrey Tambor overacts every scene, moving with the same beats as if this were a comedy movie.  His character walked right out of "Arrested Development" - and tragically he's the heart of the movie.  Leelee Sobieski can barely finish her lines without looking like she needs another drink to keep working.  By the way, Leelee, you're a very pretty girl, but please get a new agent.  Your resume now happens to include "The Wicker Man", an Uwe Boll movie, and this.  But I'm not blaming the actors here, I'm blaming the script, the directing, and most of all:  the editing.

Even if the actors had any chance at all to establish their broad vague characters into likable people, the editing clearly put the final nail in "Branded"'s casket.  Despite being over 100 minutes long, "Branded" somehow lacked the running time to fully establish any of its characters or tell its story.  The narrator is given the task of telling just around a third of the story by telling the audience directly what's going on.  We skip over entirely chunks of the story with the narrator just saying "oh, that happened".  I haven't seen anything this bad since David Lynch's "Dune"*.  One scene Ed Stoppard goes to bed, and then the narrator has to tell us that he had a dream telling him what he needed to do in order to have a huge revelation.  We don't know what the dream was, what he has to do, or what the revelation will be, we're just told flat data without context.  So then the hero ritualistically slaughters a cow, sets the corpse on fire, and baths in the ashes.  This leads to about fifteen minutes where you're left wondering what the fuck is going on.  Then waaaaay later we learn its an allusion to a Biblical commandment about achieving spiritual cleanliness.  Its on the borderline of becoming an incomprehensible arthouse film, but trust me, the makers of "Branded" do not have even that little ambition.

Oh, and in the movie's final twist, the narrator turns out to be a talking constellation... in the shape of a cow.  Cows are a recurring theme in "Branded", as an allusion to the Golden Calf, which is probably one of the most tired metaphors for capitalism.  Every time "Branded" tries to appear intelligent or ground breaking, it just ends up looking pathetic.

The plot, as much as one can say there is one, starts with Max von Sydow, who is a marketing super guru who lives on his own island, announcing an evil scheme to save fast food companies.  Apparently the health craze is killing fast food profits, so Max von Sydow decides the way to save fast food is to rebuild the cultural image of beauty and make fat attractive again.  The hero winds up getting unwittingly brought into this plot, since he and Leelee Sobieski are making a make-over reality show to turn a fat woman pretty.  Well, the fat woman falls into a coma - I'm still not sure if it was just normal malpractice or some plot of von Sydow's cabal, and then Russia massively protests the skinny image.  So in a few years, all the models and actors are fat, everybody eats cheeseburgers and fast food is making more than ever.

Now, the skinny attractive image is a creation of mass marketing, so I'm a bit confuse what the Hell "Branded" is talking about even now.  If they're worried about the healthiness of food and the effects this has on people's bodies, then they're focused far too much on advertising, which is only part of the story.  I don't think "Branded" actively hates fat people, though the sight of pretty overweight models out on a date together really isn't as apocalyptic as the filmmakers think it is.  The movie repeats endlessly that advertising can do anything, as if a supervillain could use advertising to control the world.  Of course, advertising, in order to be successful, has to appeal to people, its message is changed as much as people are changed by its message.  Its all very dumb already, but its going to get worse in a moment.

The hero (I forget his name) goes into isolation for a few years, then comes back after apparently going completely insane.  He now sees huge ghostly CG advertising monsters everywhere.  Whenever somebody eats a cheeseburger, a bubble of tumorous Need floats into the sky to become part of the advertising entity.  This leads the hero to decide that all advertising is evil, and that it needs to be destroyed.  And in order to do this, he must destroy every industry that uses advertising.  So first he takes down fast food by making vegetarian food more popular.  Then "Branded" gets even more stupid when the hero decides that his next target should be cell phones.  All of cell phones, he's going to destroy that industry.  Apparently he kills soda, all computers, television, cars, and basically takes down world capitalism**... all so that they don't put up quite so many billboards.  You never see the results of this massive economic destruction, which actually would have disastrous effects.  At the end of the movie all advertising is banned, and this is the start of a great new age.  What does this new age look like?  No idea, "Branded" completely fails to show anything of its revolutionary ideal.  But there are definitely less billboards.

If you're wondering what happened to the villain and the evil cabal of fast food CEOs, well... Max von Sydow gets hit by lightning in the last act of the film and disappears without any explanation at all.  I can appreciate an element of the supernatural in any story, but this just seems irresponsible.  Like Sydow mid-scene looked down at his watch, decided that he had been paid for enough work already, and stormed out.  So the director just fudged some CG to cover it up.  Its a last ditch effort to create a sense of greater meaning by being incomprehensible.

What's happened here is a relatively stock anti-capitalist assumption:  that advertising is the tool by which shadowy dark forces control our lives and our minds, and takes it much too far to the ridiculous conclusion.  If advertising rules the world, the only way to be free is to ban advertising.  But what is advertising?  Its just the method by which companies try to sell you their products.  There's nothing evil about it.  Without advertising we would be far less informed about our choices as consumers.  Is it brand names that "Branded" is after?  Brand names are, again, an important way of describing protects, help build international trade by creating a narrative of need, and allow large-scale industry to function.

Worse, advertising isn't just a tool of mass industry.  Advertising is used by everybody.  The movie never bothers to make much of a distinction between a huge billboard and a sign for a lost puppy.  Advertisements are now some of the most important ways to transmit political arguments to a broad audience, take it away and suddenly democracy doesn't work so well.  Charities use advertisements.  Colleges use advertisements.  It can be annoying to be endlessly bombarded by all this information, and there might be some adverse psychological effects, but that's a conclusion that only could have been drawn from a smarter and stronger filmmaker.  I know this is a recurring thing with me, but I really wish this movie were directed by David Cronenberg.  He could have made an argument somewhat better than:  mass media capitalism is bad.  Well, it isn't actually bad, its just a part of life.  You take all that away, you're left with the ruins of our modern culture.  I haven't seen a movie with a more fundamentally stupid premise in my entire life... this makes "In Time" look like "The Wealth of Nations".  What the Hell are you talking about, "Branded"?  Or is this all a facade put it up to try to fool people into thinking you actually had something to say.  This reads like a story written by a fourteen-year-old.

Also, if advertising didn't exist, nobody would know that "Branded" existed and nobody would have wasted their time and money on this idiotic worthless product.  And that's really the best argument for "Branded"'s ridiculous philosophy.  Really, the only guys who were able to do their jobs to completely satisfaction were the marketers, who distilled every nugget of gold out of this mass of excrement.

Final conclusion:  "Branded" may be the worst movie of the year.  However, its so endlessly goofy and fascinatingly awful that its at least watchable for all of its 100 minutes.  So on that scale, "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is still the great loser.  But he real conclusion is this:  watch "They Live" again.  Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David could kick this movie's ass in thirty seconds.

* "Dune", however, was a great movie even if, tragically, the entire story was never properly adapted, leaving roughly a half hour crudely cut out.  But more importantly, "Dune" has a great style of its own, bringing one of the best SciFi stories of all time to life with a mood that's at the same time epic in scale and willing to be fun, like all proper 80s movies.  "Branded" is none of those things.  I'm sorry I even brought up "Dune", now I wish I had watched that movie again instead of this piece of shit.

** "Branded" does try to be more balanced by making the rather outrageous claim that Lenin founded marketing.  It is an interest retake on the failure of Soviet Communism by presenting it in the context of capitalistic competition with Western liberal capitalism, but that also means that "Branded" has stretched the definition of advertising so broadly that it now represents all social and political change.  Which at the end of this movie has been banned... Oops.


  1. I probably would have liked the Dune movie more if I hadn't gone into it thinking: "Wow, a movie based on Dune? With Patrick Stewart in it? This is gonna be awesome!"

  2. As I was sitting here typing a response and thinking about Dune robot chicken just did a sketch about Dune and That reminded me about the last episode of a web series where a guy goes to prison and he talked about Dune so much the other prisoners wanted to rape and/or kill him. I think I'll go watch Dune now.