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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

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Indie thriller "Branded" hits theaters today.
Indie thriller "Branded" hits theaters today.

Don't buy what "Branded" is selling

Every now and then, a small indie film will manage to fight its way through the big-budget blockbusters and make its way onto a screen at a multiplex. It's easy to see these small, unknown films in the movie listings and find yourself intrigued by its obscurity and buried treasure potential. Plus, there's no better way to impress film snobs and hipsters than with tales of some hidden gem that no one else has heard of.

Unfortunately, sometimes the risk doesn't pay off. Case in point: "Branded." Instead of tales of hidden cinematic glory, audiences will leave the theater with tales of lackluster romances, strange ancient rituals, evil advertising companies and sinister goop monsters. It's not as interesting as it sounds.

At the center of this bizarre sci-fi thriller lies Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard), a successful Russian advertisement director. With the help of his girlfriend Abby (Leelee Sobieski), he creates a reality TV show about plastic surgery transforming a fat woman into a skinny model. However, the televised surgery puts the woman in a coma, causing Misha to abandon society.

Several years and a cryptic cow sacrifice later, Misha comes back to Moscow only to find ominous blob monsters growing out of citizens and clinging to buildings. It turns out the creatures, made by an evil brand advisor (the legendary Max von Sydow, taking a page out of Ben Kingsley's Book of Horrible Late Career Decisions), compel consumers to purchase advertised products. Misha is the only one who can see these creepy beings, so it's up to him to combat the evil brands and their brand beasts.

I've made the plot of "Branded" sound far more interesting than it actually is. Even with the clown-shaped blob creatures and ridiculous plot elements, writer/director tandem Jamie Bradshaw and Alexander Doulertain present it all with a pretty straight face. Much of the film's first act plays off like a Russian-tinted, uber-melodramatic version of "Mad Men" as Misha attempts to make the cheapest fake movie trailer in history while hiding his romance from his boss, who is also Abby's dad (Jeffrey Tambor, who should have better things to do).

Their relationship – and most of the film's relationships for that matter – consists almost exclusively of heavy-handed, melodramatic conversations about the history and power of ads. Misha, a self-proclaimed historian, dubiously cites Lenin as the brains behind the first ad. There are some interesting ideas in these chats, but they don't belong in the same movie with evil brand blob monsters and lines like "fat will become the new fabulous."

It doesn't help that Stoppard and Sobieski are a remarkably dull on-screen pair, which only makes their off-again, on-again love story more tedious to slog through.

From a technical perspective, "Branded" is a mess. The story jumps illogically from scene to scene, sometimes contradicting exactly what came before. Fantasy elements, such as magical lightning strikes, occur with no rational explanation. Worst of all, several annoying voiceover segments often break into the story to just prattle off exposition. The narrator of these scenes may actually be a cow in the stars.

With elements like star cows and brand dragons, the film is obviously too ridiculous to be taken as a serious drama. However, it's also too dreary in almost every aspect to be fun, as well as too naïve and juvenile to be a decent satire. Their childish attempts to poke at massive companies result in turning Apple into Yepple and Microsoft into Giantsoft. See what they did there?

Other parts of "Branded" just flat-out don't make sense. Where did these brand blobs come from? Are they creations from von Sydow's evil brand meeting, or were they there the whole time? These questions are never answered.

Bradshaw and Doulertain, former ad men themselves, clearly have plenty of ideas on the state of branding, and a few of them are even interesting. Unfortunately, the duo suffocates their potential under a pile of other, far less thought-out concepts (i.e. brand dragons). The result is the worst movie I've seen in 2012 and territory even the most adventurous moviegoer should avoid at all costs.

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