By Shane M. Dallmann
It’s quite fitting that I saw BRANDED at the same theatre that brought me SUPER SIZE ME and POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD: this is the sort of thing Morgan Spurlock might come up with were he to dabble in fiction. Of course, he’d also have to be indulging in mind-altering chemicals.
Master marketer Misha Galkin (Ed Stoppard) was marked for an unusual life when he was struck by lightning as a young boy in Moscow. Cut to the present, where Misha has formed an award-winning alliance with Madison Avenue nabob Bob Gibbons (Jeffrey Tambor, who’s terrific) in Moscow. As our story opens, Misha makes the professional (and then some) acquaintance of Bob’s niece Abby (Leelee Sobieski) and they forge ahead on what promises to be a record-breaking cosmetic surgery reality show. Little do they know that they get the go-ahead thanks to the machinations of a nameless “marketing guru” played by Max von Sydow and have started the ball rolling on his diabolical (but, it must be said, completely believable) plot to resurrect the fortunes of the globally-failing fast food industry.
Okay… then voices speak to Misha in a dream, he performs the ritual Sacrifice of the Red Cow, and he starts seeing things that nobody else can see… specifically, “brand” logos themselves transforming into bulbous, parasitic monsters.
Well, it’s undeniable that the added elements of mysticism give BRANDED a unique identity, but I can’t help but feel that the film as a whole would have worked better without them, because as a visionary, satirical, corporate/political thriller, it’s actually a crackerjack: under the hallucinations, you can see this story (written and directed by the team of Jamie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Dulerayn) taking place in the real world all too easily, and it’s likely to provoke genuine frustration and anger. And as no real company would dare lend their logo to such a project, BRANDED is filled from beginning to end with highly amusing “just close enough” mockups of almost anything you can name (the “big” one is simply known as “The Burger,” but I also quite liked the poster for a horror/action movie franchise known as “President Devil!”), while Misha effectively demonstrates how marketing and advertising were invented by Lenin, who successfully sold communism to Russia.
Still, I have to admit that the sight of a vegetarian Chinese dragon swooping down to attack a bloated red-white-and-yellow monstrosity clearly modeled on Ronald McDonald stands as one of the most memorable highlights of my moviegoing year. And don’t miss the hilarious diaper commercial, either.
Now, let’s REALLY talk about marketing. The geniuses who tried to sell BRANDED itself to the American public successfully removed any indication that the film was set and filmed in Moscow (and Bulgaria), that large chunks of the dialogue were in subtitled Russian, and that an off-screen narrator was frequently required to help keep the viewers on track with the story and characters. They sold us a film that, for all appearances, was about menacing monsters that only one man could see, prompting fans across the country to pounce on the Internet and accuse BRANDED of ripping off John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE (to which it bears not the slightest resemblance). They filled the ads with smart-phone scan codes (there isn’t even one on view in the movie) and urged us to “Crack The Code” (what in the blue hell does that even MEAN here?) as they promised yet another round of high-tech MATRIX thrills and action. Oh, and what spots I DID see for this barely-released film were all on the video-game-friendly G4 channel.
Well, congratulations to you, ad-men… thanks to your efforts, I got the largest auditorium in our local arthouse all to myself!
Forget everything about the ads… but give the movie itself a chance. It’s not perfect, but it’s far more interesting than much of its competition.